by Christopher Gee, Kirkwall, 2020
I decided to make this low relief stone carving in Orkney flagstone for this winter’s exhibition at the Pier Arts Centre, open from the 28th November until the 24th December. It and all the other artworks, which are for sale, are made by people in Orkney.
My cousin Johnnie Meil from “Dyke End”, on the western coast of Scapa bay, died earlier this year (2020). He was born in 1924 and lived at “Dyke End” his whole life. Johnnie loved beachcombing, the sea and particularly the 20th century history of Scapa flow, much of which he had witnessed first-hand from “Dyke End”. He saw the Home Fleet return annually to Scapa bay between the wars and Scapa Flow’s role as a naval base in WWII.
Johnnie’s sheds were crammed with interesting fragments, many of which were kept because they could be handy, but I think a lot because they each told a story. There were wooden bits from boats and ships that Johnnie had beachcombed, given from the sea near his house, also many other metal fragments which he had kept, bits and pieces that had come from the sea during salvage work. I like to think about the meanings and stories that objects gather and I tried to imagine what they meant to Johnnie.
Many people remember Johnnie speaking about and telling stories of the ships and bustle in Scapa Flow. I think the one event that I remember him speaking about most was the sinking of HMS Royal Oak with the loss of 835 lives out of a total crew of 1,234. Johnnie had seen Royal Oak anchor in Scapa Bay a few days prior to the night of 13th-14th, October 1939, and had seen her in the bay as the evening light faded. That night Royal Oak was torpedoed, turned over and sank in a few minutes. In the morning it looked to most people like the Royal Oak had just left the Flow.
The horror of the Royal Oak’s sinking is made up of many stories of tragedy and lost dreams but there are also stories of kindness, hope and great deeds. In the quietness of Dyke End now I thought back to all these events just a short distance away. I was particularly moved by the story of the Daisy II, an old steel steam drifter that was tied up alongside Royal Oak as her tender boat. John Gatt was the skipper of Daisy II and had a crew of five. They had begun to get steam up and get the drifter ready shortly after the first torpedoes struck. As the Royal Oak began to list over Skipper Gatt ordered Daisy to be cut free. Despite this Daisy II was lifted up her side and out of the water eventually breaking free and plunging onto the water only minutes before the Royal Oak turned over and sank completely. As soon as Daisy hit the water Skipper Gatt began blowing the whistle to indicate her presence and when her lamps were lit survivors in the water began singing “Daisy, Daisy give me your answer do” to attract her attention and keep up moral. It is said that Gatt “was as calm as if he was on a milk round, just giving a little touch of the engine every now and again and hauling anyone aboard who came paddling past.” When the Daisy eventually headed towards the Pegasus, an old seaplane carrier, which was anchored farther to the north, she had 386 survivors aboard, packed into the boiler room, holds and cabins, standing on engine room casings and holding onto the rigging. Injured lay on the decks. The Daisy was only seventeen feet wide by about one hundred feet long. Spilled fuel oil from the survivors’ clothes was later seen halfway up the funnel. Skipper John Gatt was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his remarkable cool headedness and skill in saving so many that night. He and his crew were all civilians.
A plaque was placed in Daisy’s wheelhouse in recognition of her part in the rescue of so many lives. Daisy II continued as a drifter after the war but was scrapped in 1950, that legendary boat.
The green buoy marking the resting place of Royal Oak and so many men and boys is clearly visible from Johnnie’s house.
I find the story of Daisy II and her crew very moving and wanted to represent her as a most special Scapa Flow legend. Some of the inspiration behind the way Daisy is depicted on the stone must be from the old half ship models that portrayed beloved ships.
The words “AUS SEE” down the side of the sculpture are from a brass tag off a German Fleet ship that Johnnie was involved in the legal salvage of during his work. I tried to reproduce the same font as the original plaque. It translates as “From the sea” which I thought was very appropriate considering it and many of the stories and objects Johnnie had were “from the sea”.
The rounded object above the Daisy II on the sculpture is a representation of part of a brass washer Johnnie acquired legally from HMS Vanguard as part of his work alongside Arthur Nundy. It has various words stamped onto it including the word “PORT”. I thought as well as representing this object rising “from the sea” it could look like a life ring in the sculpture. So on the sculpture we end up with the complete legend “from the sea to port” which also represents Daisy’s part in helping so many from the sea to an eventual port of safety.
These are some of the legends of Scapa Flow from “Dyke End”.