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John Spence's Birsay landscape 1920 re-assessed

Last week in the Orkney Room upstairs at the Orkney Library after doing a spot of research I noticed a whole new lot of acquisitions on the shelves. In amongst this was a series of volumes on 'old-lore miscellany' and in one I came across a chapter by a man who lived at Overbist (on the Evie-Dounby road near Click Mill). I had a strong feeling that the information therein might not be in Canmore and so made extensive notes and passed them on to RCAHMS. My assumption was correct, but as there appeared to be one major disparity compared to their 1946 Inventory my findings have been reduced to a bibliographical note on the various relevant site records. So I have done further research in an attempt to reach a concordance.

1) The Kirk of Kirkgoe lies about half-a-mile or so south of Overbist, on a high ledge on the south side of a deep-cut burn. Foundations showing as a square-shaped clump of grey stone over an area some twelve by fourteen feet or so. His father remembered the northwestern wall as standing some three feet or so high, but now all reduced. There appeared to have been an enclosing dyke or bulwark which in 1920 could be traced on all sides a few yards outside the main building apart from where the site sloped steeply down to the water.
2) About eighty or a hundred yards further down on the same side of the burn is another green mound similarly situated on a ledge alongside the water. The evidence for this being the graveyard was "rich black earth charged with minute bone fragments and mixed with ashes" in the exposed part. Also mixed in with the earth were lumps of 'smithoo-cramps', so called by the locals after the resemblance to slag.
3) About half-way between the the Kirk and the second mound, but on the north side of the burn, is a slight mound traditionally called "The Castle".
4) This the author calls the remains of an "ancient pictswork and enclosure", which in his time were "meagre and all but vanished".
5) The place called Kit-Huntlins [P.O.A.S. calls it Kithuntlings] where about 1920 he found burnt earth and minute fragments of bone.
6) In the neighbourhood of '4'. From here flints had been found at various times, some quite fine, most of them red. He then quotes "The Orcadian" (undated) on the finding of a polished stone 4 1/2" or so long some quarter-of-a-mile or more east of that. It was of hard close-textured brown sandstone 1 1/4" broad and 3/4" thick about the middle tapering to 1" by 1/2" at either end. This stone was then in the author's possession, and he adds that it came from well down in the moss.

1) Kirk of Kirkgeo HY32SW 9 at HY33272324: aligned E-W the possible foundations of a small church, internal dimensions around 17'x12' with walls around two-and-a-half foot thick. Probable burial enclosure on S side shown by what remains of a bank/ridge of earth.
2) Burn of Lushan HY32SW 8 at HY33152313: castle appears neither large nor fortified, the only evidence a change of plants accompanied by broken stonework.
4) Over(a)bist HY32SW 7 at HY331238: burnt stones, mound now lost through cultivation.
?5) Burn of Kithuntling HY32SW 24 at HY340218: stones, possible shielings. Pursued bibliographical reference to an article in "Scottish Studies"; (Kit Huntland) 6 small pits on S-facing brae. To the W of these were possible bothy remains, on the top of a burn bank 250 yards N of this similar turf-walled remains but with an erect stone at one end that gives it a resemblance to a grave (but suggested as a rubbing-stone for pigs) and a rough stairway going down to the burn that could represent the boundary between two commons [1882 map shows B.M.233.8 nearby at HY33812174].
7) Burn of Lushan HY32SW 23 at HY346237: possible shieling. "Scottish Studies"; part of the upper section of the burn [1882 Burn of Loomashun distinct from Burn of Kirkgeo] as seen from the road looks like a shieling but is a very boggy area with no remains to be seen. The field-name here is Queefiglamo (field of ?? the snatcher).

The disparities are two-fold; '1' and '2' are 80~100 yards apart according to Spence but on the order of 170m on the 1882 map and CANMAP, the latter two sources place the legend Castle at '2' but he refers this to '3'. Perhaps the map-makers were mislead by the name. In Orkney it is held that many castle names were loosely applied to watchtowers, making this equivalent to a Tuo/Too'er placename or a 'beacon' site. Certainly at either distance '2' is too far to be the kirkyard. Spence's description brings to mind the scant remains of a barrow with cist (cramp often found in cists), though there is the outside possibility that this is a metalworking area similar to the Castle of Snusgar (HY21NW 21).
From Spence's description of '4' it comes as no surprise that there were no traces left by the time the O.S. went. The 1882 map shows a small enclosure a little further E of Overbist at HY33202374 (and one somewhat larger to the SE of Overbist at HY33172366).
On the 1882 map a single track is shown coming down towards the Burn of Kithuntling. Just before reaching the burn it turns up in a fork with two near parallel ends. Though no structure is shown there it is assuredly this open-ended rectangle (HY34172202) that marks the place called Kit-Huntlins. If '5' were a burnt mound one would expect it to lie between here and the burn, which is in a treacherous area rendered difficult except in the driest of seasons by reason of the peat-bogs - indeed this fact of constant water is also the reason for people working here in the first place Though a late legend is attached to the vicinity it has been surmised that the name originally comes from a lost Viking cat-monster story.

wideford Posted by wideford
24th July 2005ce
Edited 25th July 2005ce

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