Scapa Flow and the Protection and Management of Scotland's Historic Military Shipwrecks

Article excerpt


In the past Britain has been a global naval, mercantile and industrial power and, as an island which has benefited from successive waves of settlement, its history is inextricably linked to its surrounding seas (Lavery 2001). High volumes of shipping traffic and a long history of seafaring and warfare have contributed to a density of shipwreck remains in UK territorial waters which is likely to be amongst the highest in the world.

Recently warship wrecks have been given a significantly higher degree of attention in the UK and world-wide, and the recent `scheduling' of the German High Seas Fleet wrecks under the terms of the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 (AMAA 1979) has led to new challenges in heritage management. At the same time as we are becoming aware of the value of these resources, the administrative, legislative, environmental and social frameworks in which they have to be managed are changing rapidly. Therefore new opportunities to protect submerged archaeological sites, and in particular warship wrecks, are accompanied by challenges such as integrating them with existing regimes (at national, regional and local level). Not least is the necessity to integrate the implementation of the three relevant pieces of UK legislation, namely the AMAA 1979, the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973 (POW 1973) and the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986 (POMR 1986).

This paper considers administrative and practical issues regarding the management of the underwater heritage in Scotland, focusing on the initial results of the ScapaMAP research project (which is supported by Historic Scotland) on the seven 1914-18 War wrecks that have importance as military sites, with the added archaeological significance as monuments to events of national and international concern in the recent past.


In contrast to many overseas countries, where the preferred approach to shipwreck heritage management is based on a high level of marine environmental knowledge, the UK has a relatively undistinguished record, and professional maritime archaeology is poorly developed (Fenwick & Gale 1998). In Scotland the discipline is faced with inadequate maritime sites and monument records (at national and local level) and submerged remains have yet to receive full appreciation. For example, although Hunter (2000) refers to a relative neglect of military remains in Scotland, a situation partly rectified by the Defence of Britain Project, the disparity between land and marine sites is exacerbated by the fact that attention in such initiatives is paid almost exclusively to remains on land or in the inter-tidal zone.

There are many reasons for these differences in approach. The submerged archaeological resource cannot be easily accessed without specialist skills, techniques and equipment. Ironically, such logistical requirements can be readily acquired by recreational divers, yet they are not generally available on the required scale to official agencies. Consequently access to the resource, situated in a potentially hazardous environment subject to continuous and sometimes rapidly destructive change, is relatively expensive. As a result the data collected on submerged archaeological sites are of variable quality, and to a large extent unverified. The resource is generally poorly researched, not well understood and not usually included in research frameworks (e.g. English Heritage 2000). The type of data needed to understand these sites and all the factors affecting them are not well-defined. Nationally, few sites have been investigated or assessed by a competent archaeological authority in terms of their preservation and susceptibility to impacts.

It is clear that the management of the submerged cultural heritage is a global issue as strengthening national regulation is pushing interested parties into international waters. This shift, accompanied by a trend on the part of shipwreck explorers towards gaining rewards from marketing global media rights rather than scrapping valuable materials or auctioning artefacts, serves to attract further attention which triggers the development of international regulation such as the UN Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage. …