When the Barriers Closed & the Ferry Stopped

Problems and complaints about ferry provision to and within Orkney have been occupying politicians both inside the islands and out. Members of the public too have hit the pages of social media to grumble about service reliability and the age of vessels. Is this a new phenomenon or something we islanders have had trouble with since the provision of public ferries in Orkney?

the big blocks at the barriers in Orkney
photo credit: Bell

Today, 12th of May, Another Orkney Production will be hosting a talk about the opening of the Churchill Barriers and a plaque will be unveiled to mark that event which changed the South Isles links with Mainland forever. Celebrating Scapa Flow

The impact was considerable, not only have the building of the Barriers changed the environment but at the time it was a serious blow to those who provided a ferry service.

The immediate post war meetings of Orkney County Council were filled with complaints about the withdrawal of the South Isles Steamer service and questions over who would maintain the roads across the Barriers. Islanders in Hoy were particularly concerned about the withdrawal of the sailings from Stromness and the South Isles provided by Bremner & Co.

The Bremner service worked on a Wednesday ‘This service the shipping company contends is uneconomic due to the operation of the naval free ferry’. (Orkney Herald 23.12.1947). Councillors were urged to contact the Secretary of State for Scotland.

The councillors were also concerned about what should happen when the Barriers were closed. In the summer of 1948 they were scheduled to close for maintenance. Readers will not be surprised that the answer was to form a committee to consult with, Mr J.L. King the Admiralty Superintending Civil Engineer, and John Monroe the local Ministry of Transport representative.

The Admiralty had already decided to remove the blockships which had been put in place as part of the war time defences for Scapa Flow. Islanders were concerned that the barriers would suffer damage once the breakwater effect of the block ships was no longer there.

a view of the sand building up at one of the barriers , a block ship also still remaining
Image credit Bell

The closure of the Barriers by the Admiralty in 1948 was according to ‘The Sunday Post’ causing ‘1700 islanders heartache’ (Sunday Post, 08.02.1948). The reporter continued that the only means the islanders would have to transport livestock etc to Mainland was via the Saucy Nancy, ‘a converted lifeboat capable of only carrying 21 persons’.

The Admiralty said that repairs were necessary as Barrier 1 was ‘sliding’ and that this repair work would likely be needed annually.

“The islanders complain they are now totally cut off. Before the war the islanders could rely on a regular two vessel service, but this was withdrawn when the barrier was opened.” – Sunday Post 08.02.1948

In 1949 Barrier 2 between Lambs Holm and Glimps Holm was closed by the Admiralty for repair work. In August, to coincide with local holidays, however, pedestrians were permitted to cross – at their own risk. It was still closed to all motor traffic.

The Barriers had also become something of a visitor attraction with tourists and visits by officials stopping off to view them.

In October 2011, the Orkney Islands Council took control of the barriers from the Ministry of Defence. Since then, with increasingly erratic weather events and rising sea levels as a result of global climate change, the barriers have begun to deteriorate. Of the four barriers, only Barrier No. 2, from Lamb Holm to Glimps Holm, is at high risk for needing to be replaced, according to the Scottish Environment Protection Agency. Replacing even one of the causeways is extremely unpopular in Orkney due to their historical significance. The Council was as of February 2021 exploring options that would preserve all of the causeways. Wikipedia

Click on this link to access The Churchill Barriers 75 Years, via Orkney Archive

And you may be interested in this: Book Review: Churchill’s Prisoners

plaque at the barriers about their building
Image credit: Bell

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