The Scapa Flow Landscape Partnership Scheme

Orkney’s Railways

If you look up a train timetable you will find nothing for Orkney – we have no trains here, but it does not mean we have never had railways. The first tracks in Orkney date from the late 19th Century. These were laid on the island of Papa Stronsay for transporting herring catches from the pier to the gutting and curing sheds. The villages of Holm, Burray, Herston and Saint Margaret’s Hope grew up as a result of the herring industry and Stromness was a well-established fishing port. Herring  barrels were rolled along tracks which were laid on the pier.

During the two world wars there were many railways in Orkney, most of which were associated with military activity. Most were laid during the second World War and were concentrated around the building of the Churchill Barriers. However, the first tracks, which had locomotives, were laid during the First World War when they were introduced by the contractors working on the naval base at Lyness on Hoy. Some of these can still be seen along the shore, close to the old piers.

Glimps Holm Railway

As part of the construction works for the Second Barrier, a quarry was opened up on the north side of the island. In May 1940, a small stone and timber pier was built to land machinery and heavy equipment and a temporary camp for the workers was built on the hill above. A gauge line linked the pier with the quarry. The railway was used to remove the overburden from the quarry site. Later, it was extended onto the barrier to allow end-tipping to take place. A shallow cutting close to the shore can still be seen today.

Some of the tracks on which the railway ran are still visible today. (c) SFLPS

The railway operated from the mid 1940s until October 1942, when the end tipping was abandoned due to the poor quality of the quarried rock.

Quarry railways

Until the 1940s when it flooded, a railway track was operational at Quoys Quarry on Hoy. It was developed by Balfour Beatty for road building material during the Second World War. The track linked the quarry with the crusher, which was situated on the opposite side of the lane, which meant the road had to be closed every time a rail wagon crossed. Also during the First World War, the Witter Quarry on Hoy had a 2’0” gauge, which was used to transport large quantities of stone to build the wharf at Lyness. A few sections of the track remain on this now-disused site.

Lyness Naval Base, Hoy

Work on the naval base began late in 1914 with Baldry, Yerburgh and Hutchison being appointed the main contractors. The first railway was constructed by sub-contractors Kinnear and Moodie and was used to link a stone quarry with the main wharf construction site. It was the first locomotive worked rail system in Orkney and operated from 1914 to 1920. Two German-built tank engines handled the trains of the skip wagons, which ran on the 2’0” gauge rails. In 1917 a 4’  ½” gauge railway was installed to help in the construction of both the main wharf and the RN Fuel Depot. Large wooden-bodied side-tipping wagons were in use at the base.

Wee Fea

Beneath the hill of Wee Fea, six large underground fuel tanks were installed to store oil for the war ships. It was a huge job hollowing out the hill, and a 2’0” gauge railway was used to help remove the spoil. The poorer quality of spoil was tipped down the hillside but the better rock was removed and used in the construction of the Golden Wharf. The railway was over a mile long and ran part way around the hillside. The rails were removed in 1943 but much of the track bed is still in place and survives as a road.

The Burray to Hunda Causeway

Hunda was connected to Burray via a tidal causeway. After the sinking of the Royal Oak in 1939, additions were made to existing boom defences and a solid boom or causeway was built linking the islands of Hunda to Burray. Balfour Beatty began work in March 1940 using clay excavated from other works, but the storms soon made the structure unstable. A stone quarry was opened up on Hunda to supply better material.

A 2ft gauge Jubilee track system was used to convey the stone from the quarry at the western end of the causeway. Side tipping trucks were filled at the quarry and hauled to the site using small diesel locomotives. The railway was extended as the causeway became established. The work was completed in August 1941. There are still a few sleepers buried in the quarry. This causeway is often referred to as the Fifth Barrier.

The Churchill Barriers

After the sinking of the Royal Oak in 1939, it became apparent that the block ships were not enough to prevent enemy submarines from entering the Flow. Winston Churchill proposed building permanent barriers. The Churchill Barriers were built in four years and railways were used throughout.

Railway tracks were used extensively when the Churchill Barriers were  being  built.

Records show that there were locomotives of 2’0”and 3’0” gauges, 260 wagons and 10 miles of railways. The primary construction phase was carried out by end or side tipping from the railway trucks. The railways were used to transport excavated rock material to the causeways and to cableway loading points and for transporting materials for the concrete blocks. They were also used to transport the completed blocks to their final position as well as to carry away the waste material.

Railways in Burray

Most of the extensive railways were located on the island of Burray. A pier was built near Ward Point to land materials needed to build the barriers. A large quarry was opened up in September 1942 below the workers’ camp. To link the two, a 3’0” gauge railway was installed and ran from the pier to Warebanks and on to the Third barrier. Later this railway extended towards Northfield to get sand for the blockyard.

 Lengths of track can still be seen along the shore line. (c) Orkney Library & Archive.

There is evidence of the old railway today. You can still see the deep cutting near Ward Point quarry and the base of a locomotive shed.


The island of Fara had six barrage balloon sites. To service the site a 2’0” gauge railway was installed, which partly encircled the island. Gas cylinders were shipped from Rinnigall on the neighbouring island of Hoy to the pier on Fara, and then transported to the individual sites on a small four-wheeled flat wagon hauled by a diesel locomotive. Today you can still see the route that it took, although it is rapidly being reclaimed by nature.

Rail track at Scapa Flow Visitor Centre, Lyness, Hoy

If you visit the centre at Lyness, you will see a length of track which goes nowhere. This was a short demonstration line, which was intended to be the first public railway in the islands. Although this scheme never took off, a length of railway was retained and can be seen today.

On the south side of Burray lie many traces of the longest system to be described. This leads from an old and still used pier on the west behind the village and thence up a hill to the road and past the cableway. It continues to the Blocking Yard with traces of the standard gauge lines, and then along the sand dunes to a reversing point from where it runs uphill.

If we remain at Lyness we can consider the purely Services installations, commencing with the Admiralty. Between the oil tanks set back from the shore and the three huge jetties that form the harbour, are the remains of a standard gauge system installed first to serve the floating hospital in 1916 and constructed from bits of the Cromarty & Dingwall Light Railway. It was built by contractors using a steam locomotive (or locomotives) that later worked it. The system lay derelict until the Second World War, when it was adapted to the needs of boom laying, acquiring pointwork dated 1937 in the process. In its present state it consists basically of half a square of double track, 150 yards along a limb, which can be used by the two steam cranes that shunt the limited stock (two flat trucks of 1916).

The first train on Lyness, Hoy. (c) Orkney Library & Archive

In the same area and serving the same piers is a 2ft system, which in places shares a rail with the standard gauge system. This is an adaptation of the earliest system on the site –  one serving quarrying works by Topham, Jones & Railton Ltd. There do not appear to have been any locomotives in use on it in the Second World War, but that serving the pier at Rinnigill on the South side of the same bay, most certainly did have one diesel. One flat car remains on this track, which is still present, but the locomotive has been cut up.

The War Department also left traces, the most interesting being a self-acting incline of about 900 yards long, to serve a gun battery at Scad Head halfway along the totally unpopulated section of the north-east coast of Hoy. The line ran from a camp set on top of a hill to the emplacement on the clifftop below, but it has been removed so effectively that even its gauge is now in doubt.

Salvage at Lyness, Hoy

Early in 1924 Cox and Danks used railways when they were salvaging the German Fleet, which had been scuttled just after the First World War. Not a lot is known about the railways used, but both 2’0” and 4’1/2” gauges remained in situ at the Naval Base. It is clear, however, that at least one steam locomotive was in use on the 4’ 8 1/2” gauge lines throughout Cox and Danks’s tenure of the base.

Northern Lighthouse Commissioners - Stromness Service Depot

In 1894 the Stromness Service Depot had a moored hulk in Stromness Harbour, which served as a coal and buoy store. The coal was used for the boilers of the service boats, which carried supplies to the lighthouses. In 1904 the Lighthouse Board’s own gasworks was completed. It was used to supply compressed gas for the replenishment of the beacons and buoys. A 2’ 6” gauge track was installed so that coal could be moved by small hand-worked trucks into the store. Later a 4’ 81/2” gauge track was installed to help in moving the larger buoys, using a small four-wheeled flat truck. The coal store survives, but rebuilding of the pier has seen the rail tracks disappear.

Remains of the track at the pier  (c) Orkney Library & Archive

The Northern Lighthouse Commissioners have their service depot in Stromness and use a little standard gauge track for moving buoys on a trolley. They also had a 2ft 6in system, which appears to have been laid when the base was installed in the 1890s. This system served their own pier and included several oddities in the way of points and loops. It was removed when the pier was updated.