Saturday 2 September 2017

The Orkney Hurricane

A regular US reader of the blog, Genknit, has just written to let us know that she is safe after the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey. We were pleased and relieved to hear this.

I could not help but think about the so called Orkney Hurricane of 1952 and the destructive gales which followed the next year. Unlike Hurricane Harvey, the two storms - miraculously- claimed no lives but the damage and trauma was immense.

The remains of the Wyre Shop at Helziegatha after the 1952 Hurricane

Orcadians were unsure of the exact wind speed of the 1952 hurricane as the wind recorders at Costa Head in Evie were broken after exceeding their 120mph limit. Estimates were made of 135mph in places.

'I wakened and I wondered what was wrong. It blowed and blowed and blowed. I lay on, for I thowt that if I wakened Jock, he wid go outside and hid wasna safe - so as long as the kye didna boggle I wid bide in... we were lucky. The (hen) hooses were end on tae the wind.'

Sarah Gaddie of Holm recalling the storm

Many were not so lucky, however, and the thriving egg industry which provided so many Orcadians with income was seriously damaged over night, with hundreds and hundreds of hen houses and their occupants strewn over Orkney by the ferocious winds.

Hurricane Damage, 1952

'We woke up to devastation. We could see what we thought to be reddish-brown snowdrifts along the dykes. What it was in fact was dead and dying Rhode Island Reds. My father went out and managed to breathe life into a few who were merely stunned but I can remember my parents shock and horror, with the added worry of knowing they'd lost such a valuable source of income.'

Morag Russell of Shapinsay

Flooding was the main problem in 1953 as the sea defences were battered in many locations, turning streets into rivers.

Junction Road after the 1953 Storm.
(Original photo taken by S. Twatt)

Shore Street after the 1953 Storm - the water mains were completely exposed.
(Original photo taken by S. Twatt)

Orcadians are known for their grit and resilience and the County, with the aid of hastily set up aid funds and some government assistance, was soon up and running again. People were even able to joke about some stories from the storm such as the gentleman bowled over fields in his wooden house only to emerge clad in nothing but underpants. Or the farmer whose dwelling's roof was torn off only to be quickly replaced by another one. He took this as proof that 'the Lord is kind'.

Texans and Lousianans are also known for their grit and resilience and we send the survivors of Hurricane Harvey our thoughts and heartfelt best wishes in their time of need.

Information taken from:

The Orkney Hurricane - R. G. Ross
How the Orkney Egg Industry was affected by the Great Gale of 1952 - Simon Carmichael
The Orcadian book of the 20th Century - Howard Hazell
Orkney Sound Archive 7.

Glossary for non-Orcadians/Scots! :

kye - cows
didna - didn't
bide - stay
boggle - bellow
hid - it
wasna - wasn't



  1. Wow, that street turned into a river looks terribly familiar. I saw streets that looked just like that here, last week. There were good things in the Orkney 1952 hurricane, and there are good things happening in 2017 here in the Houston Metro area, too. There's some dark humor here, too. For instance, someone suggested that we should sing "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore" tomorrow during our church service. ^_^ We know many people who have been devastated by the storm, but we also know a lot of people (ourselves included) who were spared. It's certainly a mixed bag of emotions.

    I was interested to learn that the Orcadians had an egg industry--I did not know that before I read your article. Thanks for once again educating me about your lovely island.


  2. P.S. The winds estimated at 135 mph in the Orkney Hurricane would rate as a category 4 hurricane on today's scale. I thought you'd want to know. ;)



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