For a sailor from the Solent, Orkney is in the far north. But far from being off the beaten track, for millennia Orkney was the beaten track, and even in the 20th century this archipelago had central significance as a naval centre. In his article written for this project, Nick Isbister writes about the way Stromness – and the Orkney Islands – has found its way into people’s stories, including his own. He reflects on how people and groups through history have formed their identity, told their stories, and made their mark: bit.ly/12ports-stromness
Dundee to Stromness
If this journey were an ascent, the mountaintop would naturally be the Orkney Islands, and the last camp on the route would be Wick. We arrived there ahead of strong easterly winds, which might have prevented us from entering the harbour and sent us scuttling all the way back across the Moray Firth. The lifeboat crew were preparing for their Harbour Day. There’s a good reason for lifeboats around here – the Pentland Firth has a fearsome reputation. The Admiralty Sailing Directions from 1935 says “when a swell is opposed to the tidal stream, a sea is raised which can scarcely be imagined by those who have never experienced it”.
Wick was a welcome surprise. Its large sheltered harbours and the town above were designed by Thomas Telford on instruction from Sir William Pulteney, governor of the British Fisheries Society. It became the world’s largest herring port, with over 1,000 fishing vessels in the summer. Peak herring was in 1867 when it is said that 50 million “silver darlings” were gutted and packed in just two days by 3,500 herring lassies. To accommodate everyone, Telford also built Pulteneytown, an early planned town, partly modelled on Bath. Today this part of Wick is best known for its whisky.
Harbour Day dawned with unexpected fog, which lasted all day. Wind fluttered the colourful flags on all the boats, including Nova. The town turned out in force, and at the appointed time the Longhope lifeboat loomed into view, visiting from Orkney. It was a solemn moment as the crowds commemorated the 50th anniversary of the disaster in which eight of the Longhope crew were lost. We met people whose relatives were amongst them. It was clear that an event like this further cements the pivotal role the lifeboats play in small coastal communities. We enjoyed generous hospitality from Mark the lifeboat coxswain and his team, who served barbecued steak marinated in cider and flamed in Old Pulteney, and partied into the night.
Next morning, time came for us to leave. We looked for Malcolm, the harbourmaster, who had promised advice, and found him clearing up after the party. “Head for Skirza,” he said, “until you reach the 26 metre contour. You’ll find a back eddy along the shore to Duncansby Head. If you arrive there an hour before the tide turns northwest, you’ll find the current will continue north across the Pentland Firth.”
He smiled at our nervous looks. “Follow my advice and you won’t be troubled by the Firth. It will be ‘oilies off, slippers on’.” And so it was.
Arriving in Scapa Flow, the wind rose and we tacked fast towards Longhope, passing a large flock of gannets and arctic skuas wheeling and diving with intent. We went ashore and visited our newly-made lifeboat friends before returning to the boat in the late sun of midsummer’s eve. The sun set at 10.30, and light never disappeared from the colourful sky.
Our time in Scapa Flow coincided with the 100th anniversary of the scuttling of the German fleet at the end of the Great War. Sailing across the flat waters towards Stromness, we could see why this has been a significant naval harbour. The tides around Orkney are notorious, but Scapa Flow is like the Solent – perfectly sheltered. We passed the ferry terminal and tied up in the small marina, ready to explore this
Pilot books and useful apps
• RNYC Sailing Directions, Humber to Rattray Head
• Clyde Cruising Club Sailing Directions, Orkney and Shetland Islands, inc N and NE Scotland
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