Discovering the Last Resting Place of HMS Pheasant (1917)


German High Seas Fleet in Scapa Flow

The importance of Scapa Flow Orkney as a naval base during both World Wars is well documented.  Famously also it was where the German Fleet was anchored at the end of World War I and where the ships were scuttled by her crew.

The stories are well known of the sinking of the Royal Oak in 1939 and the Hampshire in 1916.  The fate of many other vessels and their crew has, however, been overlooked.

In recent years work has been done to redress this situation.

A maritime survey conducted by Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA), the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and SULA Diving  has located the remains of the First World War destroyer HMS Pheasant.

HMS Pheasant was an M class destroyer built by Fairfield Shipyard on the Clyde and launched on 23rd October 1916. At 0.15 on the morning of 1st March 1917 the ship left Stromness to patrol the waters to the west of Orkney. Steaming down the west side of Hoy at full speed she most likely struck a mine off Rora Head close to the Old Man of Hoy that had been laid on the 21st January 1917 by German submarine U 80.

Despite the ensuing explosion being reported by the watch of  the Trawler HMT Grouse this message was not relayed to her skipper until 08.00. And at  08.15 the trawler HMT Oropesa reported finding ‘’ Large quantities of oil and some wreckage one mile west of Old Man of Hoy.” The crew also picked up a life buoy marked HMS ‘Pheasant’.’

HMS Pheasant- Multibeam Echosound Image. Copyright ORCA

HMS Pheasant- Multibeam Echosound Image. Copyright ORCA

Eighty nine crew were aboard HMS Pheasant when she was lost. Only one body was recovered: that of Midshipman Reginald Alexander Cotter RNR. He was 20 years old and he is buried in the military cemetery at Lyness, Hoy, Orkney. This year marks the centenary of the disaster and it is hoped  to develop a memorial on Hoy to commemorate all those who lost their lives aboard. This is being led by Kinlay Francis from Orkney Uncovered and Kevin Heath of SULA Diving.

The research  was a collaborative effort involving many organisations: Sandra Henry of UHI Archaeology Institute,ORCA (Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology), the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, Kevin Heath of SULA Diving, Historic Environment Scotland, Marine Scotland, Ulster University, Heriot-Watt University, University of Dundee, and Seatronics – an Acteon company.

Marine Scotland Survey Vessel. MV Scotia

Marine Scotland Survey Vessel. MV Scotia

The wreck , which is protected as a designated vessel under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986, can be viewed through the use of Multibeam Sonar technology. The archaeological maritime survey  was conducted from the decks of the Marine Scotland vessel MV Scotia. The Protection of Military Remains Act 1986 means it can be dived but not entered or disturbed without permission from the Ministry of Defence.

The project was conducted under licence from the Ministry of Defence.


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