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Deerness spring 2007

The weather having held for several days this was my best chance to make a day of it in the SE quadrant of Deerness [from dyrnes, a pronunciation surviving until modern times in the local Dirt Sound for Deer Sound]. I took an early bus. This route ends at at Lighthouse Corner, where the bus turns at the crossroads to face south until the next journey. Directly opposite (to the right of Cutpool where a mighty big vertical slab was removed from what is now a shapeless rise for use as a culvert bridge, as I suggest happened to the Mark Stone of Gaitnip) the minor road in this direction heads for the Point of Ayre coastal section. Before it reaches a right-hand junction there is an un-signposted metalled track on the left that goes to the top of the hill, though from the minor road you see no destination. At the top of the hill look straight down to the sea and you will see the low mound by the cliff edge. From here the minor road turns sharp left for Harroldsgarth, ending just beyond at Bisgarth Manse though it strikes highly likely it used to go to Howan Greenie, RCAHMS NMRS record no. HY50NE 22 at HY58850550. Going down the hill to the left of the mound I saw by the shore two tall lengths of cliff that I at first took for some unreported unroofed building. This is Roanaby Castle, which despite seeming impressively artificial on closer inspection is simply some kind of rock stack.So I turned instead to Howan Greenie. The Howie's description as 10m from the cliff-edge is misleading, as the site's eastern edge is the cliff itself, though there are no signs of any of it having been lost to the sea i.e. we still have the whole. There are several stones on and about the mound, including a large triangle in a depression at the south of the top of the mound and a quantity of stone scatter in the south-east corner of the site. Before 1924 a single stone protruded from the 80' mound, now 24 x 15 x1.4m sub-rectangular mound aligned N/S with slight hollows where two subterranean passages were found in excavations that year and in 1929. from these came shellfish and many bird and small animal bones. Also amongst the finds were a bone awl, a scraper, and potsherds from a large vessel with dark matter on them. As I neither saw nor felt probable walls in walking over the mound the possible 14 by 8m kirk or hall on an aerial photograph is most likely cropmarks from robber trenches. We could be dealing with the faniliar sequence of (?defensive) circular IA structure followed by an early mediaeval building. In the field to the south of the burn is the presumed quarry for the stone, Cumley (now called Comely)
Further down is Ayre farm. Looking along the farm track points you in the direction of the Barns of Ayre mound, and from the Brough of Deerness comes the etymology barns = 'prayer-house'. Where the road turned track meets the coast I followed the sign for the Point of Ayre (might be useful if there was a sign showing when you reached this, it's like those footpath trails that leave you guessing if you've reached the end and if you can go further or must turn back). Had a look along the well pebbled shore but saw nothing that could be the Howe Geo midden, HY50SE 7 at HY58520550. Must admit to not having walked on the beach itself. Howe Geo doesn't have a name on the first O.S. map but this doesn't mean it's a modern invention. The NMRS record mentions buildings standing to three courses but there were none at this spot. No distance along the coast I found myself walking a very broad raised track which brought me to what was obviously a line of mediaval ruins. And at HY58570384 these are the buildings previously referred to, only given the name of Ayre and a seperate record number of HY50SE 10. Mostly foundations. However one dwelling had an excellently surviving stoop, as if someone had demolished a cottage only in the 19th century. A little further and the track was green again. Then came a place in front of me where a grassy lip over six inches high ran across it. After stepping over this and peering over it a similar but shorter lip was apparent several metres away. This proved to be the Point of Ayre enclosure, HY50SE 18 at HY58650384. This had been taken from an early map but not found because of the way it fell across the track. So my question is what is the connection and/or relative chronology of this bland enclosure, the mediaval ?strip settlement and the oddly broad track. Guess we'll never find out until the foundations begin to slip into the sea and come to notice as they do. As I neared the headland itself there was great difficulty matching up what I could see with the CANMAP view I had in my head, definitely felt one or more fences had been removed. The are is a bit of a morass basically. Fairly certain I found the undated dyke, unless this was simply a field bank. Looking for the Point of Ayre mound, HY50SE 13 at HY59060394, but too far inland as it is actually eroding from the Point itself. Even though I did examine the coast minutely anyway it only sticks up 0.4m, which is most likely why I couldn't see it from where I was (it should be an earthen mound of about 8m diameter with a few large stones in it). So I finally turned about. I had been less than careful in avoiding the marshy areas on my way here from the bottom of the track, to no great harm, and it was only when I took extra special care in bending down to take a closer look at a wellspring after I turned back that I slipped and banged my arm !
Passing the other side of the Ayre road end allowed me to have a better view of the pond side of the Backland Broch. From which I concluded that unless the excavated 'broch' wall was taken clear away there is no way that it can have come from this side of Quoyburing, there is no way near enough 'perpendicular' height to the mound this way on. Nothing new had been added by the view of the complete site I'd had from the Ayre road either.
Coming to Newark I finally found the site I had missed on a previous visit. My excuse is having been fixated on the broch as it is incomprehensible how it can have been missed otherwise, lying along the coast edge between the last of the farm buildings and the shore. The Newark chapel area was later used for a laird's house and associated buildings. Unfortunately the excavation is basically unpublished so my sources are the NMRS and a website started by two ex-diggers ( covering the dig's first two years with their plans and a few photos. The more complete of the two buildings is the chapel, which survives foursquare with well-exposed walls - almost in as good nick as the one on the Brough of Deerness to my mind. On a slightly higher level by the kirk's west wall is the corner of another structure which, IIRC, is referred to as a possible shrine. After examining the two buildings I went onto the sandy shore of Newark Bay and proceeded to walk the cliff section for some distance. To the west of the structures is where burials erode out from time to time. Alas no Viking bones about it for me and what I did see didn't mean anything much to me as an unqualified bloke. Looking over the clifftop gave me a slightly better angle for looking at the souterrain which runs across under the base of the chapel's west wall (another subterranean passage was also found) i.e. approximately north-south. But before coming to the chapel this 50' passage has at its other end a curved 10m E/W chamber. The last entry concerning this on the website is the discovery of a skeleton lying on a slab that may have served a platform. I saw no sign of the souterrain, which has been filled in with stones, leaving at the cliff-face. Continuing east there is a length of drystane wall on the clifftop that could be associated with the laird's buildings. Further yet from the main site there are two slab-lined passages in the cliff-face, which are curiously close by one another and similarly filled with stones. I am at a loss as to what these could owing to their close proximity.
[I took photos of as much as I could in order to aid identification later (, however the only plans available online proved to be those provided by the ex-diggers. Sometime I shall have to make my own and attempt to reconcile the site as presented today with what is shown on theirs, which still won't help with the rest ;-) ].
Having looked at a putative broch and then an earthhouse I went to complete the set with what had been thought a burnt mound. The only reason I went was to see if the storms had exposed more material, as the vegetation had grown more lush since my previous visit. If anything the exposure was less because of the growth. But it startled me to discover that the 'excavation' area on the landward side lay less covered than before. This time it took almost no thought to locate the other end of the 'cist'. The faces are parallel but offset. So to me it seems likely that the Howe Harcus graves were inserted/added at seperate times. At the side of this orthostat too was a prostrate 'standing' stone. The natural assumption is that these were marker stones for the burials, but there is at least one other such stone at the (?) base of the mound. It was unfortunate that on coming here there was a shortage of card memory and time to reach the return bus to Kirkwall. I would have to do the necessary another day.

The next day as the weather held fine I simply had to come back to Deerness to complete the work and to get the full Mussaquoy details on camera whilst the new stuff was still exposed. My fist call took me fro Deerness Stores to Hurnip's Point. As there had been several fierce storms since my first vist the year before. So imagine my surprise on finding nothing had altered unlike, say, the Lamb Holm settlement. So no new piccies, not even the boat-nousts. And I decided this was not the right season to run past Eves Howe again. On the way back from Hurnip's Point I had been looking across to South Keigar to see if there were anything to mark where the souterrain, the associated pit etc. had been. A dark line running across from that field edge had raised my hopes, but as near as I could get without losing the 'overview' in the binocs I could see that at the fence there was a water trough - though you would expect a pipe to run down from the farm not from the middle of the pasture. The only unnoted feature I found in this area is an uncultivated patch or small field between North Keigar and the shore. My guess would be that it shows wher a small dwelling used to be or maybe a planticru. Structures indicated in 1882 at the other end of Eves Loch from where the broch sits are presumably underwater now as levels appear to have risen since then, and there may be other (?half-)submerged remains not shown then.
[Elsewhere the prolongued dry spell we recently had brough down the levels of the large pool in the Carness breck between Castlegreen and Blackhall in St.Ola sufficiently for it to be worth my while to take a look. The very fine gravel revealed sems to back my theory that the sea used to come this close to the Kirkwall-Scapa isthmus before man pushed it back. And an L-shaped earthwork nearby is perhaps a 'Danes pier']
Going down the Braebuster road you can see the farmhouse itself was never built for defensive purposes from looking at the farmtrack sweeping way on down into it, and tradition has a bishop here ruling a kirk way up beyond Hurnip's Point at the bay of the oyce/ouse (presumably the prayer-house that lent its name to the vanished placename Barn of the Brecks ?). I looked out for the mound near the farmhouse itself that has been proposed as an 'urisland church' on theoretical grounds, however I had no good viewing of it - shame I left out closer perusal on my shore walk previously. Instead I noticed a very clear circular feature near a fieldgate along the long wall running south from the farm. This other Braebuster mound, NMRS record number HYNW 29 at HY54820503, is thought to be most likely the base of a post-mill. It is a lovely object, the outline much too well-defined to be other than 'modern', relatively speaking.
Having to go to Mussaquoy to photograph the stuff I had seen the day before I made the mistake of walking around the enclosure to enter by the southern end, and through not looking where I was going found my shoe glooping into damp ground. Of course burnt mounds are associated with streams, and there is a spring to the south, but then people like to build next to streams. Over in the West Mainland at Burn of Lingadee man deliberately trained the water about a series of cremation mounds. Unless well excavated the burnt mound is a cat in a box, neither alive nor dead. There is the burnt mound as site descriptor and as a distinct structural type. First there is a mound or landscape in which burnt materials are seen or showing coloration associated with burning, then there is the place used for the prehistoric equivalent of a 'barbie'. Matters are made worse by some excavated sites being given the type name but arising from an other context.

A month later a visit from a relative afforded me the opportunity of a brief visit to the north-east portion of Deerness. From Lighthouse corner down past Skaill church up past the fields where the Viking settlement was excavated to the Mull Head nature reserve (actually I would have preferred to look for the Riggan of Kami, NMRS record number HY50NE 20 at HY59180743 between there and Sandside Farm, which has variously been ascribed to a ground-galleried broch, {hypothetical} 'semi-broch' or blockhouse [if the last that would surely make Moustack offshore the remains of a broch ?] ). The south limit of the reserve is the Gloup of Deerness, a long narrow chasm opening a window on the sea at the deep walls base. At the landward end a small burn drops onto a small shelf before pouring itself upon the waters. At the other end an arch still bridges the sea far below. Though my heart beats wildly as I look over the edge the gloup feels tame compared to the aching rectangular void that is the immensity of the Hole of The Ness (near Roseness Cairn in East Holm).
Coming to the brough interpretation board I pushed as far to the end of the spur, where once was a land-bridge, as I dared. Here looking across I could see two sections of wall either side of a V-shaped gap. Both survive several courses high but the one on the left shows at least three times the length and about two courses more. This is the exposed breastwork either side of the vallum surrounding the brough top, though this bank only certainly survives on the landward side. Downslope is littered with tumbled blocks. It was only back home when I looked at the photos I took that I spotted another wall section downslope in a corner of one image. Looked at from the end of the former land bridge look at the left end of the exposed wall in front of the entrance's LH side, let your eye drop down and this takes you to the RH end of this other wall. The portion I have imaged looks to be better levelled, more regular (or at least less disturbed) and formed of smaller blocks better organised. On the picture I see two squarish stones atop ?three course apparently comprising longer blocks. My guess would be that it relates to the land bridge in the same way that the surveyed breastwork does to the vallum gap, possibly even dating to a time when the neck was not yet a neck becuse the 'new' wall does not project beyond the earth above (certainly at the very least pre-Norse). It is not mentioned in PSAS journal 116. I suspect its inspection would have required some extreme archaeology. Coming down the steep cliff on the land side there is a huge drystane wall many courses high that I cannot find mentioned anywhere (though in 1883 Tudor refers to "a stone cashal or wall" on the land side is this distinct from that on the the brough's landward side which he mentions several sentences later ?). Does it date back only as far as the guide rope, in which case why is no application of the usual concrete. Surely if it had been recognised as mediaeval or earlier it there is no way that it would have been left out of any assessment of the rest of the site, especially as regards dating. Could it originally have been to prevent folk avoiding being seen coming over the land-bridge ?. Making my way carefully around the boulders at the base of the almost sheer cliff we crept carefully along the narrow path like souls along the sword-edge bridge for judgement. Despite the dry weather in a few places it was rather slippy, and in one place I held on tightly to the rope as I did a giant step across a muddy patch of uncertain consistency that others didn't seem troubled by.
Gaining the top brought us to the other side of the brough from the vallum entrance and we continued on to what now is a rather well-preserved chapel (once thought to be an oratory) on a site that goes back ecclesiologically to Norse times at least. Coming level with the restored church we could see various rectangular hollows that continued on our traipse around the far end. These are thought to be Viking longhouses like those on the the Brough of of Birsay, possibly adapted from monkish cells. After being relatively well-defined after the 1070's excavations the contours have largely gone under the tussock grass once more. Some out-of-place graves were found in the 'kirkyard' which don't relate to monks, but no burial ground as such is known. Being focussed on the Iron Age possibilities I had neglected to read up on the site's main features before coming. As you come up on the broch almost in front of the visitor are a number of mostly 10' diameter pits about a stone lined well or tank (which I didn't see - it is about 35 yards from the chapel) in the SSE brough portion. In 1930 twenty-one had been counted south of the well, by 1946 only seventeen were seen, but in the 70's another seven were found to the well's north to bring the total over thirty !. It had been accepted that rather than early monks' cells these were a result of unrecorded gunnery practice in the Great War, but as three of Dryden's buildings seem to overlie partially a close look at this area is intended this year in an attempt to resolve matters. Over to the left should be the hint of a low crescentic mound, that may have been a gatehouse, and the diggers found more hints of further walls next to it. In one book there was reference to a claim of an underground passage associated with the chapel, but perhaps someone had been thinking of the souterrain that runs under the Newark Bay church, also in Deerness. On the other hand it could have come from a sighting of the wall associated with the (?stoneclad) timber kirk that preceded the present one (in nearly the same spot). Certainly the archaeologists are none too sure of the exact dating for anything on the brough, and as a small flint arrowhead was found in the vicinity of Mull Head in 1927 settlement hereabouts may go back even further than the Iron Age. If there was a promontory fort here I suspect that the indicators might have gone with the land-bridge, probably in the usual form that the mediaevals mistook for the head and foot stones of graves. The vallum looks a little over the top for this type of fort and the rest of the features by the cliffs too neat.

wideford Posted by wideford
8th July 2007ce

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