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FINSTOWN TO ORPHIR September 28th 2007

Took the bus into Finstown, which was held up by road works almost exactly where I wanted to be. So rather than let it go that little bit further and then block the traffic again in order to disembark I simply got off while everyone was stuck in the jam. The Heddle Road starts beside the old church. This side of Heddle Hill it is reasonably steep, rather straight, and lined by posh-looking gaffs - like Wideford Hill transported to Poole in Dorset. Nearing the top I tried to see the Paerkeith mounds (HY31SE 13) which lie on the slope that starts behind the houses on the left, but the place always is so overgrown. Three of them are classed as tumuli and two of these may have had cists. Paerkeith sounds like a nob saying park heath and is either a piece of lost Orkney Norn or a very late non-Orkney name - it looks most peculiar and I can't get a handle on it from any dictionary in the Orkney Room. Looking over the valley is a place by the back road to Kirkwall where a small copse covers where a small burn (the Grip of Wheeling) reaches the road, and the Market Green tumuli (HY31SE 12 at HY364133) lay near either bank - it's a bit of a stretch but in Scots place-names pair can be 'tree'' and keith 'wood' ! Looking over towards the tomb the Heddle motorcycle track is rather fine now. Even though it is marked private I did for a brief second think about walking down the twisty turns, but thouht it unlikely I might see 'owt to justify the side trip. A large quarry occupies the top of the hill and there is an anomolous green mound at the back of it. I find it strange that it isn't mentioned at all, even if only to say it is purely natural or whatever. There is a record of arrowheads from somewhere on Heddle Hill. Aye, there's the rub, somewhere. Looking at the back of Cuween Hill you could swear that there is a stone circle, but a pair of binoculars reveals this as an old industrial site, several drystone pillars of varying heights, each apparently on its own miniscule hillock. On the LH again I see a low heather covered rise/mound with low shrubbery in what looks like an excavations scar. IIRC it is on CANMORE as a natural mound near Heddle Cottage. To help you find this piece close to is a short stretch of drystane fieldwall with a tall erect stone at right angles to end it. There is an old track heading south to Heddle Cottage, but there is another from a very minor crossroads further on. Take this one and you are looking in the direction of a Neolithic stettlement, below the south-east slope of Cuween Hill between Stoneyhall and Stonehall (normally you'd find at least a mile or so in Orkney between similar names, usually you would find a pair such as North/South or Nether/Upper). The other side of the cross roads a track goes from Turrieday to Ouraquoy, and between this track and Upper Springrose a BA cist called Torrieday was excavated by Hedges (HY31SE 31 at HY353127).

Along the SSW edge of the hill near here there is one of my 'standing stone fences', only just downhill of a 'modern' drystane wall, a ?structure {both composed of over-thin slabs (compared to the traditional)} and possible mounds. To the eye I saw three widely spaced stones, then the binoc's showed a fourth, and as I went along I saw the line continue to the 'end' of the hill as profiled against the sky. Not much above East Heddle an erect rectangular slab roadside has two modern bored holes. A bright catterpillar crawled down this, a dark body but having flashy go-faster stripes along the length. At the farm some poor building which would have looked bonnie once has been reduced to a large shell. Where the small burn widens approaching the buildings I make oot a fine small bridge across it. On the other side of the road a track goes to nowhere in particular. On the northern side the start is banked by flags, reminding me of the bank against the Loch of Lummagen, though this could be a slab fence from the Agricultural Improvements if it weren't so superfluous here below field level again. Going up we're back to seperate stones again. Topping the rise in front of me there was an odd tractor or excavator or summat. Though no-one was with it the land beyond being obviously under work there was likely nowt I could/should walk on. Turning back, near the start again I could see a large cavity in the bank. Close inspection provided no clues beyond that it seemed near field level. Most of the way along the walk my attention kept drawing to the The Hill of Lyradale, along the saddle top of which Svein Breistrop fled after the murder at the palace, and much later probably some of the south survivors of the Battle of Summersdale if tradition is correct in its ascription of remains found there to that. Along the lower slopes is a long bright scar like some horizontal landslide, whether natural or man-made I found impossible to tell even with aided sight.

After passing the Hall of Heddle my mind could not decide whether to reach the Germiston road via Appiehouse or take the'better' round round Park of Heddle. Deciding on the former route and taking a left turn I thought I vaguely recognised the place I saw approaching me. Then it dawned me I had turned to Scuan [Scowan on the 1882 map, which aptly appears to signify 'fragment'], which meant I'd gone the full Heddle Road instead, at one-and-a-half hours. No peafowl this time. Between here and the Park of Heddle used to be called The Moss. Just north of the Burn of Heddle by the field edge on the 1:25,000 that runs southward below below the beginning of the quarry legend relating to Mid House the first O.S. shows a cairn (about HY33841263) that is presumably gone as I see it listed nowhere (not even the 1946 Inventory).. So, the Germiston road yet again. Down the road East and West Nistaben do not appear on the 1st O.S., but the name Nistaven is shown for this area [which could well mean that Marwick's theory this name is equivalent to Nisthouse is in error, and where Eastaben appears was only Hivel then ]. The farm where I saw the friendly dogs is Nisthouse. An adjoining house bears the name Lower Nisthouse, which shows placename evolution at work as Upper Nisthouse was in the nineteenth century called Queenonla.

On the 1882 map the 'new' Garmiston road is missing a section from the field edge south of Upper Nisthouse down as far as the Fea-Kebro crossroads. Coming down on the west side of the road the next obvious thing is a dumping-place beside this, a couple of pieces of old agricultural machinery and several dumps of large slabs etcetera (you could scarce call them cairns yet). At the end furthest from the road you might make out a green mound. I hadn't realised it at the time, though I felt it sus, but this is one of the actual Summerdale mounds. Actualy as far as information goes this is the most important as having been excavated in modern times, producing a short cist and an inhumation before being filled in again. This BA barrow had been re-used for the later burial, apparent confirmation of the tradition that the slain from the Battle of Summerdale had been buried here even though those particular times had not seen the mounds being raised. According to the NMRS all these were on a ridge, though this is none too obvious. The other mounds are downhill and close to the southern edge of the field. Even the surviving ones stand fairly low now.

Over this fence and up by the road is the stone (HY34831058) I take to be the Moss of Bigswald marker (traditionally for one of the Caithnessmen's leaders). Of course it has been heavily modified for other purposes since. For now I avoided the temptation to go back to enter the field and contented myself creeping as close to the verge edge as possible for an overlook. Teetering on the edge I could see that at some time in the recent past a top portion has been removed, the broken top lit up with bright lichen. Near ground level over half the length of the broad face is a big rectangular depression with two bored diagonal holes, probably resulting from the large rectangular holding plate of a fairly hefty wooden fieldgate. Above this the stone has a ?bevelled shoulder. Looking 45ยบ at the stone reveals that from the depression to the other edge of the broad face the stone is scalloped through the whole height. Several smaller stones lay about it, some of which could represent a stone socket or othostats. Unfortunately there has been some engineering here, in the few feet between it and the road a short pillar of material with a small yellow painted metal enclosure on top. Though now the stone looks like it is in a hollow it seems likely the road was raised greatly to reach its present level. And indeed when I walked back a bit and looked along the field edge it did look to be marking the base of the dumping-ground.

Starting up the farm-road to Kebro on the left are where the tumuli were. The NMRS also shows a steading from the old O.S. they think is Tuskerbister in the same field [I suppose I could be wrong and 1882 Kebrow is instead X+row 'head of land']. Myself I think this Tushabist lay nearer the road, for here the land has obviously been levelled to make a platform overlooking the road. The 1882 map shows a single rectangular feature, which on the 1903 O.S. appears in greater detail as several objects adjoining. It could well be that this signifies a new place evolving if it were not for the fact that the second map shows all the tracks (etc.) missing off the first. Noticing these differences I realise I need to research both maps in future, as with a place like Orkney the recognisation of features is heavily dependent upon which season the map-makers went and also on longer fluctuations in the water table. Anyways, neither map shows the Loch of Lummagen (HY353107 for the piece that I was on, the southern edge). Today the former loch bed didn't quake underfoot - mindst you I avoided the worst bit this time. By the back fence were a few small mounds of about man height, grassy mounds showing plentiful black peat as if a huge shovel had dug in and uprooted great lumps like upturned turves. In the one I walked up to there were quite a few smallish flat stones on and protruding from the southern face. Round the back a few small slabs stood projecting proud near the top like orthostats. Though I can't see these mounds as having originally been on the loch bed and the peaty structure has been (if I am right) heavily interfered with I find the contrast between 'front' and 'back' interesting and the upright slabs intriguing.

From here I went to the long low 'mound' (a narrow enclosure running roughly E-W and centred at HY355107, before but above Oback) with the big hollow at the far end. This time I kept clear of the peerie pony in order to avoid losing any more of my accoutrements, as last time after failed attempts at my jacket this lonesome but aggressively hungry creature had taken a nibble out of my bag ! Since my last visit a shallow trench had been dug across for a small blue plastic pipe, which revealed that (here at least) all that lies beneath the surface is homogenous dark clay. Which is probably a curious find for a geologist but appears to sink my idea that this might have been the original Oback where the Earl of Caithness got his. Equally, except perhaps for the hollow, this cannot be the quarry shown about here on one map (and down by present Oback on another - ah, mystery) that produced a great hefty stone-smasher of a boulder.

From the Kebro farm-road I had finally spotted down on the Burn of Skaill where what the NMRS refers to as old Oback (upstream of the trees) in reference to where the presumed Tuskerbister chapel lay. I could not be sure, though, whether I looked upon the steading or the curving wall (or track ?) at HY35591045 above this, or both. On the map I had looked at the way down seemed easy but I couldn't tell it on the ground. Instead I went back to the main road. On the way I stopped to talk to the old farmer, who had been engaged in putting manure in a newly enclosed field. He told me that John Slater of Tormiston (the Slaters had owned Oback at the time of Hamarscoo), deceased, had related to him that as a boy he had regularly played at the Loch of Lummagen. This changed overnight ; one day he played by the edge and the very next day the loch had drained completely away. Apparently even now there is a piece behind Kebro that rapidly fills up when there is rain, only to drain away in a few short hours - this pool is shown on an earlier map even though Lummagen appears on none ! I suspect something similar lies behind the name Hole o' Pow. He told me that all the slabs I saw had been (bedrock) dumped on the lochbed when they were constructing the large square shed. If you look between the previous loch and Kebro you see a piece of rising ground, and the farmer informed me that before there were fences the womenfolk used a public right of way here to go to the Stenness kirk. It strikes me that this must also have been the path taken by Sweyn Breistrop after he had slain Svein Asleifson. Look over the main road and follow the farmroad though Fea and a vivid line continues along the side of the hill though on below the modern reservoir and round to Orphir proper. To my mind this had also been part of his route, much more direct than going by the Loch of Kirbister as retailed by others.

What I think of as the Skaill cist appears on CANMAP in the field by the junction south of the Fea farmtrack : NMRS record no. HY31SE 11 is for an E/W aligned short cist, held together by red clay from elsewhere, containing a child's skeleton. But the Skaill cist is shown on the wrong side of the road for that recalled by Omond as it came from the south-west side of the field north of the farmhouse. Further down this side "The Book of Orphir" also reports that south of Skaill building traces had been likened to a churchyard. However, the associated relics were copious burnt bones & ashes and a couple of polished stone celts (axes), bespeaking an earlier period.

From Skaill I had a good look up the burn at 'old Oback' (more simply Oba on Johnstone's map), except the perspective jumbled everything together. The NMRS for the 'Tuskerbister chapel' relates this to a platform shown to the O.S. by the farmer of Skaill back in the 60's. This is south-west of the steading, the second field along. It is no wonder therefore that they found no sign of the "earl's palace and church" as Omond specifically writes that this site lies above old Oback i.e. still "close to" but the other direction. The steading field is long and fairly narrow, with the structure shown tight to its NW corner above the burn. The Burn of Skaill runs just above centre and at the top end cuts across the field, where the track or whatever curves around and over it using a ford. With a ford present why not a straight track to it. Did the supposed site exist in this field or further. Unfortunately if any of the various Obacks had been the earl's place in the Orkneyingasaga then Torfaeus "hill of Orphir" would not be the current Orphir Hills but the Hill of Lyradale on the other side of the Hobbister-Hobbister valley [strange there is an Hobbister either end, the Orphir one being Upper and Lower Howbuster in Johnstone]. Could someone have mistaken the location oback 'beside the burn' for a placename, in which case the Bow of Orphair back in the running ? Next time I am at Skaill I must look for the stone an early map marks at the north side of the road by Skaill (not the b.m. t'other side o't' road).

On the other side of the road from the CANMAP site for the two Hamarscoo cists is the place where I saw the wellspring and I think the topography lends itself to the name being Hamarsgeo 'the ravine with projecting rocks' (or perhaps another nearby). The 1887 newspaper account says the finds were made on the land of Hemiscue rather than a Hemiscue field strongly indicates an area previously including that to the east of the road. Puzzlingly A.W.Johnstone on a map shows the Skaill cist as the "Themiscue stone cist", and though the two stone axes from the site south of Skaill came into Cursiter's possession these look to show in the Hunterian's J.W.Cursiter collection with the name Hemiscue against them. Exactly how many of these sites came under the Oback finder of the cists- was Hemiscue was the name of a region not any particular field ? Of course Johnstone's map also shows the Grey Stone as between the mill road and the main road (abouthands of the gravel pit) rather than just below the main road, as 'stone' only, on the 1903 map - alas neither position has a stone on the first O.S. So frustrating.

Passing the northern end of Kirbister loch I saw a large line of geese strung out across the waters near to me. So I approached softly, softly. Still the geese must have spotted me as the closer I came the further they arced away from the nearby shore until they lined the far one. Had a look at the two holms (grassy islets) but my only additional note is that the shore opposite the Holm of Groundwater from my viewpoint has a coastline resembling a section through a big low profile mound. Though the stones at its base have been read as this holm being artificial the Battle of Summerdale traditions could be read as meaning this is the natural loch bottom. Nearing the main Orphir road I struck off SW at Newhouse up the track of the old {Waulk]mill road to join the main road. I continued on through Orphir village past Cairnton and then sat down by the traffic sign until the Kirkwall bus from Houton came. Which cairn and what how, who knows when and why ;-)

wideford Posted by wideford
14th October 2007ce

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