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September 23rd 2006 KIRK TO KIST

Arrived a few hours early at Birsay village for a Scottish Archaeology Month tour. The bus stops opposite the shop at the end where the Bishop's Palace was a long time ago. Bits and pieces hace turned up from time to time and there are reports that in some properties they couldn't dig very deep for masses of stones. In St.Magnus' Church a.k.a. Christchurch they're used to be a section of circular wall that was seen as the remains of an earlier ecclesiastical building. In which case one would assume this to be a sacred precinct on the lines of a Welsh llan (one similar may have been on the snusgar overlooking the beach road below Sandwick parish church) i.e. pre-Norse. Of course in northern Scotland circular churches are often built over brochs. Certainly the situation is right, being beside the beach and in proximity to a burn. And this would provide perhaps an alternative explanation for some of the buried stonework, even though all that is recorded mediaeval. Next along in the village, still dominating the place, is the Earl's Palace where excavation of the well in summer 1829 found it chock-a-black with relics of its destruction. Much of the material was then put back into it. One wonders what might be found in the well at Tankerness House in Kirkwall (in the garden there is a stonework folly of red stone that came from the Bishop's Palace as it was before Bishop Reid basically rebuilt it. Palace is a grand name. But even as late as George Marwick people spoke of the Palace or Place of Birsay. Place here is the mediaeval word for a courtyard - the area now occupied by the 'palaces' in Kirkwall used to be known as The Place o' the Yards (and though the Castle of Kirkwall went a long time ago there is still Castleyards opposite where it used to be).
Turning the corner at Earl's Palace I left the village to go up the hill and take the A967 towards Swannay for to seek the Knowe of Crustan and its far companion. Just looking at the 1:25,000 now I noticed that you can see a teardrop outline on the LH side of the road that presumably show's the extent of the minister's lands (Glebe itself is just below the legend for the picture gallery). Just beyond the abandoned house of Rosebank sits alone in the middle of a field. I was wondering yesterday where I had come across the name before and serendipity saves the day (I had taken a picture of a low circular wall about Highland Park House, mock-parapet style, and in 1882 this area was called Rosebank and an earthwork occupied the line of the wall then). On the hillside above a disused stone quarry lies beside the road - I decided on a look see as on the other side of the road is a pair of flat-face aligned stones which I take for boundary indicators. A proper quarry this, a decent size one even an old duffer can tell from a plain stony outcrop, with a wide level track sloping down to the bottom. Above this track near the start are the remains of a small ?post-mediaeval building that looks like a shed. There's the odd few stones scattered here and there, then at the back a pile of quarried stone. Not sure if this is rejects or dumped from elsewhere.
Back onto the road approaching the brow of the hill I saw that the field containing the mounds, now that I determined to each them this time, for once actually did contain a bull and his herd. So I tried the track between the field and its downhill neighbour. It was heavy in grass and almost like a dried up water channel. So to keep fairly dry I walked along the banks of the field boundaries that used to be fieldwalls, making for an unbalanced walk. Here and there you could still see the courses and also a few stumps of the posts of old fences that came after. Back from the posts are the modern fences of mixed barbwire and electric line. Very taut this new stuff, no way for a human to sneak between or over. I had hoped that after passing level with the wartime structures I might find summat more amenable. No such luck - even the coastal fenceline looked the same - so I reluctantly reversed. Nothing ventured nothing gained I tried the proper farmtrack just in case there was a detour not seen from the road, still to no avail. One last try. To the far end of the field, its roadside corner opposite the converted manse. Up the track is a cute stone shed on the left before the mapped structure right. Though it doesn't look it from the road the latter home, built with the same dark stone, is uninhabited (another coincidence is that this is Windbreck and again yesterday I had been looking at the Deerness Windbrakes that in 1882 were Windbreck, which means something different). Past this romantic scene I tried the fences again, to the same effect as before. Very strange landscape here, like a cross between dump and opencast quarry and building site. Also there appear to be the intermittent remains of a low wall that looks to be part of an enclosure connected with or connecting to the disused building. Beyond the near levelled landscape the land dips steeply down to the sea, the broken hillslope 'brekka' that lent its name to Windbreck. Followed that down for a while watching a coney colony enjoying the rabbit resurgence. I felt this would be a lovely place for a sit-down. If the ground were dry and day calm. Down south they'd have turned this into a picnic site quick as you like. Struck off uphill for the Knowes of Lingro, thought it would be nice to approach from the other side. No change in the exposed cist. Several varieties of fungi about the place. Thought of taking pictures of the mound nearest the road and am glad that I didn't as I later found out I already had done this on a previous occasion. Considered foregoing the tour and continuing on to the Loch of Swannay and beyond, have another look for the Chrismo mound and maybe see if the Greystone is still on the Costa hillside above. Duty prevailed. Leaving Abune-the-Hill behind and coming down to where the land levels off again there are probable traces of an older track along the south side of the road in a field. It is a few yards wide and quite long, marked off by low banks and stones. Some of the stones are obviously out of character for a fieldwall, so either belong to a different kind of boundary or were pinched from some old structure for use here.
Lower Garthsetter is a very picturesque farm where a bend in the road marks the lower end of the Glebe lands. The placenane Meikleplank to the north of the road here comes from a mid-eighteenth century use of a method of land division called planking (at which time the Loch of Boardhouse/Stanger to the south came a piece nearer The Barony than it does now, explaining the curve in the minor road east of Wattle and the lack of old names in the area under it). After the bend in the road the A896 goes straight to the Earl's Palace almost, and turning right you snake round to the Point of Buckquoy opposite the tidal Brough. Though many people take the word brough to mean an Iron Age broch or Viking borg, in Orkney, at least, it was used more commonly to denote any piece of land surrounded by water. Which makes for much confusion when reading maps.
This tidal islet is our petite version of the Michael's Mount. Mostly what you can see are Viking structures lying over the top of earlier Pictish i.e. early mediaeval over late Iron Age levels. The most obvious Pictish feature is the tall symbol stone - actually a copy. Seeing as how this is a copy they could have made some attempt to make the figures a little more visible, maybe a lightly coloured outlining - I always admired the way the reconstructed parts of Minoan buildings are so boldly differentiated, which also gave the lie to their surviving monochrome. The other certain surviving feature of Pictish date is the well. Unfortunately all that shows is the cap. Whilst we were there they did lift the lid a little on it. A pity they could not get it up all the way, but sticking my digital camera's snout into a gap at the edge I managed a few shots of the lower half. It is very studied, the circular formed of corbelling by the use of rounded beach pebbles ! Before the front on it was swept away I was able to observe on the Lamb Holm settlement that one of the drystane walls incorporated a significant proportion of water-worn pebbles (most of it in fact, though alas the pic doesn't show them at all), so perhaps this is a Pictish affectation. [on Rousay at Saviskaill a wall built with large beach stones is eroding from banks under the farm is the only similar structure I have come across in my researches]. On the causeway side of the islet you can see, according to present thinking, a Viking sauna. Presumably the stones used to heat this have fallen victim to erosion, especially if in early mediaeval times the brough was still connected to the Point. It has been said that some of the burnt mounds are the remains of prehistoric saunas (less plausibly sweat lodges) so that this isn't as out of place as it sounds.
I think that at the very least the Northern Picts were originally ruled from the Orkneys. The Welsh call Britain by the name of Ynys Prydein, the latter being another name for the Picts, and seem to have this as a name originally applied to the Orkneys. They have a tale of a monstrous boar called Twylyth Teg that ravaged the whole of Britain, and this seems to be a mythologisation of raids - our islands are named after the pig as orc (though this was applied to other ferocious creatures such as whales and sea-monsters also). At some stage we lost our hold. Perhaps we succumbed to the same plague the did for the 'Great Hound' of Wales, Maelgwyn Gwynedd. It would seem to be the memory of these islands supremacy that accounts for how hard the later kings came down on them. Eventually the islanders became very few or died out altogether. This is when the Vikings finally moved in. I reckon they had been visiting the Orkneys for some time, and like some tourists nowadays knew a much about the place as the locals. Wouldn't want to cross the Howas (haugr) for starters. Which explains the continuity of stories of place (and the multiple occurences of identical names that some say are a consequence of localisation of dischenchas).
Coming back over the causeway one of the ?rangers told of excavation a boat noust but was unable to point out this land berth. Fortunately you can see a couple of these long cuttings halfway up the middling cliff, left high and dry by erosion. Climbed up to take a photo of these but had to gambol after the main body of our party instead. Up on the road I pointed out to one of the rangers the Knowe of Buttquoy - I hope she didn't notice that I actually had indicated one of the Point mounds, I am always confusing the two !! Partly this is because they are in the same field but mostly because the mound looks more interesting now than the knowe. At least I know this type of mistake afflicts proper archaeologists too, as there have been several multiple sites where the proper name has been applied to the wrong feature by such reasoning. Along the way we passed a glorified hut that is known as where a local poet used to live. Except even a fact of such recent vintage has now been disputed ! At the Christkirk we were shown half of an inscribed stone that together with the other half in a next-door dwellings wall reads Mons Bellus, showing it to have come from the Bishop's Palace that lay between here and the burn as mentioned above. As a result of a question I asked (concerning the burial of St.Magnus body below the floor of the original kirk for many years) I found that there may have been something previously at the gate, that there is stone there so hard that the path had to detour about it. I wonder if it is possible that the original church entrance lay here, perhaps with the original back wall where the kirk begins now ?
Snuck out and retraced my steps to the Knowe of Buttquoy field. After clambering over the gate I avoided nearing the kie by moving in to the next field to reach a vantage point for viewing what I still considered as being the knowe. Before which I did take one photo of the real Knowe of Buttquoy, the stones become visible when you are in the field itself. Unfortunately I'd had a mishap with the camera so the focus didn't show as correct when the shutter was pressed or I would certainly have taken more than just the one view. Up past the midway building is a rising platform, possibly natural, by the wall that took me level with that mound (Point of Buttquoy 1). Actually I may have strayed just beyond the rise and stood on Point of Buttquoy 3. Decided to go into the field anyway, carefully round the edge so as not to disturb the kie. Not as great a difference in what could be seen as had been the case with the knowe but still a difference. By now the camera was playing its "battery low" card and not zooming, so I decided to finish with the mound even if the shots did turn out blurry. Strange to tell though I had mound and knowe transposed I did remember the appropriate details for the sites I saw. You can see what they mean about the sheepfold being mixed up with the prehistoric walling, though they do seem to have overestimated the amount of jumbling somewhat. Also if the stones were not all exposed at the same time it might be possible to use the depth of lichen growth to seperate them out. However this is a method still in its infancy and has still to gain acceptance.
Came back to Birsay village still uncertain as to whether to await the last bus to Stromness or precede it to Skaill. Up and down that road I went, twice onto the A967 including once as far as Oxtro broch. Beuy was I ditzy. At one time I started along the brough road, but quickly gave that up. Finally decided to catch the bus at the village, perhaps might even have mozied on to Saevar Howe if 'twere reachable this way. As I came to the village an elderly couple coming from the Earl's Palace beeped me. Ran across and took the offered lift. Blessed relief. Sitting in the back of that caravanette took me back to the night I spent speeding cross-country in the rear window of Traill-Thomson's E-type. Glory days. Approaching Dounby we saw a fire-engine and other emergency services ahead and decided to take a different route. A long and scenic route about the byways and through Brodgar, should have remembered to advise turning left through Dounby and then down through Evie and Rendall into Firth as a quicker route to Finstown (call me Epimetheus, why don't you). Cooled off walking from Ayre Mills home. Only found out later the call-out wasn't a fire but a car accident

wideford Posted by wideford
7th November 2006ce

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