The Ghosts of Swarbacks Minn

My fourth and final post about the naval heritage I visited during our recent holiday in Shetland…

By complete coincidence (honest!), our rented cottage looked out directly over Busta Voe, at the head of the Swarbacks Minn anchorage. During World War I, this was the base of the Tenth Cruiser Squadron, responsible for enforcing the maritime blockade on Germany by patrolling the great North Atlantic gaps. The squadron initially operated the elderly Edgar-class cruisers, but these proved unable to cope with the sea conditions and were swiftly replaced by larger and faster armed merchant cruisers, which then formed the squadron until it was withdrawn in 1917. These were ships like HMS, formerly RMS, Oceanic, once the largest ship in the world, although her service proved to be brief: she was wrecked on Foula on 8 September 1914, and one of her propellor blades now stands sentinel outside the Shetland museum in Lerwick.

The propellor blade from the Oceanic

Quite a lot of information about 10CS’s operations can be accessed easily online, for instance here and here; there’s even a freely accessible doctoral thesis on the subject.

There’s now relatively little extant evidence of the one-time naval presence in Swarbacks Minn, but it doesn’t take much imagination to visualise the great grey hulls lying in this extensive stretch of water, which is over 100 metres deep in places, and several local history books and pamphlets contain some excellent photographs of the anchorage in its heyday. (One example illustrates this news story, about the local bakery that was established to supply the squadron.) Busta House, commandeered as an officers’ mess and shore headquarters for the admiral commanding 10CS – initially Sir Dudley de Chair – is now a very pleasant hotel, where we enjoyed a good meal.

(Today’s ‘not a lot of people know that’ fact: de Chair’s granddaughter is the wife of Tory MP and arch-Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg.)

Busta Voe and the Busta House Hotel

Most evocative of all, though, are the gun emplacements on the island of Vementry, which stands on one side of the entrance to the anchorage. These still have their original six-inch guns in place; they were originally part of the armament of HMS Gibraltar of the Edgar-class, which became the depot ship for the base after her withdrawal from front-line service. We only viewed the guns from the opposite shore, on the island of Muckle Roe. It’s apparently possible to land on Vementry and inspect them close-up – see the photos here and here – but, sadly, it’s out of bounds in May, which is lambing season in Shetland!

The guns of Vementry

I’ll be exploring the history of the Swarbacks Minn base, and many other aspects of Shetland’s naval heritage, in much more detail in an article in the autumn issue of Dockyards, the newsletter of the Naval Dockyards Society. And we’ll definitely be returning to Shetland!

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