An Orcadian Diary (1) Silent Guns

It ends beneath the ground; it always does. The bones of soldiers buried in fine ceremony, though the organic memory passed long before the corpse was glorified. Collective kindness crumpled by division in the face of another despot whipping up the many faces of our unhappiness.

But, perhaps, not always…

His name is Johnny Claude. He’s ninety-eight years old – the oldest man on Orkney who was born there.

The Historic Scotland guide for the Battery at Hackness, on the Orkney island of Hoy, had just talked us through the old man’s extraordinary life when his subject crossed the Battery courtyard behind us faster than anyone that old should be able to do… Glimpsing his movement, I turned, my camera phone poised, and caught the guide’s eye: yes, that’s him; take it quick, he doesn’t linger.

He had a stick, and used it with great skill. Somehow, it reminded me of the heroic artifice all around us: the Hackness Battery and the Martello Tower, with its state of the art gun – well, state of the art for 1812, the period when the fort was constructed on the strange and fascinating island of Hoy.

The mention of 1812 might have set you off humming Tchaikovsky’s overture of the same name, which, as we’ll see, is very apt.

The sea in front of the Hackness Battery might have triggered other associations of a military nature: Scapa Flow… though this part of it is known as Longhope Sound. One day in 1812, the guide says, there were over a hundred ships just off this stretch of coast. Every one of them seeking sanctuary; every one of them safe because of the presence of this naval battery and its ability to reach into space.

What reached into space was the presence of long-distance munitions: the kind of physics that blows apart large sailing ships. Graduating from the solid, spherical ‘shot’ shown above to the more complex spinning explosive ‘shells’ (in the box), the power of the impact became increasingly sophisticated as the years passed. Even in 1812, the heaviest of the shot – 24 lbs and very difficult to lift by hand – could be propelled over a mile with high accuracy from the battery. The gun at the top of the Martello tower was even deadlier. The additional forty feet of the tower allowed it to be more accurate and added a half mile to its range.

 

Johnny Claude has been here all of his life. Born in 1919 on Hoy, to a father who had bought part of the old Battery for the family home, he eventually enlisted and was based on Hoy in his late teens as part of the gunnery crew. His life had escaped the horrors of the First World War, but was imprinted by service, here, in the second. He never left.

Even his story was a hundred years after the rise of Orkney’s naval importance; something we find strange to understand now, when Orkney is seen as a place remote and ‘up-there’.

Up-there was one of the most important places in the ancient world because its open and deep waterways – like Scapa Flow – linked the North Sea with the Atlantic… and way beyond. In no other place could you gain so much distance simply by turning your ship. This story does not begin with the Napoleonic threat in 1812; it is the story of Orkney’s entire history. To begin to grasp it, you have to stand on one of the high places and look across the vastness of its waterways… They are also some of the deepest in the world.

The Battery at Hackness was established at the end of 1812, in response to the threat of naval invasion of Britain by Napoleon. We readily call to mind the threat from the Nazis during WW2, but, a hundred years prior, the French forces posed just as deadly a menace from closer at hand.

Napoleon dominated Europe, and was intent on starving Britain to its knees. The only surviving trade to the East was with the Scandinavian ports, who saw in Napoleon as big a threat as Britain did. Orkney sat at the crossroads of that lifeline of trade – and its protection was paramount.

The seaways of Scapa Flow are unique, and that Britain possessed them was vital to the country’s survival; something that continued right up to WW2, and carries on today with the fishing and submarine fleets. The two hundred ships sheltered in the sound off Hackness in 1812 were there for one reason only: the fort could protect them, and there was nothing Napoleon could do about it…

Beyond the Battery is the Martello Tower. Had a French frigate made it into Longhope Sound, its guns could have damaged the lower levels of the battery – though it would have taken great accuracy. But the Martello Tower, with its 24 pound gun and mile and a half range was indestructible, and one of most formidable defensive ‘machines’ ever constructed in the age before electronics.

The British forces did not invent it. Martello towers take their name from Martello Point in Corsica. In January 1794 two small cannon mounted on a coastal round tower beat off an attack by two British warships with a combined firepower of 106 guns. The navy learned from that, taking the basic design and commissioning the best engineering minds to refine the idea into an impregnable, if small, fortress.

The secret lay in its shape.

Photo of Historic Scotland’s information board

Seen in cross-section, from above, (lower right panel, above) it was oval in construction, with the sea-facing walls being a staggering 4.2 metres thick. The entrance was via an iron ladder to the second floor.

img_5780

The gun was on the roof, which also was shaped to be a giant rainwater collector that fed a basement tank, using a filtering system. It was thought the Martello towers might be besieged, so the gunners had to be self-sufficient.

img_5795

The gunpowder was stored in a carefully isolated chamber on the lower floor, reached from above, and entered only when wearing special clothing to prevent ferrous sparks.

The gun and its support structure on the roof had been designed very carefully. Such a powerful weapon had a strong recoil, throwing it sharply backwards when fired.

The mounting rails were angled upwards, behind the gun, absorbing the recoil energy as the gun climbed the gradient. At the end of the recoil, the gun locked itself in the elevated position, allowing easier re-loading of the shot or, later, explosive shells. The whole mechanism was mounted on a strong cast-iron ring set in granite which allowed it to be accurately aligned with its target. All of this was based on mechanical principles and the mathematics of the time. It was a masterpiece of defensive design.

Life in the Battery was primitive by today’s standards. But many, like Johnny Claude, served out their time here and even chose to stay on in Orkney.

Like his father, Johnny went on to marry a local girl and had several children. His father had purchased a section of the old Battery barracks in the 1920s, and Johnny inherited this for his own family. The photo shows him walking from the door of his lifetime home. His wife died some time ago, but this old figure is still wedded to this special part of Orkney.

There are many military graves on Hoy. The tall cross of the opening image marks the centre of an immaculately-kept combined services graveyard. But none of the graves contain the remains of those whose life was the Battery and Martello Tower.

It was never used in anger…

So potent was its fire, and so secure its design and position, that not even Napoleon dared risk an attack on Scapa Flow. Ultimately, it was an instrument of peace, not war. The fact that it was wholly defensive may say something about its effectiveness; and its longevity.

The presence of this very special old man of Hoy who holds so much of Orkney’s living memories is testimony to that.


Stephen Tanham is a director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit organisation that helps people find the reality and essence of their existence via home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised.

His personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com.

You’ll find friends, poetry, literature and photography there…and some great guest posts on related topics.

©Stephen Tanham

12 Replies to “An Orcadian Diary (1) Silent Guns”

  1. Fascinating, Steve. I’ve always believed that in each of us is a story, and your story of Johnny’s relationship to Hoy is just another example that proves the point. The place has an interesting history and seems to have weathered time well. The reach of those guns is amazing and I can picture the protection they provided. A wonderful blend of historical information and a personal look into a man’s life.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.