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Orkney - land of a thousand wells ? And St.Magnus


Read a better etymology for the meaning of the other Wideford i.e. that it is named for the presence of willows. Which is likelier than the idea it derives from the Wide Firth out beyond Inganess Bay where the burn meets the sea, though I myself have the straightforward notion that it is more to do with the region of burn below the surviving Wideford Farm where uptilted strata make for esay crossing. The Hillocks of Garth are now easier to get to than ever as someone has been building there. But in a way they are also less accessible as they are closely girt by the new domestic site, so mingled I can't believe that none of the monument's constituent parts have been meddled with. Along from the airport entrance is a roadway maintenance staff use, and inside the fence along from there can be seen a remnant of the old landscape in the form of a grassy stretch where can be seen one of my 'standing stone fences',a few stones standing well proud. Recently I saw my first ever hybrid fence - the usual orthostats but with the spaces in between filled by drystane wall - but still don't see the point, no indications of age yet. Up past the airport is the junction for Tankerness, and opposite this is an earth and stone complex at HY486071 behind which I thought there might be an easy way to reach the Ston Loe mound, but the field containing the park is on all sides but roadside cut off with drainage ditches, didn't get so much as a looksee from there (though by the eastern ditch there is a low irregular grassy mound [and possibly the remains of a dressed stone block] this is presumably offcast). For the first usable time there were neither sheep nor ponies and the entrance was just dry enough to be passable. This 'park' is a mish-mash of varying periods. The track between the two long linear 'mounds' leads to a flattened area with a concrete shed I assume was built by a farmer, or at least co-opted. Above this are the gravel pits, which must be all done as all that remains are quarried circular depressions with a few stones (there's meant to be a 'quarry' some way behind, I presume it is over the hill - or do I have it all wrong and the cutting on the west side is an end to it ?). Another assumption of mine is that the flattened area was made during the wartime and that the mounds along the way are from then too. Past and future archaeology then.

I think that man-made mounds belonging to the (St.Andrews) Five Hillocks grouping may start as far away as the field west of the gravel park. Which would necessarily bring in Craw Howe. Though J.T.Craw surely excavated it no reports have entered the monuments record. Similarly with the excavators of the Howe Harper Cairn in Firth and, presumably, Laughton's Knowe over in Holm. Did any have names beforetimes ? Speaking of placenames, from what I have read in local papers the O.S. were very much of two minds in the 1960's. On the one and there was the wish to put down what the people themselves knew places as, on the other hand they were to consult philologists. Events have shown that in some cases too much reliance was put on what the experts thought the placenames should have been rather than what they really were recorded as or currently known as. For instance one place along the Deerness road has appeared on 20thC maps as both Groatster and Groatsetter, which give rather different etymologies. There are two kinds of hindsight, that which uncovers old facts and that which applies new ideas, but the second has the tendency to impose things that never were there.

Further on in my journey the pair of erect stones by the track to The Round were removed for a ploughing match and are gone forever. The dwelling is surely named after a feature called The Round [the pool ?] as it certainly doesn't look one. Alas it is seperated from Round Howe by more likely areas for antiquity such as the irregular hillock [? farm mound] upon which Swartabreck (which had a corn mill in front of it whose milldam was a little to the west of The Round) perches. There is a burn on the north side of the road and not many metres from the road a feature sits exposed in the north bank. One large slab overhangs a tumble of rocks with a drystone wall behind that stops one thinking of it as a culvert, and the space is bounded on one side by a large irregular rock/slab and on the partially masked other by a few smaller as far as I can make out, and alongside either a one slab course extension r more collapse from it.

The Burn of Langskaill runs roughly parallel to the road from the 'Mine Howe road' for a while before turning towards Millbrae. In the field before Millbrae there were quite a few large stones which seem to have gone now. Can't quite make up my mind where the burnt mound in the level space is, whether beside the north bank or one of the two low circular rises the sheep gather on. The burnt mound by the dwelling is rather obvious as a deep cut marked by pale vegetation, a big old scrape by the west end of which is a gathering of stones. On the other side of the road is Milldam, and as I haven't found a Milldam in Deerness on the first O.S. there is an outside chance that this is the true place of monument record HY50NE 4, a barrow with eleven cists, as folk often contract the parish of St.Andrews and Deerness to just Deerness. The burn's outlet is the Bay of Suckquoy on whose western side there is supposed to be a chapel site, but I believe someone mistook the pointing finger for the moon and this refeered to the (also lost) Sebay chapel. On my coastal walk from the Point of Liddle to Sebay Mill [don't try it unless you can slip under a low tight fence or are prepared to turn back] I could find no trace, though there is a curiously regular field corner at the east opposite Chapel Taing. But if, on the other hand, you go to Toab village there is a heavily bushed mound (Grandag ??) overlooking the bay's eastern side I have long thought has to be man-made [aside - Toab is named for the hope at the Ness of Campston at the head of St.Peter's Bay, mediaeval Tolhop].

Before reaching the village I took the turning for Holm parish. In the fields to my left there were flocks of (?) passage migrants. These were the usual wee brown jobbies, and even when I saw them in my photos I was no better off identifying them. Oh, but it was lovely to listen as they twittered away and frantically trail their take-offs and landings. Some things are simply to be enjoyed in themselves. On a previous occasion I saw that several large stones had been ploughed up in the field north of the building with the hipped gabled roof. These have now been gathered up and placed against a telegraph pole and its guy rope. Which is bye the bye now. For the briefest of instants I considered turning left for the old church. Instead I continued to Manse to take the official footpath running down by the Sundial Mound field. Stiles are meant to be a help but the one at the start of this seems specifically designed to be a hindrance - high and mighty, it makes for a very tricky up-and-over for those without lang shanks, which is most of us as abide here.

The wells, the wells. After crossing over to the field edge it passes alongside the Newark walls. On the first O.S. a well/wellspring legend appears in the field above Newark by the edge and you can almost tell where. Coming level with the farmhouse the same map shows a field boundary opposite and another legend in the west corner of the field below it. Finally a third is shown in the field below Newark. This I found about later, for it was far too blustery for map-reading. Fortunately I noticed it anyway as I peered over the wall [HY4971601575]. Only this well appears on the modern 1:25,000, one out of three in the one vicinity. I didn't take any pictures but the well is built of thick flags, a roofed square that is only just starting to collapse. Before it there is a rectangular depression with IIRC rounded corners - perhaps there was some kind of wellhouse on the spot, long since gone. [Is this how Biddy's Well would have looked before the modern road one wonders. Biddy's Well is the only named one in Holm today, at HY4889202461 by the Little Millhouse junction. Speaking of wells I know, if you go by Biddy's Well NE to where the Graemeshall back road junction is and look to Millhouse, beyond Millhouse you can see an upturned V on the hillside. Although I've only made it out through binoculars this appears to be a robust wellhead (HY4752803055 if it is), and whether two immense planks or two large slabs it is equally unusual for Orkney].

Along the coast I had to be very careful in the strong wind not to let my exhiliration indo me. Looking uphill the ruin near to East Breckan is the old Old Schoolhouse. The first wartime survival I came to is a pillbox stuck out on the Tower of Clett, connected to the mainland by a short thin neck along one side of which I find my attention drawn by what looks like a few courses of crafted wall. Such bad fortune it is geological - there's similar cracking at the Scapa outlet and in the Saverock cliff two face each other across a semi-circular bite out of it looking sooo like a ruinous chamber it hurts. Between here and Rami Geo there is monument record, HY40SE 17 at HY49480160, for a burial. Alas, apart from the grid reference there are no "bibliographical details", and I haven't come across it in the local papers either. Mystery. Coming to the geo I notice the burnt mound looked nice and dry. Which struck me as strange - pity it hadn't been that way on my visit to it. Coming to the geo there's a dip with a slab wall at the back I've noticed before [HY49480164], in front of but below the boundary fence and a slightly different alignment. This time I turned for a closer view, being careful to avoid the circles of rusty barbed wire nestled in the grass. I found that this wall butted onto a shorter one which may have formed a small structure with it. The long wall about a metre and a half long and two-thirds to a metre high, the shorter maybe half-a-metre by a third high, with several inches of soil and small stones over all with some fallen across the top of the shorter wall. Looking above to one side there are the massive stones and quantity of earth dumped into the burn that emptied over Rami Geo till recent times (theres a line of modern blocks across the field boundary in about the right place). Was this done at the time of the wartime constructions and did the material come from hereabouts ? I suspect the dumped material is over the marked well there.

I haven't looked for the next well shown along here. The rocks in front of Mass Howe are called Bowan, and there were saltings there. I expect there is little evidence left of these, the area being smaller than that in Waulkmill Bay, though I'd need to know what I was looking for here ! Newspaper report of the bridge construction that now carries the road across the Graemeshall burn makes me think it unlikely people from that way would have gone to kirk on Mass Howe, especially with the evidence for burial at Graemeshall itself. Coming from this direction the field just before Graemeshall looks a good spot for a chapel if it wasn't at the house of Meall/Meil itself


I shall mostly be cribbing from Ernest Marwick, his folklore book and his newspaper article. The relevant Orkney placename element is kelder/keldra from the Old Norse word kelda for a fountain or well. Which is where maps can be awfully misleading as cartographers can have difficulty distinguishing between wells, springs and wellsprings. For instance "keldra steeries" would appear to be more in the nature of simple upwellings, having been applied to the "moss water wells of Orphir". More elaborate are those of a more rocky type, associated with the "keldra soadis or well seats" of which Kildingue seems to have had the most intricate Also sites do present different aspects according to local water levels and vary over time, with the Kildinguie site as an example of the latter in its decline. Marwick gives etymologies for keldru farm names in Holm ; Vinikelday on pasture-land (Backatoon in Firth had this name until the early 19thC), Hestikelday was a horse well, and Backakeld(a)y lay on a slope. He also mentions Keldamurra and Kairi Keldi on Eynhallow, Keldro on Rousay "at the hammers bek'" in Tratland, Crossiekeld in Sandwick at Yesnaby, and three with loch associations - close to the Loch of Hundland's south end the Well o' Keldereddie (Birsay), down at the Loch of Stenness NW corner in Voystown a Keldras[h]eed, and over on North Ronaldsay there is/was Buckakeldie at the NW corner of the Loch Park of Holland. A fairy well is reported on the shore south of the Ring of Brodgar

Some wells have chapel associations ; Kildinguie on Stronsay again (HY62NE 5), the Well of the Lady on North Ronsaldsay (200 yards away from the chapel, HY75NE4 at HY77575547), the Well of St Mary on Rousay (Skaill Church HY33SE 16 at HY37353018), Kirk-Holm on Corn Holm in Deerness (HY60SW 1 at HY60050173) and the Brough of Deerness (HY50NE 14), the Grainbank well below Grainbank in St.Ola (St.Duthac Chapel HY41SW 20 at roughly HY442110), Gossield/Crossiekeld in Birsay (St.Bride's Chapel HY21NW 6 at HY22241572), the Whilchow Well in Dounby (for the Whilcoe Stone site was also labelled as Old Chepl, presumably a Starra Kirk), and the Sandwick parish church in Sandwick. Officially there were only two sacred wells in Orkney, St.Magnus in Birsay and a St.Ninian's. It has been said that the location of the latter is unknown, but one antiquarian adds the parish as being Sandwick, and as the Skaill Hoard was found by the Burn of Rin the most likely place is the parish church (North Ronaldsay's original name of Rinansey is stated as being from St.Ninian/Ringan). This is in the Scarwell district, which tunship's boundary ran on the shore from Snuescar and Kirkburn

STRONSAY the Well of Kildinguie HY65372717 (HY62NE 5) is the site of three springs, including one slightly chalybeate, at the edge of the Links of Hunton. These are among the rocks below the Chapel of Kildingue (a grassy shoreside ridge at HY65362717, also HY62NE 5) whose dedication is unknown, though the name puts me in mind of Dingieshowe which was also known as Duncan's Height (perhaps also the correct dedication for Peterkirk.near Campston then ?). Variations in water level and the effects of quarrying have reduced the waters to a trickle. Quarrying for building Hunton farm has destroyed the well seat on the N side and that on the south has lost its arms. The stone in front had a dint in it.

1) a well below Grainbank but the 1882 O.S. only shows two springs near the Pickaquoy road [behind a hummock roadside where you go to Polrudden there is a square rectangle covered by wood and under rubbish which seems likely to be one of these]. So could this have been in the odd high-walled enclosure behind the mansion house of Grainbank or by St.Duthac Chapel or the Pickaquoy 'burnt mound' ? Perhaps a connection with the hooked curving bank of earth after which Grainbank is named, now underlying a boundary wall [just like the Rosebank that became the site for Highland Park House].
2) Blakeley's Well, a "much prized" mineral well on the propert of Glenorkney, described as on the high road to Holm. No mapped well here, so property=estate. Possibly the site near Hillhead of Scapa or on the other side of the road perhaps the damp ground on the Borrowstonehill side where the hill levels out.
3) a steading called Ferrowell was 10 chains N of what is now Orquil Farm. Could this well have been the souterrain site, HY40NW 7 at HY428097 - earthhouses do attract water (that at the Head of Holland appears to be shown by a small pool in a field adjoining the quarry).

1) near the chapel ruins on Corn Hom ("Kirk-Holm of Rodenshay", HY60SW 1 at HY60050173) stairs led into a deep well with large stones forming the interior.
2) folk coming to the Brough of Deerness (HY50NE 14 at HY59550873) circled the chapel thrice whilst chucking behind them stones and water from a pure sparkling spring. Though the latter is now usually seen as a "moist hollow" or "damp circular depression", but Sigurd Towrie has an excellent picture at . Though circular features in this area have been related to wartime target practice I don't believe the spring would have survived this activity - did the pilgrim's stones come from these ?

SOUTH RONALDSAY - near Lady Wemyss Castle (traditionally associated wit a subterranean passage = weem) there was a holy well at Hollyrood/Halyrude (Ruid Chapel ND48NW 4 at ND436891)

STROMNESS though Hellihole Road is down by the library the well (HY2478109320) to which this refers is beside the road near Brownstown, shown on the map as a chalybeate well. Originally it was called the "Haley Hole" but the memory of this holy well faded until it gained fame as a mineral well in the middle decades of the 19thC and became surmounted by a proper well-house, with a door and window. In Marwick's time both door and window had long disappeared and the well was subject to the influx of surface water. I don't know what state it is in now, not having been to Stromness to look for it.

1) the Man's Well (HY22NE 9 at HY25652750) near Boardhouse on the Kirbister road is so called because the relics of St.Magnus rested there. The present well is topped by a rusty wellhead which I think doesn't work any more. I have a slight suspicion that the original well may have been neare the present millstream.
2) the Knowe of Forsakelda (burnt mound HY22SE 49 at HY28302314) is named for a 'waterfall-well' . This well and the Well o' Keldereddie were both linked to the trows

1) St.Magnus body rested at Whilchow. The Whilchow well (~HY29672092]) lies in the moss at Dounby (Downby originally simply the name of a farmhouse where the pub is now) with two small burnt mounds. The night before their wedding couples left a 'sowan scone' on the Whilchow Stane (HY29612084) and then took a drink here, the waters having notable virtues.
2) A well called Keldapeter, 'below' Appietown, sealed up after a boy died inside it
3) An excellent spring well (HY3178417635 by the Old Kirk) near Overakelday/Overkeld

1) beside the drained well in the kirkyard of Sandwick parish church (HY21NW 26 at HY23451986) stood the oldest tombstone, which though it had the possible name Mabhir inscribed was called the Mohr stone in the belief that it marked the burial spot of a very early missionary, one of three brothers spreading "the religion of the Bright Morning Star" apparently asociated with what were called Starra Kirks (usually marked by special stones)
2) a well Howikeld/Hooikeld in the neighbourhood of Hurkisgarth (HY21NE 43 at HY25451770).
3) in Kirkness tunship was St.Margaret's Well, the kirk (old site HY21NE 35 at HY28001878) let off some church dues for sending ale to the cortege

STENNESS the Bigswell district is named for the field 'vollr' of someone apparently called Bygg(e). On midsummer eve a fire was lit on the ridge of Bigswell Hill. At Beltane patients circled it deosil (clockwise)before taling a drink from the well. My sources [pardon pun] don't say whether these are those who were epileptic or unsound of mind and reportedly plunged into it before being left overnight tied to a post beside the well (for some reason I am reminded of the stake left to mark the position of the Kethesgeo stone). Children bathed here as part of ceremonies that continued at the Stone of Odin, and kneeling lovers drank the waters prior to taking the vow of Odin there. Presuming that the traditions relate to one particular well there are differing opinions as to is. Moderns prefer a well (HY3345810462) fifty yards from the Mid Bigswell on a slope over the road. Antiquarians preferred one (HY3362110813) in the Moss of Bigswald below Nether Bigswell with alignments to the Standing Stones on the Beltane and Midwinter lines (though the wellspring at HY3373710466, with 'drain', is a better fit to my mind). Here an underground passage of several yards length streamed water to a high-capacity spring with a well (once several yards across) having one or two steps into it


Remains taken from Egilsay to Evie
1) landed at a creek [?? Port of Gurness near Howes Breck, or the Sands of Evie] south of the Point of Aikerness where decision made to go straight to Birsay Place. A large crowd on Greeny Hill gathered from far and wide
2) cortege passing on to Hund(i)land and the valley by the NE corner of Stanger Loch (the Loch of Boardhouse) at Kirbister
3) strangely the next resting place is reported well to the north east, making for an indirect route. The cortege is said to have stopped at a site called "Mansie's Grip" at the NW corner of the Loch of Swannay though the likeliest thing is the bowl barrow HY32NW 22 at HY30722953 on the east side
4) and the next place was near, or even at, an old house called Lingro - there is a possible pivot-stone roadside at HY28452894 and of course on the hillside there are the Knowes of Lingro, HY22NE 21 at HY28412904
5) The last recorded resting place is the ridge at Crustan (Knowes of Crustan HY22NE 5 at HY275290) from which the Bisay kirk can be seen, but there are two Mansie's Stones recorded further on, nearer to the Brough of Birsay
6) most famously Waspitten on an unploughed strip on Flecketsquoy (now Doverhouse HY25742865) which was broken up for concrete by servicemen, and is probably the same as a Mansie's Sttone seen post-war past Siller-a-geo (silver/fish) now dwarfed by a modern block estimated at three-quarters of a hundredweight
7) there is a rock Sowaskirr (Sowa Skerry) by the Point of Nether Quinni (Netherqueena) and an area of folded rocks that was a saw-pit. Then comes Round Geo and the Mansie's Stone, lying in short turf, is a boulder. The point is the small headland east of the Point of Buckquoy, between Skipi (ship) Geo and Hesti (horse) Geo. I don't see a Round Geo on the 1882 map.
8) the P(a)lace of Birsay, not the Brough


1) a decision made at the "Stane o' Quibune" (Wheebin stone HY22NE 3 at 25312629) may have given the name to next-door Twatt - which side of the Floati and Greeny lochs (the lochs of Banks and Sabiston respectively). It is presumably the relics that rested at St.Magnus Well rather than the original moving of the body
2) it had been arranged to rest next at the Knowe of Nurton (Knowe of Taft HY22SE 8 at HY28362226)
3) then on to Whilchow/Whilcoe, where the parishes of Birsay & Harray & Sandwick met at the now much reduced Whilchow Stone (HY29612084) which also formed a march of Aesgar. In old times it seems a ten yard wide 'road' went to the cardinal directions, its edges formed by a 'feal dyke'. Nearby was the Whilcoe well - opposite the St.Magnus Well there is also an odd stone lying down, though it is rather small.
4) the next three up were on the old track to Kirkwall. First St.Magnus Resting Place by the Knowes of Conger/Coynear (the now ?lost Knowes of Conyar, HY31NW 44 at HY301193) and St.Michael's Kirk (HY31NW 59 at HY31361790)
5) Fairyhowe near Appietown on top of which every man threw a stone - preumably a stone cairn or burnt mound but declared lost/destroyed
6) the third lay between Appiehouse and the Slap of Harray near Grimeston where before leaving the cortege the Birsay men set up a large stone, most likely the Staney Hill Stone (HY31NW 10 at HY31951567)
7) Marwick reports another "guid Mans resting stanes" at the NE corner of Harray where a heather ridge points to Berstane Farm. At this place called Riviage he found a standing stone projecting two-and-a-half feet above ground level. This looks a bit muddled to me. I do not see Riviage or variants on the first O.S., I can only suggest Stenaday as a suggestive placename.
8) the Man's Body then passed through Kingdale to Caldale where all the south parishes assembled for a big do that is said to be responsible for the name. I would suggest that from here they took the old carters road that ran from Greenigoe in Orphir to Walliwall - I think this ran up the north side of the Newbigging (now Braehead) ridge to where the quarry is
9) the Bu of Corse is named after a cross which might be connected, or perhaps it is where the man from the Corse cist was originally buried. Finally the body made its way to the cathedral, which had a White Stone incorporated.

wideford Posted by wideford
14th April 2008ce
Edited 16th April 2008ce

Comments (2)

Hi Wideford
I enjoyed this contribution. I've been thinking about wells
in the landscape of Medieval Orkney. An under-researched topic!
You have contributed a lot to the MA; doesn't the lack of feed back and comment get to you at times?

Posted by sweenyastray
17th July 2008ce
Knowes of Conyar/Coynear are not the resting place, which was one of the Knowes o' Conyar/Congar right of the main Harray road between the Nisthouse and Merkister junctions wideford Posted by wideford
30th August 2010ce
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