Swanbister beach in Orphir is perhaps not so obvious to find, but once you are down there the beautiful, white, sandy beach suddenly opens up before you. And as if to welcome a playful family on a calm winter’s day, two stone gateposts stand at either side of the entrance to the beach.
While the boys were having fun in the sand and pools of clear sea-water, Christopher and I went up to the high tide line to look at the vast pile-up of interlinked iron rings that was piled all along the upper shore. This “iron curtain” turned out to be the submarine defence from World War Two. The sheltered Scapa Flow was a strategically important harbour in both World Wars, and while some of its entrances were blocked up with deliberately sunk ships and later the Churchill Barriers, others remained as open, but strictly controlled, entry routes. The “iron curtain” hung down from large buoys and could be lifted to allow allied traffic in and out of Scapa Flow.
Another reminder of how the World Wars changed Orkney is the seaplane pier, also at Swanbister. Now only the stone built part is standing, but Christopher remembers there being a wooden surface in his childhood in the 1980s. An ancient sight greeted us there: Cormorants, locally known as Skarfies, were using the pier as a place to sit and dry their wings. Their long, black necks do indeed look like they could do with a scarf, but the reason for the name is that it comes from Old Norse, Skarfr.
In ancient times, Swanbister bay must have provided good shelter for boats. We looked at the road which now runs right along the curve of the shore like a border. There is a marshy area behind the road, which is called The Hubbin. Going by other similar place-names in Orkney such as The Hop (Saint Margaret’s Hope) in South Ronaldsay, and The Hubbet in Egilsay, we deduced that the name refers to the bay being used as a harbour. Perhaps the road now covers what was once an “ayre”, sheltering a place where boats could be pulled up behind it.