Orkney Walks: Scapa Bay & All It Holds

By Bernie Bell

 walking boots F DriverSunday the 28th October, a beautiful, sunny, crisp autumn day, and we thought we’d go to Scapa for a walk along the beach.  It was only when we arrived and parked the car, that it occurred to me that this walk was at a fitting time – between the commemorative ceremonies to mark the sinking of The Royal Oak, which take place in October each year, and the general war remembrance ceremonies which take place in November.

I am not an advocate of war as a way to resolve disputes.  Some wars are necessary, to prevent wrong things from happening.  Throughout history, despots and dictators have needed to be stopped, and war is pretty much the only way to approach that.  But, well, there are plenty of wars which leave you asking..…why?  Whatever the politics or ‘reasons’ behind them, and whoever it is that chooses to start them in the first place, ordinary people go to fight, and other ordinary people are left without those that they love – or have them return home, un-recognizable, physically,  due to wounds, or with their personality changed by trauma.  I’m thinking of the song ‘Johnny, I hardly knew ya’.  http://www.bellsirishlyrics.com/johnny-i-hardly-knew-ye.html

We remember, with respect, all those extra-ordinary, ordinary people, from all walks of life, whose lives are either cut short or utterly changed through wars which are not of their making.


And so, arriving at Scapa Beach on a sunny October Sunday, we went to the building which houses the  Royal Oak Memorial Display

Scapa Royal Oak B Bell

The display inside, is simple, and touching

That’s a long list of people, to have lost their lives in one, single, act of war. On the 24th October, 1939, a German U –boat snuck in, weaving through the islands, and torpedoed the Royal Oak , which was anchored in Scapa  Flow, with the loss of all those lives, in one, fell swoop.  This, ultimately, led to the building of the Churchill Barriers between the south isles, so that such a thing could not happen again.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Churchill_Barriers

In the Garden of Remembrance surrounding the display centre, there is a propeller and a memorial plaque.

It has to be said  – the Garden of Remembrance is a good place to eat your sandwiches – life goes on. This is a place for today’s people, as well as yesterday’s.

And so, having given some thought to all the people on that list, and all those associated with them, and all who are ‘lost’ to wars, we set off on our walk along the beach.

Scapa Bay Map B Bell

It was a glorious day – the cliffs, the sea, even the workaday pier and the oil tankers looked good. We saw an impressive, though dead, jellyfish on the sand

Scapa beach jellyfish B Bell

and looked across to the Scapa whisky distillery building, with its dramatic waterfall

Scapa Distillery B Bell

The distillery has a Visitor Centre, for more info see https://www.visitorkney.com/listings/culture/scapa-distillery

You can either just walk along the beach, to the river, or go up, along the cliff-top, and, crossing a bridge below the distillery, continue along the coastline.

Some years ago, a bit further along the walk, we went down onto the beach again, and found a lot of bits and pieces from the recent wreath laying ceremony which takes place each year at the spot where the Royal Oak sank.  We gathered together all  that we could, and placed them in a niche in the cliff, making another little memorial, and thinking of, not only those  ’lost’ on the Royal Oak, but also of those who had cast the wreathes into the sea, in memory, and with love.

Back to Sunday, 28th October, 2018, and we made our way back along the beach, accompanied by a Rock Pipit

Rock pippit B Bell

………….to the car park, where a row of canons brought war back to our minds.

Scapa cannons B Bell

We met a lady, making her way to the beach, carrying a bag containing rakes, wooden poles, and general paraphernalia. I presumed she was looking for cockles or spoots, but she told us that she and a group of folk, were getting together to have a practice for the ’Pages of the Sea’ event which is to take place on Scapa Beach, having been re-located from the planned original site, at Waulkmill Bay https://www.pagesofthesea.org.uk/

Orkney is taking part in a series of  events, launched by film maker Danny Boyle, in which the images of individual military personnel who lost their lives in the First World War, or The Great War as it is sometimes known, will be carved in the sand of designated beaches throughout Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland, on the 11th November, in memory, and to say ‘Goodbye’, and, at about 3.30 pm, a poem, specially written by Carol Ann Duffy , will be read out.

The lady we spoke with, is Jillian Dearness, who told us all about the event, and said for folk to come along, and bring a light, as, when the poem is read out,  all the lights will be lit.  Picture it – Scapa Beach – the sky, the sea, the cliffs, the ’gateway’ to Scapa Flow and its memories of the Royal Oak, and a quite simple memorial, in the sand, lit by people, gathered together to remember, and to …think.

Funerals, matter, as a way to say ‘goodbye’, and, maybe, ‘let go’ – many of the people who lose their lives to war, never have a funeral, so, ceremonies such as this, can take the place of a funeral, for those left behind.

Jillian had come along well equipped for the ’practice run’, at which the group intended to carve an image of a large bird in the sand.

Pages of the Sea Jillian Dearness B Bell

Folk walking  along the beach later, may have wondered at the big bird image in the sand, but, in a couple of days, maybe by now, that image will have been washed away. As will the images which will be carved on all those beaches on the 11th November.  A fitting memorial to lives which were here, and gone, in too short a time.

But, I believe that, as long as folk remember and think  of a person, they do not cease to be.

Maybe go along to Scapa, on the 11th November , and pause to think, remember, consider………….times and people, past, present and to come.

Related story: Pages of the Sea: Community Workshop

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