Death Days – Past & Present

sunrise-phu-quoc-island-oceanBernie Bell is a regular contributor to Orkney online news and blogs and has sent us an interesting article giving an insight into another societies approach to death.

Bernie takes up the story….

“We were staying at The Belgrave Arms Hotel in Helmsdale, on our way back from our holiday in Kilmartin Glen.  We were talking with the proprietor, who told us that they had recently returned from their holiday in Vietnam.  This was interesting enough in itself, as to me the word ‘Vietnam’ still conjures up war, helicopters, ‘Apocalypse Now’ and that terrible image of the little girl – running from something that she couldn’t possibly run away from.

The country is very much recovering and that, although there isn’t much conspicuous wealth about, the people are working with what they have and building on what they have and there is a general air of optimism.

They had a young man as their guide who told them something of the traditions still followed by his family.  He was working hard to earn enough to make his father’s ‘second house’.  His father is now elderly and the Vietnamese people accept and embrace death as very much a part of life.  When parents are nearing death their sons are expected to build them a ‘second house’.  This is not what we would think of as a house more of a shrine, but they refer to them as ‘second houses’.

When a person dies, they are placed in a box and left for some time in order to decompose.  When they are well and truly decomposed the family gather together and wash the bones thoroughly – they must be absolutely pristine.  The family then have a ‘Day of Death’ when they place the bones in the ‘second house’.  The spirit is then left in peace to move on to their next life.

On Death Day the ceremonies include burning their most valued possessions so that they too can accompany the person to the new life. This used to include burning their money, but it has now changed –  the family buy pretend money to burn instead!

However, this way of life is changing and evolving and will possibly have gone in 20/30 years time.  The ‘second houses’ are placed among the fields belonging to the family – marking their land.

In 5,000 years time, what would archaeologists make of the assemblages of carefully cleaned bones in the remains of their ‘second homes’ – if the stories associated with these traditions had been lost, too?”

The Ness Battery, Hoy Sound, Orkney

Orkney is well known for prehistoric archaeology and indeed maritime remains from both world wars. Perhaps less well known are the WWI and WWII heritage sites that still exist on land.

Situated on Hoy Sound, Ness Battery guarded the western entrance to the naval base of Scapa Flow, Orkney. The site itself comprised several gun emplacements, searchlight positions, AA gun positions and a huge command centre which had the task of halting any hostile move through the Hoy Sound.


The impressive Ness Battery was the subject of a visit by our students last week. Guided through the complex by Andy Hollinrake, the students were given the full history of the site including stories of the personnel that worked to guard the Royal Navy warships anchored in Scapa Flow.

Andy related how each ship that appeared on the western approaches to Hoy Sound were signalled and ordered to stop and await inspection before sailing into the naval base. On one occasion the ferry from the Scottish mainland failed to stop when hailed and so was treated to a salvo of fire from the guns in the battery. The skipper soon heeded the signal, turned round and headed back to the mainland. Andy further elaborated on the story by saying that the gun loaders were so well trained that they could fire at such a rate that 3 or 4 shells could be in the air at once!

IMG_3896The huge, concrete protected gun positions were impressive in themselves, but in a way, the surviving huts (the only surviving examples of coast battery huts present in Britain) were even more impressive as they allowed us to glimpse into the lives of the men who operated this site. The Mess Hall was extraordinary as its walls were covered with an amazing mural depicting English rural life-complete with a windmill, half-timbered houses, wooded lanes and even a gypsy encampment.

A brilliant field visit and our thanks go to Andy Hollinrake for his on-site lecture and tour!

For more information on the Ness battery see