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Earl Paul's 'palace'

Back to normal next time ;-)

Reading the Orkneyingasaga there is an hiatus between mention of the farm or farmstead and the mention of the drinking-hall et al. which looks to me as if they are seperate places, leaving the way open for a consideration of any number of places as the setting for the earl's p(a)lace and kirk. Only the farm needs to have a 'height' from which the island of Damsay could be seen. For now let us assume that the specified topography apart from this point does apply to the murder's locale.

Despite Pope's failure to find any native tradition for the site of Sweyn's murder, a scant few decades later Oback in Tuskerbister is named. Actually there are at least two Obacks north of Kirbister loch, that so named at present and the "old Oback" which the map Johnstone reproduces (with additions) calls only Oba.
The first of these is up at the top of a hill the other side of the former seasonal Loch of Lummagen from Kebro farm. It sits just below the track that goes to the Slack of Oback (the dale head) whence some said the killer fled to Firth. According to which map you peruse there was a quarry to one side or below the present Oback. Directly before reaching Oback there is a long low-ish mound running roughly E-W, centred at HY355107 in a narrow field trackside above. On the Kebro end there is exposed fragmented stone in an earth matrix. The mound presents the appearence of division and there are various small slabs in and on it. The Obak end dips sharply into a hollow. When describing the Oback site's similarity to the earl's place in Torfaeus perhaps the Rev.Liddell saw in this latter the vaulted cellar. Of course resemblance is not identity, and on my second visit I saw a shallow trench dug across for a small blue plastic pipe had revealed that (here at least) all that lies beneath the surface is homogenous dark clay (almost black).
Then in the valley below, down on the Burn of Skaill, is Oba. The ruined steading upstream of the trees has no seperate entry but is mentioned in connection with the supposed foundations (pointed out by a farmer one genration removed from the antiquarians time) of Tuskerbister chapel, HY31SW 7 at HY35481035, as being to their NE. The Ordnance Survey could find the platform but not the graveyard on the opposite bank. Neither did they find any trace of the "earl's palace and church". Which is hardly surprising as Omond specifically writes that this site lay above, but close to, old Oback, whereas the platform is downstream in the direction of the district's Skaill farm. Likely there has been a confusion between the kirk and burial place being on opposite banks and the earls "palace" having faced his church. Oba is tight to the NW corner of a long narrow field straddling the burn. This enclosure's odd shape is partly due to the burn's passage through it. From the north an unusual curved track comes down to where the burn cuts across the top of the field. There is a ford crossing the stream at this point. I haven't yet figured an easy way up the burn but on an image taken from Skaill farm I notice a probable mound upstream of Oba on the higher opposite bank.

At one time the Hillock of Breakna broch at Swanbister, HY30NE 13 at HY35330508, had been proposed as the earl's palace only for it to turn out that this had arisen by the changing of a map legend. And it is argued that there is not enogh space between here and the sea for the church. However erosion is a consideration, great chunks of coast disappearing in a single storm or landslide in Orkney. Always presuming that the rectangular structure subsequently built into the eastern side of the broch isn't, as often in these situations, the church itself. Which would still leave us missing a bu - Sweanabow farm way up near the top of the Swanbister road being merely common pasturage. The only (?traditional) church [and burial-ground] site was in an area to the west, HY30NE 12 at HY35151502. However the fact that said site is called the Cairns of Piggar does raise the possibilty of a suite of buildings having been there if this was indeed a kirk. In 1870 deer antlers were found in the vicinity.

Until the 19th century Bow farm consisted of three 'cottages' in a line closely set. Perhaps these are a development of the "magnificent building" in Torfaeus. In which case the great house would have been the drinking hall, making the south house the church's descendant. Or else the three structures comprise the bu farm and the church would have been in the region of the north kirkyard wall but downslope by the burn bank. On the other hand the association of the Bu of Orphir with an Earl's Bu, or more specifically with that place mentioned in connection with Sweyn Breistrop, only dates back to the speculation of Alexander Pope. As the farm of Bow it is more likely to have been land held in common, like Sweanabow but occuring in an area even more archaeologically dense. Similarly with the Round Church it was originally referred to as the Girth House, with no ecclesiastical connection - the tradition being that it had been an asylum. Grand though the Round Church is it may simply have been attached to a non-ecclesiastical establishment. Its being an occupied site gives a better reason for the accumulation of five feet of midden. Also I find it rather odd that the church road goes both south and north of the Bu churchyard, normally one would expect that the kirk itself at at the end of a church road rather than there being some kind of drive-around. Perhaps one branch went on to the church field at Gyre ?? It appears to me that the church road was not named for any kirk at the Bu of Orphir. Before striking up sharply for Bow farm this track bent down to a site at the western Bu boundary called Harproo 'head of the stream' , HY30SW 16 at HY332042, a traditional chapel site where stones and large bones were found. In 1980 north-south foundations were found in the right place, though this is being eroded where it meets the coast. The massive 136' wall Johnstone excavated actually ran under the north branch of the church road, and if this were the southern side of the Orkneyingasaga site's 'palace' I would have expected the chapel to have been closer to the present kirkyard wall than the Round Church is. If the asylum of tradition had been mediaeval then it would have been in charge of the clerics - could the excavated wall have belonged to, say, a monasterium ?

One option Johnstone mentioned is that the name Orphir originally only applied to the region around Houton, specifically the area about the tidal Holm of Houton, and that the Earl's Bu started there before the name was transferred to the present Bu of Orphir. If this had been the case then the question naturally arises as to which region had held the location of the earl's place mentioned in the Orkneyingasaga - no sense looking for architectural specifics if you are in the wrong place to begin with. Away from Houton terminal the coastal track runs west to a place where several mediaeval bronze bells were found (a late name for the Girth House has benn interpreted as a place of prayer - perhaps instead it was in plain language a bell-house). The site of the Kirkhouse chapel, HY30SW 7 Howton Head at HY31240359, is a mess of fences and vegetation, a roughly triangular piece of land set by the coast set a little below the general level of the land thereabouts. Such a shame that there is nothing above to correspond to the Earl's Palace. And present opinion is that the partially excavated wall doesn't look particularly ecclesiastical. Of course a kirk house need not neccessarily be a kirk, and what Johnstone's map shows here is labelled graves. Which reminds me that the famous Birsay bell was found in its very own cist amidst the cemetery uncovered at Saevar Howe, though that was no later than late Viking [a.k.a. early mediaeval].
A very short distance around from Kirkhouse are the Houton Head buildings, HY30SW 51at HY3113, which appear on the O.S as a couple of roofed buildings (though in 1882 an unroofed structure and an enclosure also appeared here). What I found were two unroofed structures in in a good to excellent state of preservation. The larger of these is set back into the hillside, with a series of wide slab steps from above come down by the western end and on to the shore. The wall facing the shore still stands to 2.2m, is 18.3m long and seems to have a break at 15.6m, presumably a doorway. This structures shorter sides are 6.5m and the interior is unfortunately filled up with vegetation. Within this at the eastern end is an even later mortared and dressed construction, a metre to a metre-and-a-half square, about 2.5m from the shoreside wall and with its base at the present wall top. To cap it off there is a metre high wall on the outside of the eastern end, 3.1 by 0.5m, standing at a lower level ~1.5m away. Into this a modern oven had found its niche. On the shore is a small concrete construction that may have been used to anchor a boat.
The second structure (roughly 15m from the western end of the larger one) is represented by further drystane walling that makes a highly curved wall corner 1.3m tall and 0.6m thick that is either part of a once larger structure or the bulk of ?planti-crue or ??well. The side facing the coast is only 2.3m long, but the other 'arm' then runs for at least another couple of metres on into thick vegetation. And it too appears, admittedly to untrained eyes, very post-mediaeval.
But the larger building apparently occupies an older site, for work to remedy bulging includes mediaval ecclesiastical stonework at the south-western corner (including a block with column) sitting on a wide flagstone plinth. Originally my theory had been that this material had been taken from the Kirkhouse site, but if that had not been the kirk it would seem to have been here. A reasonable assumption is that the body of this had succumbed to wave erosion leaving little to build on - either that or perhaps the foundations still lie beneath the present structure. If it shared anything like the footprint then it would have been most impressive. It was only recently that I looked at the early O.S. at a large enough magnification to spot that the two roofed buildings were offset from one another in such a way that the steps down to the shore would have been opposite the eastern end of the uphill building's eastern end, matching the respective locations given for the Earl's Place and church. I could not see any sign of the uphill structure from below, but I imagine that it was removed when the modern houses were built (I think the land above might be private and so forewent further solitary investigation) - perhaps some of the relics associated with Kirkhouse came from here ?? The Head of Houton up above could have been the farm mentioned in the Orkneyingasaga.

I have posted a few photos

"There was a large homestead (farm buildings) there ; it stood on the hill-side, and there was a height behind the houses (brekka 'oblong rising hillside'). From the top of the hill Aurridafiörd [Bay of Firth] may be seen on the other side... In Jórfiara [Orphir] there was a large drinking-hall ; the door was near the east gable on the southern wall, and a magnificent church was in front of the door ; and one had to go down to the church from the hall. On entering the hall one saw a large flat stone on the left hand [suggested to be a partition]... {the murder} There Magnus... accompanied him away behind the house, and into Aurrida Firth."
alternative rendering "on a hillside sloping down behind the buildings the hall, just a few paces down from it, stood a fine church"..
"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 [there was an "underground chamber near Girth House of Orphir"], 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)
"In the district of Tuskibister, at a place called Obak, resided several of the ancient Counts of Orphir; particularly Harold... and Paul... The situation is so circumstantially described by the Icelandic historian, as not to admit of a doubt; although, except an ancient chapel and burying ground, alluded to by the historian, scarce a vestige of the ruin remains."
"Parish of Orphir" by Rev. Mr.J.Liddell in "The Statistical Account of Scotland Vol XIX Orkney and Shetland" (1797)
"the ruins of Oback are close to the Burn of Skaill. A little above the farm, and near it... what is supposed to have been an earl's palace and church".
"The Parish : Its History" by James Omond in "The Book of Orphir" ed. by Reverend J.A.Stephen (1910)
"a building, known locally as a chapel... indicated... at HY 3548 1035 on the west bank of a burn and 50.0m.SW of a ruined croft [HY35511041]... the original "Oback"... no trace of ... burial-ground or ... residence of the "ancient counts"." . [but this 'chapel' is downhill of the steading]

"there is the site of chapel, called Harproo, at the head of the Hope of the Bu... Houton may have been the original Örfiara, and the Earl's Bu first erected there, and afterwards shifted to its present site, taking the name with it... The present Bú house stands to the north of the old site, and was built in the middle of the last century. Before that, the Bú was divided into three farms, with three cottages which stood end on from north to south along the east side of the present path from the public road to the churchyard gate, and named respectively the Nether, Muckle, and Synde Húses. The old church road... ran along the north and south sides of the yard wall, the north road going between the yard and the south end of the Synde Húse... There is a place at the shore called the kirkyard or Harproo ['stream-head' ?], where bones and large stones have turned up...The site of the Round Church and the old Bu is covered with debris, about five feet deep above the clay, on which latter the foundations are built... up till 1829... the old church road ran along outside the north wall of the churchyard, passing over the entire length of the wall now excavate"
"Round Church and Earl's Bu of Orphir" by Alfred W.Johnston (private printing Curtis & Beamish 1903)

"Recent examinations have shown that a large building (the north wall excavated measures 136 feet in length) has stood a little to rhe north of the Round Church. A doorway was found opposite to the old church in front of the present entrance to the churchyard."
"The Parish : Its History" by James Omond in "The Book of Orphir" ed. by Reverend J.A.Stephen (1910)

wideford Posted by wideford
1st November 2007ce

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