A rare military site dating back to the height of the First World War remains virtually untouched on an exposed headland at Burray Ness, on the Isle of Burray, south of Orkney Mainland. Constructed at some stage between 1914 – 1918 (most likely in around 1915 when the scale of defensive construction was increased in preparation for Scapa Flow sheltering the Grand Fleet), this isolated outpost may have formed the first line of ground defences against any opportunistic German aircraft seeking to investigate or cause damage to the British warships.
Despite being over 100 years old, the site is remarkably untouched. There is a solitary standing building, the ammunition magazine, but clear clues in the form of concrete gun positions and foundations to the other buildings on site. Little formal research has been conducted into this unique site, so in this article I seek to interpret the site from my own collection of contemporary engineering manuals and through comparison to other known sites.
Table of Contents
Sited 800m east of the nearest settlement on Burray (map 1, Ordnance Survey 1:25 000), this early anti-aircraft site almost stands alone as the solitary dedicated anti-aircraft defences to the east of Scapa Flow. It was constructed at a time when the world was coming to terms with the use of aircraft as weapons, but neither side had an adequate means of countering such a threat. While a large range of weapons, mostly from ships, existed that were potentially capable of the job, none had sufficiently accurate fusing to effectively detonate at a preset altitude, nor were the existing shells capable of producing an effective burst pattern of shrapnel optimised for damaging the aircraft. As this development work continued, static sites were constructed in coastal regions of Great Britain, predominantly in the south of England around London and the River Medway.
The headland at Burray Ness is boggy, much as a result of being a thin layer of soil on top of bedrock. There are few natural features, and the exposed plateau on which the site was constructed sits at around 10m above sea level.
At the time of the First World War, the Isle of Burray was very much that. An Island, separated from the Orkney Mainland by a passage of water, and from its larger sister island South Ronaldsay also by a sound of water (map 2, Ordnance Survey 1-inch). After much deliberation in the War Department, Scapa Flow was selected by the admiralty as a suitable deep water anchorage to protect the Grand Fleet in time of war. Almost immediately a rapid building programme was initiated, including the construction of anti-submarine booms, coastal artillery batteries, anti-aircraft defences and ships were sunk in all minor passages of water effectively blocking hostile vessels from entering the Flow. Burray Ness was a key of this defensive plan.
Looking at the site as a defensive one, there does not appear to be any measure for the land protection of the site, nor the protection of the crew from air attack. There is speculation that an irregular wall to the south of the domestic site may have served that purpose, but this is unlikely. Sites of a similar date in Ireland were considerably defended against the threat of land invasion, and the contemporary anti-aircraft site at Lodge Hill in Kent had a defensible blockhouse. This is most likely to the air threat at the time being greatest from reconnaissance aircraft and not those carrying out airborne attacks. It is of course possible that any temporary defensive structures may have weathered away, such as sandbag machine posts or firing positions built up from peat turfs. There may have been, and I would say it is highly likely, that the site would have been surrounded by a form of wire entanglement; of which any remains also appear to have been removed.
Viewing the site from the air (map 3, Ordnance Survey aerial photograph) shows the tangible remains and also places the local site in the context of the environment. Two circular concrete gun emplacements are most easily recognisable, sitting to the east of the site (map 3, point 4). Associated with the gun positions is the ammunition storage magazine (map 3, point 1), a possible searchlight or rangefinder plinth (map 3, point 2) and supports for an unknown building (map 3, point 3). There is a also a domestic site where the soldiers (more likely marines or sailors as this was likely a Royal Navy operated site) would have lived, this is centred around point D on map 3 below. I have drawn a plan of the site (map 4) and given some more explanation of the structures below.
|A||Track – A single width trackway leads from the farm at Little Ness north east to the anti-aircraft site. It is clearly visible on the aerial photographs and can be followed most of the way. The presence of a track indicates that resupply to the site was across land; likely in the form of landing parties from ships in the Flow landing on the west of Burray and making their way by cart or truck east.|
|B||Cookhouse – The most significant remains on the site are of the large timber building that once stood here. It is likely that this building served as a communal area including kitchen and dining room. To the north end of the building appear to be two smaller concrete pads, but without clearing the ground it is not possible to ascertain if these are part of the main floor surface or are indeed separate.|
|C||A dry stone wall or irregular shape. This was likely constructed to protect the domestic site from the prevailing wind and weather.|
|D||Parade and barrack block – The centre of the domestic site appears to have been stripped of soil and turf, perhaps to make the ground less boggy for soldiers to walk over and to work on. There are signs of laid stone pathways as well as low raised banks of earth. To the south of this area are a number of concrete slabs. These are most likely the base for stoves inside the otherwise timber framed barrack block.|
|E||Incinerator – A part of the site I didn’t manage to visit, but one which I can offer an interpretation of based on a site survey conducted in 1997 (Canmore) and through research into military engineering practice of the time. I believe this to be the site of the incinerator for disposal of waste. Further evidence is presented later on.|
|1||Magazine – The stone built ammunition magazine, the only standing structure on the site.|
|2||Searchlight (pos.) or rangefinder (pos.) – A circular concrete base with five point holdfast. This has previously been identified as a searchlight position, however I feel the concrete base is too small for this purpose. It may instead be the base for a height / rangefinder. An optical device for calculating the range and height of approaching aircraft.|
|3||Unconfirmed – An unusual array of concrete foundation posts. Each one has evidence that a timber beam was once laid across it, as well as a single fixing point in each one. Neither their arrangement nor the alignment of the timber beams is indicative of a traditional timber frame building.|
|4||Gun positions – Two larger circular bases each with a holdfast of eight fixing points. These are the gun positions, possibly for a Vickers 3-pounder Quick Firing (QF) gun on a pedestal mount, in service with the Royal Navy at the time. An alternative may have been the earlier Vickers 1-pounder “pom-pom” gun.|
Surprisingly a contemporary image of the site exists, held in the Naval Historical Branch archives. It is believed to date from 1919, after the sites closure. I have taken a copy from the wonderful and informative book Orkney at War: Defending Scapa Flow by Geoffrey Stell for the purpose of comparison and study. Spending some time on site with John (Orkney Exploration) we managed to match the ground in the 1919 image to the remains today. You can see a comparison of the sites below (image 1).
Domestic site interpretation
To provide for the occupation of a site by troops, for a considerable time, the materials for the construction of huts are usually supplied under contracts made at the seat of Government. A uniform design for the huts of one type is adopted, and all the parts of huts, with tools for their erection, are delivered in parcels marked in a manner that will facilitate distribution.
It is important that the contents of all packages should be clearly marked on the outside; and the materials for the construction of each hut such as nails, hinges, fastenings, &c., should, if possible, be made into one package.Military Engineering (Part V) Miscellaneous, 1914
Building A – Willesden Paper Hut
No trace of this structure appears to remain in the landscape today; at least not that is easily discernable. From examining the photograph closely, I am confident that the building is a wood framed hut clad in Willesden Paper. A waterproof product manufactured by Willesden Paper and Canvas Works Ltd. that I can only image was like modern roofing felt. Two characteristics lead me to this conclusion:
- The fabric of the building appears warped in the photographs, indicative of a lightweight covering sagging between the wooden studding of the structure.
- It is the only building on site that appears to be lashed down. Perhaps because it was much lighter than the corrugated iron and timber structures elsewhere.
As for the use of this building, it would have offered only rudimentary weather protection; akin to a rigid tent. It does appear to be surrounded at ground level by a low bank, possibly built up from turfs. This would certainly have increased its resistance against the elements. If a searchlight was available on this site, it may have been mobile, and this may have been a shed to protect it. The presence of a substantial track to the site is indicative that vehicle access was possible, if not frequent.
A final theory on this structure, is that perhaps the bank is a circular emplacement for a searchlight or sound ranging device, and the structure is designed to be removed when operational. It would explain why it is lightweight and guyed down.
Building B – Corrugated iron utility building
Pictured right is a 5-bay structure, constructed out of galvanised corrugated iron, with a sloped roof angled towards the camera. Numbering the bays left to right, 1 to 5, numbers 1 and 2 are open fronted. Bay number 2 appears to have a piece of machinery inside and a flue or exhaust extending from the front vertically to the height of the eves. Bays 3, 4 and 5 are closed and do not appear to have front opening doors.
Almost a process of elimination led me to a likely purpose for this building. Rarely would latrines or ablutions have been in the same block as the accommodation. And on a site like this, semi-permanent in nature, with no mains facilities such as electricity, water or sewage, it would have been rudimentary to say the least. It’s possible then that this may have been the latrine. Probably a simple bucket type at a site like this, with all waste being disposed of in the incinerator (possible location identified on map 4, point E).
Without being able to identify the machinery in bay 2 it is hard to confirm, but the lack of substantial floor almost excludes this from being a garage or generator house. It may simply be a water boiler for baths or showers and to provide some heat to a drying room. Wool and cotton uniforms must have performed woefully in the Orkney climate.
Without plumbing or mains sewage, latrines (toilets) would probably have been something like this. One of the duties on camp would have been to remove the buckets and empty them daily. On this exposed site it is likely that all waste was burned in the incinerator.
Building C – Corrugated iron hut
A busy looking structure (image 7), this would have been the accommodation block. Most likely housing a mixture of officers, non-commissioned officers and other ranks, this appears to be reflected in the unusual layout. It also appears that sliding or folding shutters have been fitted over the large window apertures. There are at least 2 doors visible, and there may be been at least one further porched door, and a possible storage lean-to or additional door at the right end. The colour of the walls suggest this was also constructed from galvanised corrugated iron.
Water butts are also visible at either end of the building (image 7), collecting rainwater for bathing and washing clothes. It would not have been trusted to drink, but may have been boiled or used for cooking. A well is marked on the modern Ordnance Survey map (map 1) but it’s not know if this had been discovered at the time the camp was built. It is also over 500m from the camp and carrying water back would have been a daily drain on manpower.
This plan of a married quarters from Fort Dunree in County Donegal looks remarkably similar to the building at Burray Ness. Possibly a standard pattern of prefabricated building that was shipped to the site and then modified. Or maybe Burray Ness did indeed have a married quarters?
The building is constructed on a raised area of ground, likely to prevent the ground water from making the accommodation damp. the two large ventilators along the roof, identified as hail proof ridge ventilators (image right) would have also helped reduce damp by forcing air flow around the block.
Building D – Timber hut
A large timber clad building that likely served as the hub for the camp. With a concrete floor still remaining, it was constructed to have a high volume of traffic and to accommodate more weight than a timber floored accommodation block. There is a large flue extending from the gable wall closest to the camera, and this will be coming from a solid fuel range or cooker. The presence of two doors on the gable end indicates that the building was separated into smaller rooms, which may have included accommodation for other ranks.
It also appears that there may a telegraph cable entering the far side of the building. In the era before widespread and portable radio use, telegraph was the most reliable method of communication. It is likely that inside this building there may have been an operations room, communicating with observers providing early warning of aircraft approach. I am certain this is a telegraph cable and not a flue because there is the faint shadow in the image of what I believe was the outrigger or cable bar at the top of the pole.
Water butts are also visible along the side of this building.
A number of almost identical wooden huts still remain at Bisley Camp in Surrey. Entrances would originally have been at both ends of the block and the single room building could have slept between 20 and 30 men.
While not captured in the photograph above, the incinerator would have played an important part in the operation of the site. I will elaborate here why I believe this enclosure to be the incinerator.1Without visiting and investigating I can not be certain, I am basing this assessment on contemporary documents and the evidence recorded elsewhere.
The final disposal of kitchen-garbage and camp-refuse is a matter of great difficulty, particularly on field service. The location of the place should always be outside the inhabited area, to leeward of the prevailing wind, and remote from the source of water supply.Excerpt from the Manual of Elementary Military Hygiene, 1912
The structure identified in the 1998 hand sketch and survey of the site appears circular in structure, with three openings equally spaced around the perimeter. Comparing this location with the prevailing wind conditions of the site indicate that for the majority of the year the wind is pushing off the land, away from the domestic site. The position at the furthest tip of the land is as far as they could get from the accommodation, and as such very suitable for the position of an incinerator.
The trio of images below show the evidence that led me to this conclusion. The top left drawing is a hand sketch attached to the Canmore record (collection No. 1065312), which includes an irregular circular structure to the east of the site. In fact this structure is as far east as it could be. The sketch appears to show an earth bank with up to three breaks in the banks, approximately 60 degrees apart. The image on the right is an image from Military Engineering (Part V) Miscellaneous dated 1914 for a camp incinerator. The design is certainly similar to that found at Burray Ness. Finally, the bottom left image is a plot of the prevailing wind on Orkney. The greater the size of the slice, the more frequently the wind blows from that direction. As the Manual of Elementary Hygiene states, refuse should be disposed of as far outside the inhabited area as possible and to the leeward of the prevailing wind. This location satisfies both requirements.
Permanent anti-aircraft sites of this era are rare. I mean super RARE. As the Historic England listing for a fantastic example at Chattenden (Lodge Hill) in Kent states2Listing record “Contemporary survivals are extremely rare nationally, one example is located on the breakwater at Portland in Dorset and another may survive on the Chatham Lines in Kent, but the Lodge Hill Battery, as well as its claims to primacy, is probably the best surviving example nationally of First World War date.” I would hazard and say that comparison between these sites and Burray Ness is unhelpful but the significance placed on them is, by association, also placed here.
Guns for air defence were limited during the First World War, and while air power was still developing, and the risk was primarily to strategic targets on the east coast of southern England, it was deemed sufficiently strong that during the fortification of Scapa Flow in preparation for the arrival of the Grand Fleet, that a permanent anti-aircraft site was also constructed here. As this task probably fell almost exclusively to the Admiralty, it seems appropriate that the guns deployed were naval in origin and likely came from the deck of a ship.
While accommodation and ancillary buildings are well documented, in fact I have many manuals covering their construction in great details. Details regarding the layout and construction of gun sites such as this are virtually undocumented.
The series of images below display a range of guns pressed into anti-aircraft service during the war.
- Lewis Gun – Primarily an infantry weapon, the Lewis Gun is a .303″ calibre, magazine fed machine gun which would have been capable of engaging low flying aircraft. It could fire 500 rounds per minute, a distance of 800m but was limited to a magazine of 47 or 97 rounds. In an anti-aircraft battery such as Burray Ness, weapons like the Lewis Gun or the Vickers below would have been secondary and used almost in a self-defence role.
- Vickers Machine Gun – The big brother of the Lewis Gun, the Vickers also fired the .303″ cartridge, but had an effective range out to 2,000m. Belt fed, each with 250 rounds, a higher sustained rate of fire could be achieved. But the capability against aircraft was very much similar to the Lewis Gun.
- Quick Fire (QF) 1-pounder (Pom-Pom)3Confusingly the 2-pounder gun was also nicknamed pom-pom. – A gun with a mixed reputation, the 37mm calibre machine gun could fire its 450g shell over 4km at a rate of 300 per minute. The shells didn’t have sufficient fusing to detonate on thinner aircraft bodies, and the shrapnel when they did detonate was insufficient to cause great damage. Despite being deployed widely across the UK as an anti-aircraft weapon, they were soon replaced.
- Quick Fire (QF) 3-pounder – With the image above showing a deck mounted 3-pounder in Royal Navy use being used as an anti-aircraft gun, it warrants inclusion in this list. A lightweight gun it could only achieve a 25 round per minute rate of fire, but had a more impressive range throwing a 1.53kg high explosive shell a distance 4,500m.
- 13-pounder 9 cwt4cwt stands for hundredweight; the equivalent of 112 pounds or 50.8 kg. In armoury terms it refers to the weight of the barrel and breech. 9 cwt would be the equivalent of 460 kg. – After disappointing performance with the 6 cwt (3-inch) 13-pounder guns, it was decided to adapt 18-pounder (3.3-inch) field guns to take a smaller shell, but keep the standard cartridge; giving greater velocity and range out to 5,800m.
- 3-inch 20 cwt5cwt stands for hundredweight; the equivalent of 112 pounds or 50.8 kg. In armoury terms it refers to the weight of the barrel and breech. 20 cwt would be the equivalent of 1 ton. – Initial issues of the 3-inch gun were provided by the Royal Navy from warships until custom manufactured anti-aircraft variants came into service. The 3-inch gun could fire up to 18 rounds per minute at an effective range of 4,900m and it soon became the primary air-defence gun in service.
Converting deck guns into an anti-aircraft role involved few modifications, but the most distinctive was the requirement to high-angle pedestal mounts. These facilitated the firing of the guns at near vertical angles in order to track and fire at aircraft. From my research this modification appears to have simply been a steel cylinder that extended the normal circular deck mounting of the gun and raised it higher to facilitate the operator standing behind it at the higher angles. They would have been simple flanged tubes that could have been fitted at the time of constructing the gun site before the guns were installed; one end end bolted to the ground and the other to the gun mount. Evidence of this mount remains on site.
At Burray Ness there are two circular concrete positions on this site, each one approximately 4.5m (15 feet) in diameter and containing 8 complete or partial bolts for mounting. A circular indentation remains in the concrete centre where what is assumed to be a pedestal once stood. The indentation indicates it was laid before the concrete had set.
It is unlikely that the positions were left exposed like this after construction. I would speculate that while nothing remains on the site today, that a sandbag enclosure would have surrounded each emplacement, and that facilities for a ready supply of ammunition would have been available to the crews on each gun.
Piecing together the estimated date of construction of the site (1914-1915), the likelihood that guns were deployed to shore from naval vessels, and the circular impressions in the concrete from a pedestal, I would predict that either QF 1-pounder or a QF 3-pounder guns were installed here at Burray Ness.
Constructed for the storage and protection of the ammunition, the magazine the one non-prefabricated building on site. Semi-sunken into the ground and surrounded by an earth bank and topped with a layer of soil, the magazine walls have been built with local stone and concrete and it measures 6m long x 4m wide. The roof is made from cast concrete, presumably reinforced with internal steelwork but not confirmed. It is supported internally by a series of steel beams laid at approximately 1m internals over which a ceiling of corrugated iron was laid. External wooden shuttering was constructed and the main concrete roof slab of cement and stone aggregate was poured. There is a slight camber in the roof to prevent water gathering, and a single air vent has been added to the centre of the magazine for ventilation.
There is a single door to the front of the magazine, facing south towards the two gun positions, and a single half height window at the rear. There does not appear to have been facility for any electric light nor any external recess for a paraffin lamp. While it was generally bad practice to mix naked flames in the form of cigarettes or lamps with ammunition, ammunition of this calibre was cartridged, with a greatly reduced risk of accidental ignition. Ammunition inside the magazine would have been stored in wooden crates prior to use. A steel explosive filled projective held in the end of a brass cartridge containing the propellant. It is unlikely that access to the magazine would have been required at night.
Magazines of this nature were not designed to stop a direct shell hit, but would have been classed as splinter proof; preventing the hot shrapnel from nearby bombs or shells exploding (and small arms fire) igniting the explosive ammunition inside.
The door and window have long since been removed, so it’s not possible to know for certain what they looked like. The example (left) is the original First World War era steel doors from a blockhouse or early pillbox at Lodge Hill anti-aircraft site in Kent. That site was constructed as a permanent and fortified site, unlike Burray Ness, but to preserve the integrity of the magazine here heavy doors such as these may have been fitted.
Searchlight position (pos.)
A single, circular concrete emplacement sits close to the domestic site, on the south side of the irregular wall. It has been recorded as being 3m in diameter. There do not appear to be any fixing bolts, but there are three equidistant square depressions in the concrete, suggestive of a narrow tripod frame, and what could be ia possible anchor or other tie down in the centre.
In the 1997 Moore and Wilson record of the site on Canmore they recorded “a single gun emplacement lies to the immediate WSW of (the concrete blocks). It is located 10m from the coast edge and has a diameter of 3m.” It has also been described by Geoffrey Stell in his book Orkney at War, Volume 1 as “a circular platform mounting possibly associated with a searchlight.” I find both of these suggestions inadequate and will offer an alternative interpretation:
- Machine gun mounts in the anti-aircraft role were typically mounted on pillars or pedestals, many improvised. Tall tripods were unstable and not commonly used until the Second World War. A machine gun in the ground defence role would not have required an emplacement such as this.
- Searchlights for anti-aircraft defence were large and required significant infrastructure for their operation; a generator and gas. While it was possible that a generator was housed in the corrugated iron utility shed on the other side of the wall, the mounting seems unlikely for a searchlight. I have also not found examples of only single searchlights being deployed.
- With limited accommodation on the site, additional crews for either crewing a separate machine gun or searchlight position would have been highly unlikely.
I offer the interpretation that this position was for a rangefinder or height / rangefinder tripod. A range of devices were needed to estimate the range to the aircraft, the height it was flying at, as well as predicting where to aim. It was also imperative that observations of the shots being fired were taken to adjust the aim and bring the shots on to the target.
Image © IWM Q463 Royal Horse Artillery anti-aircraft section, 1916
A wildcard suggestion, may be that the emplacement was for mounting a sound locator. Other than visual identification, there was no early warning of aircraft approach other than by sound. Sites in Kent and the South of England would probably have been fed with information from observers on the coast when aircraft were approaching, but Orkney would likely have had no such luxury. I imagine the relentless wind may have made a sound locator such as this redundant, but all options are work considering.
Image © IWM Q64635 sound locator from the Imperial War Museum collection
Unknown concrete blocks
The final area of the site to interpret is a curious series of six (only five were visible on my visit) concrete blocks. Each block is approximately 30cm square, made from cast concrete, with a horizontal indentation across the top, and a central metal fixing point. Six blocks are laid out in a cross configuration. The top of each block is narrower than the base, probably as a result of the casting process, but each block may have supported a wooden frame around the top. The central fixing would have secured a structure on top to the blocks.
It has been suggested by Moore and Wilson as a result of their 1997 survey that this “may be a barrage balloon mooring site.” In isolation I may understand the rationale behind this decision, but given the proximity to the guns a balloon would have hindered their operation. The infrastructure and additional crew required to operate a balloon would have also been highly unlikely given the limited size of the site.
What is more likely is that the small plinths were the base for a wooden platform or small building. Image 13 below shows concrete foundation pillars for a building in the grounds of Camber Castle. If they are in fact all still in situ without any having been removed, their cross shaped configuration is perplexing.
In the interests of suggesting a hypothesis for the purpose of these blocks, they may have been constructed to support a wooden platform that I have called a director platform. Raised off the ground, and isolated from the ground vibrations of the guns firing, this wooden structure would have sited the rangefinder or sighting scope. It is certainly close enough to the guns for commands to be passed easily, and it is upwind so any smoke produced from firing the guns did not obscure the observers view.
Site visit gallery – August 2021
On a very misty day in August 2021 I visited the site. I had not planned during my main 10 day visit to Orkney to come here, but after my flight was cancelled due to low visibility (you can see how bad it was in the photographs) I met up with John who offered to give me a lift here. It is off the beaten path, and while not as glamorous as many of the brutalist structures from the Second World War on Orkney, this certainly holds the most secrets.
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- 1Without visiting and investigating I can not be certain, I am basing this assessment on contemporary documents and the evidence recorded elsewhere.
- 3Confusingly the 2-pounder gun was also nicknamed pom-pom.
- 4cwt stands for hundredweight; the equivalent of 112 pounds or 50.8 kg. In armoury terms it refers to the weight of the barrel and breech. 9 cwt would be the equivalent of 460 kg.
- 5cwt stands for hundredweight; the equivalent of 112 pounds or 50.8 kg. In armoury terms it refers to the weight of the barrel and breech. 20 cwt would be the equivalent of 1 ton.