Branch Visit to Orkney and Shetland

On Tuesday 2nd July, branch chairman, Jonathan D’Hooghe along with Robin Sayer, Arthur Wood and John Robinson set off on the long drive north, primarily to visit sites of WW1 interest and to meet up with our old friend in Lerwick, Jon Sandison – author of the Shetlanders on the Western Front Facebook page.

After some 350 miles a hearty lunch was taken at the House of Bruar, followed by a good walk around Culloden Moor near Inverness, scene of the battle of April 1746 in which the ’45 Jacobite Rebellion came to a crushing close. I first visited this battlefield with my late father in 1974 and although there is now a superb visitor centre and explanatory boards dotted about the field, it was a real shame to witness the anti-English graffiti and vandalism on these boards.

The next stop was Dingwall, where a visit was made to the unusual battlefield memorial to the 4th Battalion the Seaforth Highlanders who had fought at Cambrai in November 1917. Originally erected at Fontaine Notre Dame, it was taken down and re-erected in Dingwall in 1924.

4/Seaforth’s Memorial at Dingwall

The next stop was at Tain where we located the site of the WW2 RAF base at which Arthur’s father had served during the war. We then paid our respects to a Czech Liberator crew who now lie in Tain churchyard.

Day two, saw the short drive from Helmsdale to Scrabster, with a stop at the superb Berriedale village memorial, to take the 90 minute ferry crossing to Stromness. This is a notorious crossing even in the summer and sure enough, one of our party – who shall remain nameless! – found his sea legs to be lacking in substance, mind you, I was glad of a walk on deck and a breath of fresh air as we skirted the Old Man of Hoy and Scapa Flow.

On arrival in Stromness, we drove to the Kitchener Memorial which sits majestically on Marwick Head overlooking the location of the sinking of HMS Hampshire in June 1916 with the loss of Lord Kitchener. Not only is it a wonderful memorial, the walk to it along the cliff tops is well worth the visit.

The Kitchener Memorial

Day three started with the short drive from Stromness to Houton, location of a WW1 RNAS sea plane base to catch the ferry to Lyness in the heart of Scapa Flow. Mistakenly, we decided to cross as foot passengers and on arrival the heavens opened with Biblical force and a very wet and bedraggled party walked the mile or so to the temporary Scapa Flow museum and Lyness Naval Cemetery.

The original museum is undergoing a major refurbishment until 2021 but the temporary exhibition is excellent and other exhibits of the Navy’s time at Scapa Flow and the scuttling of the German fleet can currently be seen in Stromness and Kirkwall museums, both of which we visited in the afternoon.

Whilst in Kirkwall, we also visited St Magnus’ Cathedral where there are several memorials of WW1 interest, including the sinking of the Hampshire and a WW2 memorial for the lost crew of HMS Royal Oak, sunk in October 1939.

Tablet in St Magnus’ cathedral.

A short drive out of Kirkwall brought us to the WW2 Italian POW chapel, built by POW’s from an old Nissen hut during their captivity and finished after the war when they were able to return to Orkney. It truly is a remarkable piece of work.

Italian POW chapel

We then caught the 23.30 overnight ferry to Lerwick in Shetland after a memorable fish and chip supper near Kirkwall harbour front.

Docking in Lerwick at breakfast time we headed south to Sumburgh via St Ninian’s beach to meet up with Sammy Sjoberg a local WW2 historian who gave us a tour of what remains of RAF Sumburgh. The airfield today is Shetland’s main commercial airport where ‘level crossing’ type gates close the road to traffic whilst planes land and take off.

The afternoon saw us have a private lecture and tour at the Shetland Museum courtesy of Dr. Ian Tait. Ian was most informative about Shetland, its people and its economy in the run up to 1914 and we all had a better feel for these northerly islands when we met up with Jon Sandison in the evening.

Jon gave us a special walking tour of Lerwick, visiting the town war memorial the old Territorial Force drill hall, Fort Charlotte, the town cemetery which includes many CWGC headstones and a visit to the harbour where the Shetland Company of the Gordon Highlanders sailed off to France on SS Cambria in 1915. Going off piste slightly, we also visited the home of Jimmy Perez which features in the BBC detective series Shetland!

After a bar room debate on the merits or otherwise of English whisky, we retired to bed in preparation for the final day of the tour. The next morning, the rain and cloud had disappeared and Shetland was bathed in sunshine as Jon arrived to pick us up and take us to Scalloway where we took in a visit to the ‘Scalloway Bus’ memorial and yet again, Jon had arranged a short lecture in the Scalloway museum by William Moore. William’s father had played an important role during WW2 in the operation of the ‘Bus’ – a series of daring sea voyages between Shetland and Norway during the German occupation in WW2.

The Scalloway Bus Memorial

A whistle stop tour ensued for the rest of the day to various WW1 memorials and cemeteries at Nesting, Eshaness and Tingwall, the Cabin Museum, the site of RNAS Catfirth a WW1 sea plane base and lunch at Busta House Hotel, which had been the 10th Cruiser Squadron’s HQ near Brae.

All too soon it was time to embark for the overnight sailing back to Aberdeen and the journey home to Lincoln.

All in all, a hectic but very worthwhile trip to many special places that will live long in the memory. A special thanks must go to Jon Sandison who was a guide par excellence and who organised the talks from Sammy, Ian and William. Cheers – and I hope you enjoy the English Whisky Jon!!

Lunch at Busta House.

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