|Checked out the area of today's walk on CANMAP the night before to double check my memory. Steatite urn found on glacial till mound soth of Highbreck. Cist found in a cleared bit of ground before Nearhouse at the junction of the main road and the Swanbister farm road. Another from Smoogro, axe hammer found in kitchen-midden there. "Beautiful well" below Bancquoy/Bane-quoy sounded very intriguing: stone-walled well 0.9m across (formerly with a perforated coverstone where flags do duty now) sits in a marshy depression with many stones and the ground disturbed on all bar the east, a little before 1880 they found arrowheads, stone hammers, stone and flint implements, a large amount of "diminutive clay pottery", animal bones; the stones and bones were all burnt and a fatty deposit went down 6'. Surely a sacred well screaming out for a dry season's perusal ? Halfway down the Burn of Lerquoy another cist. A couple of fields to the SSE a flint scatter was found that included an axe flake. By the south wall of the grounds of Swanbister House between the stream and the farm road are the remains of a burnt mound the latter cut through (nowt to be seen). About where the lettering for Swanbister area is on the 1:25,000 there was a cist and urn found. The only cist still present is a double cist found in 1972 at Gyre, according to Canmore still lying under a sheet of corrugated iron but I hadn't found it previously. Over at the Earl's Bu apart from remains of burnt mounds only Viking structures visible [ball of freestone & stone 'celt' found close to standing stone by churchyard, by Petrie], so I presumed owt else prehistoric overlain by that to the point of invisibility.
My walk was pegged on an OAT guided tour of the Viking stuff mid-afternoon, but it being Saturday I had to get an early morning bus in order to do my investigations elsewhere.
Got off at the Grimeston road junction and briefly considered going around the east side of the Loch of Kirbister to gaze on the probable artificial islet of the Holm of Groundwater and on up to the tumuli above that had produced several cists. But I knew how too much time can still turn into too little and so continued to Graystane. I took two gos to find it because I relied on sight instead of memorised directions. Took as good a close-up as I could of the area of fracture or unsuccesful cleaving. A little further along a burn passes downhill and at the field edge is bounded either bank by a pair of 'standing stones'. It is crossed by a bigger version of the primitive bridge that you find over ditches in Orkney, a flat platform of stone covered by turf. Just downstream is/was a spring and a well is a liile beyond that, all by the burn. Over the road is a gravel pit.
At the Swanbister junction I took the track on the opposite side of the road until it gave out to the grassy brae, then retraced my steps to take my second target the track that runs at an angle to the road and ends at the Newhouse junction. This makes an almost triangular tract of land 'twixt it and the road. The twin-rutted track is little used, though there are reinforcing stones underfoot in a few places. At one point early on you can see where a stream ran underneath it from the edge of a small nearby rise. The way to points of interest is a modern metal gate on the uphill side. I clambered over to look at the mounds on the hillside in case they were other than natural. You can see where there has been peat-cutting, regular excavations a foot or so deep. Just within the boundary of the first one you come to a piece of stone about a foot across, either the top of a boulder or of a larger stone, either way certainly firmly embedded in the peat and not part of any hidden rocky outcrop. Elsewhere there were a couple of flat (sub-) rectangular stones that may have been from something, definitely no drystane wall hereabouts. From here you have a wonderful view of all the lands this side of Ward Hill. Another mound further on and slightly higher beckoned me, but I would have to negotiate a barbwire-fence and so left it for now. Near the end of the track is the first habitation, Akesley or Aikislay according to which century's map you use, not shown on the 1:25,000 map but being within where a waterbound rectangle is shown (it has changed location a little since 1882, and used to have something more marked the other side of the road).
Just before you reach the end there is a quarry on the uphill side of the track. Reaching the junction you will see opposite several widely-spaced 'standing stones' forming part of the curving fence, most (if not all) neither modern nor of any great age. Coming back to the Orphir road I was deeply desirous of checking out on the uphill side an intriguing feature into which a chicken feeder had been placed. There is a regular scoop that resembles in size and shape the space left by the removal a small croft, say. But the 1882 map shows no habitations in that entire tract of land apart from Akesley, even Highbreck is modern. Then directly behind the back of this rectangular negative space (that is, next up in this seemingly unmapped mound) is another of less regular shape that has a high back up to the top. The boundary between certainly appears man-made and on the RH side at the upper level seems to be a short exposed length of crude walling. Moving along and looking back you can see that this is merely the roadside end of what appears to be a large circular bank, possibly a quadrant of something. Forgot to take notes of where exactly these things were.
Now back to the Swanbister junction. As you turn down at your left is the cleared bit a cist came from. There are a few 'standing stones' on the field edges but the outstanding ones are a pair on the left down at field level, from an opening redundant since the farm road was built up across the face of it. The uphill stone is way too big for a gatepost, its size overpoering the other one, and is packed well. Often there is the impression that where you have a pair of 'standing stones' one far precedes the other in date, only subsequently being doubled up for the later usage. Where the track turns their is a field about the angle on the seaward side. It is from near an edge of the field next along that the scatter of flint flakes came, possibly indicative of settlement. Going along the next length of track looking uphill beyond Swanbister farm and the other dwellings is roughly where a cist with urn was found.
The attribution of the Hillock of Breakna to a Sveinn seems in further doubt in that Marwick refers several similar names to Swanbister to 'swine' and the Sands of Piggar are below here ! When the farm track turns again to go past the grounds of Swanbister House the trees either side give me the sense of a green lane which it obviously isn't (the same effect at Gyre is over a slightly longer distance and through it the track dips down and rises, a sure cure for anyone such as myself missing a real wood landscape in Orkney). Where the copse ends on the right between the track and the stream a triangle of land is all that survives of a burnt mound after the modern farm road was raised - there isn't so much as a hint of rise even at less luxuriant times of year, so completists only.
Now you can see the broch's hillock down on the left, alas in summer all you see is high grass and nettles. The short un-named burn (?a continuation of the Burn of Swanbister that comes down from Rams Dale above Orphir 'village'), passes under the track and on the left where the stream takes a final turn to flow alongside the Hillock of Breakna is a short length of wall in the further streambank. Once in the field you see that this wall starts at a natural ford that may well be the site's raison-d'etre. My third target was a rocky outcrop forming the seaward corner of the natural hillock. And still can't make up my mind if man has altered it, was much more convinced up close from inside the field. To the right of the burn are an imposing set of conical 'gateposts', well constructed of stone, that must have been where they went down with their boats. About where the stream comes to the shore is a very large thin slice of rock crossing it, damn shame it has to be natural ! There is groundcover of some teeny-tiny flowered plant.
On my last visit I had been most impressed by the Sands of Piggar that cover this side of Swanbister Bay and was surprised they weren't as popular as Waulkmill Bay. But now I knew why a local that had been gained the (for Orkney) extensive sandy beach by boat. The rocky foreshore where it isn't plain slippy is covered by equally slippery seaweed, eventually I was forced to retrace my steps. I had hoped to take a picture of the broch from the bay, after dodging between the many shallow pools of low tide I still could not see it. Even with a tall tower the hillock doesn't strike me as designed for visibility from the sea. And it seemed ably defended by nature as I have mentioned. To back this up I would point out that to the east of the hillock is a broad declivity that would allow an enemy to bypass it, There is now a good stone wall with another of those impressive 'gateways'. From the sands I would sat that if any place needed defending it would be flat Toy Ness where there is a pier still in use.
Back up on the track I saw that the field against the final bit of it had been cut since my previous visit, and so decided to look for any evidence of the chapel that stood there. Not even sure I saw the slightest rise though. Strange to say I did see a water-tank sized object alongside the track though outside the field-fence. Very plain cuboid. The interior was growing grass. Moved the grass away from the sides but saw no distinguishing marks. Would surely have been seen in the last official look for traces, so surely modern ?
On my way back up to the Orphir road there came a patch of drizzle, presumably the light occasional rain a few hours later than predicted. Into the 'village' and the old but not ancient church which marks the junction whera a road goes down to Gyre and down the hill to the Bu of Orphir and the Viking sites there. This treat I reserved for later. Past the edge of the 'village' there are the grounds of Cairnton. The name is transparently 'tunship of the cairn'. But though nothing is shown on the maps or on CANMAP there are patently at least one or two obvious ones. In the W of the wall about the place there is a small stone hut, like maybe a gardener's shed. You wonder, though, which came first - the back of the hut is so at one with the wall's outer face. Sometimes small features are the earlier but I can be fairly sure here that this hut post-dates the house. Between here and Rams Dale is the curiously named Russamyre 'horse-bog/marsh', that leads the mind to conjure up a vision of antient finds. Next junction up is where one short leg carries on up over Scorradale and another winds leisurely around Houton way. Briefly considered going up the track to Linnadale for the ford shown on the map. Unfortunately it looks as if my way there could end in recent buildings and I preferred to leave potential disappointment for another day and press on to Houton.
Now the rain was back and getting kind of heavy. At one place alongside the road on the uphill side there is the triangle of an ?enclosed orchard/garden. Certainly all those bushes and flowers pique the botanist in me, but I can see no point of entry. I mention it here because opposite is a farmtrack that looks to go to a mound behind the Bu of Orphir. So I went on down through the lush damp grass that tested my dense trousers. Didn't make it all the way down, just far enough. Coming back up I take a closer look at a small building (HY33000485) over the other side of the ditch that runs beside the track. This I do because of a strange object alongside the size and shape of a large water-tank, which I presume it to be. The sides are fine drystane walling, if a little rough. And then as a cover an irregular piece of flag like a thick standing stone, lending it the appearance of being capped by lead dropping down the sides. Looking at larger scale maps online I see a short length of track running diagonally from the corner of a house called Ne(a)land to this place. By the time I reached magnificent Grindally House, where the other end of the Bu road is, I was thoroughly soaked - so much for the showers being occasional and light ! So after a minute or two I regretfully abandoned my visit to Houton (there is no known old archaeology there, hou/how is 'headland' and the next notable NMRS is the rubble of the 'castle' of the Hillock of Hoorse-Ha way over in Clestrain).
Under the weather as I was it was impossible to resist the lure of the 'standing stones' at various spots beside the Bu road. At one point between Gridally and the Earl's Bu I think I found one of my 'flat-face aligned standing stone pairs' that I believe mark the crossover between boundaries. So here I am looking for stones on either side when just before the farm and in the space by it I see a 'standing stone' slumped over a piece of rusty machinery. And the thought passes through my mind is this the missing Petrie standing stone uprooted from all those pre-IA goodies. Or maybe it is still present - the converse of a standing stone losing all interest (to an official archaeologist leastways) if it has lost its context is that if you find something by or under a stone it is automatically read as a standing stone (the evidence adjudged necessary for the standing stone identity often seems in inverse proportion to the number of stones in a region).
Thank goodness the saga centre is open all day. Looked at the boards, watched the video. Long time till the talk, a few hardy souls. The main part of the Earl's Bu is now under the turf in front of the churchyard wall. What you can see to the left of the path is the auxiliary buildings's foundations mostly, very Romantic. Anne Brundle said that the concentric features found by survey (http://www.sair.org.uk/sair4/sair4.pdf ; EB91 Bu Lawn/ West Field resistivity) that I had believed to roughly resemble the Hillhead Enclosure could well be a broch, though I hae my doots (not under Round Church either, would have come up on churchyard survey like 'modern' church foundations did. Only overheard this whilst I was busy snapping the buildings whilst the tour was by the church, expecting the talk to be of Vikings only. Then, as an afterthought, the tour went on to the site of the horizontal mill. This is the buildings and greenspace down to the burn (the burn having water even in times of severe drought is the reason for this area's continuing popularity). What you can still see are the outfall opening and tailrace and the soakaway. It was a relief to finally have a function description to go with photos taken some time back - the report had made me think the mill lay on the other side of the road, I am a bear of small brain. So this slab-lined channel and the mill wall show where one of the burnt mounds lies.
Anne had also mentioned the double cist up the hill at Gyre; I overheard something about a ? laughing skull (probably one of her witticisms). So I mentioned the NMRS saying it still existed under a corrugated iron sheet. She checked with another of our party, Halcro-Johnstone who owns Orphir House at Gyre. Apparently the sheet went and the cist, never having been very solid when found ("thank goodness we've got the photos"), is now even further decayed. Naturally despite having been excavated in 1972 the findings still haven't been 'published' - the monuments records for 20th century are often a mere palimpsest or a foreshadowing of what still lies far ahead. Which is why the likes of TMA and the Portal are mankind's best hope ;-)
Posted by wideford
22nd July 2005ce
wideford's TMA Blog
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