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GAMMI SEA MAY 20th 2009

Took the bus as far as the Brig o'Waithe. After alighting decided to video the Unstan tomb first. A delight to film inside, so light and aery, even better than Wideford Hill. Then scrambled up top for a panorama and to shoot the Point of Onston landtake/ promontory fort. Looked down at the back of the mound where a chamber projects and wondered if the reason why some tombs are set into hillsides isn't at least partially aesthetic, to hide such bulges. Crossed back to the Orphir junction and chanced to look at the burn by its SE corner. Showed strong signs of being a millstream with its drystane walled banks. The streambed is a bit odd. First thing that struck me was the smoothness, either bare flat rock or concrete, and then I noticed a hole near where the bridge carries the burn under the road. And the real streambed is actually below this - above was dry and the waters flowed naturally beneath. Odd. Checked downstream and none of that unnatural smoothness there.

Thought about striking for the coastline so I could see the broch first. Except the land is a bit dodgy this side, the kind of seaside where you tend to hop from one small island of grass to another and can find yourself stranded and having to retrace your steps. And along the way is Dead Sands. This sounds well hookey. Truth to tell I feared this might be a by-name for quicksands. So instead continued along the road until I was past Cumminess Farm where a nice straight track went down to Cumminess Bay (actually there is a gate at the E corner of the field containing Corn Hillock, that would have been too easy ;-). Here ware the usual rock strata along with something else. A large area of stones that looks to have come from a man-made structure, showing all the signs of regular shapes, albeit varying ones. I'd have doubted this except for the fact that these big blocks all lay loose. Perhaps they come from Corn Hillock, dumped here (though Dave Lynn pointed out that "Corn H would presumably have been quarried to find and reuse stone, not dump it"). Maybe this could even be the site of the lost Knowe of Gemashowe (HY20NE 21 vaguely somewhere near the Hall of Ireland), the mound swept out to sea to leave the bare bones behind ??
Despite the lowness of the tide I then chose to follow the coastline by the fieldfence, even if the edge was uneven and less than complete, for the hell of it. Corn Hillock is very close to the fence. Could see a few stones here and there poking through the sides. Couldn't make out the noted central depression but near the far end, the north end, looking over I could see a cut like a much lower version of that in Linnahowe. Obviously some kind of excavation. Whether this is an archaeological trench or to make a place for livestock to shelter I'm unsure. I doubt it can be the central depression mentioned really. On the other hand why doesn't the coastal survey mention it (in the RCAHMS record version leastways) ? Ah, yes, that would be the evidence of 'quarrying' I suppose. As far as I can tell without seeing its seaward side it is rectangular. The landward side of the cut shows mostly slabs or possibly drystane walling. At the top of the south end a large stone sits that could be the top of a buried orthostat, couldn't make out the topology from where I stood. The curious thing is at the other end near the bottom of what I saw. The face of a rectangular block (sandstone I think) with what is almost definitely an carved line inset all the way round. I have seen similarly decorated blocks elsewhere, one set into the Sands of Wideford bridge and the other into a fieldwall near Long Howe, that I associate with early chapel sites (Essonquoy and St.Ninian's). Though if it were broch age there are other connections viz. Round Howe [I wish I could do layers in Photoshop as I could show the likelihood of Petrie being correct by combining maps] and Grimsquoy. I would suggest two periods of use for this site anyway.
At the other end of a relatively straight stretch of shoreline from Corn ('cow') Hillock is Cummi (cuml 'mound') Howe, most definitely a broch. The most obvious structural stonework, on the landward side, is a much later circular enclosure called a planticru (various spellings) that would have been used to protect tender plants or early cropping ones. Obviously this has been built from re-used broch blocks. Question is does the siting/shape reflect in some part that earlier structure ? On the seaward side directly opposite is a fine piece of brochwork. It seems difficult to credit that this section is simply the result of tidal erosion and storm impact, so regular is the revealed space. The exposed walling on the north side of the cut presents itself as two parts, the main curving wall several feet high and higher up at the east end a smaller straight piece of slim slabs a mere two courses high. There are loose slabs underfoot that could almost be a floor though more likely fallen from said wall [in which case why aren't they all by it rather than deposited over the whole area of the cut's base]. Climbing around to look down on the wall it feels to me as if the curved wall is itself two features as the east end look to follow its own arc, maybe part of a guard cell or summat. Looking at the mound's contours the wall looks like it should be the inner face of the broch tower wall - is the cut the inside of this or part of the space between the tower and the outer broch wall. The highest point of the mound is a small turf-covered peak just behind the short bit of wall. Stepping north on a flat piece of turf I nearly tripped over hidden stones, possibly to do with those features mentioned in the record as now 'gone'. Next north is a deep depression, sort of oval and with its bottom probably the floor. In all likelihood this is a a structure directly outside the tower. At the back I saw three stones of two courses. Easy to see the white stone, then in for a closer look there are a few more stones of walling to their south but dark and veiled almost flush with the grass vertical. Near the open end there are a few stones underfoot. During my visit it chose to tip it down and I part sheltered in the planticru (full of nettles and boardswith some barbwire), standing hard against the wall so at least my trousers kept dry. Then the summer heat gradually but thoroughly dried my upper half. Going outside and circling the mound, described as amorphous, the classic broch profile was plain to make out from most directions (as with Grimsquoy that appears in an article on "brochs and borgs" under the name of Inganess you can happen to miss this in a static viewpoint). From the shore it's easy to see that it is built straight onto the rock like many another, except that there is no cliff and the broch must originally have lain further from the sea channel than it does now. A few seals out on the gently inclined strata paid little heed to me and I them for a change. Coming back to the 'cutting' a few dark rocks amongs the grass at the seaward edge could be part of the broch's base.

Retraced my steps to Cumminess Bay then headed south along the shore to see if I could reach the Mill of Ireland this way (Ire/eyre=ayre a thin piece of land/beach between sea and fresh water. No sign of such in that region at all, the low-lying land removed by the sea or the watery distinction lost to drainage). Now the land rose up to give steep but still low cliffs - kept climbing up to look for The Cairns. A few places a vee of drystane walling of presumably fairly recent origin would show where the land drained. One piece a proper burn cut between the cliffs down to the shore. Though rather rough this looks to have had its banks straightened. As this is the NW corner of the general area known as The Cairns and there had actually been there at some stage the Dane's Fort reported by locals then this was surely a slipway for Viking boats [no worse than the two possible exits for the knarstons in St.Ola i.e.Scapa Distillery (see Monumenta Orcadia) and the Burn of Cottland]. Dried-up with stones perhaps not all natural I felt. Definitely a good defensive point. Did sneak up the burn, decided against a full recce of this complex landscape as time marched on. When I scraped up onto the cliff again I found myself south of the area. Looking back at the raised area even from distance I could see a few stones and a small low mound with an exceedingly gentle slope like a China hat, though this might be an accident of perspective/viewpoint.

Further along you can see erosion where the Hall of Ireland meets the shore. Here between two sets of modern wooden posts is a very short exposed section of drystone wall running out perpendicular to the coastline. You can see it from top to bottom and it obviously extended further out as the terminating erect stone is on the landward end. Down at the shore there are orthostats set into the cliff, but these appear to support the posts and are therefore most likely contemporary. Only a few feet from the standing stone, not abutting it, is the SW corner of a splendid walled garden. 18th or 19th century at a guess with very fine drystone walls a few feet above shore level. In the middle of the seaward side is an entrance framed by two phase II/III stone pillars [large square of even drystone blocks] then surmounted by a long lintel slab held down by two large round 'boulders'. At the south end the wall slopes upwards, probably a ?conservatory like that at Binscarth House. The east wall has an even better entrance, and though I cannot remember how it looked the place as a whole gave me the distinct impression that something else once stood here - materials found much further back and seen as coming from an auld kirk there could as easily have been moved from here, surely. A few yards south is a field and its drystane wall with a base at shore level. The nearest corner is curved rather than angled and rounded corners I associate with the late Viking / early mediaeval period. On the shore by the coastline between these features I saw a line of slabs stacked on end I thought might be a bare steeth-dyke [different from Kirk Do, still I think of it]. From here I carried on to the Burn of Ireland. Unfortunately there is no way across other than walk, and what looked like a seaweed mat I could use to hop across simply sank and drenched my foot. So back to the Hall of Ireland. Where I noticed that the orthostatic wall had lower continuances and corners behind. So more than just a dyke, perhaps an enclosure connected with the kirk - graveyard ? To get back on land I prepared myself to cross the electric fence further up the space between the garden and field. Except all there was was plastic posts by themselves.

So now I headed for the Orphir road and then over and up the hill road that goes to Stenness village. Looking over to the Mill of Ireland it is obvious that it has shaped the whole of the land about it. If you look through binoculars or something similar that is. As well as the usual slab-lined lade [channel], like Tormiston and Tankerness mills. you can then see a few places where water is conducted under tracks and such [slightly reminiscent in its scale of Swannay, where some of the 'exits' at the base of walls are clearly designed to drain the runoff from heavy snowmelt]. With a slight gain in altitude perspective on my walk revealed that Cummi Howe and Corn Hillock and The Cairns would make a decent set of brochs with regular intervals, just like you see elsewhere in Orkney - perhaps to match the three between the Brig and Cairston/Garson. Made me wonder if Gamm:sea was not Gammi Sea, an area rather than just one site.Up the hill by the eastern roadside is a very nice angled double culvert I promised myself I will photo another time. There is a similar one beside the road at Swannay Farm and another at Muddisdale [though this is more of an undercroft as you can only see one and as it disappears below the farm - I can't even tell where one of these might go]. Looking over to Hoy the place was awash with heavy showers threatening to come my way - I miss that about Stromness, that you can see what weather is due [and Finstown is where the weather tends to split between East and West Mainland, the true division of the two shown by a near continuous line of hills]. To spite this (almost) I spent time watching and videoing a field of Shetland ponies and their foals. Such lovely colour variations, such faces and characters. As usual the mares tended to hide their foals. I know the wind wasn't all that strong but I'm used to horses going scatty in storms and these were calm critters. I see on the map now, not at the time, that there's a cairn on the hillside to the left. Any road up the rain hit. Though I had another soaking I thought the full force must have gone either side of me, and indeed a friend told me this had delivered heavy hail to Orphir. Kinda damp, luckily enough I didn't have long to wait at the bus-stop.

wideford Posted by wideford
22nd June 2009ce

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