by Alastair Brian
The history of Scotland is often measured by crumbling castles and long-gone battles, but many of the country’s most important and revealing historical artefacts are lying at the bottom of the seabed. There are around 18,000 shipwrecks around Scotland’s coasts, giving an insight into our maritime past.
Rod MacDonald, a diver and shipwreck expert who has been exploring the downed ships around the world for more than 30 years. From the iconic German fleet scuttled at Scapa Flow, to the less well-known tales of ships which met their end in the watery deep, he offers his insight into a few of the more interesting bits of Scots history beneath the waves.
One of the world’s most famous wreck sites, Scapa Flow is the site of one of the most controversial moments of the First World War. It was used as a northern base for the the British Grand Fleet, and it was here that the the German fleet was handed over to the Allies as one of the conditions of the Armistice which ended Western Front fighting in November 1918.
“The German fleet was still extremely powerful, so the newest elements were taken into internment in Scapa Flow”, says Mr MacDonald.
The 74-strong fleet was sailed into Scapa Flow and was held for 18 months as the German surrender terms were agreed. Knowing they would be forced to accept, the commander of the fleet, Rear Admiral Ludwig von Reuter, ordered the boats to be scuttled (deliberately sunk by allowing water into the hull) so they could not fall into the hands of the enemy.
Of the sunken German ships but many were broken up and only seven remain underwater, but they are some of the last places to see weapons used in the war’s most iconic naval battle.
Mr MacDonald explains: “There are three battleships, the newest battleships in the German fleet. They are 575 ft-long and 100ft-wide, you can actually see in them the last and most accessible big guns that fired in the Battle of Jutland.”
Sound of Mull
Just 13 miles long and a mile or two across, the inlet on the east side of Mull has taken many a ship to its seabed. The four major wrecks are the Hispania, the Shuna, the SS Thesis and the Rondo.
The narrow pass was regularly used as ships sought respite from storms battering the west coast.
“If you imagine you’ve got a big storm beating into the west side of mull, this area is on the east side so it’s totally sheltered and protected,” Mr MacDonald explains.
“Ships would travel up and down there as a sheltered shortcut. In the days before GPS and proper navigation tools, it’s a very narrow sound, and there are lots of very nasty rocks that rise up to snare the unwary.”
Once such vessel was the SS Hispania, and her story is one of old-fashioned maritime bravery, or even stupidity.
“It is probably the greatest shipwreck outside Scapa Flow for conventional air divers”, Mr MacDonald says.
“She was a wreck in 1953, after deciding to pass up the Sound of Mull to get some shelter. They were off track, and ran into the Sgeir More, which is actually just ‘big Rock’ in English. She was holed, and reversed off, but was so badly holed she sunk in the sound.”
“The crew all got off, but the captain Ivor Dahn was old school and he was last seen saluting at attention at the bridge as the ship went under, so he went down with his ship.”
Firth of Clyde
The Clyde is another major draw for those who want to examine underwater wrecks closely.
There are a number of sites charted in the firth of Clyde, including one with a particularly valuable cargo.
In September 1895, the Wallachia left Queen’s Dock in Glasgow bound for the West Indies.
Her bounty was euphemistically described at the time as intended “to ease the rigours of life in the West Indies”.
Mr.MacDonald takes the story: “Basically her holds were filled with booze.”
“You go into the holds now, and these hatches are 25ft across, and 25ft deep, and they are packed to the top with loosely stacked bottles of booze.”
“I’ve seen some divers take them up and the corks pop off with the change in pressure and they come out and it still says ‘McEwan’s, Edinburgh’ on it. It smells exactly like McEwan’s Export you get in pubs today, but I wouldn’t drink it obviously.”
One of the most interesting and unusual stories behind a wreck involves the Port Napier, which came to rest just a few hundred metres from a bay on the Isle of Skye.
The ship was brand new and built for the meat trade in New Zealand, but was commandeered in World War Two as a minelayer.
“She had just been filled with 550 mines at Kyle of Lochalsh when a fire broke out,” says Mr MacDonald.
“They tried to stop the fire, but it go out of control and they were really terrified about the effect of 550 mines going off, which would have flattened Kyle.”
“The decision was made to tow the Port Napier towards Skye, but the fire got worse and worse and they abandoned it in a small bay.”
“Some of the mines kicked off and bits of the ship went as far as 300 metres up the hill on Skye,” says Mr Macdonald.
“Then the ship just rolled over and sank in shallow water. So today, she lies on a starboard beam but the top couple of metres are exposed above the water at low tide.”
The tale of the Bella, a comparatively tiny and insignificant ship, but its 100-year-old story is remarkable.
On September 25, 1916, Gourdon fishing boat the Bella, with a crew of six men, set sail for fishing grounds just off Catterline Bay.
But they got more than the expected catch when they got there.
“A U-boat surfaced beside it and took the crew prisoner,” recalls Mr MacDonald.
“They scuttled the trawler, and took them back as Prisoners of War, and they spent the rest of the war imprisoned in Germany.”
The six men were returned safely at the end of the war, and this Sunday, the locals in the small fishing village will commemorate their harrowing experience.
“It’s an insignificant wreck but it’s an important one to the people of Gourden.”
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