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When the bombs fell on Stenness

Aerial View of Bombed Houses – Illustrated, April 20, 1940 (aboutorkney.com)

By Patricia Long

Saturday, March 16, 1940, was a quiet day in Orkney — until the light began to fade. It was then that the first serious air-raid of World War II began, as The Orcadian reported on the following Thursday.

“It was dusk when the fighting began. People in every parish of the Orkney mainland and in the immediately adjacent islands readily recognised the drone of the enemy aircraft motors . . .

“After dark – the raid lasted almost an hour and a half – the pale moonlight assumed periodic insignificance in the crimson illumination of many gun-flashes. Shells were fired at the raiders from ships and shore batteries in continuous streams . . .

“The thunder of the heavy anti-aircraft guns shook Kirkwall houses, rattled windows and domestic utensils. The blast in some cases blew open the wooden shutters of windows, the sashes of which had been opened to avoid being broken by the concussion. The ground quivered when bombs fell considerable distances off.”

At least 15 German aircraft attacked Scapa Flow and HMS Sparrowhawk, the airfield on the outskirts of Kirkwall, but the worst effects of the raid were felt in Stenness.

The German claim that airfields at Kirkwall and Stromness were attacked lends weight to the theory that the civilian airfield on the Stromness side of the Bridge of Waithe, used by Gandar Dower before the war, was mistaken for a military target.

The eye-witness accounts published in The Orcadian and Orkney Herald, although clearly reworded by the journalists, gives a vivid picture of the evening when everyday surroundings became so terrifyingly strange.

The Bridge of Waithe, which carries the Stromness-Kirkwall road over the sea entrance to the Stenness Loch, gave its name to the little cluster of buildings around the nearby junction with the Orphir Road. The building on the corner became famous after the war as Orkney’s night-club, the Golden Slipper, but in 1939 it was Willie Farquhar’s cobbler’s shop.

Like many cobbler’s shops in Orkney, it was a place where men would gather in the evening so Willie and his mother Ellen had begun to sell lemonade, cigarettes and sweets. A young family lived at the other end of the little row: James and Lily Isbister with their three-month old son Neil. Another young family, Alfie and Cathy Linklater with ten-month old Freddie, lived in the house just behind them, at right angles to the road. Isa McLeod was in the house on the other side of the road.

The Orcadian interviewed Mrs Ellen Farquhar just a few days after the bombing . . .

For the rest of this story, see the current edition of this week’s The Orcadian, or visit Patrica’s website, www.aboutorkney.com

Patricia Long is a tourist guide based in Stenness, with a particular interest in social history.