The Pentland Firth lies between the northern
Scottish mainland and the islands of Orkney and has a well-deserved reputation
among the world’s mariners as a channel to be navigated with great care. Twice
every day the tide surges through the Firth from the Atlantic to the North Sea
and back again, and currents can reach up to 12 knots. In the past many captains
and ship owners preferred to make long detours north of Orkney or south by the
English Channel to avoid the roosts and eddies in the Firth.
The Firth itself is not large - around 17
which can serve as its westerly entrance, to the most easterly of the islets
that make up the Pentland Skerries in the east. The gap between Caithness on the
mainland and Orkney varies from 6 to 8 miles, and the islands of
and Swona lie in the channel.
The dangers of the Firth have impressed
writers for centuries. In 1380 John of Fordun wrote that Scotland was bounded on
the north ‘by the Pentland Firth, where a fearfully dangerous whirlpool sucks
in and belches back the waters every hour.’ The Phoenician explorer Pytheas
sailed along the British coast in around 250 BC and mentioned a place called
Orca where there were waves of immense size. A Roman fleet came this way in AD
84: it is recorded that they ‘subjugated’ (unlikely) the Orkney isles but it
is not known how far they sailed. The Norse Sagas also mention the Firth and
provide us with its first shipwreck records.
The Norse period left a lasting mark on the
place-names and dialect of Orkney and Caithness. Some of the tidal features of
the Firth have Norse names - the Swelkie (from svelgr, whirlpool), the Bores of
Duncansby (from bara, wave) - and Norse legends account for the origins of some
During the ebb tide, when the main current
is flowing from east to west, a violent race develops in the western part of the
Firth. This is called the Men of Mey and on occasion the waves can build up to
tremendous heights and burst in white anger, even on a calm day.
The traditional fishing boats built around
the Firth show in their lines their Norse origins. Called yawls or yoles, the
boats are pointed stem and stern and have clinkered planking. In building, the
planking was put in place first and then the shell was strengthened by ribs. The
people used such yoles - from 15 feet to 24 feet in keel, with a wide beam - for
fishing, transporting goods and animals, and for travel. In the 19th century, it
was normal to cost a new boat at £1 per foot of keel. Yoles are rarely made now
but many are still in use a hundred years after they were built.
Charts of the Pentland Firth were inaccurate
and of little practical use to navigators until Murdoch Mackenzie, an Orkney
schoolmaster and mathematician, carried out the first modern survey of the
islands in the 1740s. His maps were published in 1750 and were bought by
merchants all around the North Sea. Thirty copies were bought by the Hudson’s
Bay Company as their ships, on the voyage to the Arctic from London, made
Stromness their last stopping place. After Mackenzie’s work and the building
of lighthouses - the lighthouse on the Skerries, erected in 1794, was the fifth
modern lighthouse to be built in Scotland - encouraged more and more captains to
venture through the Firth, a considerable shortening of the voyage to America
from the east coast of Britain.
During the Napoelonic Wars the Royal Navy
expanded considerably to meet the threat from the French and Spanish fleets. The
Quota Acts passed by Parliament in 1795 required each county to furnish a
certain number of recruits for the Navy but this was not enough to man all the
frigates and ships of the line, and the press gang was active. Orkney has many
stories of men dodging the press gang. The strategic position of Orkney, lying
on the routes used by the Atlantic merchantmen and the Arctic whalers, meant
that it was a fruitful recruiting ground for prime seamen.
Throughout this period privateers - raiders
licensed to attack the shipping of the enemy - were also active. To protect the
British trade with the Baltic, merchant vessels were required to adopt a convoy
system. Longhope on the island of Hoy became the official assembly point for
these convoys. Two Martello towers were built to guard the entrance to Longhope
but by the time they were finished - in December 1814 - the immediate need for
them had passed and they never fired a shot in anger. Now they make interesting
A new lighthouse was built on Dunnet Head,
the most northerly point of the Scottish mainland, in 1831. As the years went by
more lighthouses were added to pinpoint other hazards in the area of the Firth -
on Noss Head (1849), Cantick Head (1856), Holborn Head (1862), Stroma (1890),
Duncansby Head (1924) and Strathy Point (1958). All these lighthouses are now
here for Caithness.org Lighthouse Page
New charts, new lighthouses and better
technology led to merchant captains making greater use of the Firth as a
shortcut from the North Sea to the Atlantic. This in turn led to many more
accidents and to the growth of local pilotage. Fishermen, with their
unparalleled knowledge of local waters, had always served as pilots for passing
vessels but throughout the 1800s this activity reached a peak.
When a ship was in need of a pilot, she
signalled on approaching the Firth. The main picking-up paces were off Noss Head
and Freswick Bay on the east coast, and the area around Thurso on the west.
Pilots also operated from Stroma and Swona and in fewer numbers from the Orkney
side of the Firth. On the sighting of a potential client pilots took to the sea
at once and rowed or sailed as fast as they could to reach her, as the first
pilot to arrive normally got the job. After navigating the Firth, the pilot was
normally put ashore to make his way home on foot or in his own boat which would
have been towed behind the ship in the meantime.
It happened, however, that a ship could not
or would not stop and several pilots found themselves borne away on an
unforeseen voyage. James Miller of Nybster was taken to Ireland in this way. In
1869 James Mowat of Freswick ended up in Quebec. In 1891 David Banks of Stroma
was taken to the Faroes. Another David Banks had perhaps the longest adventure
of this sort - in the late 1830s or early 1840s, Banks was borne to America,
where he signed on another ship for the homeward passage. However, this ship set
out on a long detour via many South American ports and was almost lost in the
Roaring Forties. Banks finally won home after he had been given up for lost by
The number of pilots seems to have peaked in
around 1850. Forty-one men gave their occupation as this in the 1851 census, but
the number was always fluid as it was a part-time, ultimately spontaneous
activity combined with crofting and fishing. Many pilots also lost their lives
in accidents and bad weather. Pilotage in the Firth now is confined to the
professionals who meet and guide supertankers into the oil terminal on the
island of Flotta.
The increased use of the Firth also led to
increased numbers of wrecks in its fierce turbulent waters and severe weather.
The list of groundings and founderings in the Firth is very long. In the days of
sail and before modern forecasting, a single gale could account for several
vessels. Lifeboat stations and rocket companies, using rocket apparatus to fire
lines to ships in distress, were established in various places around the Firth
and these brave volunteers saved many lives over the years. Thurso had a
lifeboat in 1860, Longhope in 1874, Ackergill and Huna in 1878.
The two World Wars (1914-18 and 1939-45) saw
a great increase in shipping activity in the vicinity of the Firth, especially
as the Royal Navy established its major base for the Home Fleets in Scapa Flow.
The Firth now is arguably a quieter place
and seldom now does a full-rigged ship appear from the haze to navigate the gap.
An echo of former times happened, however, in the summer of 1997 when the
full-size replica of Captain James Cook’s ship, the Endeavour, sailed west
through the Firth. The Firth is still a busy channel and much of the shipping
between northern Europe and North America passes through it today, about 6,000
vessels of all types per year.
The sea is as tricky as ever and the saga of
the Firth goes on.
John O'Groat Ferry Company
Ferry from John O'Groats To Orkney - Company
also runs bus tours of Orkney.
Pentland Ferries -
From Gills, Caithness to St Margaret's Hope Car Ferry - shortest route for
Northlink Orkney and Shetland Ferries
Took Over Contract From P & O in 2002 a much larger Ferry will take
over the route when the new
Scrabster Pier was completed in 2003
See Pictures Of The Ferries