The Freedom of Orkney has today been bestowed on the Royal Navy Northern Diving Group, in recognition of their long association with commemorating those lost in the sinking of HMS Royal Oak and in keeping the Orkney community safe through the safe disposal of modern and historic ordnance, including torpedoes and mines.
The nomination was put forward by Councillor and Convener of Orkney Islands Council, Harvey Johnston, with the support of six other Councillors, and was agreed unanimously by the 20 elected members present at today’s (5 May 2021) General Council meeting.
Speaking after the meeting, Convener Harvey Johnston said: “The Northern Diving Group have been indispensable over decades now in helping commemorate one of the most significant tragedies ever to have taken place in Orkney. That is on top of their service to our citizens in safely removing ordnance which every so often is found by members of the public. They really are friends of Orkney and I am certain they will carry this honour proudly.”
Scotland based Royal Navy Clearance Divers have a long history with Orkney. Available records show that they have been visiting the Island for over 40 years, with the most poignant connection being HMS Royal Oak. It was the Northern Diving Group’s predecessor unit, Scotland and Northern Ireland Clearance Diving Team, that recovered the Ship’s Bell in 1982. Since then, as a mark of respect, Clearance Divers have taken on the responsibility to annually change the White Ensign; Northern Diving Group (NDG) has carried out this role since it was formed in 1995 and intend to continue to do so.
Records also show that NDG and its predecessors have attended Orkney to support the Police and Coastguard on 145 occasions – as recently as 28 April this year - safely disposing of a range of modern and historic ordnance.
Councillor Stephen Clackson spoke at the meeting in support of the nomination, citing a personal connection: “My uncle, Ordinary Seaman Ronald George Clackson, was one of 835 men and boys who went down with HMS Royal Oak on the 14th October 1939, shortly after his 20th birthday.
“I have attended many of the memorial services held each year at Scapa on the anniversary of that fateful day, at which the Northern Diving Group plays a key part. Each year they inspect the wreck of the ship and replace the white ensign attached to her stern with a new one.
“The old ensign is presented, often to a family member of one of the sailors lost, at a reception hosted by the Kirkwall Royal British Legion, held after the service at Scapa, each year.
“I am sure I speak on behalf of all the ‘Royal Oak families’ in supporting this nomination to confer the Freedom of Orkney on the Royal Navy Northern Diving Group.”
“Northern Diving Group are hugely honoured that the nomination for the Freedom of Orkney has been approved by the Council,” said Lieutenant Commander Mark Shaw, the Commanding Officer of Northern Diving Group.
“I am very aware that this type of award is not often issued and reserved for individuals or organisations with particularly close links with Orkney. To be only the twelfth recipient of the Freedom of Orkney is a distinct privilege and both myself and the team at NDG are very much looking forward to receiving the Freedom.”
Royal Navy Clearance Divers have long established links with Orkney going back at least 40 years. Not only has Northern Diving Group and their predecessors helped keep the population safe by providing expert help in disposing of historic ordnance washed up on the island’s extensive coastline, but they have also been involved in commemorating those lost during the sinking of HMS Royal Oak at Scapa Flow, helping to maintain Orkney’s history and heritage.
Captain Chris Smith, Naval Regional Officer Scotland and Northern Ireland, said: “I am absolutely delighted that Orkney Islands Council has honoured the Northern Diving Group in this way.
“The Royal Navy’s association with Orkney is a very special one and transcends both the many historical events that have happened in these waters, but also through our contemporary operations around Orkney, including the safe disposal of old ordnance.
“We are indebted for the friendship and support shown by the community over many years.”
The 39-strong team of divers, stationed at the Royal Navy’s Base in Scotland, HM Naval Base Clyde, also provide bomb disposal expertise to other communities across the length and breadth of Scotland, as well as Northern England and Northern Ireland.
The team covers a coastline of over 12,000 miles and in 2020 they attended some 140 call outs across their area of responsibility, maintaining military aid to civil authorities even during the height of the coronavirus pandemic.
When not on task, members of the Northern Diving Group are also involved in commemorating the lives lost during the sinking of HMS Royal Oak. The battleship was torpedoed by a German U-Boat at Scapa Flow on October 14, 1939. Tragically 833 sailors lost their lives in the attack with the wreck of the ship now a designated war grave.
Northern Diving Group’s predecessor unit dived to recover the ship’s bell in 1982 and since then have annually dived to the wreck to replace the White Ensign in commemoration of the dead. There is also a memorial service each year where the ship’s bell is rung to remember those who gave their lives, with this year’s service held at Faslane, rather than on Orkney, due to Covid restrictions.
The Freedom of Orkney is today a ceremonial award issued by elected member of Orkney Islands Council. Its roots stretch back to the mid 15th century, when the county’s ruling powers started granting traders permission to import and export goods into the county – with this ‘freedom’ usually conditional upon payment of an annual sum to the Royal Burgh of Kirkwall.
The award can only be awarded twice in the term of any Council, which is usually a period of five years.
The most recent previous recipient of the Freedom of Orkney is the late Dr John Rae – the famed explorer was posthumously conferred the award in 2017 in recognition of his outstanding achievements including discovery of the final portion of the Northwest Passage, Canada, also known as the Rae Strait.
Previous recipients are:
- Mr Stanley Cursiter – 7 July 1948.
- Mr William Heddle – 7 July 1948.
- Mr Ernest Marwick – 1975.
- Ex-Provost Scott – 1975.
- HMS Orkney – 22 July 1984.
- Lord and Lady Grimond – 22 April 1987.
- Mr Edwin Eunson – 18 July 1990.
- Brigadier Sidney Robertson – 18 July 1990.
- Colonel Sir Robert Macrae – 18 July 1990.
- Queen’s Own Highlanders – 22 August 1990.
The award will be formally marked later in the summer if restrictions allow.