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Bu of Orphir and possible actual souterrain


"There were at Orphir very magnificent buildings which stood on a rising ground ; behind the house there was a gentle declivity ; and at a distance above it the hill of Orphir... there was in these buildings a very large hall... In the south wall, and near the east corner, which joined the two sides of the court, there was a door, and before it a most magnificent temple [hof], to which they entered from the great hall by that back door, where you entered the court there was on the left hand a large vaulted cellar, then you came to another door, and opposite it a drawing room."
"Ancient History of Orkney, Caithness and the North" by Thormodus Torfaeus translated by Alexander Pope (W.Hiram Reid 1866)

The Orkneyingasaga relates that the ale was stored on the left-hand side of the drinking hall behind a large flat stone. It has been suggested that this stone formed a partition. Torfaeus describes the storage place as a large vaulted cellar. Putting these two observations together leads me to think that this is most likely to this area being a souterrain. In 1860 W.Kemp presented two items to the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland from a weem close to the Girth House i.e. the Round Church [which had been used as an asylum]. The two items mentioned in the Proceedings are a three-inch stone ball quartered by crude grooved lines (presumably the possible grinder mentioned in "The Orkney Herald") and a four-inch circular stone with a square hole as if for a spindle. Or could these items have come from the Norse mill that prior to modern excavation was thought to be an earthhouse ?

There are two main problems with Oback in Tuskerbister as the area where Earl Paul's drinking hall lay. If Oba along the Burn of Skaill is it then where is the gentle declivity with the height behind, and if it is at the modern Oback (I imagine that the Loch of Lummagen once drained by there) the only height behind is that small slope to where the track from Kebro goes to the Hill of Lyradale. It has been objected that one cannot see the Bay of Firth from the top of the Hill of Lyradale. However this same fact AFAIK applies even more so to all the candidate hills (one should note that it is only the bay that is mentioned as being seen from the other side of the hill, not the island of Damsay itself, the latter being used for stage-setting). The most compelling reason is that this is not even a hall of Orphir, let alone The hill. But unlike anywhere else at least it had the tradition attached, so something else importantant had surely been in the Dale of Oback.

The association with the Bu of Orphir only dates back to 1758 when Alexander Pope, after his disappointment at finding no traditional location for the "earl's palace" (unlike that the author of the statistical account found a scant few decades later for Oback) discovered that large and very deep foundations had been found in digging for the Bow farm. The present Bú house dates from the mid-nineteenth century. Before the Bow consisted of three farms with three 'cottages', end on from north to south the Nether and Muckle and Synde Húses (a Bow being more generally land held in common, the croft system being an exceedingly late arrival to Orkney). From the illustration reproduced in Johnstone's book it would appear that the exposed site shown today as {probably} part of the Earl's Bu is the last of these, especially as the north church road ran between the south end of this Synde Húse and the kirkyard. The buildings shown are, at least outwardly, only seventeenth or eighteenth century. If built upon earlier foundations then this could have been the location for Torfaeus' magnificent buildings (though they sound even more similar to the Oback mentioned regarding the Battle of Summerdale, a fairly common setup), with the Muckle Húse as the drinking-hall/court. Unfortunately this would make the last house the earl's church, which seems a little unlikely. So maybe the church lay before the Synde Húse, a few paces down would take you nearer the burn. The way that the Girth House has been interpreted as the earl's church is to say that instead of being downslope going into the hill was meant. I would suggest that rather than the "earl's palace and church" this site was important as the location of the ferry after which the King's Ferry Road (i.e. the road from the old parish church pst Gyre through by the Bu to the Orphir road again - the safe haven of the Hope o' the Bu.

If the view of Aurridafiörd is an error then there are, one would imagine, several places that meet the other requirements. Regarding the etymology of Orphir it has been proposed that originally this applied to a far smaller than the parish. Specifically the region of Howton/Houton opposite Orfirasey, the Holm of Houton guarding Midland Haven Which would make the Orphir hill the Hill of Midland. For myself I would like to say that the earl's church as Kirkhouse (part of which appears a little further round the coast at HY31130347as part of the fabric of the Houton Head structures). This site (HY31240359) is definitely a few paces downslope but I can't see the Head of Houton being the hill of Orphir, alas, and there are no known structures above it anyway.

wideford Posted by wideford
15th October 2007ce

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