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16 October 2014

Stromness Dragon

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The Floral Frontline

I had a most exciting adventure recently, I went inside the Ness Battery! Can you contain your joy? Thought not. For the uninitiated and geographically confused, the Ness Battery is a WWI and WWII military installation on the outskirts of Stromness, by the golf course, overlooking Hoy Sound.

Not a golf course bunker

It is surrounded by a 10’ high perimeter fence topped with barbed wire, and it covers about 2-3 acres of land. There are gun batteries, ammunition stores, barracks, officers’ quarters, underground bunkers and vast quantities of corrugated iron and concrete. Best of all is the highly unusual mess hall, but more of that in a moment….

Outside looking in
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A group of Orkney artists (loosely affiliated under the name ‘Untitled’) had this idea of joining up with some writers and see what creative processes were generated. I was paired up with a local painter, whose usual medium is oils on very large canvasses depicting sea, sky, beach debris, and my favourite, the cows in the forest (not inspired by an Orkney scene!). Over some nice soup and a cup of blackcurrant tea we chatted, enthused about Surrealist art and in a roundabout way thought we might like to do ‘something’ inspired by the 20th century legacy round Orkney’s shores.

This sort of thing?

Something stirred in the deep dark recesses of my memory…….I remember a local archaeologist telling me about the Ness Battery mess hall and some paintings on the walls done by the soldiers, vaguely reminiscent of the Italian Chapel (which was painted by POWs in the 1940s). Hmm. We did a bit of research. Turns out the Ness Battery was sold by the MOD to Orkney Islands Council in 2002 for the princely sum of £1.00. A search of the Royal Commission’s website and we had one or two tantalising photos. We got quite excited about this and decided to tap our friends in high places and see if we could get in……..and they said yes.

Shutters rusted shut
<br" >

So, last Tuesday, our local museum curator, writer and story-teller unpadlocked the gates and we drove up the weed-cracked concrete track, through the rusting sheds and abandoned bunkers. As well as the scary lookout tower and assorted concrete buildings there is a collection of half a dozen wooden-clad buildings, grey paint and shutters badly worn. Most can’t be opened as the locks have all rusted shut, but the mess hall door stood open and in we went. It was bright sunshine outside and it took a minute for our eyes to adjust to the gloom within, but after a moment we could see the walls clearly – and what a sight!

Merrie England

Round three of the four walls are painted extraordinary scenes of rural English life, a vision of Arcadia that includes children playing in a no doubt enchanted forest, a colourful gypsy encampment, a thatched cottage containing tea-room and contented cat in the window, and a village street scene with ye olde inne named the Jolly Farmer.

Colourful gypsies

Can you spot the puss?

A quarter of barley sugars please

I spy an oasthouse. Perhaps our artist was a Kentish lad

The signature tells us the paintings were done by AR Woods, but no more is known about this person. Were they an artist in civvy street? There is something quite impressionistic about the paintings, and they are more skilful than a first glance would suggest. Was AR Woods a man or a woman? Were these scenes intended as a backdrop for amateur dramatics? Our museum friend mused that the paintings maybe served to remind them what they were fighting for, even if the reality never really existed.

Tall wooden things with leaves upon them. What could they be?

What we found intriguing was that all the pastoral scenes are filled with the most un-Orcadian vistas, forests, buildings and characters, as if the painter were trying to block out the reality outside of howling gales and the turbulence of Hoy Sound. The wisteria, the cottage roses and the apple orchards were perhaps a protection against a more immediate enemy, a sort of floral frontline.

Chicks for sale!


Notice board, including signpost to the north!

The mess hall is not in a good way. The paint is peeling, the damp is getting in, and the few remaining shutters that still open are rusting fast. There are possibly moves to make the Ness Battery a focal point in the wider Scapa Flow project, perhaps as an interpretation centre. It would be very sad to see this fascinating place rotting away to nothing, but doing what it would take to make it safe and accessible would result in the loss of a lot of its decaying charm.

Not from round here

We took loads of photos and discussed what our next step would be, and we are looking into some sort of projection/performance installation thingy, featuring our photos and some writing. Unfortunately my partner in crime has had to go away for a few weeks unexpectedly, so I don’t know how much we’ll get done, but writing this blog has been a good start towards getting my thoughts on (albeit virtual) paper. I’ll let you know how we get on!

Future visitors centre?

Hoy hills


Update on musical prowess……glad your fpu enjoyed the concert, Flying Cat. The general consensus amongst the performers was ‘not too bad’ – praise indeed from Orkney folk. We’re doing a repeat in the Cromarty Hall in the Hope this Friday. I’m not sure I can keep up this rock n roll on-the-road lifestyle.

Posted on Stromness Dragon at 18:19


Often walked past, never seen! A fascinating foray into another world. I favour the 'leave it to crumble gradually into dust' school of thought on this one - as long as it has been recorded in detail. The idea of art installations is a good one while it still stands, like the ones at Yesnaby last year. Make sure there's a comments book...

Flying Cat from QI

Sadly FC we can't use the actual place for our work, at least not in the state it's in at present. The artwork/writing thing will have to be somewhere else - we're hoping it can be adaptable to different places so we can move it around! Not ambitious or anything, not at all.

Stromness Dragon from a suitable space

That's fascinating, SD!

Barney from Swithiod

Oh I see...I really enjoyed prowling around looking for the little shrines last year...The Quernstone and Emily's house and the campsite all had one or two installed. Pity you can't use the battery though...

FC&Marmers from free range artworks

I would be curious to have a look see - so long as entry is free, and drinks are available to thirsty travellers. How about a fund raiser Riverdance type of concert, SD? Fiddle and dance. Praeludium to the Fank.

mjc from NM,USA

WOW what a find surely this needs to be preserved.

Barebraes from Shapinsay

looks really exciting all these paintings,but did you not feel claustrophobic?? whilst in nz,pascal took me to the ones in devonport(see pictures of guns on one on fc's blogs about my trip i think it was part three) the guns are on the top of a small hill but the bunkers were underground---i only was in for three to four minutes,being claustrpohobic i couldn't go any further,but saw other intersting things concerning the place thank god!

carol from over here

Astounding SD and very interesting. I hope that something so unique is preserved in some way.

Carol from IBHQ

Most of this stuff is above ground, Carol. The mess hall with the paintings is a large hall that could probably seat 100 people or more so no need to feel closed in! It's a tricky one, that preserve-for-future-generations versus record-and-allow-to-crumble. The Battery is a listed building which has legal implications and complications for use. Hey ho! Anyway, thanks for your comments folks!

Stromness Dragon from Underground, overground

in the devonport battery the building which was the offices mess now houses a film show how auckland was created,the first settlers etc and how the battery was built--really very intesesting

carol from sitting by the fire

I have wanted to looked around that place, I wish it had an open day, imagne the solviners!

Martin from Stromness

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