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ELWICK BAY TO GRUKALTY, SHAPINSAY May 15th 2013

The tall crenellated cylindrical structure to the left as you come into Shapinsay is called the Dishan Tower from its use in the 19thC as a primitive shower called a douche-house, hence its other name of The Douche. However this use must have been late in the century as the first O.S. still marks it as a doocot. It dates back to the 17thC when Cliffdale held court over Shapinsay. The obvious dovecot on top is decribed as a corbie-stepped cap-house in the NMRS. presumably more pigeons came in through the long narrow vertical slots in the seaward side. It does seem a strange setup, even with an entrance up on the landward side you wonder if the dovecôte didn't somehow come before the tower. And if it is as was, what of the Rendall Doocot's claim to be the only circular one in Orkney ? Everything in excess. As you come into the harbour the slope-roofed structure to the left of the pier, topped by three large slabs, used to be a kind of toilet block. You entered round the back, between it and the harbour wall, and the tides took away the effluent. Simples. Left of this structure a small circular tower is actually set into the harbour wall, with a side-on entrance having a long lintel of pale red stone keyed into the wall and a small window aperture in the centre of a deep oval depression in a stone block. Inside is equally pretty but the step up still gives no indication of any utilitarian use for this tower.
This side of Shapinsay/Shapinsha goes by the name of Sound. And we were sounding out the coast, first passing between the slim Phrygian cap-ped pillars and by the side of the early 17thC gatehouse, yet another ornamental design from when the Balfours took over the Cliffdale lands. Following the path coming close to the Dishan Tower on the landfacing side of the track is a large wooden object resembling a chipboard boat or landing craft (the front sloping forward), though the first thought in my mind is narrow boat [in non-PC terms barge]. The bottom is slightly curved, like one of those herb choppers chefs use on telly.

If I come this way again I must see if I can locate the prehistoric stuff eroding out of the shoreline southwest of the castle. This Iron Age site is called Setter Noost [sic]. HY41NE 13 at HY47301621 is believed to cover an area of about forty metres square by including more midden and various lumps and bumps above the shore. In 1972 in the low shore twenty metres west of a ruined lime kin in a seventeen metre exposure the O.S. saw several orthostats and bits of drystane wall as well as a midden 1.3 metres thick. At the west end of this an obvious external wall-face was in 1985 thought to be from some kind of round house, and quite a large one at that. In 1998 the Setter Noust site is described as walling indicative of an early structure and tumbled stone, with pot and bone and burnt stone in the extended midden [burnt mound ?]. Where was the Seatter farm, is the obvious question ?
It is certain that there is more prehistory to the area. Balfour Castle is based on an earlier grand house called Cliffdale, and sometime prior to 1796 house-building nearby, close to the site of several failed lead mines, an erdhus came to light out of the blue. The present location of HY41NE 12 is unknown, most likely swallowed up by the much enlarged grounds. Sunk about a yard deep it had a roof of large slabs set on four foot high pillars, also called masonry piers. It comprised twin hexagonal cells, each about 8' across, and a rectangular one. The relative position of the components isn't given and that the latter is described as "as large as both" the hexagonal cells is rather ambiguous.This unusual design is listed as a souterrain. A finger-ring of gold came from this passage.

A little further on there are the lower walls of some mediaeval structure, stones peeking out through the grass to form a rectangle of sorts. Actually, now that I look again, it is in a similar state to the Doo Kirk. Online I found this site called Lady Well. But no wellsprings are show on the 25" map. What is shown is a pump inland, which must be the sub-circular drystane well that the NMRS says could be the well for the chapel site whose legend lies some thirty-five metres to the south. Lady's Kirk, HY41NE 5 at HY47071643, shows no visible signs of being there. However, a gradiometric survey ahead of permission to dig a borehole detected two 11m long parallel lines about 5m apart. Of course with a known pump here could this be a pumphouse using that well ? The Lady Well that I saw could be a small wellpark all the same, but how about it being the chapel instead (and some are built over springs). It strikes me as odd that there were two establishments on this island dedicated to the Lady, so perhaps the dedication
strictly belonged to the well itself or merely attributed later (we have no dedication for the similarly placed Kildinguie in Stronsay).
Coming back on the ferry I see in/against the Balfour Castle wall on this side two more fun towers, both low and each surmounted by a cannon facing seaward. As one is circular and the other hexagonal or octagonal were these defensive or just more follydom ? What I did see is far more interesting than either of these, and as it isn't of a piece with anything else and as such appears to be an earlier house re-used (or else a much later addition knocked about a bit). An image on Geograph calls it a window looking out from the Balfour walled garden, but just inside the grounds the plain reverse of a 1674 gateway towers above it, belaboured with armorials and such on the front - unless I have the wrong perspective I would say the two are too close together, but the gateway faces out to this rather thab to Cliffdale and the castle. It juts out with two angled side framing the wide front and thin slabs for a 'roof'. Its stonework is not the same as the wall. The multi-paned wood-framed window is inset to an arch whose rounded top is formed by red bricks pointing inward. Unfortunately with the 'castle' being of such a late date the red brick doesn't help with chronology. I'd love it to have been the location of a house of course !

The next headland is covered by a mound. Twi Ness rather than meaning twin-ness is said to be tongue-ness as there is no double headland, but the name Point of Dishan can only go as far back as The Douche so could well have been the other half of a Twi Ness (Doocot Point is shown seperately). Makes sense as you would otherwise expect a narrow tongue not what is there in front of you, a rocky circular headland. Atop this HY41NE 19 at HY46761625 is a slightly hollowed 7mD cairn a mere point-six metres high, with an orthostat on the north side that might be, or have been, part of a cist. This upright slab actually runs radial to the mound centre, which sounds like it might be summat else to me, more a divider than an encloser. Anyways it is now a small grassy peak. Are the large stones in the cliff face part of a stoney outcrop on which the mound is placed or placed stone ? If it were one of these then the mound goes deeper than 0.6m or sits on something earlier. Only my guesses.
After this comes a piece of the coastline called Stromberry. Here I and one of the newer Orkney Blide Trust members dallied to photograph the bonnie flowers including some on short plants. There was a lot of dwarf willow in bloom still - I am used to encountering this in spots along cliff edges on coastal paths but here it carpeted the ground in irregular ground-hugging clumps along where water gathered. Can't remember whether it had been before this or when we rejoined the group that I pointed out sets of straight lines slightly uphill of us, the ghost of a run-rig system I think.

Between here and a line through Grukalty and Balfour Mains lies the legend Back of the Ness. The first 25" map shows a Pict's House here. On the 2nd 25" it is formalised as Site of Ancient Dwelling. In 1972 the O.S. could not find this site, HY41NE 4, but in 1984 the Royal Commission found a place where dark earth and a scattering of shell midden comes up under the plough (at HY46961702). If this is the same site could it be part of a settlement, which would explain why the land is didfficult to drain. Difficult to believe the midden is all there was if the identity is correct - in my experience they only put Pict's House on an early map if something of age had been excavated in modern times, usually tombs (like Wideford Hill Cairn) or 'gallery graves' (such as Rennibister souterrain where skulls were found). Outside chance this was the Cliffdale earthhouse. Grukalty is supposedly derived from Agricola, from his voyages around Britain, but the nearby coastal arc called the Furrow of Agricola started life as the Furrow of Grikalty [sic] so one might question how long the traditional identification dates back to. To back up the assertion the finding of Roman coins on Shapinsay is mentioned, but these and other Roman artefacts are found in many places in the Orkneys. The Hillock of Breakna being seen as the Earl's Palace in Orphir is an example of scholarly speculation transforming into a "traditional site of" statement.

The intention had been to go up as far as the Loch and Ayre of Vasa on our circular route. Having gone as far as the Grukalty pier the group leader weren't sure we could do the whole walk, and so we reluctantly headed onto the track to Balfour Mains. I have to confess that I mistook a large pool for the lochan, it is quite big with twa bits o' land in it. Doesn't seem to appear as owt on the maps. Over on the right a small windowless modern structure with a steeply pitched roof sits on a small mound outside the castle grounds. Maybe the mound it barely occupies on is a trick of perspective, otherwise my feeling is it predates the building.
Next to grab my attention, alongside the farmtrack, is what must surely once have been a wellhead. On the 1st 25" it bears the legend "pump trough", by the second there is only a p for pump even though everything survives. Another ornamental piece. Slightly faded but still a grand piece of work in white. In shape it resembles a settee with a drystane back and a long arm out to the left, gently curved and all topped by 'pillow-shaped' stones. At the front are two long orthostats. Behind these is the earthen seat. The iron pump with its handle sits centrally, backed by a short length of much less white wall at 90 degrees topped by a single thick slab. The closest comparison I can make is to the well beside the road along the Stromness Loons.
Whilst I am snapping away the rest of the Blide part are already coming the Balfour Mains itself, a long building which has recently been renovated for a fresh purpose - the new wood window frames stand out.. At the front of the roof is what resembles a small belfry [I have read recently what these structures are actually called, x-tower I think] built with stone blocks the size of bricks, which has later been topped with several courses of different composition. Turning around the corner there are other ornate buildings about the farmyard too. And looking now at the two-storey building from a different angle I see that rather than a flat top the different material is an angled roof to the 'belfry'. There is a large curve-topped archway partway along the side to let a horse-and-cart in (that at Binscarth Farm is on the end. A low short structure joins the end to a single-storey building a little higher that I would have said had been either a school or a chapel - there are several entrances at the front and three ?pediment-projections with a peedie oriel window in the slightly larger central one. The oddest thing is an isolated long stretch of stone-block wall running roadside in front of all. In it are two fairly narrow entrances topped by thin slabs - one's been blocked off by a single vertical slab, the other still gives access to steep stone steps going up to farmyard level. A course below their tops more thin slabs run the length of the wall, a horizonal division with the rest of the wall above topped like the pump trough wall by 'pillow' stones. The slab course minds me on another on the west side of Binscarth Farm, though that is at a higher level and seems to mark where a building was removed to make way for the farm road. It is a shame that as yet Balfour Mains does not really figure on the National Monuments Record or Historic Scotland. There's a pro's photoshoot begging to happen !

Coming down the main road we realised we still had time for a spot more tourism, and so turned left to Elwick aka Ellwick and Ellswick. It would appear that anciently all this part of Shapinsay was named after an Eliander and included the holm - Jo Ben called Helliar Holm by the name Eleorholm and it has been known by several variations of these, such as Ellyar Holm and Elhardholm (I strongly suspect that the intrusive modern haitch is from some outsider thinking this comes from halye 'flat rock'). Though this personal name is said to have been something like Elland or Elland surely in that case the balance of probabilities suggests the Orcadian name Erlend. Shapinsay as a name also has a disputed origin, with the first bit usually seen as another personal name or 'sheep' or 'ship' and the last syllable as either 'island' or perhaps 'hall'. One man thought that Shapinsay is a Saxon name, which I suppose would explain scalpandishay>shapinsay. Scapa, another disputed name, took another route, having once been Scalpa 'isthmus'. Perhaps the last element of Shapinsay is 'isthmus' too, a reference to the Riff that connects the holm to it but now only appears at low tide ?? Throwing my hat in the ring the last element can also be 'howe' or a 'Height' - and mebbe Shapin was a giant/trow ?.
They went to see Shapinsay Pottery inside a converted meal mill. Ellwick Mill only dates from 1883. It is at least as high as the tallest Balfour Main structure and is entered by a gateway with a gently arched top too. But the shop doesn't interest me when there's archaeology about, a lovely lade and a neat water-wheel with its enclosure surviving complete. From there I went to the millpond above the shoreline. Down on the shoreline assorted domestic ducks foraged near the water's edge. Perfect pastoral primacy. Turning back I had a wander inside the enclosed space next to the road where pottery starts, girt by earthen banks and a wall. A comfy place for creation, hidden from the outside. Well, apart from what looks like a long drainpipe on end. This tops a tall narrow column of pale pastel refectory bricks, much of which is encased by a rusty iron framework. Part of a small kiln I thought. Connected to this by twa rusty arms is a squat iron framework housing tightly packed bricks of an even paler hue. Against that is a table with two chairs backed against it, an intriguing tableau (groan). With the flowers in tyres ectetera this is so much nicer than a pottery shop. Just as I was getting going the others arrived for a quick look around, breaking my solitude.
Coming by the school I had time for looking at my final curiosity. The Gas Tower sits just above the shoreline and is made to ape a low wide castle tower complete with wall slits. This antik gasometer surely sits on the site of an old hoose, for built into the fabric are architectural fragments. One of the three bears the date of 1725, taking it back to the time of Cliffdale. Inside is a majestic panorama of towering drystone walling, seperated by thin slabs from an icing of several courses of red sandstone. At the bottom the structure is concrete with a 'walkway' about the circumference. I would like to have stepped down onto the floor if there had been some way to do this. How does its size compare to that earthhouse found digging for a house near Cliffdale, is my thought now. Daydream away.
The splendid gatehouse ceased being the way in a long time ago. Now a long winding road goes by the trees within the grounds of Balfour Castle [hope they are on top of the Robin's Pincushion]. It is a very understated entrance, framed by rectangular pillars with elongated pyramidions, and these in turn framed by the exceptionally tall chimneys at the end of the buildings either side.

Finally came the time for the other purpose of our visit. After an Out and About to which no locals came we fared better with the Reach Out at the Smithy reataurant (pardon pun - I didn't see it coming I swear). Several folk showed up. One of them had been with the Blide some time ago and shared her reminiscences of Orkney Blide Trust's beginnings. Again the owners put on a fine spread ; cakelets to tease the tastebud and lovely lilies to feast the eye upon. And up on the wall lovely boutique clock caught my attention.

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wideford Posted by wideford
24th October 2013ce


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