The Hackness Gun Battery in Orkney: Napoleon, Pirates, Sir Walter Scott and Fenians!

Some of the staff at Rubicon have a particular interest in conflict archaeology sites, which often provide us with an intriguing insight into how people and communities lived and dealt with conflict in the past. Here Rubicon Managing Director Colm Moloney tells the story of the Hackness Gun Battery in Orkney, which he excavated in the 1990s.

Aerial view of the Hackness Gun Battery as it appears today
Aerial view of the Hackness Gun Battery as it appears today

The Hackness gun battery is tucked away on the southeast tip of Hoy, an island in the Orkneys archipelago overlooking the infamous Scapa Flow. I spent two seasons excavating the site in 1997 and 1999. Historical research for the project revealed an incredible sequence of events which caused this site to be constructed and maintained in one of the most isolated spots in the United Kingdom.

The High Island

Hoy is a fascinating place. The name is derived from Norse Haey meaning `high island´. It is the second largest island in the archipelago with an area of 143 square kilometres. The southern end of Hoy was originally a separate island but has been connected by a causeway. The gun battery was situated on this southern area known as South Walls.

Hackness Martello Tower
Hackness Martello Tower

The history of the gun battery

The battery was constructed in the early 19th century along with two associated Martello towers as a response to potential threats from privateers due to British conflicts with Napoleon of France and the USA. Following heavy shipping losses around Scotland including 42 ships in Longhope sound at Hoy in July 1810, it was decided to defend a harbour which would allow ships to gather safely and await armed escort. The construction of the battery was confirmed in June 1813 and work commenced in July due to the imminent threat from privateers to the very lucrative Baltic trade. Sir Walter Scott visited the site in 1814 and commented that eight guns were present but the defences had still to be built. The battery, complete with two Martello Towers, was finished in 1815. The only other Martello tower in Scotland was built at Leith, the harbour of Edinburgh. By the time the battery was complete Napoleon had been defeated at Waterloo and the Treaty of Ghenthad been signed to end the conflict between the US and Britain. The 1815 battery therefore never saw action.

Artist's Impression of how the Gun Battery would have looked in 1815 (Illustration by Mike Middleton)
Artist's Impression of how the Gun Battery would have looked in 1815 (Illustration by Mike Middleton)

Following a failed invasion of Canada by the Fenian Brotherhood in 1866, it was decided by the Admiralty to redevelop the Hackness battery in case of invasion from the USA. The Fenian Brotherhood comprised Irish exiles who had served in the American Civil War and gained a wealth of experience of military know how. Their attempt at invading Canada was intended to gain ports from which they could invade Britain and win independence for Ireland. As a result the eight 24-pounder guns at the Hackness gun battery were replaced by four 68 pounders. Again this threat never materialized and the guns were never fired in anger. In fact the only reference to the use of the guns was one day of drill by the Orkney Volunteer Artillery in 1890.

The Barracks at Hackness Gun Battery (
The Barracks at Hackness Gun Battery (

My excavations at Hackness

I led a team of archaeologists on two seasons of excavation at Hackness; 1997 and 1999. Here is what we found out:

Season 1 – November 1997

Our first season of excavation involved the excavation of the magazine. The magazine was a massive building set into a deep depression in the ground. We had no access to mechanical diggers in our remote location so it was hard physical work. Nothing is wasted in Orkney, so the magazine had been used to store `useful´ stuff. We removed everything from tractor wheels to anti-submarine netting from the building. The magazine was an incredible structure with walls surviving to a height of four or five feet. The walls were designed, through variations in thickness, to direct an explosion to the rear of the battery away from the accommodation should the munitions explode. The magazine could hold up to 350 barrels of powder so this was a considerable worry for the gunners. Internally the floor was raised on low brick foundations which allowed air to flow beneath the powder store which kept the powder dry. All the fittings were brass, as brass doesn´t spark. A small room at the rear of the building also served as the entrance. This was known as the `shifting room´ which was used to move powder kegs safely.

The Excavated Powder Magazine at Hackness Gun Battery
The Excavated Powder Magazine at Hackness Gun Battery

Season 2 – June and July 1999

Our second season of work focused on the gun platforms and the external defences. The gun platforms were located behind massive defences which consisted of a large rampart with an internal retaining wall and an external glacis. The large foundations for the 1866 guns had largely destroyed evidence for the 1815 emplacement. However the remains of parts of the foundations of the two southernmost gun emplacements were identified. This evidence suggested that the 24 pounder guns were mounted in wooden traversing carriages which rotated on a central pivot at the front and which were set on wheels at the rear which moved along semi-circular tracks. The guns would have fired en barbette (over the rampart rather than through embrasures).

The 1866 guns were much larger than their predecessors. They were also mounted on wooden carriages which had wheels front and back. The trenches for the stone foundations which held the tracks for the wheels were identified during excavation but unfortunately the foundations themselves had been removed. The rampart was remodeled at this time to take embrasures through which the guns could fire while giving a great deal of cover for the gunners. Large blocks of stone which still sit on the ground adjacent to the gun platforms served as anchors for ropes used to move the guns.

The Artillery Piece atop Hackness Martello Tower
The Artillery Piece atop Hackness Martello Tower

We also investigated the perimeter defences on the landward side. This consisted of a six-foot high wall with an external two foot deep ditch. This was interesting as it could be easily scaled. The barracks block which was located centrally within the complex had gun slits and would have been the only refuge in case of an attack from the land, as the large guns could not be rotated. However the Martello towers at Hackness and Crockness would have provided a significant deterrent to a land based assault.

Our post-excavation research identified two admiralty charts at the National Archives which clearly depict the 1815 battery and the 1866 battery. These are incredible full-colour documents which set out the original plans for the battery. The surviving building and the results of the excavations indicate that the plans were followed almost flawlessly by the 19thcentury builders.

General view of the Battery interior
General view of the Battery interior

The Battery Today

Following on from our excavations the gun battery was partially restored by Historic Scotlandand the site is well worth a visit for anyone travelling to Orkney. A working gun has been mounted on a traversing carriage on the Hackness Martello tower while the barrack room has been refitted to 1866 standard and the magazine and defences are all accessible.  The site also has fantastic views over Scapa Flow and is a great location to get a feel for Orcadian life.

The reconstructed Barracks interior
The reconstructed Barracks interior

This Post Has 7 Comments

  1. heathermnt

    Thanks for this, really enjoyed reading it as I am also very interested in conflict archaeology.

    1. Damian Shiels

      Glad you enjoyed it Heather- it is a recurring theme on the blog alright 🙂

  2. The Silver Voice

    Really enjoyed reading this post on different levels: #1: I had not realized that Hoy is an Island – by virtue of the BBC, decades ago, I had thought that the Old Man of Hoy was a free standing sea stack – did not know there was a full island attached! #2 : Although not a ‘techie’ with regard to military stuff I could really relate to the descriptions of the artillery installation as I had visited a similar ( if later ?) location at Tynemouth in the early 1990s with an impressionable teenager and his older sister. Finally #3 – glad to know what it means to be ‘keeping the powder dry’ ! Good piece – thanks!

  3. rogerhwerner

    Did you prepare a detailed report for this work? Sounds like a great project and I’d love to read the details.

    1. Damian Shiels

      Hi Roger,

      The results were published alright, the details are:

      Halliday, S & Moloney C 2004 `A Reassessment of Hackness Gun Battery: the Results of Excavations 1997-2001´ Scottish Archaeological Journal 24.

  4. Andrew Hollinrake

    Interesting article, thanks for posting this info. A fascinating site, Hackness.
    “Following heavy shipping losses around Scotland including 42 ships in Longhope sound at Hoy in July 1810” … is this just a misplaced comma or are you talking about 42 ships sunk in Longhope Sound? If so that is a new story to me!
    I am doing some research on the Orkney Artillery Volunteers in general and the Stromness Volunteers’ Battery in particular. Great confusion between identifying 32-pounder SBs, 64-pounder RML conversions of same, different versions of latter etc etc, all great fun!
    Do you have any info on what happened to the 68-pounders after they were removed from Hackness and the Martellos?One source states they were taken away in 1900.
    Also, the ‘one day of drill’ at Hackness was 1892, not 1890. (According to Fereday p.40, with ref. to Orkney Herald May/June 1892). Unless this is another ‘jolly’ by the OAV in 1890?
    I am wondering whether the 68-pounders found another home in Orkney, or if they were converted to RMLs, or just shipped back to Woolwich.
    Any help gratefully received!
    All the best,
    Andy Hollinrake

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