“Farewell to Stromness”

We have a special treat this week, a new post from our friend Alan Mason – Deskarati

Last week, on 14 March 2016, the death was announced of the composer and musician, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, (born 1934) so the BBC broadcast a recording of Davies playing his piano piece, “Farewell to Stromness”. I found this deeply moving, largely because the music, and its title, plucked at the strings of memory. I am particularly fond of slow, quiet wistful piano pieces (Erik Satie’s “Gymnopedies”, “Tango” by Albeniz, and “La Fille aux Cheveux de Lin” by Debussy) and “Farewell to Stromness” has some of the same qualities.

(Four days later, the BBC broadcast comments from people all over Britain, including the Orkneys, in warm praise of the piano piece and the composer. I had not realised, but it became clear to me, that the piece has a universal appeal, not just to those who know and love Stromness, but to people who have never been there.)

For me, the piece stirs memories of the beautiful small town of Stromness in the Orkney Islands, off the north coast of Scotland. Maxwell Davies lived here during the later years of his life. It is a quiet place, as the principal street with two children shows, in a photograph (2) taken around mid – day in the middle of the summer of 1995.

Stromness, and the Orkney capital, Kirkwall, are close to Scapa Flow (3), a roughly circular deep-water anchorage. It was a British naval base from 1908 until 1956, but in recent times it has morphed into an oil terminal. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the British naval bases were at Chatham, Portsmouth and Devonport facing the English Channel and maritime threats from France, the traditional enemy. In the early twentieth century the British Admiralty realised that a much greater threat came from the German High Seas Fleet, based at Kiel and Wilhelmshaven, and considered naval bases at Invergordon on the Cromarty Firth, and Rosyth on the Firth of Forth, before choosing Scapa Flow.

As a small child, during World War Two, with two elder brothers in the Royal Navy, I had heard the name, “Scapa Flow” many times, but had only a vague, child’s mental picture of what these two mysterious words might mean. (The name apparently comes from Old Norse “scalpafloi”, meaning rather uninterestingly, “the bay of the long isthmus”). Both Kirkwall and Stromness are on inlets leading into Scapa Flow and there are wide panoramas, (4) or seascapes seen from odd corners (5).

With the Armistice on 11 November 1918, seventy-four ships of the German High Seas Fleet were eventually interned in Scapa Flow, awaiting the decision of the Versailles peace conference in 1919, on their ultimate fate. To prevent the German warships being used later by the Royal Navy, the German Admiral von Reuter illegally ordered his crews to “scuttle” or sink them.

On 21 June 1919 fifty-two of the seventy-four warships were successfully sunk in Scapa Flow, to lie in about 200 feet (60 metres) of water. Since then, most of them were removed by professional divers, working for salvage companies. By 1939, Ernest Cox,
engineer and scrap metal merchant, successfully raised 45 of the 52 scuttled ships, (References B).

However, there are still seven German warships at the bottom of Scapa Flow, and the site has become a popular scuba diving centre (6). The wreck of the WWI battleship, HMS “Royal Oak”
is a protected war grave and is not accessible for scuba divers. It was sunk by torpedoes on 14 October 1939, with the loss of 833 lives, when the German submarine U47 penetrated the then inadequate defences of Scapa Flow.

Peter Maxwell Davies moved to the Orkneys in 1971 and engaged in the social life of the islands, founding the St Magnus Arts Festival, in 1977. Much of it was based in the magnificent cathedral of St Magnus (7) in Kirkwall. Visitors to Orkney are often amazed, as I was, at the sheer size of the medieval cathedral in a small town on a tiny island. This year is the 900 anniversary of the murder of St Magnus, by his cousin Haakon, the Norwegian ruler of the Orkneys in those days.

Many British people today have travelled the world, and visited six of the seven continents, and yet the farther corners of our own islands are often unknown to them. The Orkney Islands are both beautiful and interesting. Three of the most spectacular ancient monuments in Britain are found there; the Ring of Brodgar (8), the Neolithic village of Skara Brae (9), and the enormous earth mound and internal stone chamber of Maes Howe (10).

Perhaps one of the reasons why Maxwell Davies chose to live in the Orkneys was its isolation from the pressures of modern life that are present on the mainland. If this was the case, then he was deceived, as many visitors are, because Orkney is very definitely in touch with modernity. It was the prospect of uranium mining in Orkney which led Maxwell Davies to join a protest movement, and compose a suite of musical pieces with an interlude, (Ref D). “Farewell to Stromness” is taken from the “chanson triste” (sad song)
interlude, and depicts the people of the town slowly walking away, due to the uranium contamination of their homes.


A. A Picture Guide to Orkney, “The Shetland Times”, 1993

B. “Scapa Flow” Wikipedia article

C. Road Atlas of Great Britain, Geographia

D. “Peter Maxwell Davies” Wikipedia article

E. “Exploring Scotland’s Heritage” – Orkney and Shetland, by Anna Ritchie, HMSO, 1985


1. Norwegian sailing ship, Sørlandet, in Stromness (W. Hancox, Reference A)

2. Main Street, Stromness, Orkney Islands, Scotland (Author)

3. Scapa Flow, Orkney Islands, and coast of mainland Scotland (Ref C)

4. View from Stromness, south through Clestron Sound, and Bring Deeps, to Scapa Flow (Author)

5. Scapa Flow, seen from a private slipway in Stromness (Author)

6. Scuba Diving Centre at Scapa Flow, Orkney Islands (Ref B)

7. Cathedral of St Magnus, Kirkwall, Orkney, founded in 1137, containing remains of St Magnus (died 1116) (Ref C – James Weir)

8. The Ring of Brodgar. Its circumference is 1,070 feet (326 m) and 27 of the original 60 stones are still standing, many of which are twice the height of a person. (Ref A, James Weir, 1987)

9. Neolithic house in Skara Brae, occupied for c. 600 years (3, 100 BC to 2, 500 BC). About 50 people lived in the village, and some houses had internal lavatories (Ref A, James Weir, 1987).

10. The mound of Maes Howe Neolithic Chambered Tomb is 23 feet (7 m) high (Author)

11. Maes Howe, interior corbelled stone roof at height -11 feet (3.35 m) (Ref E)

12. Stromness (google images- photographer unknown)

This entry was posted in Alan Mason, Arts. Bookmark the permalink.