The Scapa Flow Landscape Partnership Scheme


Orcadians have grown up with the sea on their doorstep so have fear of it and respect for it in equal measures.

The first people to arrive in Orkney would have crossed the Pentland Firth. The Firth is a dangerous crossing well known for the strength of its tides which can reach a speed of 16 knots, among the fastest in the world. As well as these fierce tidal races those sailing to Orkney encounter eddies, whirlpools and strong currents.

During the Mesolithic period the sea level was much lower than it is today and people would have sailed around the coastline and through much shallower seas. They would have known every rock, headland and skerry and passed their knowledge on to their children.

As well as living off the land people were making up their diet with shellfish and fish. At Skara Brae shells from mussels, sea urchins, oysters, crabs and lobster were discovered and fish bone evidence shows they were eating ling, cod and saithe. All these could be gathered from the rocks or fished from the shore.

Sailors would bring back souvenirs: here a whale has been carved onto a tusk (on display at Stromness Museum)We know little about seafaring in the Iron Age but in the 19th century a log boat was found in Orkney. It follows a pattern for Iron Age dug-out boats, pointed bow with a flat square stern. It is thought this boat may be one of the biggest, if not the biggest, ever found. It was tremendously heavy and the tool marks can still be seen.

When the Norse came to Orkney they made several days' travel by sea before reaching Orkney. The Orkneyinga Saga tells of many journeys made to the Hebrides, Ireland and even to the Holy Lands. These journeys were made in open boats and must have been undertaken with some trepidation, and it is a great testimony to their skill that they travelled so extensively.

During the Norse period fishing seems to have taken place on a greater scale. Excavations at Quoygrew in Westray recovered an enormous quantity of fish bones and they showed that three-metre-long cod was being caught, dried and sold. This is a large fish, which would not have been taken off the rocks. Fishing weights have been recovered from many Norse sites, which shows that fish were being caught with lines.

The Norse were highly skilled in both fishing and trading, not just raiding and exploring. Studies of human bone from Quoygrew have shown that 30 per cent of the diet was made up from marine sources.

Boats were important to people in this period. Excavations have revealed boat burials at Scar, Sanday, Westness, Rousay and at Pierowall in Westray. All the boats were faerings, clinker built and ranging in size from 4.5 to 5.5 metres in length.

The Scar boat burial had three bodies interred within: a man, an elderly woman and a child of around 10. Bone analysis of the man showed he had spent some time in his youth at sea. The condition of his hand suggested he may have been a rower, perhaps crewing a boat similar to the one he was buried in.

From these early beginnings Orkney men became known worldwide for their seafaring skills.

They would risk their lives at the whaling as they watched and waited for the ice flows to recede before going after the whales. This was a dangerous job, as whales could easily overturn a boat, and great skill was needed to be able to manoeuvre close to these great mammals.

As overfishing made the whale scarcer, the ships would spend longer and longer hunting them. The sailors were at great risk of the sea freezing around them and becoming stuck in the ice.

Although perhaps less risky, the herring boom saw hundreds of men sail around Orkney waters to secure their catch. Good, sound, local knowledge meant they knew where to find the best catch.

Boats tied up at Stromness pier

Today, Orkney still has some of the best navigators in the world. Whether they are fishermen, volunteers who crew the lifeboats, shipping captains, or just people with their own boats, Orcadians are rightly proud of them and the skills they possess.