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   Orkney Ferries

Caithness To Orkney Ferries

E Site Map| Orkney

Condensed from the book "A Wild and Open Sea" by James Miller

The Pentland Firth lies between the northern Scottish mainland and the islands of Orkney and has a well-deserved reputation among the world’s mariners as a channel to be navigated with great care. Twice every day the tide surges through the Firth from the Atlantic to the North Sea and back again, and currents can reach up to 12 knots. In the past many captains and ship owners preferred to make long detours north of Orkney or south by the English Channel to avoid the roosts and eddies in the Firth.

The Firth itself is not large - around 17 miles from Dunnet Head, which can serve as its westerly entrance, to the most easterly of the islets that make up the Pentland Skerries in the east. The gap between Caithness on the mainland and Orkney varies from 6 to 8 miles, and the islands of Stroma and Swona lie in the channel.

The dangers of the Firth have impressed writers for centuries. In 1380 John of Fordun wrote that Scotland was bounded on the north ‘by the Pentland Firth, where a fearfully dangerous whirlpool sucks in and belches back the waters every hour.’ The Phoenician explorer Pytheas sailed along the British coast in around 250 BC and mentioned a place called Orca where there were waves of immense size. A Roman fleet came this way in AD 84: it is recorded that they ‘subjugated’ (unlikely) the Orkney isles but it is not known how far they sailed. The Norse Sagas also mention the Firth and provide us with its first shipwreck records.

The Norse period left a lasting mark on the place-names and dialect of Orkney and Caithness. Some of the tidal features of the Firth have Norse names - the Swelkie (from svelgr, whirlpool), the Bores of Duncansby (from bara, wave) - and Norse legends account for the origins of some of them.

During the ebb tide, when the main current is flowing from east to west, a violent race develops in the western part of the Firth. This is called the Men of Mey and on occasion the waves can build up to tremendous heights and burst in white anger, even on a calm day.

The traditional fishing boats built around the Firth show in their lines their Norse origins. Called yawls or yoles, the boats are pointed stem and stern and have clinkered planking. In building, the planking was put in place first and then the shell was strengthened by ribs. The people used such yoles - from 15 feet to 24 feet in keel, with a wide beam - for fishing, transporting goods and animals, and for travel. In the 19th century, it was normal to cost a new boat at £1 per foot of keel. Yoles are rarely made now but many are still in use a hundred years after they were built.

Charts of the Pentland Firth were inaccurate and of little practical use to navigators until Murdoch Mackenzie, an Orkney schoolmaster and mathematician, carried out the first modern survey of the islands in the 1740s. His maps were published in 1750 and were bought by merchants all around the North Sea. Thirty copies were bought by the Hudson’s Bay Company as their ships, on the voyage to the Arctic from London, made Stromness their last stopping place. After Mackenzie’s work and the building of lighthouses - the lighthouse on the Skerries, erected in 1794, was the fifth modern lighthouse to be built in Scotland - encouraged more and more captains to venture through the Firth, a considerable shortening of the voyage to America from the east coast of Britain.

During the Napoelonic Wars the Royal Navy expanded considerably to meet the threat from the French and Spanish fleets. The Quota Acts passed by Parliament in 1795 required each county to furnish a certain number of recruits for the Navy but this was not enough to man all the frigates and ships of the line, and the press gang was active. Orkney has many stories of men dodging the press gang. The strategic position of Orkney, lying on the routes used by the Atlantic merchantmen and the Arctic whalers, meant that it was a fruitful recruiting ground for prime seamen.

Throughout this period privateers - raiders licensed to attack the shipping of the enemy - were also active. To protect the British trade with the Baltic, merchant vessels were required to adopt a convoy system. Longhope on the island of Hoy became the official assembly point for these convoys. Two Martello towers were built to guard the entrance to Longhope but by the time they were finished - in December 1814 - the immediate need for them had passed and they never fired a shot in anger. Now they make interesting tourist attractions.

A new lighthouse was built on Dunnet Head, the most northerly point of the Scottish mainland, in 1831. As the years went by more lighthouses were added to pinpoint other hazards in the area of the Firth - on Noss Head (1849), Cantick Head (1856), Holborn Head (1862), Stroma (1890), Duncansby Head (1924) and Strathy Point (1958). All these lighthouses are now automated. Click here for Caithness.org Lighthouse Page

New charts, new lighthouses and better technology led to merchant captains making greater use of the Firth as a shortcut from the North Sea to the Atlantic. This in turn led to many more accidents and to the growth of local pilotage. Fishermen, with their unparalleled knowledge of local waters, had always served as pilots for passing vessels but throughout the 1800s this activity reached a peak.

When a ship was in need of a pilot, she signalled on approaching the Firth. The main picking-up paces were off Noss Head and Freswick Bay on the east coast, and the area around Thurso on the west. Pilots also operated from Stroma and Swona and in fewer numbers from the Orkney side of the Firth. On the sighting of a potential client pilots took to the sea at once and rowed or sailed as fast as they could to reach her, as the first pilot to arrive normally got the job. After navigating the Firth, the pilot was normally put ashore to make his way home on foot or in his own boat which would have been towed behind the ship in the meantime.

It happened, however, that a ship could not or would not stop and several pilots found themselves borne away on an unforeseen voyage. James Miller of Nybster was taken to Ireland in this way. In 1869 James Mowat of Freswick ended up in Quebec. In 1891 David Banks of Stroma was taken to the Faroes. Another David Banks had perhaps the longest adventure of this sort - in the late 1830s or early 1840s, Banks was borne to America, where he signed on another ship for the homeward passage. However, this ship set out on a long detour via many South American ports and was almost lost in the Roaring Forties. Banks finally won home after he had been given up for lost by his relatives.

The number of pilots seems to have peaked in around 1850. Forty-one men gave their occupation as this in the 1851 census, but the number was always fluid as it was a part-time, ultimately spontaneous activity combined with crofting and fishing. Many pilots also lost their lives in accidents and bad weather. Pilotage in the Firth now is confined to the professionals who meet and guide supertankers into the oil terminal on the island of Flotta.

The increased use of the Firth also led to increased numbers of wrecks in its fierce turbulent waters and severe weather. The list of groundings and founderings in the Firth is very long. In the days of sail and before modern forecasting, a single gale could account for several vessels. Lifeboat stations and rocket companies, using rocket apparatus to fire lines to ships in distress, were established in various places around the Firth and these brave volunteers saved many lives over the years. Thurso had a lifeboat in 1860, Longhope in 1874, Ackergill and Huna in 1878.

The two World Wars (1914-18 and 1939-45) saw a great increase in shipping activity in the vicinity of the Firth, especially as the Royal Navy established its major base for the Home Fleets in Scapa Flow.

The Firth now is arguably a quieter place and seldom now does a full-rigged ship appear from the haze to navigate the gap. An echo of former times happened, however, in the summer of 1997 when the full-size replica of Captain James Cook’s ship, the Endeavour, sailed west through the Firth. The Firth is still a busy channel and much of the shipping between northern Europe and North America passes through it today, about 6,000 vessels of all types per year.

The sea is as tricky as ever and the saga of the Firth goes on.

Ferry Companies
Orkney Ferries
John O'Groat Ferry Company

Ferry from John O'Groats To Orkney - Company also runs bus tours of Orkney.

Pentland Ferries - From Gills, Caithness to St Margaret's Hope Car Ferry - shortest route for cars
Northlink Orkney and Shetland Ferries Took Over Contract From P & O in 2002 a much larger Ferry will take over the route when the new Scrabster Pier was completed in 2003

See Pictures Of The Ferries

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