Bloody Orkney, Excerpt Six: Author's Note

This book is a work of fiction and should be read as such. Except as noted below, all characters are fictional and any resemblances to real people, either living or dead, are purely coincidental.

Likewise, many of the events that are described in this book are the products of the author’s imagination. Others did take place.

Let’s start with the characters. Some of the military personnel who appear between the pages of this book occupy posts that existed at the time, but nonetheless they are all fictional. This is significant because the military commands and units mentioned were usually doing what I describe them as doing at the time the action takes place, though command structures in all three services have been simplified for the sake of keeping the story manageable.

Minor characters are also entirely invented. Some characters could be associated with real people because of their roles in events that took place, such as the senior officers of all three services in Orkney or the scientists at X Base. Again, the characters who play those roles in this book are not based on their real-life counterparts and are fictional. It is worth saying that this is especially true of some of the senior Royal Navy officers in this book: sadly, a world entirely populated by nice, honest and honourable people would be of little use to a thriller writer.

Group Captain Robert Sutherland is also an invented character, though he has a career in the Royal Air Force that will be recognised by anyone familiar with the life and achievements of Squadron Leader Archibald McKellar, DSO, DFC and Bar. Bob Sutherland’s family background and pre-war employment were very different to Archibald McKellar’s, but the two share an eminent list of achievements during the Battle of Britain. Squadron Leader McKellar was tragically killed when he was shot down on the 1st of November 1940, whereas the fictional Group Captain Sutherland was only wounded when he was shot down on the same day, allowing him to play a leading role in this book and its two predecessors.

And Madame Monique Dubois? She is a fictional alias for a real woman. The real Vera Eriksen, or Vera Schalburg, or take your pick from any number of other aliases, had a story that was both complex and very dark. She disappeared during the war after the two German spies she landed with at Port Gordon on the Moray Firth were tried and executed for spying by the British. One of her two companions was arrested at Waverley Station in Edinburgh, though not by the fictional Superintendent David Sutherland.

There’s a flavour of Monique’s story in the epilogue of this book but to get a fuller picture you need to read my first novel, Eyes Turned Skywards.

Military Intelligence, Section 11, or MI11, was a real organisation which had role in safeguarding military security. Its organisation and other aspects of its operations described in this book are entirely fictional.

The Security Service (MI5) and the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) both existed, and both continue to exist at the time of writing. MI5 did have a Regional Security Liaison Officer in Scotland during the war but the arrangement with MI11 that underpins the story told here is fictional.

Let’s turn to places that appear in this book.

Craigiehall was taken over by the army during the war and later became the main army headquarters in Scotland. It remains an army base at the time of writing.

The North British Hotel in Edinburgh became the Balmoral Hotel some decades ago.

RAF Lossiemouth is at the time of writing the last remaining operational RAF air base in Scotland. The units described as being there in late 1942 were there and were doing roughly what I describe them doing. 46 Maintenance Unit received, finished and distributed aircraft from the factories using Air Transport Auxiliary pilots, some of whom were women. There were times when it had to use fields surrounding the main airfield to store aircraft pending work or awaiting delivery. 20 Operational Training Unit was training young men to fly Wellington bombers at Lossiemouth and was sustaining the horrifying accident rates described. The unit also provided the aircraft that dropped a bomb containing anthrax spores on Gruinard Island on the 26th of September 1942. The idea that some of the anthrax was stolen during this process is my invention.

It follows that X Base at Gruinard Bay and on Gruinard Island was also real, as were the trials intended to turn anthrax into a practical weapon of war. Gruinard House is externally as described here according to online photographs, though the interior is fictional. Today the house seems to be a private residence and that should be respected. Gruinard Island remained contaminated for decades after the war. It was only on the 24th of April 1990 that it was finally declared safe.

Although the activities of X Base are well documented and the film shown to Bob and Monique exists and can be viewed online, the layout and location of parts of the base are more difficult to pin down. The descriptions in this book involve some conjecture on my part.

There is a very real sense in which Orkney has become a major character in this book. Incredible though it seems, all this time later, Scapa Flow was every bit as important to the British war effort as described here and there really were up to 40,000 servicemen and women stationed on a group of islands with an original civilian population of not much more than 20,000.

As far as possible, I have tried to reflect the reality of island life in this book. The Kirkwall Sector Operations Room existed; and continued to do so until fairly recently, when it was, presumably with considerable effort, demolished to make way for a housing estate. The Wrennery also existed, and the name lingered on to describe the post-war housing built on the site of the hutted camp.

It’s been said that if you scratch Orkney, it bleeds archaeology. That’s true. Much of that archaeology is very ancient. But there is a lot that dates back only as far as the two world wars in the last century, especially the Second World War. There are reminders almost everywhere you look, in the form of concrete gun emplacements, brick or concrete buildings, and more. At Lyness on Hoy many wartime buildings have survived, and there is a museum devoted to the subject (which was being renovated last time I visited).

The Ness Battery near Stromness, which features in this book, is a remarkable survivor. The concrete gun emplacements and lookouts are still there, as are many of the wooden huts, including the mess hall, which comes complete with the magnificent murals that so impressed Monique. Guided tours of the battery are available, and I’d highly recommend one if you are in Orkney. I would like to thank Andrew Hollinrake of Stromness Tours for showing me round the battery.

Moving on, the St Magnus Hotel is an invention. There is a hotel next door to the Kirkwall Hotel overlooking Kirkwall harbour, but the St Magnus Hotel featured in this book is not based on it – except for a coincidence of location – and is entirely fictional.

The Kirkwall Hotel was used as a naval HQ during the war, while the hotel in the heart of Stromness was the headquarters of Orkney & Shetland Defences, or ‘OSDef’. Almost everyone refers to it being used at that time under its current name, the Stromness Hotel. However, the most convincing source I’ve seen states that it was called Mackay’s Hotel during the war, which is the name I’ve used for it.

The incident in which Sergeant Peter Bennett stops an army unit driving its Bren gun carriers through the Ring of Brodgar is based on a remarkable wartime photograph showing an army unit doing just that.

The old liner the Dunluce Castle did serve as a depot ship moored off Lyness during the war. It provided a wide range of services but the idea that its sick bay was used as described in this book is an invention.

Those familiar with the Hurliness area at the south end of the island of Hoy may have noticed that I’ve taken some liberties with the local geography. Several other cottages and an old school have been removed to allow the tin cottage in which Bob was held captive to move closer to the end of the Ayre, the causeway linking Hoy with South Walls. Meanwhile the access track to the quarry has been slightly moved. These changes simply make the story work better.

Reference is made in the story to ‘Mo Ness’, near the north end of Hoy. This is called ‘Moaness’ on modern maps, but I’ve stuck with the name used on the 1948 one-inch Ordnance Survey map and on earlier maps.

St Magnus Cathedral continues to dominate the heart of Kirkwall and should be a part of any visit to Orkney. Tours of the upper reaches of the cathedral, including the walkway round the top of the tower, can be arranged and are highly recommended.

I’ve noted above that the widespread corruption amongst Royal Navy officers that forms a key strand of this book is fictional. Having said that, at least one real-world account written by a visitor to the huge wartime canteen on Flotta commented on the money being made from Crown and Anchor games and the suspicion that the authorities were taking their cut.

A word about the title might help set it in context. ‘Bloody Orkney’ is the name of a poem comprising eight (or sometimes nine) stanzas expressing the writer’s unhappiness with just about every aspect of being posted to Orkney. It is usually attributed to Captain Hamish Blair, RN. It is said to have been written by him during the Second World War while stationed in Orkney and was published some years after the war. I have used the ninth, often missing and apparently optional, stanza at the head of the prologue. I have also seen a tenth stanza, said to have been written as a riposte by Orcadians: ‘Captain Hamish “Bloody” Blair/Isnae posted here nae mair/But no-one seems tae bloody care/In bloody Orkney.’

Captain Hamish Blair is said to be a pseudonym of the Scottish author and journalist Andrew James Fraser Blair. The odd thing is that he lived from 1872 to 1935. Did he write the poem during the First World War rather than the second as is usually claimed? Odder still is the suggestion he moved to India long before that war began, so it seems unlikely that he served in Orkney then either. Perhaps we’ll never know. All that is clear is that the poem is said to sum up the feelings of many who served in Orkney during the Second World War.

To conclude, in my view it is the duty of a fiction writer to create a world that feels right to his or her readers. When the world in question is one that is as far removed in so many ways, some predictable and others not, as 1942 is from today, then it is inevitable that false assumptions will be made and facts will be misunderstood. If you find factual errors within this book I apologise and can only hope that they have not got in the way of your enjoyment of the story.