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The Orkneys and Shetland; their past and present state online

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■• Dixon's Field and Fern, p. 29.


of buildings and a chapel were standing, and to account for
their ruined condition, he tells an old wife's story of a bishop
having devoted the island to desolation, because one of two
brothers who lived on it committed incest with his brother's
wife. Even when Nealewas in the islands, in 1848, there were
the ruins of a very small chapel on the isle. Now, it is not
improbable the chapel and remains of houses mentioned by Jo
Ben may have been similar to those still existing on the Brough
of Deerncss, and, it may be, on Cornholm.

Is it possible that monks of the Celtic monastic type can
have survived through the days of Norse paganism, owing
their immunity, partly to their poverty and partly to some
notion on the part of the Norsemen that they were better left
alone, lest some unforeseen evil should attack those who
interfered with them ? ^

In EUer, or as it should properly be styled Hellier {i.e. cave),
Holm is the cave in Avhich Swein - hid from Jarl Harald when
the latter meant closing the account between them in a sum-
mary manner, if he had caught Asleit"'s son.

Wideford Hill.

This hill, though only 740 ft. in height, affords one of the
most beautiful panoramas to be seen in the islands, and is well
worth a walk on a calm summer evening when the sun is
sinking slowly to rest in the waters of the Atlantic.

After passing Grainbank, and just where the cultivated land
ends and the heather begins, you come to a dyke or wall
composed of tlie heads of a shoal of ca'ing whales, which
were driven ashore in Kirkwall Bay some years back. In the

' Since the aliove was written, the writer has been informed by Mr.
York Powell that both Dr. Vii;fusson and himself are pretty well convinced,
from the internal evidence afforded by early Northern poetry and history,
that Christianity must have survived in the Orkneys and Western Islands
from Celtic times down to the nominal conversion of the Northern colonists
at the end of the tenth century.

- Ork. Sag., p. 173.


summer and autumn of 1880, the heather, both of the white
and purple varieties, was particularly luxuriant in the Orkneys,
and the perfume from it on the hills and from the clover in the
cultivated land, was almost too powerful ; and you would have
said the islands were specially adapted for bee-keeping. Some-
how or another they have never thrived as yet in the islands.
Mackaile tells a story (worked by Scott into the Pirate) of a
skep or hive of bees, that was brought by a lady from Angus,
and which was destroyed by an Orcadian, who, for fear the
bees should all fly away, stopped up the entrance to the hive
with a piece of peat. From the top of Wideford Hill you get in
summer-time a beautiful view of the old cathedral town, nestling,
as it were, in the trees around the Earl's Palace, in the gardens
on the north of the Cathedral, and at the back of the Kirkwall

Looking N.E. by E., about, on a clear day you may see,
over Balfour Castle in the far distance, the faint outline of Fair
Isle, around Avhich the winds and waves high revels keep during
the greater part of the year. Southwards you can see the
Caithness coast, westward the hills of Hoy and the lochs of
Harray and Stenness, with a glimpse beyond them of the
Atlantic. Altogether a better place to get into harmony with
nature, and to give reins to your imagination, and conjure up
the scenes the quaint little town lying at your feet has wit-
nessed during its lifetime of seven-and-a-half centuries, would
be hard to find ; the more so when the mellow notes of
Bishop Maxwell's bells come floating up on the breeze.

There is a small well on the top from which you can take a
modest quencher, mixed with Clyneleish. This well, according
to Jo Ben, foretold when war was imminent by bubbling up.^
On a green spot on the north-west side of the hill is a
chambered mound, explored by the late Mr. Petrie in 1849,-
but which is now nearly filled up with sand.

' Jo Ben also said that the women of Kirkwall were given to luxuries,
as he thought, propter piscium abvndantiain.
* Wilson's Prehis'oric Atuials, p. 84.


The mound is bound by a circumscribing wall, 2 ft. high,
on all sides except the east, where it abuts on the natural
rock. The entire circumference is 140 ft., and the diameter
45 ft.

The passage by which the chambers are reached opens
on the west, is about 15 ft. long, 15 in. high, and .22 in. broad.
This leads into the main chamber, which is 10 ft. long, 5 ft.
in its greatest width, and 7 ft. 6 in. high. On the west of
this is another chamber 6 ft. long, 3 ft. 7 in. wide, and 6 ft. 6 in.
high. To the east of the main chamber is another, 5 ft. 9 in. in
length, 4 ft. 8 in. in breadth, and 5 ft. 6 in. in height. North
again of the central chamber is another, 5 ft. 7 in. long, 4 ft.
wide, and 6 ft. high, to the east of which is a very irregular
shaped chamber. All have the bee-hive shaped roofs formed
by over-Ia])ping stones.

The bones and teeth of horses, cows, sheep, and swine were
found, but no human remains. What size could the people
have been, who crawled in through such rabbit holes, as the
passages of this eirde house are ? No wonder the popular idea
is, that the Pechts or Picts were an uncanny race.

From here you can make your way to Quanterness, near
which farm-house is the chambered mound excavated either by
Barry or in his time, which is a much more elaborate affair
than the one we have just left.

The mound ^ is a truncated cone 14 ft. in height, and 384 ft.
in circumference. The passage which was explored for 22 ft.,
is I ft. 9 in. broad and 2 ft. high. This, which opens due east,
leads to the largest and central apartment, which runs from
north to south, and has two smaller apartments on both its
western and eastern sides, and one on its northern and southern

The dimensions of the central apartment are 21 ft. 6 in.

long, 6 ft. 6 in. broad, and 11 ft. 6 in. high. Of the others

respectively 10 ft. 7 in., 4 ft. i in., 7 ft. 6 in. ; 9 ft. 5 in., 4 ft.

5 in., 7 ft.; 10 ft., 4 ft. I in., 8 ft. 6 in. ; 7 ft. 2 in., 3 ft. 9 in.,

J Barry's Orkitfy, ]->. 106.


8 ft. 7 in. ; 9 ft. 9 in., 4 ft. 4 in., 8 ft. i in. ; and 8 ft. 11 in.,
3 ft, 6 in., 6 ft. 8 in.

According to Barry's plan each apartment formed a perfect
parallelogram. All had bee-hive roofs. In one of the
apartments a perfect human skeleton was found, in addition
to the bones of men, birds, and some domestic animals.

A little further on the road, on the way to Kirkwall, is
the farm of Saveroch, close to which, on the sea shore,
another Pictish dwelling-house ^ or store-house was excavated
by Captain Thomas, R.N., in 1848, when engaged in the
coast survey.

This, however, is very different from the other two, being
excavated out of the natural surface of the ground. The
passage, the main line of which is from a little to the north
of west to a little to the south of east, is 47 ft. in length, and,
where perfect, is 2 ft. 7 in. in height and width.

Close to the entrance is a ruined chamber, and shortly before
you come to the principal chamber is another passage, running
at right angles to the main passage on the north side, 12 ft.
in length, and ending abruptly. The principal chamber is
9 ft, below the surface, and forms an irregular pentagonal
figure roughly stated to be 9 ft. in diameter.

" The height of the inclosing walls varies from 3 ft. to
4 ft. 6 in. The space within the chamber is very much re-
duced by the method taken to form the roof, which is by
placing stone blocks or pillars, five in number, 2^ or 3 ft. high,
and I ft, square) from 6 to 18 in. from the walls. Triangular
flags are then laid with one angle resting on the pillars, other
flags projected a little forwards rest upon these, and so on, till
by continued overlapping a rude conical-shaped roof is formed,
which at the centre would be 5 or 6 ft, in height.

" A large lintel fire-place, 5 ft. in length and 18 in, square,
rests upon two pillars at the entrance of the chamber." The
animal and other remains found in this eirde-house have been
before mentioned (page 15).

^ Archccologia, vol. xxxiv.


Both the mounds on the side of VVideford Hill and at
Quanterness, and this eirde-house just described are now more
or less filled up with earth and sand.


A drive or walk of about nine miles or so will enable the
ecclesiologist to visit the remains of the round church at
Orphir, one of the most interesting ecclesiastical relics, from
the early days of the Norse Christianity, in the islands. Just
at the end of the town you pass on your right the old road
to Stromness, a short distance up which, on the southern slopes
of Wideford Hill, is held the annual Lammas Fair, the scenes
attending which, in its palmy days. Sir Walter has depicted
in the Fii-ate.

Like fairs in most other parts of Britain the Lammas Fair
is now only the shadowy representation of the great annual
Orcadian saturnalia it formerly was, when business and pleasure
went hand in hand ; when the burgher guard mustered in
the nave of St. Magnus ; and all the ferries to Caithness were for
the time stopped, so as to prevent the escape of any gentleman
troubled with indistinct notions as to the laws of meum and
tuum. It is still, however, a great merry-making, when boat-
loads throng in from the outlying islands for the great Orcadian

Malcolm ^ gives a sketch of the scene as it was in his days,
which is suggestive of a good deal that is said to result from
the " mops," or hiring fairs, of the north of England, as after
describing how the Lammas sister " stood drinks " to her beau,
he goes on to say " and for so doing permits, and doubtless
expects, something more than mere brotherly love."

Just outside the town, a short distance up this old road on
the left-hand side, is the farm of Corse, which Patrick Ncill
suggests may have obtained its name from a cross having stood

^ Malcolm'.s Tales of Flood and Field, &c., p. 297.


there, at which pilgrims from the west knelt on first sighting
St. Magnus. Or can it have obtained its name from an old
memorial cross having stood there to mark the resting-place
of the procession, which brought the remains of the saint from
Birsay, before making their triumphal entry into the village ?

A little to the west of Corse, at a place called Caldale,^ were
found in 1764 some two feet under ground two horns, close to
which were lying several fibulm or crescent-shaped ornaments
of silver, in various designs. In the horns were upwards of
300 coins, of which, unfortunately, the greater part were lost.
Enough, however, remained to show that the find contained
forty-two varieties, coined in different places in England during
the reign of Canute the Great.

A very low-lying valley, which could be easily canalised if it
were worth doing, separates the waters of Kirkwall Bay from
those of Scapa Flow. Shortly after turning down the road to
Orphir you pass the farm of Lingrow, on which were, in 1870,
disinterred from the soil, which had accumulated over them,
the remains of a broch, which in the perfect net-work of build-
ings on its eastern, southern, and south-western sides, affords
one of the best specimens, in connection with these structures,
of secondary occupation. This broch too, and its circumjacent
remains, probably afforded one of the richest collections of
objects of interest for determining the age of these buildings
and the mode of life of their inhabitants. Three Roman coins
were found here, one of the reign of Vespasian, and the other
two of Antoninus.

As you get to the crest of the hill on the eastern side of the
loch of Kirbuster, and about the fourth or fifth milestone, you
get some very pretty views of Hoy.

The loch of Kirbuster contains any amount of trout, running
about five to the pound ; and Waukmill Bay, into which the
stream from the loch flows, is said to be very good for sea-
trout in the autumn. You turn off from the main road about
the eighth milestone, just under Midland Hill, and half a mile

^ Barry'.s Orkney, p. 233.



or so brings you to the parish church, erected in 1829, and of
the usual barn type of edifice, the highest ideal for many
centuries of the Scottish ecclesiastical builders' mind.


At the eastern end of this building are the remains of the
old circular church, which, we have every ground for believing,
was erected by Jarl Hdkon on his return from Jorsalafaring,
and it may be in expiation for his cousin's murder.



The design is supposed to have been taken from that of the
church of the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem.^ From the curva-
ture of the remaining portion; it must have had a diameter of
1 8 to 19 ft. The arched semicircular chancel is 7 ft. 2 in.
wide, and 7 ft. 9 in. deep, and at the east end there is a small
window, 2 ft. 5 in. by 10 in. The side walls of the nave,
Dryden conjectures, may have been 15 ft. or perhaps more
in height, and that on them rested a conical roof

There are five churclies, all of the twelfth century, still
standing in England, all of which were built on the model of
the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Cambridge, consecrated
1 1 01 ; Northampton, about 1115 ; Maplestead, 1118 ; the well-
known Temple Church, 1185 ; and the chapel in Ludlow
Castle. Standing by the little chancel, what memories come
back to us of the Jorsalafaring Jarl and his descendants:
here Paul, Hakon's son, was worshipping at evensong, when
Swein was murdering his namesake in the skdli^ which, as it is
said in the Saga you had to descend from it to the church,
must have stood on the rising ground to the westward, and not
as it is usually supposed, on the north side of the church where
the present farm-buildings are. When these buildings were
being built more than a hundred jaw-bones of dogs and cats
v/ere found. Were the Norsemen given, like the Marlow
bargees, to puppy and kitten pies ?

' Drydcn's Ruined Churches.



" For leagues along the watery way,

Through gulf and stream my course has been ;
The billows know my Runic lay,

And smooth their crests to silent green.

" The billows know my Runic lay, —

The gulf grows smooth, the stream is still ;
But human hearts, more wild than they,

Know but the rule of wayward will." — Scott.

There are two roads to Stromness from Kirkwall ; one
through Orphir, the other through the village of Finstown.
The first, which is very hilly, is eighteen miles in length ; the
second, which is very level, is fourteen and three-quarters.

There are, generally, during summer and early autumn, con-
veyances running daily from the two principal hotels in Kirk-
wall ; which, starting in the morning, return from Stromness
the same afternoon or evening. These conveyances always
take the Finstown road, which, after passing along the northern
slopes of Wideford Hill, skirts the shores of the Bay of Firth,
celebrated even in Jo Ben's day for its oysters, of which Patrick
Neill ^ said, that they were larger than the well known Pandores
of Prcstonpans. The bay of Firth was, in the old Norse days,
known as Aurndafior'^Sr (Salmon-trout Firth) ; and there are said
to be three places on its shores that are fairly good sea-trout

1 Neill's Tour, p. i8.

U 2


spots in the season : at Renebuster ; at Finstown ; and at Isbister.
A few miles beyond Isbister is the Bay of Woodwick, also said
to be worth a trial. In the Bay of Firth is the small level
island of Damsay, supposed to have been called after Saint
Adamnan. On this island was the castle which gave shelter to
Swein the night he murdered Jarl Paul's " forecastleman " at
Orphir, and liere Jarl Erlend was slain, when so drunk with his
Yule-tide wassailing as to be unable to escape. According to
Jo Ben — there was a chapel on the isle dedicated to the Virgin,
to which great ladies were wont to make pilgrimages ; neither
frogs nor toads nor any other earthly evils were to be found
there ; the women were all barren, and, if any happened to
become with child, they never got through their confine-
ments. Monteith ^ speaks of there having been a nunnery on
the island. Can this have been what Jo Ben was referring
to? Neale said the chapel dedicated to Saint Mary had all
but disappeared when he was there in 1848. On reaching
Finstown the road takes a southerly direction, and about the
eighth milestone you pass on your left-hand side the scene of
the battle of Summerdale.

According to local tradition - tlie Caithness men when they
landed determined to slay the first person they encountered,
somewhat on the principle of "first blood." This was in
consequence of a witch, who had met them on landing, walk-
ing before them unwinding two balls of thread, one of blue
and the other of red, and the thread of the latter having
first become exhausted, she told the Earl of Caithness, that
the side on which the first blood was shed would be defeated.
Seeing a short time afterwards a boy herding cattle the Earl
at once slew him, and had hardly done so, when to his horror,
the victim was recognised as a native of Caithness. This is
supposed to have depressed the Caithness men before the fight.
Nevertheless they are said to have fought stoutly, till they were
assailed by the Orcadians with stones, which were supposed

' Sibbald'.s Orkney, p. 5.

^ Calder's History of Caithness, p. 95.


to have been sui)plied by some miraculous interposition, as
the ground, whereon the battle was fought, was on the previous
day said to have been singularly free from stones. When these
missiles commenced to fly about, a sudden panic seized the
Caithness men, who, throwing their arms into the Loch of
Ltimmagem^ fled, and, the Orcadians having destroyed their
boats were slaughtered in detail. Barry - states, that dead
bodies had been found at the end of the last century in a
marsh, through which the vanquished had fled, with the
clothes still entire owing to the antiseptic nature of the soil.
The Earl of Caithness himself is said to have taken refuge in a
farmhouse near Orphir, and to have been betrayed by the woman
of the house to his pursuers, by whom he was immediately
slain. His body was afterwards interred on the field of battle,
where, when Jo Ben wrote, a stone, afterwards removed by
some farmer, marked his grave. One tradition says his head
was severed from his body, and sent to Caithness pour en-
courager. The Orcadians are stated to have lost only one man,
who, having attired himself in the clothes of one of the
slaughtered Caithness men, was returning home at night, and
was slain by mistake by his own mother with a stone in the
foot of one of his own stockings.

Shortly after passing the road to Birsay you come to the
farmhouse Turmiston, close to which is the now far-famed
Maes Howe, and, about three miles further on, you reach
the Bridge of Waith, which crosses the gut, through which the
tide flows into the Loch of Stenness. Close to the bridge the
road from Orphir joins the main road.

This route from Kirkwall is far more picturesque than the
one through Finstown, and the views of the Hoy Hills,
especially after reaching the summit of Midland Hill, are
very beautiful. The old road from the bridge to Stromness
passes to the east of the hill of Cairston, and is about two

' This must be I.oomie Shun, see ant/', p. 217.
- Barry's Orkney, p. 245.


miles in length ; the new road winds round the hill on the
western side, and is a mile longer.

If utterly Avanting in the halo of historic memories which
cluster so thickly round every nook and corner of Kirkwall,
Stromness, which, in the early part of the eighteenth century,
was a village, and nothing more, is far ahead of its eastern
rival in the beauty of its situation and surroundings.

A long narrow street, nearly a mile in length, and, flanked on
both sides by houses, whose gable ends abut on it, runs from
north to south in a curve along the side of a small bay, which
two small holms cut off from Cairston Roads. Each house, on
the seaward side of the street, has, either to itself, or in con-
junction with its neighbour, a pier or jetty. On the landward
side again several steep lanes branch off from the main street
up the hill, at the foot of which the town lies.

The best view of the town is looking down from the highest
part of the old Cairston Road.

When Jo Ben wrote French and Spanish vessels were in the
habit of resorting for shelter to the harbour, but, for a long time,
the place appears to have been nothing more than a hamlet.
Probably the Hudson's Bay Company gave it its first stimulus,
as for a long time Stromness was always the port from which
their vessels took their final leave of British shores.

When the First Statistical Account was written, it v/as com-
puted that 312 vessels annually called in at the port, of which
the greater bulk were Scotch, half as many English, the rest
Irish, with a few foreign craft, and this was a much smaller
number than had been the case earlier in the century. From
this port most of the Arctic expeditions set sail Here too,
during a portion of the autumn of 17S0, lay the D.iscovery and
Resolution, on their return from that circumnavigation of the
globe, in the course of which James Cook, not the least on the
long bead-roll of English seamen who have fought their way
upwards from the ranks, lost his life.

Up to the year 1754 the borough of Kirkwall was in the
habit of assessing the village of Stromness for its own muni-


cipal ^ purposes. In that year, however, the Stromnessians
refused to pay any longer, a course which was justified hy a
judgment of the Supreme Court, and afterwards, on appeal, in
^758) by the House of Lords. This decision set free not only
Stromness, but many other places in Scotland, from the ex-
actions the royal boroughs in their vicinity had been in the
habit of enforcing. The animus engendered by the litiga-
tion is not yet extinct, and Kirkwall pretends to look down
on Stromness, whilst Stromness hates Kirkwall for giving
itself airs.

Short lived as Stromness is, it is not utterly devoid of historical

Near the House of Claistron, on the other side of Cairston
Roads, was born John Gow, the pirate, whose career suggested
to Sir Walter Scott that novel in which he has embodied so
many of the incidents of his northern cruise, short as it was.
His father, a merchant in Stromness, purchased- a piece of
waste ground on the east of the town, on which he erected a
house, and in July, 17 16, a seizin of the whole was executed
in favour of himself, his wife Margaret Calder, and their eldest
son, John, who, after leaving school, proceeded to sea. In
January, 1725, Gow turned up at Stromness with a vessel called
the Revenge^ of 200 tons burden, and mounting twenty-four
large guns, and six small ones. Whilst lying off Stromness he
fell in love with a Miss Gordon, who, according to tradition,
pledged her troth to him at the stone of Odin, in the manner
described in the next chapter. So binding did she consider this
engagement, that, in order to be released from it, she considered
it necessary to journey all the way to London to shake his hand
after his execution in 1729.

At that period Robert Honeyman, who, the same year, was
present when Captain Moodie was killed, resided at Claistron,
and, as at that time banks were totally unknown in the far north,
had to keep under his own care such portions of his rents, as

' Pdrie Papers.


were jjaid in coin of the realm, till he had a chance of sending
it south, or till it was expended for current purposes. (jOw
having heard that Honeyman had received a large sum, de-
termined to look him u]), and make him hand over. Honeyman,
however, saw the looting party landing, and knowing that he
•had not time to remove his cash elsewhere, by the advice of
his wife, who seems to have been a ready-witted woman, placed
it on the floor of an oi)en garret, and then, ripping up a couple
of feather-beds, completely covered the cash-box with the
feathers. After searching all the rest of the house Gow looked
into the garret, and seeing nothing but a huge heap of feathers,
called out to his party : " Come away, my lads ! it is useless for

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