The Hackness gun battery is tucked away on the southeast tip of Hoy, an island in the Orkneys archipelago overlooking the infamous Scapa Flow. I spent two seasons excavating the site in 1997 and 1999. Historical research for the project revealed an incredible sequence of historical events which caused this site to be constructed and maintained in one of the most isolated spots in the United Kingdom.
The High Island
Hoy is a fascinating place. The name is derived from Norse Haey meaning ‘high island’. It is the second largest island in the archipelago with an area of 143 square kilometers. The southern end of Hoy was originally a separate island but has been connected by a causeway. The gun battery was situated on this southern area known as South Walls.
The history of the gun battery
The battery was constructed in the early 19th century along with two associated Martello towers as a response to potential threats from privateers due to British conflicts with Napoleon of France and the USA. Following heavy shipping losses around Scotland including 42 ships in Longhope sound at Hoy in July 1810, it was decided to defend a harbour which would allow ships to gather safely and await armed escort. The construction of the battery was confirmed in June 1813 and work commenced in July due to the imminent threat from privateers to the very lucrative Baltic trade. Sir Walter Scott visited the site in 1814 and commented that eight guns were present but the defences had still to be built. The battery, complete with two Martello Towers, was finished in 1815. The only other Martello tower in Scotland was built at Leith, the harbour of Edinburgh. By the time the battery was complete Napoleon had been defeated at Waterloo and the Treaty of Ghent had been signed to end the conflict between the US and Britain. The 1815 battery therefore never saw action.
Following a failed invasion of Canada by the Fenian Brotherhood in 1866, it was decided by the Admiralty to redevelop the Hackness battery in case of invasion from the USA. The Fenian Brotherhood comprised Irish exiles who had served in the American Civil War and gained a wealth of experience of military know how. Their attempt at invading Canada was intended to gain ports from which they could invade Britain and win independence for Ireland. As a result the eight 24-pounder guns at the Hackness gun battery were replaced by four 68 pounders. Again this threat never materialized and the guns were never fired in anger. In fact the only reference to the use of the guns was one day of drill by the Orkney Volunteer Artillery in 1890.
My excavations at Hackness
I led a team of archaeologists on two seasons of excavation at Hackness; 1997 and 1999.
Season 1 – November 1997
Our first season of excavation involved the excavation of the magazine. The magazine was a massive building set into a deep depression in the ground. We had no access to mechanical diggers in our remote location so it was hard physical work. Nothing is wasted in Orkney so the magazine had been used to store ‘useful’ stuff. We removed everything from tractor wheels to anti-submarine netting from magazine. The magazine was an incredible structure with walls surviving to a height of four or five feet. The walls were designed, through variations in thickness, to direct an explosion to the rear of the battery away from the accommodation should the munitions explode. The magazine could hold up to 350 barrels of powder so this was a considerable worry for the gunners. Internally the floor was raised on low brick foundations which allowed air to flow beneath the powder store which kept the powder dry. All the fittings were brass as brass doesn’t spark. A small room at the rear of the building also served as the entrance. This was known as the ‘shifting room’ which was used to move powder kegs safely.
Season 2 – June and July 1999
Our second season of work focused on the gun platforms and the external defences. The gun platforms were located behind massive defences which consisted of a large rampart with an internal retaining wall and an external glacis. The large foundations for the 1866 guns had largely destroyed evidence for the 1815 emplacement. However the remains of parts of the foundations of the two southernmost gun emplacements were identified. This evidence suggested that the 24 pounder guns were mounted in wooden traversing carriages which rotated on a central pivot at the front and which were set on wheels at the rear which moved along semi-circular tracks. The guns would have fired en barbette (over the rampart rather than through embrasures).
The 1866 guns were much larger. They were also mounted on wooden carriages which had wheels front and back. The trenches for the stone foundations which held the tracks for the wheels were identified during excavation but unfortunately the foundations themselves had been removed. The rampart was remodeled at this time to take embrasures through which the guns could fire while giving a great deal of cover for the gunners. Large blocks of stone which still sit on the ground adjacent to the gun platforms served as anchors for ropes used to move the guns.
We also investigated the perimeter defences on the landward side. This consisted of a six foot high wall with an external two foot deep ditch. This was interesting as it could be easily scaled. The barracks block which was located centrally within the complex had gun slits and would have been the only refuge in case of an attack from the land as the large guns could not be rotated. However the Martello towers at Hackness and Crockness would have provided a significant deterrent to a land based assault.
Our post-excavation research identified two admiralty charts at the National Archives which clearly depict the 1815 battery and the 1866 battery. These are incredible full-colour documents which set out the original plans for the battery. The surviving building and the results of the excavations indicate that the plans were followed almost flawlessly by the 19th century builders.
The Battery Today
Following on from our excavations the gun battery was partially restored by Historic Scotland and the site is well worth a visit for anyone travelling to Orkney. A working gun has been mounted on a traversing carriage on the Hackness Martello tower while the barrack room has been refitted to 1866 standard and the magazine and defences are all accessible. The site also has fantastic views over Scapa Flow and is a great location to get a feel for Orcadian life. X