HMS Proserpine

HMS Proserpine. The former WWII Royal Navy Communications Centre
Wee Fea by Lyness, Hoy, Orkney Islands

A photo essay by Ian Collins

This building is a prominent and citadel like presence above a small woodland on the hillside of Wee Fea. It’s rather out of the way, even once you’re on the island, although it is a conspicuous feature of the south Hoy skyline and visible from much of Scapa Flow.

This first photograph was taken in passing during a family holiday in 2007. There was something about the appearance of this structure and its surrounding landscape that made a deep and lasting impression.

Having returned to Orkney in June 2017, I took the ferry from Stromness to Moaness and cycled south to Lyness, wondering if the impression the site had originally made would remain this decade later. As it turned out, very little had changed and again there was a strong sense of being both intrigued and captivated.

“The building was the main Base HQ and Communications Centre for Scapa Flow under Naval Command and named HMS Proserpine. It became operational in 1943 and housed up to 230 Woman’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) staff to handle signals via telephone, teleprinter and radio including from ships moored at buoys in Scapa Flow. HMS Proserpine at Hoy was linked to ‘Proserpine Thurso’ the radio station at Bower, and the radar station near Cape Wrath” . (Archaeological notes from the CANMORE website).

The building is cut into the slope of the hillside such that one side presents a sheer wall and the opposite side sits in a dry moat. The single entrance is by way of a short flight of concrete steps and a rather narrow doorway that gives way to a first floor lobby and a pair of rooms that have the only substantial window openings in the whole structure. From here there are panoramic views of Scapa Flow and the adjacent island of Flotta.

The island of Flotta and Scapa Flow.

A few of the outer rooms of the first floor are illuminated by porthole like window openings (this being a Naval facility); the impression is one of dazzle and gloom.

The inner spaces and corridors are almost dark; the basement almost absolutely so, except where reflected daylight finds its way into the stairwell and the first part of the main corridor.

The off-white and green decor has taken on every shade of decay. It is not so easy to imagine these spaces full of the light and life shown in contemporary photographs; only the remains of an office desk, rusting ventilation ducts, electrical trunking, the skeleton of a ceiling-lamp and a row of numbered coat-hooks give any sense that this place was once busy. One of the basement rooms has a large, shallow puddle that receives a drop of water from the ceiling… perhaps three every minute. The cold, silent, echoic space is filled with sound for a few moments.

This could be a cave.

Telephone operators. c1943-1945

What I will long remember was the sudden encounter with this face of a child carrying a basket, cut from a magazine or newspaper, pasted to the wall of an inner room on the upper floor and caught here in the light of my torch. This face and its smile seemed so at variance with the cold and dark emptiness of the surroundings.

It took some time to notice the second figure.

The cherub and other fragments I saw only after studying the photographs back home.

To judge from the style, these pictures are far from recent. The top of the main image has peeled away from the wall to reveal a little of the reverse; a fragment of text, perhaps a headline, Old Sh (sheep, ship, show, shape, shadow) and part of a of another face. To further peel this from the wall might reveal a clue as to its age but would have felt like an act of violation.

I returned to the site in early April of this year and remember a sense of relief at finding the faces unchanged.

The return in April was motivated by the discovery of another image….earlier this year I had found (with the help of the Orkney Archive) this photograph of the communication centre in use, presumably dating from between 1943 and 1945. The engaging expressions of the operators left a lasting impression to the extent that I found myself wondering if I could take the images back to Lyness and perhaps bring a small part of the building back to life.

So, on the 7th of April 2018, carrying night-light candles and portraits of the operators, I took the Houton to Lyness ferry, walked up Wee Fea, donned a head-torch and searched the building for the room in the photograph.

The view northwards from the upper landing.

The basement stairwell.

The task was one of matching up the remains of ventilation ducting, electrical conduits, wall openings and light pendants, a process that took longer than anticipated; many of the rooms seemed similar, though not identical, to that in the photograph. Moving from room to room I was aware of a vague sense of anxiety and of beginning to wonder if the original photograph was of another facility. It was a good moment when I realised that the remaining fixtures in one of the last rooms I searched in the cold, damp and darkness of the basement matched exactly those in the old photograph. The doorway of the room was opposite a row of numbered coat-hooks.

Before leaving for Orkney I had copied and enlarged the faces of individuals from the original photograph, having become aware that the impression left by these smiles was never far from my awareness. The building itself seemed to have become a vague though persistent presence on my mental horizon; to identify and enter the room felt like an arrival and an end. I recall standing there in silence, in the silence, trying to understand that this cold, damp room had once been dry, warm and full of the sounds of communication. And also trying to grasp quite what it was that had drawn me to this place.

It was some time before I felt ready to place the portraits on the wall.

And so it was, that guided by the original photograph and by the light of my head-torch, the portraits were pasted into place on the decomposing plasterwork, close by where the individuals in the photograph would have worked over 70 years ago.

Having placed the nightlight candles in a row (close to where the operators feet must have rested), I lit the first one and remember how the flame took hold of the wick, hesitated, flared, quietly crackled and hesitated again before steadying. The way in which the act of lighting of that first candle filled the stillness and broke the silence of the room with sound was as memorable as it was unexpected.

There was of course the moment where I had to make a conscious decision to leave the the room, to walk away from what had been the consummation of a long journey and leave the faces bathed in a warm, soft, silent light for a few hours before, one by one, the candle flames would dim, falter, smoulder and die.

What would the women in the photographs have made of this act of memorial?

Back in the corridor I turned to have one last look before leaving and noticed dimly reflected candlelight that barely visible to the naked eye. The photograph above was taken using a tripod and long exposure; and although the resulting image is very much brighter than what could actually be seen, it perhaps gives a sense of the way in which the scene impressed itself upon the memory.

The first-floor landing. Leaving.

Descending Wee Fea.

Hidden in the woodlands are paths, gateposts and the remains of an accommodation block.

So, there it was. A pilgrimage of sorts and a small ritual performed. I kept looking back. Up there, in the dark interior, those candles would continue to burn for a few hours before, one by one, they withdrew their light.

Ian Collins May 2018

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