The start of the Gills Bay soda-ash trade that lasted for almost a century, annually employing around 50 persons.
The Far North’s first non-food product of national importance utilised seaweed growing on Gills Bay’s 200-metre-wide inter-tidal zone as a raw material. It was first air-dried, and then molten in peat-fired kilns and cooled to produce solid blocks of alkaline soda-ash, which could then be easily smashed into smaller pieces.
Soda-ash was a key semi-manufactured commodity used in the early stage of Britain’s — and the world’s — first industrial revolution, involving mainly textiles.
Soda ash was crucial in the creation of liquid chemicals, used in making fast-dyes, and in making soaps for cleaning wool prior to spinning and weaving. It thus played a key role in the foundation of a UK chemicals industry. Soda-ash was also crucial for mass-produced glass-manufacture.
The trade utilised species of algae growing profusely in the broad inter-tidal zone and cut in a three-year cropping rotation. Gills Bay was by far the most important centre in Caithness for this trade, with many hundreds of tonnes being won annually.
The seaweed was hand-cut by adapted sickles (made by local blacksmiths) wielded by womenfolk from summer dawn, often up their thighs in icy sea-water, with wind-driven rain-showers blasting in their faces. The men-folk were the kiln operatives and had to first cut peat and let it dry and then transport this fuel from the moors south of Gills.
Some cargoes were sent directly from Gills Bay on coastal schooners that were beached for loading, with navigation instructions provided for entering the head of the bay. In transport, the mid-18th century bridges over the two burns of Gills belong to this era.
The Mediterranean-origin salt-loving (halophyte) plant “barilla” became readily available after the end of the lengthy wars involving Britain in the 18th century extending to Napoleon’s era. It produced purer soda-ash than did inter-tidal cropped, dried and liquefied seaweeds.
Saw the first powered ship transiting the Pentland Firth. The steam ship Tug was built on the Clyde and was sailed in October for her roles in the Firth of Forth as a towing vessel for barges, also carrying passengers.
Only 73ft (22 metres) long, this paddle-steamer was too large for the canal linking the Firths of Forth and Clyde, and so Tug became the first ocean-going steamship when, eastward-bound, she rounded Cape Wrath and headed for the Pentland Firth in October, 1817.
The passage of steam ships through the firth became common during the 1870s, although commercial sailing vessels were still seen occasionally until the late 1930s.
For a full hundred years from the late 18th century, any company-owned windjammer had to be piloted through the Pentland Firth by highly-skilled local seamen. London maritime insurance underwriters would not cover vessels transiting the firth, unless a local pilot was engaged. He took over the vessels’ captain’s navigation duties for the duration during her passage though the firth. Until the 1870s many ship-masters were un-certificated.
Pentland Firth pilotage helped the free flow of merchandise though the firth, a “choke-point” for international trade routes from NW Europe to North America, whist provided regular contacts with ships’ officers from various cultural backgrounds, as well as providing an income for locally-based seafarers for generations.
The latter part of the 19th century was “the golden age” for cod-fishing by hand-line in the Inner Sound and Pentland Firth, with literally hundreds of men working from yoles at this trade.
Steam-powered trawlers, especially from Aberdeen, became common-place from the 1890s onwards and eventually killed off the local hand-line trade as a commercial venture, by over-fishing both the eastern and western approaches to the Pentland Firth.
The adoption of seine-nets (a type of trawl) by a massive fleet of hundreds of smaller wooden boats from all around the Moray Firth in the 1920s/30s added to the over-fishing there.
…was the year in which the 150 yard-long (136 metres) Gills Bay Pier was built, after a local 20-year campaign. Previously there had been only a (dry at high water) tiny loading stage, probably dating back to the soda-ash export years (ended in 1816) or even earlier.
In the mid-1890s, The Congested Districts Board was formed by the government and its remit was restricted to (Scottish) crofting parishes where small-scale agriculture was incapable of supporting the (then) present population. Canisbay and Dunnet parishes were included.
The board, chaired by the Scottish Secretary, was supported by public money and had the specific remit of broadening the economic base of such crofting districts. This included harbours and piers construction, providing guarantees for advanced tele-communications (electric telegraph lines) and improving crofter’s livestock, by using pedigreed animals.
The board played a crucial role in the funding of Gills Bay Pier in 1905 by providing one-third of the money, with a further similar investment from Caithness County Council, with local folk making a comparable input.
Using a modern construction-industry “inflation comparator”, the contract price was around £1.2 million in today’s terms.
The structure was intended as the first phase in a “steamer terminus for the Orkney trade”, with the second (and potentially more expensive) stage to access deeper water set to commence in 1914. But the onset of the Great War intervened and “postponed” it — for some 80 years!
In the late 1930s, as war with Germany loomed for the second time, the Admiralty decided to again use Scapa Flow as its main home-waters base, just as it had done 20 years earlier in the Great War. The sheltered “inland sea”, off the Pentland Firth, provided deep waters and ready access to the North Sea as well as to the Atlantic.
But events of early in WWII meant that the physical geography of southern Orkney was altered for ever, to the advantage of the Pentland Firth’s ancient “short sea route” at its narrowest eastern end, where Gills Bay lies.
Top RN brass ignored warnings from junior officers about the fatal vulnerability of the 120-square-mile sheltered anchorage in 1939.
In darkness on the 14th October, 1939, the Germans scored their first major naval victory of the conflict. Daring Commander Gunther Prien sailed his U-47 through a gap in the Kirk Sound block-ships. Firing three torpedoes, he sent the anchored 31,000 tonne battleship HMS Royal Oak to the bottom. The sinking of the 620ft (189 metre) 25-year-old capital warship, a Battle of Jutland veteran, cost 833 lives, out of the 1,234 complement on board.
First Sea Lord Winston Churchill made an early visit to the scene of the disaster and ordered that the 1.5 miles (2.3 kms) of four separate strongly-tidal sea-channels between South Ronaldsay and the Orkney Mainland to be permanently closed forthwith, although the scheme was officially described as causeways “linking the islands”.
Civil engineers Balfour Beatty won the contract to construct the Churchill Barriers to block off the eastern entrances to Scapa Flow. Work got under way by May.
Labour was initially in short supply till over 1,300 Italian PoWs, who had surrendered in North Africa, were shipped there in batches from early 1942. From October 1943, after Mussolini has been ousted and Italy changed sides, the Italians became employees, but were still forbidden to leave the islands until the job was completed.
Over 250,000 tonnes of local quarried broken rock was enclosed in “gabion” baskets to form the heart of the causeways, while 66,000 locally-cast concrete-blocks of 5 and 10 tonne sizes were randomly laid as wave-screens on the causeways’ sea-facing sides.
This massive civil engineering project, carrying the A961 route through South Ronaldsay and Burray and linked to Kirkwall on Orkney’s mainland, is arguably Orkney’s most positive legacy of the 1939-1945 conflict.
It held out the prospect of a shorter trans-Pentland crossing becoming a main sea-route in Orkney, although that took some years to materialise.
May 3rd, 2001, was a significant day in the story of Gills Bay.
It saw the start of scheduled passenger and freight (ROPAX) services by Pentland Ferries Ltd, the private family firm with Andrew Banks as its managing director. It operates from land and foreshore belonging to GHL and leased to Pentland Ferries, that also rents adjacent seabed from the Crown Estate.
The thrice-daily service (four round trips in summer months) 15 miles to St. Margaret’s Hope is now (by far) the most commercially successful (Scottish) mainland to offshore island group ferry sea-link.
It was inaugurated by the 70-metre, 2,400 tonne Pentalia B, a “drive-through” (i.e. could be loaded from both ends) Roll On Roll Off (RO.RO) ferry, built 31 years earlier in a now-closed shipyard at Troon, on Scotland’s Ayrshire coast. It was dubbed a “cheap and cheerful” crossing, in a travel-guide of the era.
A stream of private investments by Pentland Ferries in extensive, modern, sustainable facilities at Gills and in ships for the route has continued since — and is continuing — to a total value of some tens of millions of (GB) pounds.
Works at Gills, including innovative re-cycling of two redundant floating dry-docks as breakwater/berths, have been largely carried out by a Gills-based Pentland Ferries direct-labour squad.
It has employed local men there continuously year-round since 1999. Only specialist tasks or supply of manufactured components have been sub-contracted, most notably “deep-water” dredging. The latter was needed to create a level seabed base for receiving the dry-docks, prior to those being externally and internally strengthened and being ballasted down by the dredged rock-spoil and for extending the width of the ferry entrance channel.
Pentland Ferries Ltd used the skills of world-leading twin-hull (catamaran) marine architects from Australia to purpose-design Pentalina (built 2008) for Pentland Firth conditions.
The “South Pacific” catamaran-vessel concept has proven to be of world importance during the past few decades for many mercantile and naval applications.