RNAS Twatt

The Control Tower sits amidst the remains of the airfield at RNAS Twatt

My usual archaeological zone is quite a long time ago. I’m happiest immersing myself in the world as it was in the millennia immediately after the last ice age. But, given my overwhelming curiosity about how life was lived in the past, I’m also interested in other periods. One of the fascinating things about archaeology is the way in which the commonplace and familiar can become heritage. You could argue that the archaeological resource is always accumulating.

So it was that I found myself on a sunny autumnal afternoon surrounded by neatly clipped grass and a range of concrete and brick remains. Orkney has an interesting twentieth century history, one significant part of which was taken up by the strategic role of the archipelago during the two world wars. The use of Scapa Flow as the main British naval base is well known. This brought a considerable number of forces personnel to the islands and, of course, there were many wartime buildings. Four airfields were operational here during the second world war: one lies under the present airport; one is now an industrial estate. The other two lie on agricultural land and one of them is particularly well-preserved. Step forward HMS Tern. It was common practice to use local parish, or post office names, hence Royal Naval Air Station Twatt; the parish kirk of Twatt may be seen on the hillside not far away.

The operational history of the airfields is fascinating and has been well researched. Accounts from those who served here help to bring the remains to life. But it is the buildings that grab me. Archaeology in the making. Some comprise little more than a floor plan, simple foundations equivalent to the footings of a Bronze Age roundhouse, or a Viking drinking hall. Others are upstanding, a few have roofs. All bear mute testimony to the people who once played out their lives here. You can hear the applause in the cinema and dance hall, catch operational details in the control tower and imagine the buzz of the generators in the power houses.

The brick entrance building of the cinema. The foundations of the main auditorium, which seated 250, stretch out to the left.

HMS Tern is slowly being conserved and brought to life by the Birsay Heritage Trust. It is a brilliant project. It is possible to walk around the site, but so much better to take one of the guided tours they offer. On a tour it is possible to enter the Control Tower and other buildings, see original photographs, hear the stories, and really get a grasp of the place.

The Control Tower is truly evocative

Wartime archaeology is nothing new, though you could argue that the heritage of the wars of the twentieth century is a recent addition to the archaeological repertoire. Perhaps we are only starting to give it its proper place up here in the north. Perhaps it is more a recognition of my own shortcomings that I’ve only just visited the site. Orkney has a fantastic range of well-preserved remains, many of which can be visited very easily. Some like the Italian Chapel are well-trodden tourist sites, others such as Ness Battery are getting more popular, a few like HMS Tern are just starting out. Many are to be found off the beaten track.

The islands are known for their prehistoric remains. And I love them. But it is nice to realise that the archaeology here is not static. There is a great wartime story to be told as you drive around, there are sites to be visited. It is a great reminder that heritage is truly for everyone.