The Modern Antiquarian. Stone Circles, Ancient Sites, Neolithic Monuments, Ancient Monuments, Prehistoric Sites, Megalithic MysteriesThe Modern Antiquarian

wideford’s TMA Blog

Post to the TMA Blog


One day going to either the Evie broch's or the Brough of Birsay (or both), catching the bus passing by work. Lots of buses went by but none for the route. Same again next day. Perhaps it had been the only unmarked bus. So set up for the dinnertime bus to Evie. That proved a non-show also, to the dismay of the other person waiting. Thought it to be a winter timetable holdover except I then found one and both were listed there too. Keep forgetting that for the first week or so of the summer timetable some routes run to the old one, by which time you've thrown that one out ! Nothing on the stantions to tell you this, only one bare general notice by customer information - which is shut far too often to aid tourists (and if they want to use the place to better capacity then it should have somewhere for refreshment built in). So another day I'm there in time for a bus on the main as far as the Brig o'Waithe. Except that the new timetable book has been simplified and what looks like one route is actually the bus going round Kirkwall (that's one journey) followed after a big gap by the bus doing the 'long haul' (a seperate journey). Heaven knows what the real timetable is for the South Isles as that is on the same listing too !! Then while waiting on the second coming the Orphir bus turns up so I switch to that. My frazzled brain can't remember where my chief target now lay and only went to Orphir village not Houton.
Before reaching Orphir village a road takes off to the right and passes between the Orphir hills to Stenness. For a moment I considered taking this way instead. On the Loch of Kirbister the Holm of Groundwater may once have been similar to the Wasdale site. On the hillside beyond the loch's northern end, by Kebro, a path used to be regularly trod to Stenness Kirk. Between Kebro and Oback until the early 20th century what is now marshy ground held a lochan/pow that drained in the course of only a day or two ! Perhaps this fed the stream whose proximity led to the naming of Oback. Local history gives Oback as the residence of Earl Rognvald, where you went along the hall a ways before turning down into the attached kirk. The only ancient seeming patch I see here is on the level ground just above the farm. No sign of anything adjacent however. But by the Skaill burn in the valley below there is an NMRS that is said to relate to an ecclesiastical site. Looking upstream by the ford there are the remains of a decent-sized building amidst small trees. Oba I take to be perhaps the original Oback - which, then, did they refer to ?. Further upstream there may be a mound. The stream starts in the Dale of Oback, and it is by this route that the killer of Sveinn Breistrop fled to Finstown after doing the dirty deed in the Earl's Palace [or from a modern perspective how about the Stenness Kirk track as far as the road to Heddle Hill overlooking Finstown].

Stepped off the bus at the kirk and took the by-road that goes south past Gyre and Bu. Before you reach the first turn is the field next to that with a large isolated mound (the RCAHMS record contracts my description of it having a water-filled hollow opposite to my saying the mound is surrounded by the water). This place is Kongarsknowe on the Fairy Brae of Congesquoy by the King's Ferry road (quoy meaning field/enclosure). Kongar/Conge/Konig obviously earlier than king. Though it is easy to think that the names started from a tradition of a king being buried in the mound the fact that Stromness parish also had a Konizquoy inclines me to believe this referred to a parcel of land worked in tribute for the king. Fairy brae gives an image of fay folk freely frolicking, but its true relation comes from ferry. I have recently found out that in Orkney a ferry placename often refers to a place where peats were landed, as with Ferry Point near Quanterness, though I'd love to believe that fairy could at times also refer to sea trow [the howars traditional foe] ;-) .Not being certain whether I had the time I forewent videoing it for now - I'm pleased to see the exposed areas are still clear. By the second, left-hand, turn on the right there is one of those cut-off triangles of land so common in Orkney. This one is several feet below road level. Its kind of damp and overgrown and contains several large erect stones. These look to be part of a 'standing stone fence' system and one might well be a boundary stone [for Cairnton ??] though I cannot find it on any maps past or present. Looking down I saw a wonderful spiky caterpillar and slid carefully down for a closer look. The body black and about as thick as my little finger, long hairs sticking out all over, vibrant orange on the head and lower half, white everywhere else with the hairs mostly sprouting from white roundels. Oh, and a row of white lens-shaped ovals too. Magnificent. On the same leaf were two insects of different sizes mating, the smaller behind the larger, cockchafers I believe, metallic green with gold and red shimmering like oil.
The first place the road hits in the 19th century had the name Gear. Gear on the 1882 O.S. had become Gyre by the 1903 O.S. map. It refers to a triangular piece of land (there is a Gears on the way to Dingieshowe). Related terms are gard/garth for a farm as enclosed land and gar for a projecting piece of land (such as Snusgar opposite Sandwick kirk and Wesgar by the top of the Muddisdale track in Kirkwall). Where road heads for the Bu at the top of the breck above Gyre 'chambered cinerary urns' were found and late last century a double cist came up by the stackyard, these possibly remnants of a barrow cemetery. Along this way below the stretch of road called The Loan a piece had been called Church Field (near the NW corner of this by the road foundations, stone implements, bone and ashes had been found. A Masegate 'church road' came from the west) For this day, however, I took the road to Breck instead in order to walk the clifftops. This straight stretch of road dips into a hollow and is nicely lined by trees. Apart from these latter it reminds me of the road going past Breck of Rendall, only shorter and steeper. The top woodland between the Gyre and Breck roads hides an old milldam. At the intersection these two roads form a large triangle centred on the burn entering this. Below the driveway to Orphir House is a second piece of woodland that has been opened to the public since last I was here. So instead of passing along what I call the hollow way I explored this. The burn passes through it and near the start of the path a bridge of two long stones crosses it. I don't think it to be an old langstane bridge and after a cursory examination returned to the path (the other side of the burn somewhere around here bones and ashes were found). Its a nice little walk that doesn't entirely confine you to the path. At the bottom there is a tiny picnic area, not much more than one of those table-cum-benches basically. It doesn't take you any further and you have to retrace your steps. I wonder if this part of the wood is possibly where the hazelnuts had been found [opps, no other side of Burn of Gyre is Nutfield, Moss Park before these were found in the bog (there had been foundations in Moss Park, presumably above the marshy bit) ]. The track ends down from where it started, bringing you out onto the road again.

I call it a coastal path but what it is is a narrow stretch of sub-heath outwith the fields. Along here the dwarf [or dwarfed] willow still held some blooms, teeny yellow catkins. Somewhere along the way, past the Head of Hangaback, Johnstone marks a noust at a place where a track (still mostly on the map) from Gyre seperated Beach-field to the north from Hangaback (formerly Highfield) to the south - between Beach-field and Moss Park, E side of said track, lay Beachfield Park. Wonder of wonders, I chanced upon a pair of breeding ravens not many yards away fro me. Not sure whether they were nesting here or gathering materials, only that they were in no hurry to leave as I approached. Some of the time they disappeared behind the cliff and other times they floated a few feet above the turf like sumo wind-hovers. As I came nearer to the Bu burn at one piece I could see a couple of exposed slabs that had once been part of a wall base, though curiously this didn't continue on the cliff part surving beyond the line. Unfortunately I couldn't identify the part from the shore. Went to cross the burn, found a likely spot, kept the steps in mind and then fell on my face before the Bu burn anyways !! At least this time I missed my knee. My object Harproo, a dried-up stream where a farmtrack now carves its way from the road to the shore. Either side of where the track ends up on the cliff there are two tall erect stones. Probably full-on mediaeval in the archaeologist's eyes. Because 'outside' of these and lower in the cliff each side has a stone projecting straight out, evidently from a drystane structure. I'm not sure if this is part of the traditional Kirkyard of Harproo at the shore that Johnston mentions in regards to stones and large bones as apparently there are traces of another structure up on the field.
If Earl Rognvald's Palace had been at Bu then Harproo seems a likelier spot than Church Field. Much is made of the Round Church, which to me is an accident of survival as it started off as part of a set of buildings (round stone tools were gifted to the S.A.S. in 1860 from Girth House). And the tradition of the Girth House being an asylum would go better with it being some kind of infirmary where the sick were looked after by ecclesiastics. Probably still likely an earl had a hand in it - they were like that. Even the present kirkyard bears sign of being more than a single site - on the side facing the burn there is a drystane wall going to the stream [and its line continues on the other side with a shorter wall that then strikes up for the road as if forming part of an enclosure through which the burn ran] and at this point there is an obvious kink in the kirkyard wall. Not that unusual I suppose. Early maps indicate that the Earl's Bu site contains late mediaeval settlement too. Part of Johnston's excavations an be seen as the long bump under the wall west of the entrance, and I assume a similar stretch edging the path coming from the visitors centre to it is more. Most of the good archaeology is on the other side of the path even if we aren't terribly sure of the exact nature of these structures. It looks as if at least one continues under the kirkyard wall. There's a nice stone post at the roadside and a bit of curved wall. On the opposite side of the road is a big abandoned building, long and probably once having a dividing floor for a second storey, that looks rather nice. Paid another visit to the Norse mill undercroft. The channel that conveyed water unlike later ones is quite windy and mostly drystane walling rather than a slab construction. Lovely.
Following the road up towards Grindally there are several tall erect stones either side of the road, including a small set on the left. This I take to be what is left of a 'standing stone fence' system, Close by the west end of Bu there is a large pile of these that have obviously been cleared from elsewhere along with some ordinary concrete posts. Where this road meets the main Orphir road stands Grindally House, Grindelay itself being to the north. Before 1910 the area stood blank. It's a building worth admiring, open on three sides and showing that even today a house platform has its place. Now I'm on the way to Houton.

Along the way I stopped to film the Holm of Houton. On the far side I saw several rises, but these are likely to be the old walls shown on maps as the only structure on there is a wee thing, which seems strange considering it used to connect to the mainland. Once past the harbour I walked the shore. Where the shore runs towards the holm the line of rocks called Swinchitaing historically let people onto the holm at some low tides. Where the small coastal road finally turns away from the shore there is a 'roped off' scrappy triangle of land down on the NMRS as Kirkhouse from which several early bells are recorded. The place from which the bells came is in all likelihood not the kirk but a graveyard as graves had also come from there, a funerary context matched by the Birsay bell from Saevar Howe (found in a cist). Though the foundations of a rectangular structure have been found it is considered too small for a kirk. I believe the confusion came about because Swinchataing has also had the name Kirkhouse attached to it, though perhaps this had been a priest's house ? Around the other side of the headland is the NMRS record of Houton Head, which is my candidate for the site of the earliest Earl's Palace - two [main] buildings offset from one another with part of a church unpinning a corner of the lower one. Though Johnston excavated what we now know as the Earl's Bu, for which he puts forward a strong case, it is curious that he stressed elsewhere that originally Orphir had originally been only Orfirasey i.e. the area around the Holm of Houton (though as well as ey=islet it could also be 'isthmus' as in the eyre/ayre that Swinchating had been). If I am right then it comes from a time when Orphir had a stronger attachment to Hoy, looking to it before Kirkwall assumed prominence (traditionally James of the Mohr brothers held Hoy and Stromness as his mission). Had another close look at the enclosure, crushing brambles and clasping the walltop, and found that less than, what, two feet from the end of the shorter 'arm' at the level of the wall base were grey slabs like those of structure A's flag plinth. Looks likely that we have an entrance here, robbed completely on one side. Which doesn't resolve whether this is definitely an oval or the corner of something once larger. And do the flags represent an earlier phase.
Retraced the coast and back up onto the road. The large building is Howth and on the opposite side of the road is a disused, almost roofless, longhouse [I know it probably isn't technically] divided in two with a circular structure used in processing corn - forgive me, I forget if these are corn kilns or mills, summat to do wi' corn any road up). A little further along is a small walled garden. Looking up to the Hill of Midland and its fair dotted with dark brown looking cottages, almost everyone abondoned but very picturesque. I imagine most of them to be connected with the various quarries shown on the map. The middle disused quarry had the name of Corryhouse attached and is part of a large square enclosure.

Back to the pier in time for a very short wait for the last bus. This one takes a more circuitous route, continuing further around the coast before turning on to the Scorradale road to rejoin the main Orphir one. Only the driver continued past the Scorradale turning. This being my first trip on the late bus I thought nothing of it. Turned out he was a new driver. The other passengers, a young couple, directed him to Finstown - I thought that they meant to put him onto the Heddle road back towards Orphir but we just continued on to Kirkwall (the Stenness school road would have taken him back to Orphir - I hope my failure to point this out didn't leave anyone stranded in Orphir). Near the Brig of Waithe we passed Cumminess. From my high seat I had a clear view of Cummi Howe, a broch I've been meaning to visit for ages. Corn Hillock on the same piece of coast is in splendid isolation like Maes Howe in shape, though when I went close by another day it is more long and low in person for some reason. Corn is from kyrnar 'cows', and as I knew of no reports I thought possibly a burnt mound or simply this is one of those hillocks favoured by kie (or the hundret foot long midden of Bos bones storm revealed 1901 west of Skerrabrae until 1903 when another storm blew it away to reveal buildings on the rocks beneath). Actually I have since found an NMRS record from a 1998 survey that thought it might be a broch. Which would give a pair of brochs, though oddly enough (for what it is worth) there seems to the same distance between these two as there is between Corn Hillock and the 'Danes Fort' of The Cairns near the Hall of Ireland.I am of the opinion this whole area to the Brig o'Waithe is the Gimmes Sea.

Houton Head, HY30SW 51, in 1882 comprised two roofed buildings, an unroofed building and one enclosure, reduced by 1977 to only two roofed buildings. I explored a couple of unroofed constructions in a reasonable state of preservation, both totally taken over by vegetation as far up as the present wallheads. What I shall call structure A (which is cardinally aligned) is of drystone walling with a later structure on the short side I first saw, structure B apparently partially lost. Going close in on CANMAP shows this place as very complex and it is possible that the 1882 and 1977 records are due simply to differing takes on the whole. The upcliff side of structure A appears to be on private land so it is still uninvestigated. On the far side alongside that wall there are wide slab steps coming down to the shore. Here the wall is 2.2m high at the front reducing (externally at least) towards the back, 6.5m behind the front wall. The front wall is 18.3m long but there could be something happening 15.6m along. On the near side, very roughly 2.5m back from the front, is a much more recent structure starting at the level of the wall top and (I estimate) 1-1.5m across. This has sharp 90 degree corners and is made of mortared and dressed drystane walling. About 1.5m away from the nearside wall is another drystane a lower level which stands a metre tall, 3.1m long and 0.5m thick [at the top of the coastal end there is a 0.3m gap in which sit the rusting remains of an ?oven - strange].The front wall of structure A bows out slightly at various places, and remedial work has apparently taken place at the far side corner. Here several white stone blocks have been set upon (what I take to be) a wide flag plinth to shore up the drystane wall at this point. The area that they cover is sub-triangular, roughly 1x0.6x0.3 metres. I had thought them to be later in date, but upon closer inspection discovered that a block at the bottom right (0.23m high and long 0.34m deep) has running down the centre of the external face a narrow sculpted column. This has to come from a mediaeval ecclesiastical structure, but the arrangement and low number of blocks present rules out there being precisely in situ. The most parsimonious argument is that they came from the chapel belonging to Kirkhouse [a 1998 report finds Kirkhouse submerged by brambles but I find these at Houton Head rather than at the given location].
A little over 15m from the far end of this are the smaller remains of my structure B (? the enclosure). Also of drystane walling, this is either the remaining corner of a once larger structure or possibly the remains of a plantie-cruegh or similar feature. It has a highly curved wall 1.3m high by 0.6m thick with one 'arm' longer than the other. The coastal arm measures 2.3m. At this point it is 3.1m across the structure externally. The opposite arm then runs for another two metres through vegetation that is preventing further investigation of that far side. My second visit revealed flagstone material (like that under structure A) just across from the shorter arm that may represent the opposite base of a very narrow entrance here.

wideford Posted by wideford
25th May 2009ce

Comments (0)

You must be logged in to add a comment