History and Facts of Scapa Flow: A Strategic Harbor in Orkney Mainland

Scapa Flow: The area of Scapa Flow is roughly 120 square miles, and its typical depth is between 30 and 40 meters. Because the South Isles and the Orkney Mainland protect it, Scapa Flow has easy access to the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean.


The Old Norse word Skalpaflói, which means “bay of the long isthmus” and describes the narrow stretch of land that separates Kirkwall, the town, from Scapa Bay, is where the term Scapa Flow originates.
Since the Viking era, Scapa Flow has been utilized as a harbor; the Vikings named it Skalpaflói. However, the Admiralty did not become interested in Scapa Flow until the early 1800s during the Napoleonic wars.

Trading ships waiting to cross the North Sea to reach Baltic ports used the location as a deep water harbor, provided by the Admiralty. To protect these trade ships until a navy came to take them to the Baltic Sea, two Martello Towers were erected on either side of Longhope.

Due to the wars that followed, which included conflicts with France, Spain, and the Netherlands, a northern naval base was no longer required. But during the early 20th century, Scapa Flow was once again under scrutiny by the Admiralty. This time, the goal was to repel Germany, a brand-new foe. Scapa Flow was in a prime location to offer a secure northern anchorage with convenient access to open waters. A minefield at the mouth of the Firth of Forth may very well trap the Admiralty’s ships should they rely on it farther south.

1. Where is Scapa Flow Located?

Scapa Flow location
(Credit: Orbitshub)

Situated in Scotland’s Orkney Islands, this historic body of water has an area of approximately 120 square miles and a shallow sandy bottom with an average depth of 30 to 40 meters.

The adjacent islands of Hoy, Burray, Graemsay, and South Ronaldsay encircle Scapa Flow. The sheltered waters have been an important part of the region’s trade, travel, and warfare since prehistoric times, serving as a major harbor since the Viking era.

Owing to its advantageous position, Scapa Flow served as the Royal Navy’s naval base and was instrumental in both World Wars.

Furthermore, this body of water near the United Kingdom. is one of the locations where North Sea oil is processed and transferred. Oil is transported from the Piper oilfield to the Flotta oil terminal via an underwater pipeline.

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2. Role of Scapa Flow in Wars

Historians speculate that when Royalist general James Graham anchored his ship in the protected waters of Scapa Flow in 1650 while attempting to incite a rebellion in Scotland, the area had a role in the conflict of the Three Kingdoms.

However, others claim that the Admiralty initially became interested in the body of water during the early 1800s Napoleonic Wars. After that, trading ships used the protected water as a deep water anchorage before traveling across the North Sea to ports in the Baltic.

Its strategic location, however, meant that it was guarded against all sides and gave the British army enormous influence over its opponents. This advantage was largely used during World Wars I and II.

This harbor was primarily utilized as an exercise location during World War I, but it eventually became a full-scale northern base since there was no other appropriate location that could be employed quickly and because Scapa Flow appeared to be a feasible choice.

As such, it was easily chosen as one of the most significant northern bases during World War II.

3. The German Fleet Dismantled in World War I at Scapa Flow

About 74 German ships from the High Seas Fleet were scheduled to be imprisoned at the Royal Navy harbor at Scapa Flow following the end of World War I, while negotiations took place regarding the ultimate decision of the ships’ fate.

As part of the Armistice agreement, all parties talked about an apparently neutral location for the internship. Although the Armistice never specified a final destination, the British Navy did recommend an internship at Scapa Flow.

For for over nine months, the seized fleet of ships was berthed nearby while the specifics of the treaty about its internment were hammered out.

The French and Italians were pushing for the sharing of the ships, whilst the U.S. and Britain proposed their destruction.

Public access to the fleet was granted while the decision was being made. On June 21, 1919, in Scapa Flow, German commander Admiral Ludwig von Reuter issued the orders for the scuttling of German ships, following a protracted period of waiting for appropriate orders.

In front of a large audience, 52 ships perished in all, the largest loss of commerce in a single occurrence ever documented. However, several battleships were saved thanks to the prompt intervention of British guard ships.

Many of the wrecks were reportedly eventually recovered and carried away for dismantling, but many remained on the Scapa Flow seafloor, according to official documents.

On the pretext of destroying British property, Admiral Ludwig von Reuter and numerous other top officers were taken into custody but subsequently released.

4. The Churchill Divide

To defend the facility from attacks, the Royal Navy erected a robust defense system throughout Scapa Flow during World War I. To stop Germany from accessing the Scapa Flow, a number of actions were done, including the purposeful sinking of block ships.

But a German submarine breached the Scapa Flow during World War II, forcing the British ships to retreat.

Following an attack by the German U-boat U-47, the Royal Navy battleship HMS Royal Oak was sunk at her moorings on October 14, 1939, killing 834 men in all.

Following the infamous Scapa Flow naval tragedy, the British Prime Minister at the time, Winston Churchill, ordered the closure of any routes that might be used for a similar break-in.

Large quantities of concrete blocks were thus used to create causeways between the islands. The Churchill Barriers are the current name for these causeways that connect South Ronaldsay to the mainland.

The causeways presently link the Orkney Mainland to South Ronaldsay, the island, and the two smaller islands of Lamb Holm and Glimps Holm, totaling 2.4 kilometers in length.

5. Largest Maritime Museum in the World

(Credit: Oyster diving)

Scapa Flow is home to one of the largest maritime museums in the world due to its world-class shipwreck resource, which was obtained from the scuttling of 52 German ships as well as a few other ships in the past.

Even though the “great Salvage operation” cleared much of the scrap metal from the wrecked ships in Scapa Flow, a significant amount of wartime remnants can still be found in the area’s bed.

In addition to the seven surviving German High Seas Fleet wrecks, British battleships including H.M.S. Royal Oak and H.M.S. Vanguard are sunk in the seas of Scapa Flow.

The wrecks have been designated as scheduled monuments, with due consideration given to their historical and cultural significance.

The Scapa Flow Visitor Center and Museum, which is located close to Lyness on the island of Hoy, however, illustrates the significance of Scapa Flow, particularly its role in World Wars 1 and 2.

The museum, located in former navy buildings from World War II, uses a variety of media to tell the story of Scapa Flow, including pictures, videos, audio exhibits, and three-dimensional models of the island and the sunken ships.

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6. Royal Navy Cemetery at Lyness

Lyness Royal Naval Cemetery, on Hoy Island, was established in 1915 and serves as the final resting place for several Royal Army soldiers who were killed in action during both World Wars. There are 600 warriors buried here, most of them being sailors from the Empire and Commonwealth.

War records state that more than 440 Commonwealth soldiers from the First World War are interred here; 107 of them are still unidentified.

Additionally, during the Second World War, about 200 troops were buried, including 26 men from the German U-boat-sunk H.M.S. “Royal Oak.”

The graves of thirteen servicemen from the German High Seas Fleet are also located there. When the navy began moving its operations away from Orkney in 1946, the Lyness Royal Naval Cemetery was closed.

7. A well-liked diving and tourism location

(Credit: Visit Scotland)

At the moment, Scapa Flow is regarded as one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations. Visitors from all over the world come to Scapa Flow because of its abundant wreck resource beneath it, which is home to a diverse range of wild aquatic life.

The body of water also showcases the natural splendor of numerous neighboring islands and a living history of the two World Wars.

Highlights include the Italian Chapel built by Italian inmates, the Stromness Museum, the artwork of artists, and diving opportunities to explore the harbor’s bed and battleship remnants.

Scapa Flow is today regarded as one of the world’s best places to dive, drawing a lot of recreational scuba divers as the wrecks have developed into lush artificial reefs.

Divers can explore the seafloor because ships, which can weigh up to 25,000 tons, are positioned near the base. Through these diving expeditions, the wreckage of ships such as the Cruiser, Dresden, Brummer, Koln, Konig, Kronprinz Wilhelm, and Markgraf, as well as the abundant aquatic life that has grown on them, can be studied.

Numerous dive boats are currently working in the Scapa Flow region, assisting divers from all over the world in their exploration of the sea body’s nautical past.

But occasionally, the wrecks of Scapa Flow also alter the weather in accordance with the seasons, which might be uncomfortable for divers.

In Scapa Flow, warm spring temperatures and early fall temperatures cause an algae bloom that obscures the water’s clarity.

8. Scapa Flow provides opportunity for observing birds

Because there are many uncommon bird species in the area, Scapa Flow is the perfect place to go bird watching. There are many puffins, razorbills, fulmars, guillemots, and kittiwakes in the waters surrounding Scapa Flow. These birds can be observed diving into the water to capture small fish, and they are visible from cliffs and rocks.

The wetlands and marshes surrounding Scapa Flow are home to wading bird species like lapwings, curlews, and redshanks, as well as ducks, geese, and swans. These areas are significant because a variety of birds visit them to breed, build nests, and raise their young.

For those who enjoy birds, the Orkney Islands’ Nature Reserves are ideal. Many tour companies also provide guided bird-watching tours, where expert guides aid spot and identify every species of bird while sharing insights into their habitats and behaviors.

9. The Flotta Oil Terminal is a significant oil port located in Scapa Flow

oil port located in Scapa Flow
(Credit: Orkney Harbour)

The development of the economies of Scapa Flow and the surrounding area has been greatly aided by the oil industry. Located on Flotta Island in the southern portion of Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands, the Flotta Oil terminal is a major processing, storing, and exporting facility for crude oil and gas.

It receives and processes crude oil from Piper, Tartan, Claymore, Golden Eagle platforms, and other connected fields via an undersea pipeline. It offers capabilities for managing equipment and supplies for oil rigs located offshore.

The North Sea’s Brent oil field was the reason behind the terminal’s construction in the 1970s. Repsol Sinopec Resources U.K. is the operator. and manages over half a million barrels of oil per day. It has natural gas processing and storage facilities.

Oil and gas-filled tankers depart the terminal bound for North America, Europe, and Asia. For many of the people living on the nearby islands, the port has meant employment.

10. The Scapa Flow Curse’s Legend

Rumors of the Scapa Flow Curse have been passed down through the Orkney Islands’ resident sailors’ generations. The waters of Scapa Flow were cursed by a witch, so the story goes.

The narrative tells of a young woman on Orkney Island who was put on trial by water when it was claimed she was a witch. She would be guilty if she floated, and innocent if she sank.

After being tossed into the waters of Scapa Flow, the woman bound to the chair floated, which resulted in her execution. The woman’s sister, grieving over her abuse and untimely death, cursed the scapa flow.

It is thought that crossing the waters of the Scapa Flow will bring bad luck to those who do so. When the British Navy battleship HMS Vanguard exploded in the harbor in 1917, killing over 800 sailors, the legend became well-known throughout World War I. Other mishaps included crashes and ships going aground.

Travelers are still captivated by the narrative, which contributes to the rich cultural beliefs, folklore, and history of the area.

11. Numerous Viking texts describe Scapa Flow

Types of Viking Ships, Viking Ships
(Credit: Viking style)

The history of Scapa Flow dates back to the Viking era. After the Vikings arrived in the Orkney Islands in the eighth and ninth century, the region quickly developed into a hub for Norse trade and culture. A well-known Viking manuscript called the Orkeneyinga Saga chronicles the history of the islands and the Norse Earls who ruled the area. Scapa Flow is mentioned in the text as a vital hub for trade and business.

A legend claims that in the ninth century, the Viking Eark Sigurd constructed a massive fleet of ships in the seas of the Scapa Flow with the intention of raiding the mainland of Scotland. Numerous Viking sources hail his accomplishments and portray him as a man of strong character.

Another old Viking book from the Middle Ages that tells the stories of Norwegian rulers is Heimskringla. The narrative describes a battle that happened in the latter part of the eleventh century in Scapa Flow, where King Magnus Barefoot routed the Scottish navy and conquered the area.

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12. Possesses a thriving seaweed business

Seaweed abounds in the waters surrounding Scapa Flow, and the area is home to numerous seaweed processing businesses that create a variety of goods that are sold both domestically and abroad.

One of the main drivers of the Orkney Islands’ economy, of which Scapa Flow is a part, is the seaweed sector. For ages, people have collected seaweed from the surrounding seas of the islands, and for some of them even now, it is a vital source of revenue.

In the food business, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, etc., seaweed is used extensively. It tastes good with salads, soups, and sushi. It can also be used as a flavoring and thickening agent. Due to its ability to hydrate skin and reduce inflammation, it is also a common ingredient in lotions, soaps, and creams. Its potential to cure diabetes, obesity, and cancer is being investigated.

Scapa Flow’s seaweed business is sustainable and governed by tight laws, so harvesting doesn’t negatively impact the marine environment.

13. Popular Natural resource in the Orkney Islands is peat

(Credit: Wikipedia)


Fuel known as peat is created when organic matter builds up in marshes over thousands of years. It is mostly found on moorland and bog in the Orkney Islands. Both residents and others residing in more remote areas of the islands have used it as a source of fuel. It must be dried after being manually chopped using conventional techniques.

In horticulture, it is also used to cultivate plants like rhododendron and blueberries. Even though peat has historically been used as a fuel source in the Orkney Islands, concerns regarding peat exploitation are growing. It endangers ecosystems and causes habitat loss. Therefore, it is imperative to investigate other fuel sources in the Orkney Islands.

14. Scapa Flow’s fishing business is expanding

Commercially viable fish abound in the waters of the Scapa Flow. This area is important for fishing because it is home to several popular species, such as haddock, cod, and salmon.

Over the past few years, small ships have primarily been used to fish the scapa flow waters utilizing conventional techniques including thrilling and line fishing. However, the presence of large fishing vessels using cutting-edge fishing methods indicates that the Scapa Flow fishing industry has become increasingly mechanized in recent times.

Many people in the area get their income and job prospects from the fishing business. It also helps a lot of other enterprises, like seafood export firms and plans for fish processing.

Last but not least, the numerous regional festivals and activities dedicated to fishing serve to emphasize the significance of fishing. For the residents in the area, seafood is a basic diet.

15. A rich and diversified marine habitat is supported by Scapa Flow

Numerous marine species find refuge in the area’s varied ecosystems, which include kelp forests, seagrass meadows, rocky reefs, and sandy seabeds.

Kelp, dulse, wrack, and other common plant species can be found in the Scapa Flow. Another type of seagrass is eelgrass. Small fish, crabs, and shellfish live in these plants.

A rich and diversified marine habitat is supported by Scapa Flow.
Invertebrates, such as crabs, lobsters, shellfish, scallops, and mussels, are also present in addition to fish.


In summary, the Scapa Flow is an intriguing location that has been significant to history in both peacetime and wartime. Scapa Flow offers something for everyone, from the German fleet’s scuttling to the ruins of numerous ships that sank there, as well as its breathtaking natural beauty and abundant marine life.

The fact that it provides a singular and unforgettable experience makes it ideal for history buffs, nature lovers, and adventure seekers alike. Divers and vacationers looking for solace and relaxation from the daily grind will also find it suitable.

Therefore, Scapa Flow is a site that should be on your bucket list, whether you want to dive the wrecks, tour the neighboring islands, or just take in the amazing scenery.

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