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The Climate of Orkney - the Great Storm of 1953

In January 1953, Orkney was battered by one of the worst storms in the islands' recorded history.

Although some 2,300 people perished across Britain and the Netherlands during the so-called “great storm”, miraculously, no one was killed in Orkney.

But the hurricane winds changed the face of the islands, ripping away chunks of land from around the coastline.

Floods and the highest windspeed ever recorded in Britain at the time – 125mph – reduced roads to rubble, demolished buildings and felled trees, causing up to £50,000 worth of damage in Kirkwall alone.

Only a year earlier, the 120 mph winds that struck Orkney shores on Tuesday, January 15, 1952 , were initially estimated to have cost £1 million. Families were made homeless, but again, miraculously, everyone escaped serious injury.

However, the population of hens in Orkney was not so lucky. Henhouses were overturned and smashed to splinters, and in some cases blown out to sea. Dead birds were strewn everywhere. In Rousay, they were picked up by the barrow-load.

Fisherman recalled hearing the squawking of hens under the cover of a henhouse floating out to sea. According to them, the birds lived, for a time at least , in the sanctuary of an air bubble.

But the morning of Saturday, January 31, 1953 , was to give away nothing of the chaos that lay ahead, for it dawned crisp and calm. National news reports said the hurricane led to widespread flooding on the North Sea coastline as a depression deepened, moving south-west between Norway and Scotland .

The Orcadian newspaper of Thursday, February 5, 1953 , reported that: “Gigantic seas in the harbour tore open the sea front and in little over three hours crumpled the sea wall and washed away the roadway along the entire length of the Ayre Road , and also in Shore Street , where water, gas and oil pipes were laid bare.”

The sea front damage alone was estimated at more than £25,000, while Kirkwall 's water main was dislodged, cutting off the supply to the town and flooding Junction Road .

An eye witness at the time, Mr Peter Baikie, of Orkney Builders, saw the sea front wall disintegrate. He was quoted in The Orcadian : “Three tremendous seas were responsible for the wall's destruction.”

Mr Baikie saw the waves strike and the wall disappear in a smother of foam. When the water cleared he saw the wall had disappeared almost the whole way along. It was the collapse of this wall that brought about the destruction in the vicinity of the Ayre Hotel and other buildings.

The sea wall also gave way on Shore Street and while the water washed forwards and backwards a huge hole was carved out of the road, exposing water pipes, electric light cables and gas mains.

The houses all along the sea front took a battering, but as soon as the weather eased, people were out barricading broken windows against the next high tide.

Many small boats sank or broke adrift; more than 100 trees were felled at the Berstane plantation; chickens perished as henhouses were overturned and phone lines were ripped down.

The West Mainland Mart building in Stromness was reduced to “matchwood” and many of the people who dared to venture outside suffered minor injuries as the wind quite literally took the feet from under them.

A wind recording instrument at Costa Head in Evie in the West Mainland recorded “a sustained wind – not a gust – of 125mph” during the storm.

With a morbid fascination, people flocked to Kirkwall from outer areas to catch a glimpse of the devastation. Motorists from the West Mainland had to be re-routed around the Peedie Sea to enter the town.

Shipping, air and bus services were brought to a standstill, while the steamer St Magnus, which had been berthed in at Kirkwall pier, had to take shelter in the nearby Inganess Bay until the next day.

However, the picture earlier in the day painted a very different story as The Orcadian reported: “At 5 o'clock on Saturday morning a bright moon sailed through the gently moving clouds of a fine calm winter's day. At Kirkwall harbour the sea lapped gently against the pier, the St Magnus had berthed after a very fine run north from Aberdeen .

“Everything seemed normal in a sleeping world and the only indication of the storm to come was a dropping glass – but there were few people in the islands awake to see that.”

The newspaper continued: “An hour later at 6am , the wind had got up a bit and was blowing at 20mph while the barometer remained steady until 6.30am when it began to rise and continued to rise rapidly all day with the wind.”

By 7am the wind was blowing from north-northwest at a mere 40mph, with occasional gusts of 52mph. An hour later, when some thought the worst had past, the wind dropped to around 33mph. But this was, quite literally, the calm before the storm, while it gathered strength for the full onslaught.

By 8.20am , the wind was averaging 51mph and gusting up to 67mph. As the morning continued the weather worsened, reaching a peak around 10.30am, according to the Grimsetter Airport Met Station, when the average speed was 80mph, with frequent gusts of up to 107mph – the highest their speed instruments could record.

The wind remained strong until the evening, but temperatures dropped from 41 degrees F to 33 degrees F with a combination of wind, sleet and snow showers.

Throughout the days to come, work began restoring the roads and it became obvious that the damage was not as bad, as that of the previous year.

The 1953 storm was the second time in a year that Orkney had been devastated by the power of the weather. Back in January, 1952, the hurricane was at its height between 4.30am and 7.30am when most of the damage was done.

Many people were wakened by the noise and likened it to a small earthquake.

Than, when dawn broke, much of Orkney looked as though it had been hit by an air raid, with slates torn off roofs, windows shattered, walls demolished and chimney cans lying everywhere. Many wooden huts, which had been converted into homes were hardest hit, and, in many cases, flattened, rendering their occupants homeless.

Stromness suffered heavily, receiving the full brunt of the south westerlies. In the Stromness churchyard, 49 tombstones were knocked down and in Firth hundreds of trees at Binscarth, outside Finstown, were felled.

Farmers across the islands faced a battle to feed their cattle, as most of their haystacks had been blown away or damaged. In some cases, cattle were injured when their byres collapsed on top of them.

A sign of the devastation was the single message sent from the Stromness Town Council to the Scottish Secretary:

“Storm damage situation desperate. Urgently requested top priority materials and feeding stuffs for farm stock. Financial assistance imperative for housing and farmers. Emergency measures necessary immediately to ensure earliest restoration of milk, egg and beef production.”

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