Royal Navy divers exercise their freedom of Orkney

Topic: CommunityEvents Storyline: Northern Diving Group

The Royal Navy’s bomb disposal experts in Scotland exercised their freedom of Orkney today by marching through the streets of the island’s largest town - Kirkwall.

Orkney Island Council unanimously voted to bestow the honour on Northern Diving Group in May this year, in recognition of the Faslane-based team’s outstanding work in assisting the island’s community over the years. 

Today was the first time that the Royal Navy Clearance Divers have had the opportunity to exercise their privilege to march and members of the public and local dignitaries were there to cheer the sailors along. 

Commanding Officer of Northern Diving Group, Lieutenant Commander Mark Shaw, said:  “It was a distinct honour for Northern Diving Group to receive their Freedom of Orkney and to exercise the privilege of marching through the town today.  It was done in ceremonial fashion, with bayonets fixed, drums beating and with colours flying.

“Since being awarded the freedom during a Council meeting in May, we have been working with local authorities to plan today’s event in a Covid-compliant manner.

“We have heard some very moving speeches during the ceremony which reflected on Northern Diving Group’s close connection with Orkney – a relationship current and former members of the team hold very dearly,” he said.  “We were very warmly welcomed by the public, who I’m sure also enjoyed the ceremony and the chance to listen to the Royal Marines Band.

“We are looking forward to continuing our special relationship with Orkney for the annual HMS Royal Oak commemoration, and most likely we will be back soon to dispose of more historic munitions, although we won’t be marching in full ceremonial uniform!”

Accompanying the sailors was a 20-piece marching band from Royal Marine Band Scotland based at Rosyth.  

The relationship between Orkney and Royal Navy Clearance Divers goes back decades.  For over 40 years Scottish-based divers have been visiting, not only to safely deal with wartime ordnance washed-up on the coastline, but also to help pay their respects at the wreck of HMS Royal Oak in Scapa Flow.  

Each year members of Northern Diving Group dive to the registered war grave to replace the White Ensign – the flag of the Royal Navy – and to remember the 833 sailors lost.

Orkney Islands Council Convenor, Harvey Johnston, said: “The Royal Navy Northern Diving Group has been coming to Orkney for many years.  

“In addition to always carrying out their professional duties in an exemplary manner they have become true friends to Orkney, assisting in acts of remembrance in Scapa Flow and winning the respect of the local populace.  

“It is for this reason that we are delighted to bestow the Freedom of Orkney on the Northern Diving Group.”

Headquartered at HM Naval Base Clyde on the west coast of Scotland, Northern Diving Group is a 39-strong team of Explosive Ordnance Disposal divers that are responsible for providing bomb disposal expertise throughout Scotland, Northern England and Northern Ireland.  

Their area covers a coastline of over 12,000 miles and touches hundreds of small, and often remote, communities.  

This year so far Northern Diving Group have been called out on 55 separate occasions, including five tasks in Orkney.  In 2020 the team completed 140 call outs across the country.  

Northern Diving Group also provides in-water maintenance and repair diving support to naval ships and submarines, both at Falsane and for Fleet Units deployed around the world.  They train in four different diving sets along with the ability to operate many underwater tools and equipment, including recompression chamber operations.

The unit provides a unique Enclosed Space Diving capability.  Using special equipment divers can conduct maintenance work in tight and difficult to reach compartments – a requirement particularly relevant to submarines.  Currently Northern Diving Group are the only military diving unit which can carry out enclosed space diving.

The Diving Group have teams at immediate readiness 365 days a year ready to support the civil authorities in keeping the public safe by providing explosive ordnance disposal.

It was a distinct honour for Northern Diving Group to receive their Freedom of Orkney and to exercise the privilege of marching through the town today. It was done in ceremonial fashion, with bayonets fixed, drums beating and with colours flying.

Lieutenant Commander Mark Shaw, Commanding Officer of Northern Diving Group