HMS Royal Oak

Wrecks, war graves and treasure ships

German sailors surrender at Scapa Flow in 1918

By Diane Maclean - Caledonian Mercury

At over 10,000 miles, Scotland has one of the longest coastlines in Europe.

This, coupled with the fierce gales that can spring up out of nowhere, has resulted in thousands of wrecks lying on our seabed. Little wonder, then, that we attract serious divers from around the world.

Some wrecks – ranging from early 16th century galleons to battleships from the first and second world wars – are, depending on their provenance, protected.

Currently, Historic Scotland oversees 15 shipwrecks under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act. For these, a licence is required if you want to dive – and you “must take only photographs, leave only bubbles”.

Other wrecks are designated war graves and fall under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986.

Scotland has a huge range of dives – and, tantalisingly, also boasts the possible presence of two magnificent treasure ships. But more than the sand-strewn artefacts, these ships tell a story, and all too often a story that involves loss of life.

Scapa Flow
There are seven wrecks in Scapa Flow, Orkney. This stretch of water, with its shallow sandy bottom, is one of the best natural harbours in the world, and was used by the British Navy as its main base during both world wars. At the end of the first of these conflicts, the German fleet was taken here until a decision could be made about its future.

In June 1919, rather than let it fall into British hands, Rear Admiral Ludwig von Reuter, the German officer in command at Scapa Flow, gave the order to scuttle the fleet. Although more than 50 ships sank, most were salvaged, leaving only a handful submerged.

This is a popular site to dive and permits can be obtained from the Orkney Islands harbour authorities.

HMS Royal Oak
The Royal Oak, a Royal Navy battleship, first saw action during the Battle of Jutland in 1916. On 14 October 1939, while anchored at Scapa Flow, she was torpedoed by the German submarine U-47. Over 800 of the crew of 1,234 were killed, either immediately or as a result of their injuries.

The loss of HMS Royal Oak was a huge blow to morale for a country that had assumed it “ruled the waves”. The ship remains in Scapa Flow, lying upside-down in 100 feet of water. Each year, there is a ceremony to remember the dead. As it is a war grave, access is limited to divers of the British armed forces who have been given specific permission to visit.

17th century merchant vessels
There are a number of protected merchant vessels wrecked around our coast, including the Kennemerland, which ship belonged to the Dutch East India Company and was lost on Out Skerries, Shetland, in 1664 as it sailed to the East Indies. Its cargo included treasure, mercury, golf clubs, jewels and tobacco.

Also off Out Skerries lies the Wrangels Palais, originally a Swedish ship, captured by the Danish in 1677. It ran aground in fog 11 years later en route to Iceland, trying to outrun Turkish privateers.