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The Orkneys and Shetland; their past and present state online

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it was customary to leave some votive offering, even if it were
only a stone. The Stone of Odin was destroyed, and the
prostrate one in the Ring of Stenness thrown down, and,
according to Peterkin,^ three others destroyed in December,
1814, by a Highland Goth of a farmer, then tenant of Barn-
house, for the purpose of making byres, or cow-houses. This
man, who, as he is said to have served as an officer in Egypt,
in Abercrombie's expedition, ought to have know^n better, was
only prevented from committing further vandalism by Malcolm
Laing, with two other gentlemen, obtaining an interdict from
the Sheriff's Court. That was not all, as the natives Boycotted
the Ferry Loiiper against whom they had the additional
grudge that some small tenants had been removed to make his
farm, to such an extent, that he was at last compelled to leave
the country. Some four miles or less from the Ring of Bukan,
and about half a mile south of the manse of Sandwick, is an
overthrown cromlech, called The Stones of Via.^ The stones
consist of four short square pillars about 3 ft. high, on which
was supported a square slab, 5 ft. 10 in. by 4 ft. 9 in. by i ft.
Close, too, lies a smaller slab, which has either been placed on
the top of the larger one, or else has ibrmed part of a small
supplemental cromlech.

On a hill called Vestrafiold, but which should be Vestrafjeld,
is a large irregular inclosure, originally fenced all round by
large flags and measuring about 800 yards in circumference.
A watercourse runs through the centre and there are indications
of smaller inclosures. This inclosure, which lies north of the
bay. of Skail, Captain Thomas considered of very great anti-
quity, but was unable to form any idea of what it had been
intended for.

Persons anxious for further information concerning tliis

' See also Neill's Tour, p. 18. - Peterkin's Notes, p. 20.

^ ArchcEologia, vol. xxxiv.


district, are referred to the paper by Captain F. W. L.
Thomas, R.N., in volume xxxiv. of the Archceologia of the
Society of Antiquaries (London), of which the writer has
hirgely availed himself.

About a mile or so from the manse of Sandwick, and on
the south-eastern corner of the Bay of Skail, lie the remains
of the Weem of Skara Brae, one of the most remarkable series
of primitive dwellings known, and which were excavated by the
late Mr. Watt about twenty years ago. They may be described
as a series of chambers and cells arranged on either side of an
irregular passage, the general trend of which is from north-
east to south-west. The passage is from 2 to 3 ft. wide,
and, it is supposed, was from 5 to 6 ft. in height. One
of the chambers, speaking roughly, is 21 ft. 6 in. by
II ft.; another 21 ft. by 19 ft. or 20 ft. In neither case
could the height be ascertained. The whole place is such
a labyrinth of passages, compartments, and cells, that to
attempt to describe it at all clearly would take up far
too much space. The reader, therefore, anxious for fuller
details is referred to Mr. Petrie's paper in volume vii. of the
Proceedings of tJie Scottish Antiquaries. An enormous quantity
of bone and stone implements were found. Amongst the
animal remains were horns and bones of deer, horns of Bos
longifrons and Bos primigeniits., the tooth of a walrus, and
vertebrae of a whale. From the marks on a human bone it is
supposed the inhabitants were, like the New Zealanders till
recent years, given occasionally to "long pig." Several urns,
containing ashes, were found in the chambers, which shows that
the inhabitants must have paid a certain amount of respect to
their departed. In the old house at Skail, erected by Bishop
Graham, Mr. Watt has a collection of implements, &c., found
in the Weem, which he is very kind in showing to strangers.

On the shores of the Bay of Skail a hoard of silver was, in
March 1858, discovered by some boys. The find, which
weighed 16 lbs. altogether, consisted of torques and massive
mantle brooches, all very similar in pattern, also of silver bars


or ingots, and a number of silver coins. One of the coins was
a Khalif al Motadhed, struck at Al Thash (a town of Trans-
oxiana) in the 283rd year of the Hegira, i.e. a.d. 896. Two
EngHsh coins, one a Peter's Penny, coined at York early in
the loth century, the other of ^thelstan " Rex totius Britan-
nioe," 925 — 941. The whole is supposed to have been loot ac-
quired by some Viking in foreign parts and to have formed part
of the stock of some silversmith whose shop had been sacked.^
At the southern corner of the Bay of Skail is a curious arch,
or hole, supposed to have been formed by a vein of trap-rock
giving way. This arch is known as the Hole of Row. First
you have a long narrow geo some fifteen or twenty yards
broad ; then a square hole some height above water level,
which runs right through to the sea on the other side a distance
of some fifty yards. A mile or so south of the Hole of Row
is the Beacon Hill, from the top of which you get one of the
finest views of Hoy that can be obtained from the Mainland.
Not only do you see the Meadow of the Kaim and the cliff's
of Hoy as far as the Old Man, but also the Caithness and
Sutherland coast-line as far as Whitten Head. On the clifi"s
close to the Beacon Hill may be seen a curious example of
the weathering effect of the atmosphere on the rocks, all sorts
of curious quasi-geometrical patterns being cut on them.
About a mile or so beyond this you come to the Castle of
Yeskenabce, a detached stack somewhat similar to that of North
Gaulton. The distance from Skail to Stromness along the
cliffs must be about eight miles, and the walk, on a summer's
evening, when a setting sun is bringing out the rich red colouring
of the cliffs of Hoy, must be a very enjoyable one.

' See Mitchell's Mesehowe, plate and description. See also Cosmo
lunes's Scotland in the Middle Ages, p. 31 1.



— {cojifiniicd).


" This way went the Prince a-fowling ;
Skilful are his men with arrows.
Now is many a heathcock meeting
Death beside the verdant hillocks,
Where the elmbow of the hunter,
Keenly bent, as if by magic,
Makes the moorfowl quickly perish."

Orkiieyinga Saga.

Birsay, the BirgishcrarS, or hunting-ground of the Jarls, is
the north-western parish of the Mainland. In Low's time,
and till quite recent years, Harray and Birsay made one parish,
but, at the present day, the two districts have been severed, and
Birsay has been formed into a quoad sacra parish by itself.

The palace of Birsay is fourteen miles from Stromness, and
eighteen from Kirkwall. From Stromness you pass through
Skail to get there, and driving from Kirkwall your road takes
you through the country of the Harray lairds, of whom Jo
Ben wrote that ignavissimi fiici sunt., a charge certainly that,
from all accounts, could not be brought against them at the
present day. In Harray too, he mentions, was situated a
great church dedicated to the Virgin, much frequented by
people from all the islands, and of which many fables
were told.


The palace of Birsay is situated on the shores of a sandy
bay bounded on the north by the Brough of Birsay, and on
the south by Marwick Head.

The palace originally consisted of a range of buildings
forming four sides of a court which measured 104 ft. 3 in.,
N. and S., by 59 ft. g in. E. and W. The external measure-
ments are 172 ft. 2 in. N. and S., by 120 ft. 10 in. E. and W.
At the S.E., N.E.,and S.W. angles are square projecting towers,
and the main entrance was in the south wall. At the N. is a
portion of an older building. A modern wall has been built
connecting the two flanking towers at the S. end, inside of
which can still be seen the traces of the old wall. The whole
building is now the remains of a shell, and the best portion is
the older part, which has been attributed to the St. Clairs.

In 1858 a large portion of the vv'estern side was blown down.
We know that Jarl Thorfinn in his latter years made this place
his head-quarters, and probably built some sort of dwelling
house, though the chances are that, like an Icelandic Skdli^ it
would be composed partly of wood and partly of stone. Jo
Ben says there was " palatium excellens," in Birsay in his day,
about which he has the following wonderful myth, that a king
of Orkney reigned there named Gavus. But when Julius Caesar
became master of the whole world, Orkney became subject to
the Romans, a fact to which the inscription on a stone bore
witness. That Earl Robert built the new portion of the
building we know as an historical fact. Over the gateway
stood the stone, the inscription on which, " Dominus Robartus
Stewartus Filius Jacobi Quinti Rex Scotorum hoc opus instruxit,"
was held to be proof of treasonable designs, instead, as it
ought to have been, of ignorance of grammar. The stone, on
which this inscription was carved, is said to have been carried
away by the vandal Earl of Morton, who sold the Earldom
estates to the Dundasses. Inside the building, over Lord
Robert's arms, was the motto, "Sic fuit, est, et erit." The
building, which was three storied, was, according to Ijrand,'^ on
' Braiul's Orkney and Zcllandy p. 31.


the first floor decorated on the ceilings with Scriptural subjects,
such as on Noah's Flood, and Our Saviour riding into Jerusalem,
a fact which, when we consider the manner of man Earl Robert
was, is, to say the least, somewhat strange.

Brand said the building had been occupied within twenty
years of the time when he wrote (1700), but was fast falling
into decay.

Sheep-stealing Sand's examination, by Captain Moodie and
James Gordon of Cairston, was, however, held in the building,
and in the sketch of the place given in the introduction to
Low's Tour^ and supposed to have been drawn in the latter half
of the eighteenth century, the palace, though roofless, seems
otherwise entire. From this sketch it appears, that the garden
was on the east side of the building, and that, south of the
garden, was a walled-in paddock. Close to the palace is the
churchyard, in the centre of which stands the parish church.
Into the southern wall of the church a stone is built, on which,
is the word " Bellus," about which all sorts of theories
have been started. The western gable is supposed to have
been a portion of an older building, and the east window. Sir
George Dasent was of opinion, had been removed from
another building. To the E. of the church are the traces of
another one. Jarl Thorfinn, as we know, on his return from
Rome, built Christ Kirk at Birsay ; and Bishop William resided
there till St. Magnus was built. The older church, of which
traces still survive, may therefore have been the original church
erected by Thorfinn. Close to the old school-house are the
remains of old buildings, which, local tradition says, formed the
old episcopal palace.

The churchyard at Birsay, when the writer was there in 1880,
was in a shamefully neglected state, and the same remark may
be applied to most of the graveyards in both the Orkneys and
Shetland. The real fact is, that most of them should either
be closed or enlarged, as in many cases so crowded are they,
that the coffins are hardly below the surface. The Brough of
1 Low's Tour, p. iv.


Birsay is an islet containing about 40 acres, and separated from
the shore by a channel nearly 400 yards broad, of which about
150 yards has a rocky seaweedy bottom, not the pleasantest of
walking. At spring-tides this channel is dry for about three
hours, but the intending visitor to the brough should get a
guide from the village who knows the tide times, and should
be careful not to linger too long, as when the tide does begin to
flow through the channel, it does so like a mill-race.

The remains of the old church^ are on the N.E. side of the
brough, and close to the shore. The chapel consisted of nave,
chancel, and apse. The nave is 28 ft. 3 in. by 15 ft. 6 in.
inside, and was entered by a doorway 3 ft. 2 in. wide, at the
W. end. In the N.E. and S.E. corners of the nave are circular
spaces 5 ft. 6 in., in the S. one of which are the remains of a
staircase, and it is probable that there was a staircase in the
N. one as well. Dryden conjectures that these stairs led to
either turrets or priests' rooms over the chancel, as he does
not think there can have been a rood loft. Anderson is of
opinion the church, like many other Norse churches, was twin-
towered. A stone seat i ft. 2 in. high and i ft. 2 in. broad
in all probability ran round the nave. The entrance to the
chancel is 4 ft. 3 in. wide, and was, probably, surmounted by a
semi-circular arch. In the N. wall of the chancel is a window
3 ft. by 10 in., and below it, to the E., a square archway 3 ft.
high by 2 ft. 8 in. wide, i ft. 11 in. in recess, and i ft. deep,
which, Dryden conjectures, may have been an Easter sepulchre.
The altar was at the chord of the apse, and is supposed to have
been 4 ft. i in. by 2 ft. 7 in. In later times the apse was
blocked ofif by a reredos. Both nave and chancel are supposed
to have had tie-beam roofs. The apse,, which is horse-shoe
shaped, is supposed to have been similar to that at Orphir, and
therefore vaulted. Dryden puts the date of its erection at about
the year iioo, and supposes it to have been built by Erlend
Thorfmn's son. Barry states it was dedicated to St. Peter,
but, in the sketch given in the Introduction to Low's Tour^

' Dryden's Ruined Churches,


it is called St. Colme's Church. It was inclosed by a wall,
traces of which can still be seen, 2)Z yds. by 27 yds., and for a
long time was used as a cru^ or sheepfold. There are some
very pretty views of the coast-line to be obtained from the top
of the brough, which is about 90 ft. in height on the western
side, and there is said to be, on that side, a cave worth exploring
in a boat.

To the south of the palace, along the sand-hills, and not far
from where you commence the ascent of Marwick Head, is the
Knowe of Saverough, opened by Mr. Farrer in 1862.^ In this
knowe were found a number of stone cists containing the
remains of jjeople of all ages. Some of the skulls which were
Kumhe-Kephalic^ or boat-shaped, were of a very low type,
others again, and those the ones in the best preservation, were
of a much higher class. Dr. Thurnam, one of the authors of
the Crania Britatinica, had no hesitation in stating that the
remains were those of the ancient Celtic inhabitants. A clay
jar of peculiar formation, now in the Museum at Edinburgh,
was found near one of the cists, and, not far from the jar, the
remains of a building, in which were several bone implements,
one of them being a comb, very similar in form to those used
to clean the heads of dirty children. Close to the building
was discovered a cist containing the bell mentioned at page 7,
which, Anderson ^ conjectured, may have been buried to prc'
serve it from profanation by the pagan Vikings, somewhere in
the ninth century. It is therefore not improbable, that the
Norse church on the Brough of Birsay was preceded by an
earlier Celtic one, to which the bell lately resuscitated may have
belonged. The legend of the Norse church having been
dedicated to St, Colme, or St. Columba, points to this. Birsay
may now be described as the tiiansiest parish in Scotland, as to
the S.E. of the church is the " old manse " of the sketch before
referred to. Close to the church is the "Minister's House,"
also shown, in which Low spent the last twenty years of his

' Proc. Scot. Ant. vol. ii. p. 10.

- Anderson's Scotland m Early Christian Times, vol. i. p. 169.


life, and, to the N.E. of the church, the new manse erected
a year or so ago. An explorer, desirous of spending a few days
in these parts, could get a very comfortable sitting-room and
bed-room at the old school-house.

Perhaps, too, the manse, which has just been given up, may be
converted into a lodging-house for tourists during the summer
and autumn months. Okstro Broch from which the great
antiquity of the brochs has been proved, lies a little to the east
of Saverough.^

There is a very pretty walk along the cliffs to Costa Head,
478 ft. high, from which a very fair panorama all around can
be obtained. The sea-face of the head is very fine, presenting
a perpendicular face of red sandstone to the waves of the
Atlantic 400 ft. in height. On the western side of the head
is a very picturesque isolated stack known as Gull Castle.
Marwick Head, on the southern side of the Bay of Birsay, is
a very fine bold headland 263 ft. in height. Between it and
Skail, the life-buoy which Mr. Sands despatched from St. Kilda,
and to which he attached a message announcing the shipwreck
of the Austrian vessel, was picked up in 1877. It was sent
adrift from the island on the 30th of January, and, on the 8th
of February, the message was being telegraphed south to the
Admiralty, and on the 22nd H. M.S. Jackal took off both the
Austrians and Mr. Sands from their island prison.^ It was very
wonderful that the life-buoy should have traversed the 185
nautical miles between St. Kilda and the Orkneys in so short a
lime. The loch of Birsay is a good-sized sheet of water holding
very fair trout averaging half a pound apiece. It, like the lochs
of Stenness and Harray, has been raked to death with the otter,
but, if that can only be stopped, it ought to become a very fair
angling water. East of the loch of Birsay, or Boardhouse as
it is sometimes called, is the loch of Hundland, in which, how-
ever, the trout are small, averaging about four or five to the

^ Arch. Scot. vol. v. p. 76.

^ Sands's Out of the World ; or. Life in St. Kilda.


Ijound. East of Hundland is the loch of Swannay, said to be
a very good angling water, the property of Mr. Brotchie of
Swannay. From Swannay, round the east side of the West
Mainland to Finstown, there is nothing to interest the tourist
either in the way of scenery or antiquities.




Hoy and IVaJh.

" See Hoy's Old Man ! whose summit bare
Pierces the dark blue fields of air ;
Based in the sea, his fearful form ■
Glooms like the spirit of the storm ;
An ocean Babel, rent and worn
By time and tide, — all wild and lorn ;
A giant that hath warred with heaven.
Whose ruined scalp seems thunder-riven ;
Whose form the misty spray doth shroud.
Whose head the dark and hovering cloud
Around his dread and louring mass.
In sailing swarms the sea-fowl pass ;
But when the night-cloud o'er the sea
Hangs like a sable canopy.
And when the flying storm doth scourge.
Around his base the rushing surge,
Swift to his airy clefts they soar,
And sleep amidst the tempest's roar,
Or with its howling round his peak,
Mingle their drear and dreamy shriek." — Malcolm.

Hoy, the Haey (High Island) of the Sagas, well deserves
the name given to it by the old Vikings of the Western Haf,
and the contrast between the scenery of this, from a painter's
point of view, the gem of the Orcadian group, and that of the
rest of the islands is very marked. Strictly speaking, only


that portion of the island lying to the north of a line drawn
from the Green Head to the mouth of the Summer Burn is
Hoy, all south of that, as far as Long Hope, is North Walls,
and the southern peninsula, or island as it becomes at high
water with high spring-tides, is South Walls, the Vagaland of
the Sagas. For descriptive purposes, however, all north of
Long Hope may be considered as Hoy. Allowing this to be
the case, Hoy measures some eleven miles from the Kaim to
Melsetter, and varies in breadth from three and a-half to five

The whole of the interior of Hoy is one continuous suc-
cession of rugged, torrent-worn hills, alternating with glens
of the wildest Highland type and cliff-surrounded meadows.
The coast-line, on the western side, is one of the finest stretches
of rock scenery in the British Isles — glorious not only from
the vast height of its precipices, but also from the wonderfully
beautiful colouring of some of its rocks. Till the route of the
mail steamer was altered in the summer of 1880, passengers,
on their way between Thurso and Stromness, were enabled to
see the whole of this magnificent panorama from the steamer,
but, with the new route, unless the steamer, to cheat the tide,
should make for the Berry Head, only a very distant view is
obtained. To see the portion between the Kaim and the Old
Man, a boat must be chartered from Stromness, and, in fine
weather, few more enjoyable boating excursions can be made.

A south-easterly wind is best, as it is not only a sojer'' s wind
to and fro, but also insures smooth water — no slight con-
sideration to most people on such an exposed coast. As
a rule, the boatmen like to leave with the last of the flood, so
as to have the young flood to help them through Hoy Sound
on their return. The smaller boats in the South Isles are all
sprit-rigged, and are built very much on the same lines as the
same class of boats in the south ; in the North Isles the boats
approximate more to the Shetland yawl, and are generally
smack or cutter rigged, the worst rig of all for an open boat,
as you, very often, have a difiiculty in taking sail off at a


moment's notice, that is to say, when going free. When Scott ^ was
in the isles, he seems to have been of opinion, that the Orkney-
men were inferior to the Shetlanders in the management of
boats under sail. Whatever it may have been then, it certainly
is not the case at the present day amongst the regular boatmen.
When in Shetland, to cross a dirty bit of firth, you require, or
are told you require, a big boat and six men ; in the southern
group, where the tideways are much stronger, two men will
serve your turn as well. A Shetlander almost always cuts a
string of tide under oars, an Orcadian under canvas.

Leaving behind you the harbour and Cairston Roads, rich in
memories of Ross, Parry, Franklin, and other Arctic voyagers,
you skirt along the green isle of Graemsay, Pharos-surmounted
at each end, and, after opening up the glen between the Ward
and Cuilags Hills, come to the Geos of Selwick and Selwick
Little, where in very fine weather you can land to explore tlie
Meadow of the Kaim, of which more hereafter. Then round
the Kaim itself, which, unlike its nearly perpendicular Foulaese
namesake, slopes down to the sea. Here you come in sight
of Sir Walter's likeness, carved by Dame Nature herself on
the cliffs between the Kaim and Braebrough. Up to Brae-
brough you have a precipitous rock slope, here interspersed
with grassy patches, here seamed with gullies, down which,
in wet weather, foaming torrents rush to the sea.

All along this face sheep and their shepherdesses can
wander more or less, though occasionally, tempted by some
promising bit of herbage, sheep have been known to reach
places from which there was no return, and have been com-
pelled to remain, till they either fell over the banks, or were
starved to death. Braebrough, or St. John's Head, the highest
point of the whole cliff-line (1,140 feet high), stands out like a
projecting buttress. From here to the Old Man the cliffs gradu-
ally decrease in height. In the early part of this century the Old
Man (450 feet) stood, so to speak, on two legs, an arch piercing
through the lower portion of the stack. Towering, as it still
^ ScoWs Life, vol. iii. p. 144.



does, over the cliff-line in the immediate vicinity, and a
prominent landmark even from the Caithness coast, the Old
Man ^ is now on his last leg, and sooner or later must
succumb to the pounding blows of the Atlantic, so rarely
in perfect rest in these latitudes. Here in very fine weather
you can land, eat your lunch, and stretch your legs, which
last, after an hour or so's cramped boat-work, you will not
be sorry to do. You can even climb to the top of the cliffs
in the immediate neighbourhood, but it is a stae brae.

When you can get tides to suit, the best time to view this
coast-line is, when a declining sun brings out the full beauty
of the colouring, which at other times is to a great extent lost.
Peterkin - narrates how the good ship Albion., of Blyth, was, in
November, 1815, driven ashore at a place called the Stower,
between the Old Man and Roray Head (337 feet). Only two of
the crew were left on the ill-fated craft, all the rest had been

Online LibraryJohn R TudorThe Orkneys and Shetland; their past and present state → online text (page 27 of 59)