Salvaging the German High Seas Fleet wrecks of Scapa Flow

High Seas Fleet
Scapa Flow is a sheltered anchorage in the Orkneys, to the north of the Scottish mainland. During the First World War it was the main anchorage for Britain's Grand Fleet.

After the end of the First World War 78 ships of the German High Seas fleet were interned in Scapa, with some of the original crews aboard each ship. On the 21st June 1919 the German sailors began scuttling the ships and 51 battleships and other vessels went to the bottom of the Flow. The British succeeded in beaching a few ships before they sank.

Between the First and Second World Wars many of the ships were raised in an extraordinary salvage effort.

The potential rewards to the salvors were great. When the battleship Freiedrich der Gross was raised and broken up she yielded 18,943 tons of ferrous metal and 774 tons of lead, brass. gunmetal, copper and other non-ferrous metals. These metals were worth a total of £134,886.

The problem was, how to raise almost 20,000 tons of ship from the seabed.

The solution was ingenious and dangerous.

Long steel tubes containing airlocks were lowered down and welded to the ships hulls by divers. Some of these tubes were over 30m long. Air was then pumped into the hulls to begin forcing out the water. Workers would row up to a tube, climb down the inside, through the airlocks and work inside the ships whilst they lay on the seabed.

Being inside one of these huge ships whilst it was still on the seabed must have been an incredible experience.

When the ships had been made completely airtight more air was pumped in and the ships raised and towed away to be salvaged. The photograph below shows the battleship Von der Tann passing under the Forth Bridge to be broken up at Rosyth. The Von der Tann fought in the Battle of Jutland. She put two salvos of 280mm shells in the British battlecruiser Indefatigable, causing a magazine explosion and the loss of the ship and all but two of her 1,017 crew.

The salvage operation was an arduous and risky business, and there were several fatalities. The full story is told in S C George’s excellent 1973 book 'Jutland to Junkyard'. A total of 26 destroyers, five battle cruisers, seven battleships and a cruiser were raised in the heroic salvage effort.

Not all the German ships could be raised and there are still ten wrecks remaining, including three battleships and four cruisers. I once spend a week diving some of these.

These wrecks, in addition to six other German wrecks, 28 British wrecks, 33 blockships and the massive wrecks of the British battleships HMS Vanguard and HMS Royal Oak, make Scapa Flow a wreck divers heaven. The only remotely comparable site is Truk Lagoon, but it does not have the big ships. Many of the turrets of the German battleships fell out when the ships rolled over as they sank. Some of these turrets weighed over 10,000 tons; heavier than most of the ships sunk at Truk.

The German battleships are so large that it takes several dives to adequately cover each wreck. Often it is hard to tell where you are on a wreck. All three of the battleships are below 130 feet and at the limit for compressed air diving. The development of mixed gas diving has made the wrecks more accessible.

Since the first atomic tests in the 1940s all new steel is contaminated by the radioactivity that is present in the air and is drawn into the furnaces during production. When uncontaminated steel is needed for medical and scientific instruments it can only be obtained from metal produced before the first atomic test. So it is that small amounts of steel are occasionally salvaged from the Koenig to make instruments. Some of these instruments are used in the space program and part of a WWI German battleship has been to the moon.

More images after the break

How university lecturers are chosen

It often comes as a surprise to those outside academia to discover how relatively unimportant teaching ability is considered in many university recruitment decisions. In one institution in which I worked, we took the radical step – resisted by some colleagues – of introducing sample teaching sessions as part of our appointment process.

As the students were leaving, after its first try out, one had a question: “Did you say”, he asked, “this was the first time you’d done this?”

“Yep”, we said.

“So before”, he asked perplexed, “you used to appoint lecturers without checking they could lecture?”

“Yep”, we said.

The cogs turned within his head, and – as if one of life’s great mysteries had finally been solved – he exclaimed: “Ah, well that explains it.”

Philip Cowley, Professor, School of Politics and International Relations, Queen Mary University of London

This is very true. I cannot recall a single instance of an appointments panel checking if candidates could actually lecture [or considering it when promotion decisions were being made].

Only research mattered. That was not acceptable when higher education was free and students got grants. It is totally unacceptable when there are high fees and and students incur heavy debts.

There is a lot wrong with the UK's higher education sector but no sign that the government is capable of making the necessary reforms.

From Raubwirtschaft to Kleptocracy

I am currently reading Michela Wrong’s ‘In The Footsteps of Mr Kurtz’. This excellent book is about Mobutu Sese Seko’s regime in the Congo. Wrong describes this as being a kleptocracy, which means a government by thieves. I looked up the full definition in Wikipedia which gives a number of examples of such states; including Indonesia under Suharto, Peru under Alberto Fujimori, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia under Slobodan Milosevic and Romania under Nicolae Ceausescu.

Following the links in the Wikipedia article lead to Raubwirtschaft, which means a plunder economy, and is a term for a form of colonialism where the goal is purely the plunder of the wealth and resources of a colony with no pretence of "civilizing" or aiding the native inhabitants. The Congo under King Leopold II of Belgium is the foremost example of such a state. This story is largely forgotten now, fortunately for the reputation of the Belgians.

From 1885 to 1908 the Congo was the personal property of King Leopold who maimed and murdered the inhabitants in his attempt to extract as much wealth as he could from the country. About ten million people died in this forgotten holocaust and many others had their arms or legs chopped off.

Australia is often called the lucky country but many others, including the USA and the UK, have been very fortunate in their history and geography. If there are lucky countries, there are also unlucky ones, and the Congo must be the unluckiest. After Leopold and Mobuto there has been a succession of wars. It has been estimated that 3.8 million people died in the Second Congo War [1998-2002]. Whenever we are tempted to moan about some aspects of life in our own countries it is worth remembering the awful lot of people who have had the misfortune to have been born in countries like the Congo.

Forgotten History – Bastides and Burghs

Bastides are small fortified towns which were built in France from the 13th century. Many survive to this day, particularly in Lot and the Dordogne. I have visited several, but I did not understand their significance until I read this Wikipedia article.

Before the bastides were built the peasants either lived in isolated hamlets dotted about the countryside, or in houses clustered around castles or monasteries. The bastides were built to create trading centres. An entrepreneur would set up a bastide and try and attract peasants and traders to it. The deal for the peasants was that once in the bastide they were free and had their own land; the deal for the entrepreneur was that he got to tax the peasants and the trade that the bastides generated. When the peasants had been dotted all over the landscape they had been difficult to tax and it had been hard to get any worthwhile trade going. Trading was much easier in the bastides because they had large covered marketplaces.

I found all this interesting for two reasons. The first is that what had been pleasant places to visit whilst on holiday were the products of medieval entrepreneurship and town planning. The bastides were also major social innovations and part of the decline of feudalism.

The second reason that I was interested in bastides is that that there is something very similar in Scotland. When David I became King of Scotland in 1124 he thought his country was backward, and he started construction of a number of burghs, or trading towns. Forres, Elgin, Crail, Berwick and Lanark are all burghs. The burghs were built for the same reasons as the bastides; to encourage trade and generate tax revenue. Merchants who moved into a burgh were given a feu. These were plots of land of about 25 feet by 430 feet which butted onto the marketplace. In many burghs the older part of the town still follows the original plan and the feus can be clearly seen. Burghs would also have a castle and a tollbooth. The latter was for the purposes of tax collection.

The January 1995 edition of the Scots Magazine has a good article on the Scottish Royal Burghs. There is also this Wikipedia article.

Both the French and the English built bastides in France. The one in the illustration is an English bastide called Monpazier. It was built in the Dordogne in 1284 by Edward I of England.

Dangerous sealife

There are lots of dangerous underwater creatures. The most dangerous is not the shark, as most people imagine. I have dived with sharks many times, and never had the slightest problem. I've even touched several sharks. Probably the riskiest encounter I ever had with a shark was during a night dive in the Red Sea. When we got out of the water my buddy told me that during the dive he had shone his torch behind us, and seen that we were being followed by a large shark. The consoling thought about that was that it would probably have taken him first.

Sea snakes are supposed to be six times as poisonous as the most venomous land snake. Yet we very rarely hear of anybody being bitten by a sea snake. I've dive with them several times and really enjoyed the experience. I once went on an expedition to the Swain Reefs, off Australia, specifically to dive with sea snakes. They're very curious creatures and will come up to you to see what you are and will twist themselves around your body. As long as you don't panic and try and strike out at them there's no cause for anxiety.

The really dangerous underwater creatures are the small and poisonous. Once when I was diving in the Red Sea I was just about to touch a piece of the reef when a passing Israeli diver stopped me. I had just been about to put my ungloved hand on an extremely well camouflaged and extremely poisonous stonefish. If I had touched the stonefish I would've been lucky to have survived.

The crowd of thorns star fish destroys coral reefs. They're been spreading through the barrier reef for many years and they leave devastated areas of white coral in their wake. I used to have the habit of stabbing them with my dive knife whenever I saw them. That stopped when I got a bit of thorn in my finger and was quite ill for several days. I was lucky, I heard of somebody who had to be airlifted off a dive boat to an Australian hospital after they had the same kind of accident.

Even seashells can be dangerous. The 5 inch long geography cone has killed well over a dozen people. I've collected seashells from various places around the world and one of the specimens I have is a textile cone. Once, when I was visiting the Red Sea, someone picked up one of these cones on a beach and put it in in the pocket of his shorts. The creature inside was still alive and bit him through his clothing. He died within 24 hours.

I once had a chance to dive in a lake that had a crocodile in it. I have always been a bit wary about crocodile and wasn't entirely sorry when the expedition was canceled at the last minute when somebody had an accident.

Neville Coleman, the Australian diver, has published an interesting book called Hazardous Sea Creatures. This lists all the worlds dangerous marine life. My favourite is the mantis shrimp, also known as the thumbsplitter. To quote Neville's book "the shrimp's claws are normally carried at the ready folder to beneath the shrimp's head. When hunting, or when defending, these claws can be shot at with extraordinary power and speed, and the been known to crack aquarium glass. They should only be handled if you're wearing heavy duty gloves."

Teach Yersen Scots – NED

Your word for today is NED. It stands for non educated delinquent and is a generic term for the creme de la creme of young Glasgow males. NEDs are greatly admired in the West of Scotland because of their intellectual attainments, cool sophistication and dress sense. They are immensely proud of their title and welcome being addressed as NEDs.

They are very hospitable and, on your next visit to Glasgow, you can be sure of making lots of new friends if you address a group of them loudly and confidently as “Yer fugly wee NEDs”. They will immediately surround you and make sure that your visit to Glasgow is one that you will always remember.

Do not worry if they offer to give you a 'Glasgow Kiss'. This is not an homosexual overture.

Your bonus word was fugly. It means handsome.

Forgotten history - Scotland's Slate Islands

The photo below shows Easdale Island. It lies off the west coast of Scotland, a few miles south of Oban. It is one of Scotland's slate islands. The ponds which dot the island are actually flooded slate quarries. Some of them are over 80 metres deep. Tens of millions of roofing slates were quarried from these pits and shipped around the world. There are Easdale slates in Australia and New Zealand. The island used to be the centre of the world's slate industry.

 There are four slate islands; Easdale, Seil, Luing and Belnahau. Around 3,000 people lived on the islands when the quarries were working.  All the islands [and their quarries] belonged to the huge Breadalbane estate, owned by the Campbells of Glen Orchy.  The Campbells made a lot of money from the slate quarries but not much of it went to the quarry workers. The Campbells used some of the money to build the huge Taymouth Castle.

The Great Storm

One terrible night in 1881  a storm and a high tide sent water over the island.  Livestock was washed away, gardens destroyed, 40 boats lost and the quarries filled with water. All the  machinery and the workmen's tools had been in the pits and were now underwater. Quarrying  stopped and the islanders were destitute.

Two flooded quarries

Easdale island in the foreground. The village of Ellanabeich [on Seil] in the background.

The workers cottages were built of slate. You can see one below.  The ships that came to take away the slates brought soil in as ballast. This was spread on the island to create gardens where vegetables could be grown to supplement the islanders oats and fish diet.

Some mining continued after the great storm, particularly on the other islands. The photograph below shows some of the slate miners from that period.

By 1930 the demand for slate had shrunk, the Breadalbane estate was bankrupt, people moved away to better paid jobs and slate mining ended. For many years Easdale was almost deserted but now the population has increased to over 60 and new houses are being built. It was a lovely summer day when I visited and the island looked beautiful. From the top of the island's hill there were outstanding views of the Firth of Lorn, the other slate islands and Mull. I would imagine it can be pretty bleak in winter.

The old and new houses of Easdale
 A ferry connects Easdale to the village of  Ellenabeich on Seil. That is it in the photo below.

Easdale's main claim to fame now is that it is the home of the World Stone Skimming Championships. The contest is held in one of the quarries.


There used to be an island called Ellanabeich but the entire centre of the island was  dug out [Ellanabeich slates were particularly fine] and the spoil from the workings used to connect the island of Ellanabeich to the island of Seil.

The village of Ellanabeich now stands on that landfill.

Boris Johnson - his words are golden

Boris Johnson has a very good chance of becoming Prime Minister of Britain when the present incumbent, Mrs May, leaves.

The UK's Independent newspaper has just reported that

"Boris Johnson was paid £40,000 an hour for giving a speech to an Indian magazine company, parliamentary records show.

The former foreign secretary received nearly £123,000 for a three-hour engagement with India Today on 2 March. Transport and accommodation were also provided by the New Delhi-based company, Living Media India Limited.

He was also paid £38,250 plus VAT by Citigroup for another two-and-a-half hour speech 10 days later, the register revealed. This means he earned more than £160,000 for the two addresses."


"Mr Johnson, the MP for Ruislip in west London, earns £275,000 a year for a weekly column in the Daily Telegraph in addition to his parliamentary salary of £79,468.

The latest register also shows he received an £8,000 donation from digger company JCB in March. It came a month after another £15,000 donation from the firm and two months after he gave a Brexit speech at its headquarters in Rocester, Staffordshire, in January, when he was given a further £10,000 donation."


The payments were also reported in the UK's Sun, Guardian and Daily Mail newspapers and by Bloomberg.

I have not been able to find any reports in the Daily Telegraph or on the BBC website.

Data Visualisations

A fascinating site showing over 300 physical visualisations of data.

For example -

Worry Beads, one for every year from 1945 (closest in the pic), are scaled at one cc per human life. The volume of each is set by the number of terrorist-caused deaths for that year globally. The whole thing is about 40′ long, the largest bead (2014) is 19″ dia.

The mother [of] Sara Weber knitted this scarf during her daily train rides to work in Munich and used different colours depending on train delays. Every day two rows: Grey, less than 5 minutes delay. Pink, 5 to 30 minutes delay. Red, both rides delayed or one more than 30 minutes. The huge red area was during construction work, where the train was substituted by a bus.

An artwork that represents the cost of health care for different age groups, based on the time it takes for a marble to fall. Each of the 7 runs represents a different decade of life, and the length of the runs presents the average cost of care to the UK's National Health Service, for a person in that year of their life. Each run is constructed from medical equipment. It was commissioned by the British Medical Association and the British Medical Journal to mark the NHS's 70th Birthday on the 5 July 2018, and installed at their headquarters for a month.  There is a video of the artwork's construction.

This ShockWatch tilt indicator can be attached to packages which must remain upright during transportation. If the packet is tilted to either side, the little balls move into the next chamber. The recipient can then later check the degree of tilting the packet experienced during transportation. The upper row indicates tilting to the left, the lower to the right. The ball in the round indicator moves in to the outer torus when the packet is turned over 180°.

A visualisation of the Colorado River from another source -

Paraffin Young and the Scottish Oil Industry - Part Two - Candles and saving the whale

 The first candles were made of either animal fats, such as tallow, or beeswax. Animal fat candles didn't give much light and gave off a foul smell. Beeswax candles were much better but were more expensive. In the 18th and 19th centuries, spermaceti, a waxy substance produced by the sperm whale, was used to produce a superior candle that burned longer, brighter and gave off no offensive smell. They are the sperm candles in the poster. (India candles came from India and were were a by product of boiling cinnamon.)

People wanted good quality candles that were affordable and gave off a  clear bright light. Paraffin candles, produced from shale oil, were the answer. They produced a bright light and were much cheaper than the alternatives. They were produced in very large quantities and reduced the financial incentive to hunt whales.

Shale Oil Retorts
 After James 'Paraffin' Young's patent to produce oil from shale expired in 1862 80 to 120  companies started mining shale and refining oil [though probably some of these companies were no more than two men and a wheelbarrow].

The village of Tarbrax was established to house the workers at the adjacent shale mine. It expanded rapidly.

"A sale notice dated 1870 records a manager's house, 12 workman's cottages and a wooden house capable of lodging 30 workmen. When the site was taken over by the Lanark Oil Company Ltd in 1883, 36 additional double houses were built. Further houses were built by the Caledonian Mineral Oil Company Ltd during the 1890's."

More houses were built later and 1500 men were employed at the site. Oil was taken to Lanark for final refining. The British Oil and Candle Company controlled the mine and the Lanark refinery for a while but over the years they passed though many hands until the industry collapsed, causing much hardship.

There is still a giant shale bing at Tarbrax and many more around central Scotland. The best known are the Five Sisters bings which are visible to anyone travelling between Edinburgh and Glasgow by train.

Paraffin Young and the Scottish Oil Industry - Part One - The Shale Villages

In 1850 James 'Paraffin' Young found a way of extracting oil from coal and shale. This started Scotland's oil industry.  In 1851 Young and his partners built the world's first profitable commercial oil works. That was eight years before Edwin Drake's well near Titusville, Pennsylvania and the start of the US oil industry.

In the years that followed shale mines and oil refineries sprang up all over central Scotland.  The map below shows all the crude oil works which were built during this period.

Thousands of men were employed in the industry, either in digging up the shale for refining, or in the oil refineries. Many villages had to be built in remote locations. The map below shows some of the shale oil villages. The pink markers show the villages that still exist. The blue markers show 'ghost' villages which have been completely demolished.

The industry started to fail in the 1930s, after the development of the oil industry in the USA and other places. It was supported by the UK government during WW2, but collapsed soon after the war ended.

The most visible evidence of the industry that remains are the shale bings. These are the hills of the red shale that remained after the oil had been extracted. This is one near the shale village of Tarbrax.

The most impressive bings are the Five Sisters in West Lothian. Apparently, there is now a sport of 'bing bashing' as people started climbing these bings for fun.

It all starts with disobedience to parents

It's inevitable. It starts with not doing as you are told and is ended by the hangman.

God knows all your sins.

On the other hand, if you are a good boy [or girl] you can look forward to respectable senility at age 60.

If you opt for fags and masturbation you will be finished at 48. 

If you follow Sir Thomas Beecham's advice to 'Try everything once except folk dancing and incest” Lord Satan may claim you sooner [that country dancing is a real killer].

A visit to Saltaire Mill

Saltaire is a cotton mill and workers estate near Shipley in Yorkshire, England. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site and an Anchor Point of ERIH [European Route of Industrial Heritage]. The site consists of several large stone built mill buildings, and an estate of brick built workers houses. The site is next to the Leeds and Liverpool Canal. There is a railway station near the mill.

Saltaire was built by Titus Salt who, like Robert Owen of New Lanark, was a philanthropist who spent a lot of time and effort on improving the lot of his workers.

Wikipedia states that, “Salt built neat stone houses (much better than the slums of Bradford), wash-houses with running water, bath-houses, a hospital, as well as an institute for recreation and education, with a library, a reading room, a concert hall, billiard room, science laboratory and gymnasium. The village also provided almshouses, allotments, a park and a boathouse.” This was at a time when housing conditions in the cotton towns were appalling. You can read more about Saltaire at Wikipedia.

Both the mill buildings and the workers houses appear to be in good external condition. The brick built terraced houses are still occupied. They look to have been well built, and must have been excellent housing for the mill workers of the time.

Most of the mill buildings are closed to the public and occupied by Pace, an electronics firm, apart from several floors of one of the mill buildings which have been converted into shops and a cafeteria.

I was disappointed how little effort was being made to help visitors understand the historical significance of the site. For example, it would have been nice of one of the houses had been furnished as it would have been in Salt’s time and opened to visitors, or for visitors to be able to see inside some of the other amenity buildings that Salt built. There is no mill machinery in the buildings that are open to the public, or any effort to illustrate the mill environment.

In fact, there is little historical information or interpretation, apart from a chronology in one small room. The main management objective seems to be to reduce the costs of maintaining the site by letting the buildings for various commercial purposes.

Perhaps this is partly the fault of the local council don’t seem to be making a proper effort to give financial support to Saltaire, or protect the integrity of the site. They don’t appear to have much idea of the responsibilities that go with having a World Heritage site.

I also thought that the historical heritage was not being properly protected. The houses that Salt built are now in private ownership, and some owners have decided to change key external features like doors and windows. Television aerials have been attached to houses and telephone cables are visible. All these changes damage the integrity of the site. In New Lanark, which is the other UK cotton mill that has World Heritage status all the buildings have a common door and window design and paint scheme, and TV aerials and cables are banned.

At the moment there is little point in visiting Saltaire. There is little to see because you will only be able to view the outside of most of the buildings. The one building you can go into is just shops. After you have been you will not have any better understanding of the site’s significance, or how people lived and worked there. This could be a great industrial heritage site, but at the moment it is not worth a visit. The cotton industry started the industrial revolution in Britain and employed millions of people. Its history should be better commemorated than this.

Tree cover in Europe

Wind resources in Europe

Scotland is particularly well placed to generate power from both wind and tide. Scotland's last coal fired power station [Longannet] closed in 2016. Wind is unpredictable and needs new battery technology before it can be fully exploited. Tidal power is predictable but more of an engineering challenge.

Its the oil, stupid

See if you can guess why the USA is so interested in what happens in Venezuela.

Britons Flee

After the last Roman forces left England and Wales in the fifth century a number of  Germanic speaking invaders [Jutes, Angles, Saxons] started to arrive.

These displaced the Celtic tribes [Britons] which had previously occupied England and Wales, driving some of them west into Cumbria, Wales and Cornwall. The invaders established a number of kingdoms. These kingdoms were later threatened by Viking invaders.

Some Britons chose to leave the country. One group went to Armorica [now known as Brittany] in France. Their descendants are known as Bretons.

A smaller group went to Gallaecia [now known as Galicia] in Spain and founded the settlement of Britonia.

By the 9th century the Danelaw had been established, the Celts driven to the peripheries and only three Anglo-Saxon kingdoms remained.