Scapa 100 - Lost futures and hidden pasts; the journey to Peace-Land

Mimir’s Well By Gabrielle Barnby, MLitt student at Institute for Northern Studies

A hundred winters have passed since the arrival of the German High Seas Fleet in Scapa Flow. The ghost ships will sink again on the 21st of June, water will flow into imaginary voids, gunshots will silently sound as men swim for their lives and tons of metal will again find their way to the ocean floor. A dramatic day will be remembered, a day when physical ruin uniquely embodied the post-war emotions of confusion, guilt and revenge.

But what purpose does our remembrance serve? Why do we recount the sinking of the fleet? Why last November did we scratch figures into the sand that would be washed away with the tide?

I first began writing Peace-Land in November 2018, after attending the Remembrance Sunday parade. The released birds, the pipe band and the young people placing their wreaths all played in my mind. Later, I participated in Pages of the Sea on Scapa Beach as the portrait of Robert William Taylor was etched on the sand and finally I watched with a small crowd in silence as The Great War: an Orkney Memorial Experience was projected onto the cathedral wall. Our spaces were transformed by physical action that embodied memory.

 In the ceremony and remembering hard facts wait in ambush. In World War One, sixteen million military personnel and over twenty million civilians died. And it is hard to continue after writing those words. They are an abomination, words that should never be brought together.

How is it possible to open the mind to these events without retching? How can anyone remember with integrity and grace? But later, as dusk settled and lamps were lit and Douglas Montgomery played fiddle as the crowd quietly gathered around an image soon to be taken by the tide I saw a glimpse of possibility. But the question that had disturbed my equilibrium and my complacency, and my relentless comfort would not sleep.

It is painful to remember grief, far easier to recall anger. But here was a community deliberately pulling at the strings of time to find their grief again, to voluntarily connect to feelings of loss. It was an act of courage that echoed past acts of bravery. It struck me, and still does, that there are involuntary acts of courage and endurance in war that are infrequently commemorated, for whom there is no parade.

If we are to remember the dead we must include the lost lives of refugees and the civilian bystanders who have no medals, or graves, or descendants. We have a duty to remember the damaged lives for whom homecoming was unbearable. We must remember the lost futures.

Remembrance cannot be done in isolation. It cannot be done without acknowledging the conflicts that followed World War One or the conflicts that still continue. It must recognise our responsibility for arms financing, development and production. The machinery of conflict is woven into our economy – in 2017 the UK won defence orders worth £9 billion, and the long term costs of defence policy remain ongoing. Since 1980 the storage of obsolete nuclear submarines has cost the UK £500 million, each one will cost nearly £100 million to be decommissioned.

The process of remembrance means connecting personally with someone from the past, to their dreams, visions and nightmares. In these shared places of darkness we search for handholds in the present. We recognise our safety and the outstretched arms of a community that seeks to console, love and support.  We stand stretched between two worlds and in this moment feel the value of peace, and inspiration to work for peace.

The number of crewmen who originally arrived with the fleet in November 1918, was just under 20,000. A series of repatriations in December substantially reduced the crews. How overwhelming it must have been to watch men leave and remain behind. The simple record of one man going missing after the departures strikes hard. The avoidable suffering and despair is touching in an acutely personal way. It is a moment that is hard to look back on.

The safety of the crew in the Flow after the atrocity of war became an interminable incarceration. Photographs of the weather-beaten seamen on deck in dirty, threadbare clothes, hold particular poignancy. The result of poor food, shipped twice monthly from Germany, restricted movement and censored communication led to conditions of utter demoralisation and squalor.

In A Crowd is Not Company Robert Kee writes about being captured and becoming a prisoner of war. With acute self-awareness he describes the development of his own petty jealousies and the erasure of personhood through boredom, lack of agency and enforced proximity. It is impossible to fully appreciate what it is like to be in such a situation, there are only glimmerings of understanding. However, everyone can relate to waiting. It might be for a day, a month, a year or longer. The crew were waiting for something that reasonably had to happen. The conditions for peace had to be decided, but their constant delay must have been intolerable. Waiting was infested with doubt, disbanded logic, and any mind would struggle to hold firm.

In mid-winter, a winter whose darkness the Bavarians among the crew would never have known, darkness becomes possessive, unyielding. Confined to their vessels with deadly Spanish flu aboard their daily lives were close to the stuff of nightmare.

During the negotiations at Versailles the fate of the German High Seas Fleet played a significant role. It has been suggested that the exercises undertaken by the First Battle Squadron on the day of the scuttling were more than coincidental and provided a tacit opportunity for a third way to be found for the disposal of the fleet.

Peace-Land is neither a historical account nor a drama. The poem presents a series of connections between the past and the present, inviting the listener on a journey. My reflections, halting and insufficient as they were, eventually led to a hundred verse poem of remembrance. Sometimes for weeks nothing at all would be added, but as the months passed the verses grew.

Although inspired by the past the work demanded to be part of the present. Moments as fleeting as a particular bank of cloud rolling across Inganess Bay or one man on a spring morning shrinking beneath the sublimity of the universe exist alongside the tangible events of history. The poem reached for emotions from the past without being sentimental and strove to find integrity when contemporary events continue to undermine hopes for peace.

Remembering the futures that were lost or damaged, and the inheritance of an altered world also raised questions about those who remain vulnerable. The recognition of the continuing truth of conflict as we experience grief allows for a way forward that is more conscious of the incompleteness of peace.

The poem will be shared in its entirety on Thursday 20th June, 6.30pm at St Nicholas Kirk, Holm. Proceeds will go to The Friends of St Nicholas who are working to restore the building for wider community use. Original artwork from Ralph Robinson that was directly inspired by Peace-Land will also be exhibited. There will also be musical performances and a unique chance to hear a section of the poem in German translation from Andrea Freund. The journey from remembrance to reflection and response is not easy, openness to emotion is not easy. However, the transition between war and peace provides a space to look from one to the other and in this new perspective think and feel anew.


Gabrielle Barnby is currently studying an MLitt Highlands and Islands Literature.

More information on her work can be found on line at:

Peace-Land is available in The Orcadian bookshop and other local outlets.


Further reading

A Crowd is Not Company, Robert Kee, 1947

The Orcadian Book of the 20th Century, Howard Hazel, 2000

Scapa100 Commemoration:

Stories from Scapa Flow:

Action On Armed Violence:

Pages of the Sea:

The Great War: