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RSPB Cottascarth in Blubbersdale JUNE 19th 2014

Though the Orkney Blide Trust's Out and About had once been due to visit the RSPB's biird reserve in Rendall this han't come about. Then I received an e-mail from the RSPB for volunteers, saying that a hen harrier viewing centre is to replace the hut there, and they need to record the standing buildings of Dale before the builders incorporate them into the new fabric. Nine months working with the archaeologists over two seasons I had managed to avoid drawing plans, now was time to bite the bullet (though the work turned out to use very different methods, as I should have figured out). Over further e-mails we arranged that Julian Branscombe would give me a lift to Finstown and RSPB Scotland's archaeologist Jill Hebden (formerly with the National Trust) take me the
rest of the way. In the event Julian gave me a lift all the way in as he had to provide proof that there is enough water in case of a muir burn whilst the builders were on-site. Heading out on the Evie Road at the edge of Norseman 'village' you turn left onto the Lyde Road (a 90 minute walk from Norseman to the Harray Road by the way), Then as it starts to climb a farm road takes you all the way to Lower Cottascarth. On our way from the inside the car we saw an arctic skua above us, but alas nary a sign of a harrier all day ! Instead of continuing to Blu(b)bersdale/Bluebersdale (blae-berries dale) you turn left and park just beyond the last of the farm buildings. A new car park is to be made a little further up and the road tarmacked.

Looking to my left I noticed a small but hefty mound to my right around a field corner. Though covered in green it also looked oddly dark. This is the Black Knowe, NMRS record no. HY31NE 5 at HY36951988, which sits on the shoulder of a low hill called the Tooin 'tower/ward' of Rusht. On the 1st O.S. it marks a boundary corner and I was told that at the moment it is disfigured by a hash of fencing. In the dawn of archaeology George Petrie and Captain Thomas found ash and burnt bone under an inverted 10"x7"
broken clay urn, of coarse fabric with stone inclusions, in a short cist 18"x12" and 8~10" deep. The kistvaen was six foot down in the mound. Pure sandy clay lay beneath a foot of peat, covered by hand-sized flat stones to hold the mounds shape. As first described this bowl barrow wouldn't have appeared that different from a burnt mound I think, called roughly semi-circular. It is thought that two orthostats at the top are what is left of said cist, in which case the excavated mound would have been four or five metres high as in 1966 it still stood to about 2.2m high and fourteen across. Twenty years earlier RCAMS describe its composition as earth and small stones. Hurried measurements in 1993 show it reduced to 8 by 9 metres across and 0.75m high. It certainly looked higher than that from the Dale track - the Orkney Barrows Project notes it can be seen from as much as a kilometre away. An aerial view shows Black Knowe as a really circular patch of green, which raises several questions.
There's further archaeology northwards. Two chains west of the house of Blubbersdale is the site of the Harray Mans Grave, HY32SE 13 at HY37182000, traditionally the burial place of Harray men who died during the famine of 1740 after shellfishing at the Bay of Isbister. In 1856 John Skea found two (or three) cists during land improvements. The cists contained bones and ashes, but the skeletal remains mouldered into dust after meeting fresh air. If they had been under a tumulus, unmentioned in the account itself, this would have been removed to allow for the construction of the two land drains thereabouts. I myself think the name came from elsewhere, for in 1932 there is a description of the Harraymen's Graves located no great distance away, being 22 chains SW of Queenamidda. Seven E/W stones showed through two feet of peat from three to twelve inches in 1932 but with global warming are probably out of sight now I guess. The closest of them are two six foot apart, but despite the rest being seperated by greater distance they formed a row aligned roughly NE/SW.These are shown with the legend Graves on the 1st O.S. map at HY36702037. Here the tale is that that a man finding bones there took fright, though the only person to dig found nothing. Finally for Blubbersdale there is a clutch of bowl barrows, HY32SE 2, the 'original' 1880 Orkney Name Book one a burial place by tradition (RCAMS couldn't find this earthen mound). For it there are contradictory locations. First 34 chains from Blubbersdale and about 30 W of Castle (Ellibister), second 650 yards ENE of Blubbersdale on the O.S. (nothing at that spot the record states). The Orkney Barrows Project reports that only the second of three barrows 'A' 'B' 'C' reported in 1967 was locatable, but that the vegetation could well have hidden the others at the time of the visit : 'A' and 'B' had slightly mutilated tops ('B' cut for peats), 'B' and 'C' were covered by heather and 'A' turf-covered ; dimensions are 'A' at HY37862023 roughly 10x0.7m, 'B' very prominent from several directions at HY3784020320 10.0x10.9x1.2m, 'C' at HY37952025 roughly 6x1m high.

As the land levelled out an old steading hoved into view, and this is Dale where the hen harrier viewing centre is to be. The first thing you come to is a stone scrap heap. They think that it is formed of flags used to roof the place, but one of these is several inches thick. Dale itself consists of two buildings, one pre-1880 and the other 1880~1900, and continued in use well into last century. There are also later concrete structures in the angle between them. This is a sheep control station the farmer had to build during a liver fluke scare, and is to be removed. And behind that a squat tree with lovely bark and moss and lichen drenched branches shrouds the rest. A volunteer extensive local knowledge had been there since 7pm, and even he had seen no harriers. Whilst we waited for the others Julian went into a little more detail about what the builders would be doing in a fortnight to the E-W later building, showing us on the plan how it would be 'made good' then added to. There will be skylights in the new roof so folk can see inside the centre and viewing 'windows' at the front to see the birdies.
Jill Hebden arrived with Lorna Dow and a student who also lived locally. Jill said that the RSPB had found this site held more than first thought, and the downhill part of the N-S building had a mill. Unfortunately we wouldn't be planning the machinery inside the mill as the nettles were especially rampant here, though she did the rest of us a favour by tramping them down elsewhere (as the only one with a hard hat only she could do the room of the later building where some of a flag roof hung on). Standing Building Recording is, as I should have guessed, nothing like the planning I saw at The Howe. No metal frame divided into a grid here ! Instead you use a surveyor's tape, with the beginning starting before the structure and away from the wall. Then what you do is you measure from the tape to the wall at set intervals - every 2m in our case, except where we came to features. Once you have done the first line comes the difficult bit of setting up the next at right angles. Luckily Jill set up these for us, as when we tried we were pants at it. Even she found it difficult because of all the reeds and tussocks still standing way high. And the pins to hold the tape kept hitting stone at the older structure. Eventually I figured that part of this is owing to the fact that the flag paving so obvious near the house part actually went all the way along the front. There also appeared to be the remains of a path going towards the tree.
The long central home has fireplaces each end. One has the chimney breast exposed whilst in the other it is still covered by a large flag, which now is mostly secured by one nail, so we kept clear. A starling had a nest somewhere behind the latter, and spent ages slanging us off each time it returned with a beakful of food for them (a pied wagtail appeared one time similarly annoyed. But Willi's nest is somewhere in the semi-roofed building as it coninually popped up on the old eaves before flashing inside. Oh. and in the 'dinner break' I heard my first ever cuckoo in the big [for Orkney] tree where twa burns meet). Each fireplace had a cupboard space beside it. Though the room looks positively mediaeval despite the blocking you can see bonny fine wooden moulding still in place at a couple of the windows that belies this. My memory is hazy on whether the number of rooms including this and the mill is three or four, but there is one with two tall vertical flags that might be animal stalls.
At the back of the building the mill lade/leat meets the building under the home's central window. For some reason it 'hits' at an angle before the channel continues alongside the hill - we tried to backtrack but where it is before this is a stromash. Where the leat turns there is also a feature at right angles, including an orthostat. Short of the millwheel what look to be bits of the pulled down roof cover a small structure that must be part of the system. Its walls are orthagonal to the building but on the outside there is an arched section facing downstream. The wheel is of undershot design and had 24 buckets. Unusuall, again, it has only a single metal wheel. No-one could recall having seen a millwheel like this anywhere in Orkney, let alone the parish.Hopefully this can all be resolved if, as hoped, the RSPB and the OIC can engage community groups to further record Dale. A few low orthostats can be seen by the sides of the outflow before this reaches the burn. The 'old house team' stayed on after the others because of the unexpected complexities. I was much relieved when Jill said she could actually take me all the way back, as she was headed for Kirkwall. Indeed she even knew where my street was ! Thank you for the lifts Julian and Jill.

When I reached home and used Google Satellite the image showed a large rectangular enclosure taking in the front of the the old building and explaining why the newer one stood at right angles to it. So I then had another look at the first O.S. maps and found in the angle betwen them a roughly circular garden and/or drying area with a path bisecting it diagonally. So I think that the pins hit a low bank like that at Rowhall in Sandwick (which in turn could be wall footings - from the bus you can see what this may have looked like from a ruin east of Binscarth House). As for the mill, the aerial view shows the lade starting just short of a fence uphill then after a short distance taking a turn that takes it onto the alignment we observed. It goes a long way, then short of Dale enters a distinct sub-elliptical area that I take as being what's left of a milldam.

wideford Posted by wideford
6th July 2014ce

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