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Top Of The World - July 28th 2004

Took the bus to the 'Newton road end'. Looking across the Loch of Swannay I could see at least three of the holms. Stoney Holm is a crannog and possibly Park Holm also. The big islet Muckle Holm is not a crannog but I could see a distinct mound at one end that surely speaks of human modification. Despite the weather forecast there was nary a cloud and all three holms were hazed by heat as a consequence. Chrismo mound, unmarked on the map at HY315289, lies either side of the road a little beyond the A of A966 on the 1:25,000 past Crismo but is very low. A little further along look across the other side of the road Costa Hill Barrow HY313291 can be made out on a prominent false crest and was re-used as a beacon. I wasn't entirely sure that I did see it. Further along there is a white rocky outcrop by the shore and before this is perhaps a standing stone and a suspicious looking large white boulder on its own. The next shoreline feature extends into the waters, a much cracked geological pavement like the one at Loch of Tankerness only far easier to geometrise. I fancied I could see rectangular structuring in the nearer part, nature is so teasing sometimes. Before the farm buildings at the road bend, about where the 55m contour line approaches the road, there is an unmarked bowl barrow at HY307275 which I still haven't found to my satisfaction.

As I came to the top of the hill above Swannay House I noted once again the curious construction of the drystane wall along the inside bend around and downhill. Sticking way out of the wall by about two-thirds there height are a number of thin reddish slabs on end. You get the feeling they have been part of some stalled structure. All of them have a neat hole or two about a small iron rod's diameter (perhaps all would prove to have two if I removed them from the wall). Generally speaking they are of a size and shape comparable to that holding up the giant slab I have previously note down at the burn, which is also holed. Past the farm and going up the other hill on the same side is the more usual slab fencing, the slabs white, larger and nearer to square.
At the junction I detoured by going straight onto the B-road and then taking the first turning left, signposted Lochview. Taking the upper of the two tracks here I could see the mound I was looking for just uphill to my left. at the top I saw a kind of standing stone at the edge of the field, thick and rectangular. Actually there are two earthen mounds here HY296282, Mittens a.k.a. Rantan. I only saw the one nearby, there were no features visible and the field was surrounded on the sides I saw by an electric fence. Went back down to the road where my attention was taken by a utility-knife-shaped standing stone HY29402893 placed diagonally at the very corner of the field opposite.
Back onto the main Birsay road. Coming up to Fea I could see a standing stone HY28872883 beside the track going up to it. Went for a closer inspection and I felt there had to be a companion. The opposite side of the track didn't look promising at first, only saw a re-used/displaced slab. Then I saw it hidden amongst seasonal vegetation. A gatepost pair too far apart for a gate (unless the precursor of the 'Orkney gate', which is nowadays a few slight wooden posts with barbwire strung across them and looped on whatever is handy either end). Wondered if the pair aligned anywhere so looked back the way. On the map it looks towards a confluence down in the valley but my attention was drawn to where the kie were up the hill, making several gurt dark muddy areas about the join of several fields, the centre of which was a slight depression in the form of a low rounded triangle. Through the binoculars I could see that at the right was an area of soil with many small stones apparently embedded in it. Even on a very large scale CANMAP all that is shown here is the start HY293298 of a drain (mapspeak for straight-ened stream usually) going off to the left. Make of it what you will.

My next target was to get closer in to the Knowes of Lingro. The present 1:25,000 shows them just past Garlaine but there is now a bungalow nearer still. Before I reached the gate my eyes were taken roadside by a standing stone and setting HY28452894. A mini s.s. at only 0.9x0.17x0.1m, though probably extending underground which would make it even slimmer. Modern ?? Made me wonder if some bigger stone had been removed at some stage - this day I saw several modern concrete pillars in similar associations, passing curious. Like Via this setting is in front of the stone. The visible base of the standing stone is level with its top. Both standing stone and the abutting stone (0.45m long) are at right angles to the road, and then a stone 0.5m long is parallel to it. 0.47m from the abutting stone what I read to be one end of the setting is mostly buried - what shows a mere 5cm above the grass is 0.2m long. Underfoot you can feel the stones of a wall beyond the setting.
I always prefer to climb over gates, but this one is chained anyway. The downhill mound has a scrape in the top, though this could be rodent damage (rabbits are rodents too). At the top of the hill are the other two mounds. That on the left is another disappointment. Though there are more patches of bare earth this could still be the results of animal, rather than human, excavators. Probably the latter making digging easier the the former. Looking to the last mound from this one I was heartened to see a few stones protruding from the far side. Still it came as a very pleasant shock to find that these were part of a cist (Usually new observations from a watching brief are passed on by Historic Scotland to RCAHMS, but 8 years ago this one slipped the net, hence its none appearance on the NMRS till my observation). The two uphill slabs are virtually complete, giving a size of 1.2x0.8m. The longer slab points fairly straight uphill, so a N-S orientation I think. These two slabs are only slightly out of joint, the cause in the long ago perhaps a 0.6x0.1m stone showing not far above the lower end. I saw no sign of the other end slab but 0.35m of the other long slab can still be seen standing up 0.2m. Soil and grass comes maybe halfway up the inside of the cist. Coming off the mound HY284290 you could see the roundness of it and there is a ditch. At first I thought this too curved around the mound, but then it went over to the corner of a drystane wall - perhaps it is a robber trench ? However further down the road there is a ridge going across the hill. Could it and the ditch both be part of the site, a demarcation about the site ? I do feel there is more going on here than just those three mounds, a barrow cemetery would be luverly.
Once more on the road the next site, still this side of the road, is easy to find as it is located by the wartime buildings. Unfortunately these have slightly damaged the Knowe of Crustan HY275289. Originally it had a 4'-5' standing stone surmounting it. An early excavation found only burnt bones in a common cell. This site would have been easy to get too if the sign at the road saying "Beware of the Bull" could be dismissed. Looking up the hill I couldn't see one, but that carred little with me then. If someone does go there they could look for a smaller mound on the same ridge, about 110m to the NE.

As the road descends you come to a disused quarry (always a place to look for discarded standing stones if accessible by car). Opposite this I found another of 'my' flat-face aligned stone pairs HY27292850. Below the brow of a hill seems a typical situation for these. The more of them that I see the more certain I am that they mark the boundary of larger areas in Orkney. This one overlooks Birsay beautifully. Though both are 1.3x0.6m they aren't really a mirror image - the one on the right is rectangular apart from a bump at the top, the one on on the left a severely 'pecked' utility knife shape. They stand 3.3m apart with the gap bridged by an 'Orkney gate' as described earlier. I'd love to plot all this type of gateway on a map sometime, carve up Orkney prehistory stylee.

A little further down the same side is a standing stone with setting HY27122841. Further along, opposite the first of the complex of Craig Millar buildings, is another HY26712826 without one. Roundabouts are several rectangular/square ones prostrate. My first thought of a 'standing-stone fence' I discounted when I saw that a now turfed-over and low drystane wall edged the rough pasture a metre or so back.
In a pattern that I have seen before the next standing stones were on the other side of the road. The first of these stands 5 or 10 metres past the Vinbrake junction, I forget which. Actually I only saw it when I was working out the location of the second. This latter is down at HY26252800, is at right-angles to the road, has a neat circular hole near the bottom and a series of on-end slabs abutting it like the top of a drystane wall.
Of course all or none of these could be 'real' standing stones. But such a number, excluding any stumps and the like I may have missed, in only a kilometre conveys an impression of the size of the problem here in Orkney for the archaeologist sorting data from 'noise'.

After three-and-a-half hours fieldwork I finally arrived in Birsay village. Not enough time to be sure of reaching my final target before the last bus, so left it out. Actually my original plan had been the bus to Birsay and then a different walk, but in Orkney the drivers sometimes leave changing the route number till late, and my intended had said it was the town service ! Lesson being in Orkney always ask what the bus 'is'. I forgot and was fortunate my error turned out to my benefit. A roasting hot day with barely any cloud had not been the forecast either. As is often the case Radio Orkney had been half a day out - we met the 'correct' weather as we neared Kirkwall (Finstown, as so often, the great weather divide).

wideford Posted by wideford
31st July 2004ce
Edited 1st August 2004ce

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