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HMS Pheasant 1917

Drawing of HMS Pheasant, an Admiralty M-class Destroyer, with a mine
HMS Pheasant, chalk & charcoal on watercolour, 2019.

HMS Pheasant was an Admiralty M-class Destroyer based in Orkney during WW1. Due to its strategic importance, Scapa Flow was the main base of the British Grand Fleet during both World Wars.

In the early hours of the 1st of March 1917, HMS Pheasant exploded with the loss of all hands. It had only recently been launched, on 23rd of October 1916. It is thought that the ship hit a mine.

Only one body was ever recovered, that of Midshipman Reginald Cotter, who was still alive when pulled from the water and is now buried in the Lyness Naval Cemetery on Hoy.

What happened to HMS Pheasant was virtually forgotten until a maritime survey conducted by Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA), the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and SULA Diving located its remains off the coast of Rora Head, Hoy.

The background of the ship’s 89 strong crew is a slice of early 20th Century society in Britain. The men were from varied cultural backgrounds. There is currently no memorial to them, and many of their relatives never found out what happened. Since writing about the subject for The Orkney News, Fiona Grahame has been contacted by some family members, and has been uncovering their often remarkable stories.

A documentary about this tragedy, to focus on the lives of the individual crewmen, is currently in pre-production by The Orkney News team. We are seeking financial backing to take this project forward – if you are in a position to help with this, please get in touch via the contact form on this site or https://theorkneynews.scot.

This project follows on from our animated telling of the Orcadian Woman’s Suffrage Society, A Gude Cause Maks A Strong Erm, which will shortly be showing at the Scottish Short Film Festival at the Art School in Glasgow, on Saturday 27th of July. Tickets are for the film festival are available from https://www.scottishshortfilmfestival.com/. A trailer showcasing the short films to be featured can be viewed on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dNW5I7DuJcY.

black and white photograph of Rora Head, Hoy
Rora Head, Hoy.

I ken whaur ye bide, beuy

Pen & ink cartoon by Martin Scott Laird for iScot Magazine, showing some immigrant geese and a local shooter.
“I ken whaur ye bide, beuy.”

 

I ken whaur ye bide, beuy.

This cartoon was drawn to accompany Fiona Grahame’s The Orkney News column in iScot magazine for December 2017. The subject of the article is the problem of goose management in Orkney, but the cartoon has a different subtext. It was inspired by a recent incident of racial abuse in which an incomer to Orkney was ordered to leave the islands, along with his family. “I know where you live” is threatening in any dialect.

With a population approaching 22,000, Orkney is a still a relatively small place. The inhabitants like to think of themselves as good people and most of them are. However there does exist a xenophobic dark side which occasionally rears its ugly head. There will be few “ferry-loupers” living in Orkney that have not experienced some degree of intolerance in person, however slight.

Orkney has very high rates of fuel poverty and an average income below the Scottish average. On the other hand, 3.5% of houses are second homes, and 6.9% are empty. Demographics have shifted to the point that an Orcadian accent is virtually unheard on some islands. This does not excuse xenophobia or resentment of incomers, but may go some way towards explaining it.

Some Orcadians can trace their lineage back to late Norse times, but it’s worth remembering that the Vikings were themselves immigrants to the islands (and not peaceful ones).