Gordon Meek, 67, a dentist from Glasgow, and Robert Infante, 48, a businessman from New Jersey, USA, pleaded guilty to the offences at Kirkwall Sheriff Court.

It is the first time in Scotland that divers have been convicted for removing artefacts from scheduled monuments without lawful authority, under the Ancient Monuments & Archaeological Areas Act 1979.

The case had been scheduled as a three-week jury trial until the guilty pleas were lodged. Procurator Fiscal Sue Foard accepted not-guilty pleas from John Thornton, 61, from Kirkwall, the owner of mv Karin, the charter-boat used by the divers, and Simon Ball, 47, from Poole in Dorset.

The artefacts were said to have been taken from the wrecks of the battleships SMS König, Kronprinz Wilhelm and MarkGraf, and the cruisers SMS Brummer, Cöln, Dresden and Karlsruhe, between 8 and 12 October, 2012. The court was told that the two experienced divers had been diving Scapa Flow regularly since 2007.

Infante’s barrister described his client as “someone who has studied and is fascinated by the wartime history of the area and wishes it to be known that he had never any intention of selling the artefacts from Scapa Flow on for a profit“.

Passing sentence, Sheriff Andrew Berry commended witnesses from another charter-boat who reported seeing a diver taking rusty items aboard the Karin in a bag, and the police for their prompt response.

Armed with a search warrant, they had stopped the men when they landed. They discovered a broken bulkhead lantern frame on the boat and, in Meek’s car-boot, a breast microphone, telephone and lanterns. Other items found included a steam-pressure gauge, bell and portable lamp.

“If nothing else, I hope the fines I am imposing will convince other divers that to break the law in this way might be an expensive exercise,” the Sheriff said.

Andrew Laing, Procurator Fiscal for Grampian, Highlands & Islands, said: “It is vitally important that there are laws in place to protect such important sites and as with this case where there is sufficient evidence of a crime and if it is appropriate and in the public interest to do so, we will prosecute.”

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