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History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications
from the first submarine cable of 1850 to the worldwide fiber optic network

1885: Shetland Cables and the
Reiss Links Sinclair Bay Cable House

In 1885 the GPO laid a direct cable from Sinclair Bay (near Wick on the east coast of the far north of Scotland) to Sandwick Bay, Shetland Islands. The single-conductor telegraph cable supplemented the indirect Shetland connection from the Scottish mainland via the 1876 Orkney cable and the 1881 Orkney-Shetland cable, and with a length of 122 nautical miles it was for many years the longest government cable in British waters.

In James R. Nicolson’s 1972 book on Shetland, the author gives this brief history of the cables to the Shetland Islands:

Between 1868 and 1870 the Orkney and Shetland Telegraph Company Ltd, floated with a capital of £20,000, laid a telegraph cable from Caithness to Boddam in Shetland; but it was subjected to strong tides and broke three times within the first year. In 1876, when it cost 13s 6d (67½p) to send a telegram of twenty words from Shetland compared with 1s (5p) from elsewhere in Britain, the struggling company was taken over by the General Post Office. In 1885 the latter laid a new cable between Sinclair Bay, Caithness, and Sandwick Bay in Shetland, and direct communications became possible between Lerwick and Aberdeen.


End points of the 1885 cable.
See also this aerial view of the cable house
location
close to the shore of the bay

At Sinclair Bay the cable was terminated in a cable hut on the Reiss Links, a golf course running along the shore of the bay about three miles north of the town of Wick. The building was erected near the beach on what was then the sixth hole of the nine-hole course; this description is from a 21 February 1902 article in Golf Illustrated:

The sixth, called "The Cable Hole," is the most difficult of the course. There are sand bunkers of various sizes, a fence, a ditch, and on both sides long, thick bent, where a ball landed usually means loss. Strong players with a good drive, and a good second, surmount the difficulties, and may hole out in 4 with luck. The length is 332 yards; and Bogey, 6

In 1885, the year the cable was laid, the course was the home of the Wick Golf Club, which was established in 1870 and is the oldest golf club in the Highlands of Scotland. The club continues to occupy the course, which was enlarged to 18 holes in 1907, and the long-out-of-service cable hut, referred to locally as the “Cable House,” is now used for storage.

Although the hut remains in its original location, it is now near the green of the 16th hole.

Reiss Links Cable Hut photograph courtesy
of and copyright © 2018 Robin Down

This is a description of the Cable House in July 2018:

The external size of the building is approx 18 ft by 15 ft.with walls approx 1 ft thick.As you go in the door you enter a flagstone floored lobby that is the full width of the hut.The lobby has an elevated access to a water tank and a loft access hatch. A doorway opens into the main area .This area has a blocked-up fireplace in the north wall and windows in the east and south walls. The walls are plastered and painted. The building appears to be wind and watertight.The floor in the main area is wooden  planking local to the door.

Clearly this building is more than the typical cable hut, and because of the remote nature of the landing site it's quite possible that the cable terminus was staffed.

This flyover video of the course shows the location of the cable hut beginning at about thirty seconds in, then continues by circling the building so it can be seen from all directions:

In 1892 telegraphic communication to Shetland was disrupted by faults on both the direct cable from Sinclair Bay and the connecting cable to Shetland from Orkney. This resulted in a question being asked in Parliament of the Postmaster General by the MP for Orkney and Shetland, as reported in The Parliamentary Debates, 3 March 1892:

THE SHETLAND TELEGRAPH CABLES.

Mr. LYELL (Orkney and Shetland): I beg to ask the Postmaster General whether it is true, as reported, that both the telegraph cables to Shetland are broken; and, if so, when one or both of these cables will be repaired, so that telegraphic communication may be restored?

The POSTMASTER GENERAL (Sir J. Fergusson, Manchester, N.E.): When the hon. Member gave notice of this question, both cables to Shetland were broken; but the direct cable from Sinclair Bay in Caithnessshire was repaired yesterday, and the cable ship of the Department will now proceed to repair the local cable from the Orkneys.

In 1908 both the Sinclair Bay cable to Shetland and the 1876 cable to Orkney from Dunnet Bay, about 17 miles north-west of Reiss, suffered coincidental failures. This description of the twin failures in The Electrical Engineer issue of January 3, 1908, includes useful details of the route of the telegraph connection from Aberdeen to Sinclair Bay:

Orkney.—Through some unexplained cause a complete breakdown of the telegraphic system between Orkney, on one hand, and Shetland, on the other, with the mainland has taken place, and telegrams are being sent on by steamer. It is impossible to say what has occasioned the breakdown, which is remarkable in respect that the two groups of islands are supplied independently and that the cables lying in the Pentland Firth are 20 miles apart.

The system to the northern islands is on land from Aberdeen to Burghead, where the Moray Firth is crossed by cable to Helmsdale. There is then a land line to Sinclair Bay for the Shetland Islands, the cable lying 20 miles to the east of the Orkney cable, which leaves the mainland at Dunnet Bay. The weather in the Pentland Firth has been very stormy, but the breakdown of the cables is not thereby explained.


The Shetlands were poorly served by improvements in telecommunications during the 20th century, eventually relying on expensive and unreliable microwave links to the mainland. In 2006 the Faroese installed SHEFA2, a fibre optic link which crossed the Shetland Islands on its way to its terminus in Aberdeenshire, and in December 2009 Shetland Islands Council undertook a project to connect Shetland to the Faroese cable itself. According to Shetland Telecom, “This network ensures that Shetland has, for the first time, reliable, high capacity, affordable high speed internet access between the islands and the rest of the UK.”

Reiss Links Cable Hut photographs courtesy
of and copyright © 2018 Robin Down

Last revised: 26 July, 2018

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