The Scapa Flow Landscape Partnership Scheme

Shipwrecks around Orkney shores

The Orkney seabed is littered with shipwrecks. With around 70 islands and a coastline more than 550 miles long, it has a long history of shipping disasters.

Orkney is separated from the Scottish mainland by the Pentland Firth, where the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea produce some extremely dangerous tide rips.

In the book Rutter of the Scottish Sea by Alexander Lindsay, and published around 1540, the Pentland Firth is described as "betwixt Dungisbe and Orkney there is a great daunger causit be nepe tydis whiche is called the Boir".  Lindsay then gives detailed instructions on how to avoid the "daunger".

These rocks near Tails of the Tarf, Swona have caused many shipwrecks

As well as tide rips, sailors had to be aware of the variety of Orkney's coastline. Sheltered sandy bays run to rocky shores, banks, skerries, reefs, undercurrents and tidal races. All presented problems as did the island of Sanday, which is so flat it could not be seen in certain weather conditions and ships would literally run into it.

There was also the weather to contend with. Orkney is notorious for its gale force winds and a beautiful sunny day can become dull, overcast and unforgiving in the blink of an eye. Before lighthouses were erected in the 17th century, ships were at the mercy of the elements as well as wrongly-detailed charts and inexperienced captains. 

Before the days of railways, the only way to transport large quantities of cargo was by sea. Brigs, sloops and schooners made their way around the shores of Britain and many of them ended their journey at the bottom of the seas around Orkney.

As the islands lie directly in the path of the shipping routes that link Northern Europe, Scandinavia and Russia with the rest of the world, it should be no surprise at the huge volume of foreign ships that foundered too. Orkney waters have claimed hundreds of ships and thousands of lives.

Early casualties

The earliest shipwreck with Orkney connections is recorded in the Orkneyinga Saga. It tells us how two Norse ships, the Fifa and Hjolp (Arrow and Help) were driven ashore one winter's night in 1148 on the east coast of Shetland. They had been gifts from King Ingi of Norway to Rognvald, the Earl of Orkney, who was returning from Bergen to Orkney with his son Harald. The saga tells us that, although the ships were wrecked, there was no loss of life. 

The next casualty recorded is an unnamed Dutch ship, which was carrying a quantity of "hyddes, tallow, wax and furis of Russia". She was described as being a "bonny great ship... wrackit and cast away" upon Burness, Sanday in 1651.

Welcome harvest

Shipwrecks have provided the people of Orkney with many goods, the most useful being timber which has been washed up on the shores. Some of the very old houses in the isles still have rafters made from shipwrecked timber. Doors, beds, chairs and all manner of furniture was made from odds and ends of wood.

In Deerness there are some very fine straining posts and clothes poles made of teak. This came from The Tennessee, which ran aground in 1940. Light from an unidentified ship, wrecked off Swona

Cloth, tinned food, casks of wine, grain and other goods were always welcome on the beaches. There is a lovely story of a man who was very grateful for the booty that he had managed to salvage – he told his friends it was something that would keep him and his wife very happy. When asked what this wonderful cargo was, he replied with a grin: "About a year's supply of condoms." Other cargo, such as typewriters and cars, could be salvaged and sold.

People did their best to rescue anyone who was shipwrecked, but they were also keen to recover any cargo that may be useful to them. So valuable were some of the shipwrecked goods that the minister for Sanday, when praying for the protection of sailors, said in his sermon: "But, Oh Lord, if it is your will that a ship should be cast ashore, then don't forget about the poor island of Sanday."

 Pulpit at Hoy Kirk showing panels from the Spanish Armada

As well as material goods, sometimes cargo left a more lasting impact. The surname Delday is said to have come from survivors of the sailing ship the Crown. On 10 December 1679, this ship was carrying 257 Covenanters – prisoners who were banished to the American colonies. The ship ran into difficulties at Scarva Taing in Deerness, where the ship was driven against rocks, which broke the ship's hull. More than 200 of the prisoners who were manacled and held in the hold were drowned. It was rumoured that some of the men had escaped, changed their surnames and settled down in the parish.

A shipwreck also brought Angels to Orkney. In 1730 a Russian ship carrying flax from Archangel to Dundee was wrecked off Aikerness on the island of Westray. The only survivor was a young boy who was unable to tell his rescuers his name or the name of the ship on which he had been travelling. The sternpost of the wrecked ship had the word Archangel on it. He was brought up by a local family who adopted him and had him christened Archie Angel. He grew up on the island and eventually married a local girl, Jane Draver (Drever). They had at least two sons and the surname Angel was found on Westray until the early 1900s.

Place names

As well as surnames, there are place names which are constant reminders of past shipwrecks. Rackwick, on the islands of Westray and Hoy, means 'Wreckage Bay' in Old Norse.

On North Ronaldsay in 1826 three ships ran ashore on the same day, so it is not surprising to find associated place names here. There is the Meal Geo, Iron Geo, Geo of Denmark and Hindoo Geo. These names show some of the cargo that was washed up as well as the nationalities of the wrecks. Survivors of a stranded vessel were gathered together and the place became known as 'Crewgather'.

Burials and superstitions

The bodies of drowned sailors that were washed ashore were traditionally buried by the side of the shore. It was believed that otherwise the sea might try to lay claim to its prey and flood the kirkyard. This custom faded and sailors' bodies were buried in the north end of the kirkyard, as the south end was reserved for the more important members of the community. Although they could now be buried in the kirkyard, for some unknown reason the sailors were lifted over the kirk wall and were not taken through the gateway.

 Sailors' graves on the island of Swona
A shipwrecked cargo on North Ronaldsay saw the end of ghosts and trows on the islands. In 1915 the Skotfos, a Norwegian vessel carrying wood pulp, paper and carbide, grounded shortly after high water. The crew landed on the rocks and were rescued by island boats. The weather was favourable, so the crew of 16 managed to get back on board and collect personal belongings before the weather broke. The grinding of the iron hull on the rocks produced sparks and the combustible material on board was set alight.

The charred remnants of the cargo were bought by some local fishermen. Incredibly, they found that although the ship was a burnt out wreck, the flames had not ignited the carbide on board. It had been loaded in 100 or 200-weight drums and they had been protected by a layer of burned debris. There was sufficient carbide to light every home on the island for many years and as one North Ronaldsay man put it: "The Skotfos exorcised the last remaining ghosts and trows by lighting up all the dark corners where they used to bide [stay]."

Some of the more well-known shipwrecks in the Scapa Flow area are featured in the pages that follow on this website.

In addition the pdf document on the top-right of this page lists more shipwrecks.