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The Orkneys and Shetland; their past and present state online

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you to spoil your cloaths with feathers by rummaging tliis
d d old cock-loft." For this incident, as for other infor-
mation relating to old Orcadian families, the writer has to
thank Mrs. Hiddleston, of Stromness, a lineal descendant of
Sheriff Honeyman. Mr. Petrie,^ on the other hand, made out,
that all the violence and looting was committed by the crew
under the leadership of the boatswain, and against Gow's
wishes, and that what finally compelled him to put to sea
was the boatswain having plundered Honeyman's house on
Graemsay, and carried away four females. Both goods and
females were, according to Petrie, at once re-landed on Graem-
say; and knowing this exploit would make the neighbourhood
of Stromness too hot for him, Gow put to sea the same evening,
fearing that if he loitered in such a land-locked anchorage he
might be cauglit like a rat in a trap. Here we will leave Gow
for the present, and turn our attention to another Stromnessian
of a very different stamp, George Stewart, the unfortunate
midshipman of the Boimty.

He was descended from Walter Stewart, who, in 1636, was
presented by Cliarles I. to the living of South Ronaldsay and
Burray, and who was tlie ancestor of the Stewarts of
Massetter, in South Ronaldsay, of whom Alexander Stewart,

' Pttrie Papers. See also Appendix T, pp. 633-7.


the father of George, was the last male rejjresentative, having
survived all his sons. Poor George's horrible death in irons
in the Pandora's box, due to the fiendish cruelty of Captain
luhvards, and the mournful death of Peggy Stewart, his
beautiful Otaheitan wife from a broken heart, are too well
known to need further notice here. The whole story fur-
nished Byron with the materials for his poem T/'ie Island.
A child of Stewart and Peggy was living up to nearly the
middle of the jiresent century, and probably left children, who
now, if it is admitted that George Stewart was married to
Peggy, and the marriage was quite as good as many that are
recognised as such north of the Tweed, represent the old
minister of South Ronaldsay and Burray, who himself came of
" well kent folk," being one of the Stewarts or Steuarts of
GrandtuUy, in Perthshire. Another character, in the Pirate,
that of Noma, was suggested to Scott when the lighthouse
yacht was lying in Cairston Roads. Bessy Millie, who lived
to upwards of ninety years of age, in 18 14 resided at the top
of one of the steep lanes in a house which is still pointed out,
and did a big business amongst wind-bound skippers by selling
favourable winds.

In Claistron House, too. Sir Walter was entertained by Mrs.
Rae, the mother of the well-known Arctic ex])lorer, who was
born in the house Govv, alias Gow Smith, intended looting.
There is a museum in the town, which is said to possess a very
good mineralogical collection. i\mongst the fossils is the original
Asterolepis discovered by Plugh Miller under the Black Craig.
There appears, however, to be a sad want of energy amongst
the committee, and the whole collection seems to want looking
after. A very pretty walk may be taken along the coast-line
passing Breck Ness, where are still to be seen the remains of the
old mansion-house erected by Bishop Graham, that indefatigable
house-builder. Close to the Black Craig is the quarry in which
many fossil fish have been found, as well as the Asterolepis.
.■\t the foot of the cliff, which is 363 feet in height, is a
cave, generally known as Charlie's Hole, from the fact of


the only survivor of a Dundee schooner, wrecked here in
1834, having been washed into it with a portion of the
wreck. About a mile or so beyond the Black Craig is a
stack known as North Gaulton Castle, which the action of
the waves has worn somewhat peculiarly, being smaller in
the centre than either at the base or summit.



— {continued).

De risciBus, Alois, et reeus Vetustis.

The Lochs of Ste/itiess and Harray ; Maes Howe ; The Rin^^'s
of Stenness and Brogar ; and The JVeeni of Skara Brae.

Nowhere else on British soil are to be found so many relics
of that prehistoric past, about which we have no written
records at all, as in the six or seven miles of Orcadian soil,
which commence with the chambered mound of Maes Howe,
and end with the Weem or group of primitive dwellings at
Skara Brae, on the shores of the Bay of Skail.

It is an excursion replete with interest, not only to the
archaeologist and professed student of prehistoric lore, but
to any one, whether antiquarian or not, who is not utterly
devoid of that sympathy with the past, which culture in its
highest sense must inevitably impart.

Not only is the excursion interesting from an antiquarian
point of view, but, in fine weather, the varied scenery you see
in the course of it is of itself almost enough to repay you.

A good pedestrian, who was willing to devote a long
summer's day to it, might accomplish the whole round in a
little over twenty miles.

Those, who do not care for so big a walk, can drive out
to the farmhouse of Turmiston, about six miles or so from


vStromness, and, sending their conveyance to await their arrival
at Skail, walk across themselves.

Before entering the Maiden's Mound, as Professor Barclay
has translated Maes Howe, we may as well say a few words
about the two lochs of Stenness and Harray, which some
enthusiastic natives Iiave dubbed the Orcadian Windermere.
If not up to the Queen of the English Lake District, these lochs
have, like everything else in these northern regions, a quaint,
weird charm of their own, more especially in the case of the
upper loch, that of Ilarray, when the hills of Hoy are lighted
up by the setting sun, and the stones of the Ring of Brogar
look something uncanny, as their shadows lengthen out. The
lower loch, that of Stenness, is an irregular-shaped piece of
water some four miles or so long, and a little over two miles
broad at the lower end. The lake is brackish, if not perfectly
saline, and is connected with the Bay of Ireland by a channel
about three-quarters of a mile in length. The lower portion
of this next the sea, about six hundred yards long, is known as
The Bush., though why so called no one can explain. This
stretch of water is a favourite resting-place for sea-trout before
running into the lochs, and, under favourable conditions, ought
to afford splendid sport. It is just like fishing a very rapid
river, and the best time of tide is from half ebb round to
half flood. A westerly wind and lots of it accompanied by
rain is said to suit it best. The loch of Stenness at times
swarms with fish. Not only are the coal-fish {Merlangus
Carbonarius) caught there, but also skate, cod, and very large
flounders, and in winter time herrings find their way in. In
addition to sea-trout, and the ordinary loch-trout, a special
variety of Salmonidce is found, to which Dr. Glinther has given
the name of Salino Orcadensis. Most of the wild fowl, too,
which visit the Orkneys in winter are to be found on this loch
and the adjoining one of Harray : and from the Bridge of Waith
down to the sea is a favourite spot for gunners at flight time.
If the Fauna of the lochs is a very varied one, the Flora is no less
so. Close to the Bridge of Waith you have seaweeds alone, a


little further on seaweeds mixed with fresh-water plants, and in
the loch of Harray fresh-water j)lants alone. The upper loch,
which is four and a-half miles long, three-quarters of a mile
broad for the greater part of its length, and a mile and a-half
at the northern end, is the best for brown trout, and a portage
of little over forty yards enables you to take your boat from
the one loch to the other. For years nets, set lines, and the
infernal poaching machine, the otter, have been used to such
an extent, that it is a wonder any trout have been left, but,
now the Orkneys have been formed into a salmon lishery
district, set lines and otters become illegal, and netting can
no longer be carried on with the herring-net mesh, and in the
reckless manner hitherto in vogue. In fact, if only the fish can
be protected in the spawning season, these two lochs should
for angling be second to none in Scotland. There is a small
loch called Rango, connected with the north-western end of
the Loch of Stenness, belonging to Mr. Graham Watt, of
Skail, which is said to hold very large trout. Whilst on the
subject of angling, it may be as well to mention that splendid
sport is said to be got in Hoy Sound during summer and early
autumn, spinning a natural or artificial sand eel for Whiting
Pollack, or, as they are termed in Scotland, Lythe [Merlangus
PoUachius) the gamest of all sea-fish, for which eighty (o
one hundred yards of trolling line and the stoutest of salmon
gut traces are wanted. To return to our antic^uarian muttons.
Maes Howe or the Maiden's Mound is a truncated cone
92 ft. in diameter, 36 ft. high, and measuring about 300 ft.
in circumference at the base. The mound stands in the centre
of a circular platform, 270 ft. in diameter, which is surrounded
by a trench 40 ft. wide, and varying in depth from 4 to 8 ft,
A long passage 54 ft. in length leads to the central chamber.
The axis of this passage, which is perfectly straight, is from
N.E. to S.W., or nearly so, the entrance being at the S.W.
end. The passage, for the first 22 A ft., is 2 ft. 4 in. wide,
and originally must have been the same in height. For the
next 26 ft. it is 3 ft. 3 in. x 4 ft. 4 in. ; it is then narrowed by


two upright stone slabs to 2 ft. 5 in. Immediately beyond
these slabs the passage extends 2 ft. 10 in., and is 3 ft. 4 in.
wide by 4 ft. 8 in. high. On the north-western side of the
passage, just where it begins to widen out, at 22 ft. 6 in.
from the entrance, is a triangular recess, 2 ft. deep, and 3 ft.

6 in. in height and width, opposite to which, in the passage,
a stone, of such dimensions that it would fit into the recess,
was found, and which was probably used to block up the
passage. From this recess the roof, sides, and floor were
formed of four immense slabs of stone, of Avhich only one is
now anything like entire, and it is cracked.

The central chamber is 15 ft. square on the floor and
13 ft. in height, so far as the walls still remain. The roof is
formed by the stones, at the height of six feet from the floor,
gradually overlapping, as in the case of the chambers in the
brochs and the other chambered mounds, a peculiarity in
construction that makes Anderson ^ beheve it must have been
erected in Pictish or Celtic times. At each angle of the
chamber are huge buttresses of stone from 8 to 10 ft. in
height, and about 3 ft. square at the base. Immediately
opposite the passage, 3 ft. above the floor, is an opening
2 ft. wide, 2 ft. 6 in. high, and i ft. 10^ in. long, leading to
a cell having a raised floor 5 ft. 8 in. long, 4 ft. 6 in. wide,
and 3 ft. 6 in. high. On the south-eastern and north-western
sides are similar openings and cells. The opening on the
south-eastern side is 2 ft. 6 in. wide, 2 ft. 9 in. high, and i ft.
8 in. long. The cell on this side is 6 ft. 10 in. long, 4 ft.

7 in. wide, and 3 ft. 6 in. high, and, like the first one, has
a raised flagged floor. The opening on the north-western
side is 2 ft. 3 in. wide, 2 ft. 6 in. high, and i ft. 9 in. long.
The cell is 5 ft. 7 in. long, 4 ft. 8 in. wide, and 3 ft. 4 in.
high. This cell has no raised floor. The roofs, floors,
and back walls of each cell are, in each case, formed by
single slabs, and stones, which, from their dimensions, look
as if they had been used to fill in the openings, were found

^ Ork. Sa^'. Intro., p. cii.


on the floor. These stones, Farrer conjectured, were used to
seal up the vaults, for which purpose he fancied these chambers
had been intended. There is a finish and a thoroughness
about the workmanship of the chamber, that shows, that, were
the builders Picts or were they Norsemen, they were not
accustomed to scamp their work ; and the enormous size of the
stones used in the passage speaks volumes for the engineering
capacity of the people who can have transported such huge
masses from the place where they were quarried.

Till it was opened by Mr. Farrer in July, 1861, the mound
was known in the district as the abode of "the Hog boy."
No one could tell why ; though, as Anderson ^ shows, the
word is simply the Norse Hai/g-bid, the tenant of the haug
or tomb,; that is, a hoy-laid man, or the goblin that guards
the treasure. How customs survive, or crop up, sometimes
long after they appear to have been forgotten ! When the
buccaneers, the Vikings of the seventeenth century, hid
treasure in the many sandy keys in the West Indies, they are
said to have slain a negro to keep ward and watch over it.
When the principal chamber was being cleared, an immense
quantity of rimes were found inscribed on the walls. Runes,
as the Scandinavian characters used in ancient days are termed,
are divided into two classes, the early Gothic, and the later
or Norwegian division of the Scandinavian runes. No runic
inscriptions at all had, strange to say, been previously found
in the Orkneys, otherwise so rich in relics of the Norsemen.
Most of the runes in Maes Howe belong to the Norwegian
division. Many of them are mere scribbles, such as an idle
man might cut from sheer want of something to do. Some
twenty-six were submitted to Professors Stephens, Munch, and
Rafn, of Copenhagen, who have, on the whole, not differed so
much in their translations as scientists are wont to do on
such occasions.

Altogether, we gather, from the runes, that the mound
was known to the Norsemen as Ofkahaz/g, or the Mighty
^ Ork. Saj. Intro., p. ci.


Mound ; that treasure was supposed to have been hidden in it,
in search of which the Jorsalafarars, probably some of those
who accompanied Jarl Rognvald to the Holy Land, had broken
into it ; and that the Norsemen were ignorant of the origin of
the mound. On the buttress, on the left-hand side on entering,
is cut a cross, which must have been carved by one, who either
was on his road to Jerusalem, or had been there. On another
of the buttresses a dragon is most beautifully incised, which,
from its similarity to one found at Hanestad in Scania, Rafn
assigns to heathen times. Another nondescript sort of carving
Stephens calls a worm knot, and Rafn says is a symbol found
on runic stones at the end of the heathen and commencement
of the Christian periods. Many of the names inscribed are
the same as those of persons mentioned in the Saga as relations
and friends of Jarl Rognvald. One inscription is translated
by Munch as : " Ingigerthr is of women the most beautiful,"
much as if a love-sick schoolboy enamoured of his tutor's
daughter should write : "Edith is a stunning girl."

Now Jarl Rognvald had a daughter called Ingirid (p. 164 of
the Saga) and Ingigerd (p. 188), who was married to Eirik
Slagbrellir shortly after her father's return to the Orkneys.
Can Eirik in a spoony fit have cut this tribute to his young
woman's good looks ?

The only mention in the Saga of the mound, supposing it to
be the same Orkahatig, is when Jarl Harald, on his way to
surprise Jarl Erlend at Yule-tide, turned in to have carouse by
the way at Orkahaug. The drinking was probably heavy, as
the Saga states that their journey was delayed owing to two of
the party having been seized with madness, or, to speak plainly,
having an attack of delirium tremens. Those anxious for
further information as to Maes Howe and its runic inscriptions
are referred to Y^xxox'?, Maes Howe ; to W^\\.q\-\^\X?> Mesehoive ;
to a paper by Dr. John Stuart in volume v. of The Proceedings
of the Society of A7iiiquaries of Scotland ; to a notice by Dr.
Charlton in volume vi. of Archcsologia ^Eliana ; and to The
Runic Monuments of Scandinavia and England^ by Professor


George Stephens, Copenhagen, 1866-68. From Maes Howe
you get a most beautiful view of both lochs, of the Rings of
Stenness and Brogar, and of the hills running up on the western
side of the Loch of Stenness to Skail, which are overtopped at
their southern end by the hills of Hoy.

To the Ring of Stenness from Maes Howe is, according to
Farrer, a mile and a half, though the writer would not have
thought it so much. Stenness, the Steinsness of the Saga of
Olaf Tryggvi's son, is generally applied to the jutting points on
both sides of the Bridge of Brogar, but, in all probability, it is
only strictly applicable to the southern one, on which, some
little distance from the bridge, is the Ring of Stenness. This
consists of a circular mound, which, on the eastern side, has
been completely obliterated, 104 ft. in diameter. Outside of
the mound came a broad ditch, around which again was a
circumscribing mound.

The diameter of the whole must from outer edge to outer
edge have been 234 ft. ; the circular mound and embankment
being both 3 ft. above the natural level of the ground.

At the southern corner of the circular platform still stand
two upright stones, measuring respectively 17 ft. 4 in, x
6 ft. X 8 in., and 15 ft. 2 in. X 4 ft. x i ft. 3 in. A
little to the west again is a stone lying prostrate, which
measures 19 ft. X 5 ft. X i ft. 8 in., and is supposed to weigh
1071 tons. On the western side of the circle are the re-
mains of a cromlech, one of the legs of which, 2 ft. high,
remains m situ., and another has fallen outwards. The
capstone, or covering stone, remains, and measures 9 ft. X
6 ft. X 6 in.

About 150 yards to the north of the Ring of Stenness,
stood, till the year 18 14, a stone somewhat similar to the ones
still erect, but having a hole through it a little on one side
of the centre, and at a height of 5 ft. from the ground,
according to Captain Thomas's informant, and 3 ft. according
to Dr. Henry. To the east of the ring and stone last men-
tioned, which was known as the stone of Woden or Odin,



was the old church of Slenness, at the west end of which
was a circular tower.

North-west of the Ring, close to tlie 15ridge of Brogar, is a
solitary standing stone, known as the Watchstone, i6 ft. X
5 ft. 3 in. X I ft. 4 in.

On the other side of the bridge, about half to three-quarters
of a mile further on, is the Ring of Brogar, which most people
call, though incorrectly, the Stones of Stenness. Betbre arriving
at this ring you pass two small standing stones, one of which
is broken, and a small tumulus, on which are the stumps
of two stones. Brogar means the bridge of the inclosure, from
the Scandinavian bro or bni^ a bridge, and .^f^'v/, an inclo-
sure. The Ring of Brogar consists of a circular piece of
ground of a diameter of 340 ft., surrounded by a broad fosse
or ditch of an average depth of 6 ft. The diameter of the
whole, from outer edge of fosse on one side, to outer edge on
the other, is 424 ft. 4 in.

This fosse is crossed at the W.N.W. and E.S.E. sides by
causeways 1 7 ft. 8 in. broad. Originally the circle must have,
according to Captain Thomas, consisted of some sixty stones,
each standing 13 ft. 2 in. from the inner edge of the fosse,
and 17 ft. 8 in. from its neighbours. Thirteen stones are still
standing ; ten are lying prostrate ; and the stumps of thirteen
are still visible. The highest pillar is 13 ft. 9 in., and the
average height 9 ft. above surface. These stones are all
flagstones of Old Red Sandstone formation, and are supposed
to have been quarried some miles off at Sandwick. Lichen
covered, they look, as they are, hoary monuments of ages
long passed away. North-west of the Ring of Brogar, about a
mile further on, is the Ring of Bukan, consisting of an internal
area having a diameter of 136 ft, surrounded by a trench with
sloping sides 44 ft. wide at bottom, and averaging about 6 ft.
in depth.

On the circular internal space were, when Captain Thomas
wrote, traces of five or six tangential circles, about 6 ft. each
in diameter, and several stones were lying about, which he



conceived might have been the remains of small cromlechs.
Scattered all about the neighboiirliood are numerous tumuli,
many of which have been opened from time to time.

In one that was opened by Mr. Farrer on the 17th of July,
1854, was found a cist 2 ft. 6 in. by 2 ft., in which was
contained an urn i ft. 9 in. in diameter, 1 ft. 6 in. deep, anil
5 ft. 10 in. in circumference, the outer rim being i^ in. in
width. This urn, which was formed out of some micaceous
stone not to be met with in the Orkneys, contained burnt bones
and ashes. Now we know from the Saga of Olaf Tryggvi's son,
that Havard Arsjeli ^ was slain by his nephew Einar Kilning at
Sfeinsness^ and that the spot where he fell was afterwards
called Havard's teigr — teigr meaning an individual's share of
the tun-land. Havard's teigr is the name by which the
promontory is still known by the natives, so that it is not
impossible the urn in question may have contained the ashes of
Ragnhild's second victim. Now Havard is supposed to have
been slain somewhere about 970, when the district was known
as Steinsness, which looks as if the Norsemen had found the
stones, &c., standing on their arrival. And, as we have every
reason to believe their immediate Pictish predecessors were
Christian, we must go back, to before the middle of the sixth
century, for the date of the erection of these circles and
cromlechs. Both Worsae and Munch unhesitatingly speak of
the circles as Celtic. It is not impossible, however, that the
Norsemen finding the stones in position, may have utilised
them for some of their own pagan rites, and that a tradition of
such pagan rites may have come down to quite modern times.
We know that the Ring of Brogar was called the Temple
of the Sun,2 and that of Stenness the Temple of the Moon,
till (juite recent years ; and, from a paper communicated
to the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in 1784 by Dr.
Henry, then minister of Greyfriars, we learn some of the
customs, that had, within twenty or thirty years, prior to that

^ See ante, p. 25.

^ Low's Tour, Intro., p. xxii.


date, subsisted amongst the people of the district. It appears
that, on the first day of the new year, they were in the habit of
assembhng at the Kirk of Stenness, having provisions with
tliem for several days. As long as these lasted thty feasted
and danced away in the Kirk. As the young people had,
owing to this custom, a greater opportunity of meeting than
they otherwise would have had, many marriages resulted.
When therefore a couple had made up their minds on the
subject, they were in the habit of stealing away from their
companions and repairing to the Temple of the Moon, where
the woman in the presence of the man knelt down and prayed
to Woden, or Odin, to help her to be faithful to the man ; then
they adjourned to the Temple of the Sun, where the man
went through a similar ceremony ; and finally returned to the
Stone of Odin, where, one standing on one side and the other
on the other, they shook hands through the hole in the stone,
and swore to be faithful to each other. This ceremony was
considered so sacred, that it was thought to be infamous to break
it. Principal Gordon,^ in fact, was told that the way it came to
light was, that a man, having seduced a girl under promise of
marriage, was being rebuked with such severity by the Kirk
elders, that the minister was led to ask how they were so very
hard on the culprit, and was told that the man had broken the
promise of Odin. The worthy elders no doubt looked upon
a little seduction as a very minor offence, but breaking the
promise of Odin was a very serious matter. The Stone of
Odin, in fact, was the place where the knot matrimonial was
tied ; and when a couple thought they were too much married,
and wanted to slip the knot, they went into the Kirk, and the
one going out by the south door and the other by the north
was considered to have legally dissolved the marriage tie, and
left them both free for a second venture. The process certainly
was as simple and inexpensive as could be desired ; and the
idea of looking upon a church as a sort of inanimate Sir
James Hannen was charming !

' Arch. Scot, vol. i. p. 2C3.


Captain Thomas was informed that, if an infant was passed
through the hole of Odin, it would never, when grown up,
shake w'ith palsy ; ^ and that, up to the time of its destruction,

Online LibraryJohn R TudorThe Orkneys and Shetland; their past and present state → online text (page 26 of 59)