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Brodgar,Summerdale, Hobbister AUGUST 17th 2007

Took the summer route Skara Brae bus as far as the Ring of Brodgar again. This time rather than drop us off it stopped at the new carpark. The walk from there to the road makes for an easy view of the marsh plants. Having taken individual photos of the stones last time I elected to go straight to the big un-named mound (I suppose if it hadn't been considered part of the Ring of Brodgar setup the antiquarians would have let moderns name it, our names for sites having come from their descriptive phrases) behind the circle then quickly on to Salt Knowe. Nice to see that even at the height of summer I could still easily find the piece with the projecting stones. From the top I could see a broad new between-fields track down to the shore, so I pursued it. Considered going north to the ness but not sure of getting there, so instead turned right and climbed over the fieldgate. At the shore is a long damp depression with many stones of varying sizes there. Dumped ? Anyway, I now see that this is marked as two quarry(-like) features on Thomas' 1849 antiquities plan [HY21SE 89]. Perhaps material for the sockets or wedges came from here - in such a particularly managed landscape this feature can't have been untouched. Then I tramped back to the road and over another gate. Next on my list the Plumcake Mound, the one with a great lump taken out the top. Actually this feels like it has been dug twice as there is a depression within the depression. To complete my re-acquaintance on to Fresh Knowe. Once past the heavy vegetation and the lure of a wee bird I was disappointed the spring too well camouflaged for safety this day. There is no easy way across the long mound, so I simply hauled myself by the lanceolate foliage then over the top sensing the depression underfoot before going carefully down the tussocky end (there's a twisty ultra-narrow track that I thought might prove slippy). Took a decent picture of a freshly cropped Comet Stone mound while I was up top, different perspective and a' that.
On my way to the Ness of Brodgar dig the rainclouds gathered behind me. Today only me. And the finds were just leaving as I came. On a previous trip I had seen the broken perforated macehead found on the first day of this season's dig. One side is well polished, a light-coloured heavy stone with dark curving bands and (so we were told) touches of green. Not easy to photograph it seems, going by the first published photos. The unpolished side has only one band but there are three obvious curving scores that look man-made and others besides. On my last I also saw the new inscribed stone, a geometric design with what might be a simple fish centrally placed but ending outside the stone (Pictish symbol stones not from nothing ?). It occured to me that perhaps some of the lines could be notes for a planned structure, not plans as such, directions and sequences maybe. Just me then ;-) As for the structures, in a way I am glad I have been forbidden to 'publish' my photos as the descriptions perforce would be almost universally blank. Nice curving walls, dogleg walls, incomplete or shortened wall - even the excavators aren't sure what is going on, apart from the idea that Beverley's house is really a ritual structure akin to the biggest structure over at the Barnhouse settlement. On the other hand I can't illustrate a simple figure executed plain as a pikestaff in walling, rectangular body and round head with almost no neck. However I made out a similar form whilst working at The Howe and that those in charge ruled way out.

Now the whole of the Ness of Brodgar has been found to be upon soil-built foundations and the perception is that this humungeous site is wholly Neolithic from beginning to end. What near the bridge used to be thought possibly a broch (though not by the first antiquarians such as Thomas) is geofizzed as a chambered tomb with walls like those exposed at the Wideford Hill cairn. And Kokna-cumming, HY31SW 28, gone from the shore close to the Brodgar Farm standing stones (perhaps replaced by Thomas' planti-cru ??), cannot have been a burnt mound either. The Ness of Brodgar is now said to seperate The Stones of Stenness with its hearth indicating life from the Ring of Brodgar and its cairns representing death. And appropriate ceremonies taking place - so we have the circle of the Moon whose change of form reflects growth throughout life, and the circle of the Sun as the unchanging fact of death. Perhaps the celestial appellations of the three henges are truly original and not imposed fancies from without - the Ring of Bookan, circle of the Stars, being originally the Rim of Bookan (in my view taking its name from a distinctive contour north of the present road south of Howan). What quality, then, should one give to the stars ? And what of the Dyke of Sean as a boundary if the Ring of Bookan is instead no longer seen as part of the Brodgar scheme ? Also it seems a little strange that the mound of the Comet Stone and accompanying stumps lacks circle status, possibly an indication that they were revealed by excavation at some period

Before leaving I took to the far corner of the site to obtain an image of the Watch Stone with the Stones of Stenness to its right. If the Watch Stone had once been part of a circle had this ever been completed, could it have proved to be on the wrong alignment or no longr accurate ? I suppose it is merely my fancy that the two complementary arcs of ground on the salt side of the Brogar brig seem to suggest banks or a ditch. Usually my thinking is that these held the sea back whilst the bridge replaced the stepping stone, but if so why go (literally) to the length of curves instead of a more direct barrier line ?? As to the Watch Stone itself, on my visit this time I wasn't sure if the base presently encompassing it is partly the socket itself or purely phased modern. What with the rain and all I left out the Stones of Stenness (originally the joint name for the circles).


Coming down to the main road the eastern Orphir hills are so in your face that surely they too must have figured in the minds of the creators of Brodgar, looking mightily down as they do. They have the names Mid Hill and South Russky Hill, however what we have is a hill range, several mounts on the big daddy that stretches from Bigswell to Howton. Which is my excuse for not being sure what hills I saw at any time ! Fortunately the weather followed me no further. A long light green triangle on the hillside shows the Bigswell district. The road to Bigswell came up but alas no longer continues all the way through the valley between Stenness and Orphir. However this long side-road calls out to be investigated, on foot it may still be possible to follow the Old Way to Orfeyra or at least make a fun round trip should this prove impossible.
On Midsummer Eve there was a large bonfire on the hill ridge above the Bigswell area, perhaps on the 21 x 18x 0.9m burnt mound (RCAHMS NMRS record no. HY31SW 29 at HY33141045), though now opinion is this may be a burial mound instead on account of stones seen in a central depression. Alternatively the crofter at Bigswell in the late 1920's knew of twa places where there were deposits of charred wood a foot deep and three across which could be related. This was mentioned in the record for HY31SW 30, scrapers and flint chippings with much burnt bone and ash, found under a "construction" on the Burn of Russadale's west bank SW of Upper Bigswell. At the same time (1928-9) south of [Upper] Bigswell on Dowsgarth/Dowascarth a series of buildings containing lots of bones and ashes after cursory examination was strangely labelled an illicit brewery, like the (mis-identified) Castle of Lushan HY32SW 8 up in Birsay near Click Mill. And 150 yards from this a "mattie hole" ascribed to the same complex puts me in mind of the small pit found recently by the newly-found Corrigall souterrain and also in connection with that at Keigar in Deerness way back. Is this site the Dowsgarth "building" HY31SW 81 at HY331102 ??

Apart from the Battle of Summersdale the most important thing about the Bigswell is the sacred well itself. Here they used to dunk folk that were epileptic or not right in the head and then stake them overnight to complete the cure. There is a dispute as to where this was, whether on sloping ground between Bigswell and Dowsgarth (not on today's 1:25,000) or above Mid Bigswell or in the marshes below Lower Bigswell (this last not shown on the first O.S. map). The 2nd and 3rd choices having been ruled out as not matching the description, despite the latter being on the described Beltane line through the two stone circles, the first has most recently been 'it'. Backing this claim has been its proximity to a mediaeval cart-track and the enhanced properties attributed to hillside wells. My choice is none of thm but the spring to the east which appears on the 1882 map as a well. This lies virtually on the Beltane line and the antiquarian description we have implies that the well is not itself anymore. Accordind to this report an underground passage of several yards length [so how did they know that ?] streamed water to a high-capacity spring with a well several yards across (perhaps not dissimilar in size to the pond at present Oback) having one or two steps into it. The spring (HY33741046) is probably at the sharp end of the observed triangle, which could be relevant also.

Further east yet, about a mile from Upper Bigswell, the last battle on Orcadian soil took place. Tradition maintains that the Orkneymen could find no weapons on the smooth grass where the battle started. Instead they went into the meadow below to fetch stones from a spot called the Hole o' Pow [Pow=pool], presumably a drained piece of marsh. It is also traditional that the Battle of Summerdale took place near the Summersdale Mounds HY31SW 15 and some of the dead were buried in them. From the description of the only one of these round barrows excavated, the most southerly [now filled in] at HY37471046, it seems likely that even if so this was a hurried re-use of existing mounds. When there were eleven of these, rather than the present seven, two still had cist slabs. Mound 7 also held a short cist at the o.g.s. which had bone in the top and bottom halves as well as over and around it and above and beneath a slab to one side. A skeleton, cremated bones, calcined bones !! Not at all mediaeval surely.


Instead of the Bigwell dead-end continued past Tormiston Mill for the well-signposted Orphir road that after a few straight lengths meanders down to the Loch of Kirbister where it straightens out again at The Ninth. The first mound on the left, at HY331229, is where I believe the Lower Hobbister came from in 1871. Though the NMRS for HY31SW 42 gives it an 8-figure grid reference at HY32881275 this is spurious accuracy based on the farmhouse itself. As with many another such the best we can place it from the newspaper report is "on the farm of". At least this is a little better than some sites where the original reports only place them somewhere on the lands belonging to the farm, which in a few instances can mean over a few kilometres. And this is how sites become 'lost', the pursuit of accuracy beyond the evidence (though this does not explain why the Brockan standing stone HY20NW 2 in Stromness appears on different sides of the field on the first O.S. and CANMAP, perhaps explaining why it hasn't been found at HY23140987). Another such issue is when the placename allocated to the record, antiquarian or later, is rather different from the actual place the site fits - of course it doesn't help when natives change the names themselves e.g. Appiehouse east of the Loch of Kirbister formerly being Upper Groundwater after which tumuli were named. Rant over. The stone urn found measured across the top 21½" by 18½" but had a bottom 13" diameter. This large urn, 18" deep inside, held lots of burnt bone fragments above some clay and ashes. Viking ?? Doesn't mention being steatite or dual construction/materials.

I forget whether it is before or after the Heddle road that the land at the southern side is about a couple of metres below the road surface. At this place almost smack bang against the road edge there is an erect stone tall enough to be seen whilst walking along but impossible to photograph without being on the field edge, which I weren't. In the eighteenth century tradition had it that either the Earl of Caithnesss or Lord Sinclair were buried in a green spot in Germiston near Bigswell, I don't suppose I could have chanced on this (most of the Caithnessmen died at the Moss of Bigswald). At the junction with the Heddle road I thought about heading off that way, however I really need to tackle it from the other end next time I do this. Past the junction on the right a farmroad goes to West Nistaben, where on the present map there isn't space for the tumuli legend. HY31SW 13 & 23 are practically gone anyway. Not much left of two of SW13 and the third only a slight rise now. Here I must 'fess up and admit to not having noted or looked for known sites on this trip, just played it by eye - not the best season to find features anyway, all that obscuring vegetation and stuff, especially in the marshy bits (which probably would have applied to the Summersdale Mounds, the tumuli west of the national grid's 35 legend on the 1:25,000). Further along (IIRC again) there are several humungous slabs at a farm on the north side of the road. Opposite is an almost walled garden, one corner of which has a few courses that look to date from an earlier construction. A pair of paycocks see me and hare off into the undergrowth. After a while more some young, or youthful anyways, Alsations come out of a modernised dwelling to see what's up. They only had a perfunctory greet from me - I wished that I had made more of them, because as I made off I heard a wifey rebuking them, and they were such friendly chaps with not an ounce of harm in them whitsoever.

Since my last time here there's been a sign put up for a Dale of Kebro footpath, and I thought what the heck. Marwick did not find an etymology for Kebro but I would postulate this arose from a change of the placename element bister to bruster and then a contraction to its present form i.e. Tuskerbister>Tuskerbruster>Kebro or somesuch. Certainly Kebro is a fair size and dominates the valley below and clear down to the sea. A farm named for someone with a name Turf- by analogy with Turf-Einar. Omond says several mounds near Kebro produced stone cists. A group of these, HY31SE 6 , were removed in the 1950's from the roadside field north of the Kebro farmroad). As far as is known they were all stony or "shingly" and only two had cists (presumably those at at HY35001033 & 35041030).This same field has an NMRS for the possible site of Tuskerbister, new since the boxed set of records in the Orkney Room He gives details for a short cist, set E/W by the roadside atop the Skaill hill, containing a child's bones and with the top held tight with imported red clay. Is this (23½" x 13½" x 15½") really the same cist as HY31SE 11 (~22"), from the south-west side of a field north of Skaill Farm, which CANMAP now places rather differently in the field roadside south of the Fea farmroad ? A little mix-up, eh !

Along from the farm at the uphill side of the farmroad is a field-sized area of rough uncultivated land, and on this are a couple of piles of large thick ?irregular slabs. Ther's a ditch betwixt the road and it and this would appear to have originally faced with large slabs as some of these were still in place, as deep as the ditch but longer, or no' far from this. A thick broad rectangular stone block bridged the ditch at one point. As the road rises again there is a long narrow field beside the dale side in which seemed to be the possibly remains of several low mounds. Couldn't decide whether this is prehistoric, a series of building remnants, or possibly even both. A small Shetland pony all alone in there. Then the road dips again for the entry to Oback. The linear section isn't connected with the Oback Quarry, which was along one side of the farm buildings and below them - there a forty pound skull-shaped shore stone, HY31SE 26 at HY35591070 (probably yet more spurious accuracy), is believed to have been used to break up stones (ah, a ball-breaker ;-) The other side of the farm is the pond that I mentioned earlier. In part it is edged by large stone flagstones of varying shapes. These include a girt concrete slab on edge that looks to have a tap on it. Perhaps this started off life as a well. Hereabouts there is a loose line of erect stones going down to the dale bottom, perhaps one of my 'standing stone fences'. As I started up again a farmer on a quad-bike preceded me. Before I reached a gate across my way he passed me going back the way. Didn't see what he had been about other than checking on me and mebbe the gate. From this vantage apart from a modern dwelling and sheep I saw only old peat-roads. Perhaps this is the route that Sweyn Breistrop took after the murder at the earl's palace. In 1882 up on the Hill of Lyradale two prone skeletons found side-by-side in a metre of peat were thought to be possibly soldiers fleeing from the Battle of Summersdale, the bones being "quite black and very pliant" and having some kind of membrane alongside. No need to trace the new footpath any further on this occasion. Back at the pond a small flock of call-ducks had ventured out, perhaps the farmer had been to feed them. So back at Oback once more. The name rang a bell I couldn't place, which to my mind made a photographic record necessary. Unfortunately the pony now decided me worth closer inspection. So I worked round him - should have done the deed from the other end on first view, it is always best to shoot first impressions because retracing steps seldom re-creates the experience even if you can find the original perspective or lighting again ! Stones sticking out at various places on the peedie mounds' slopes or up through them, and certain ones decidedly edge-set. The first piece visible where the earth rises is a depression actually, and one exposed piece looked to consist of fragmented stone in an earth matrix. Certainly not an entirely homogenous bunch, a strong feeling that there had always been (let's say) disjunctures. Supposedly the present Oback is not the original, but I'll come to that soon. On to the rough patch, by the east side of which is a long low hillock or maybe a moraine. There is some silage here and I gingerly walked over it for a closer look, but the ground mostly kind of quaked beneath me. I put this down to the agricultural operations, only finding out later that this is what is left of the Loch of Lummagen. Tradition has it, in an unlikely symmetry, that the Caithnessmen threw all their arms into it. This backed up by the finding of a large quantity of small stones on the loch bed (though it puts me in mind of the "slewchan stones" on 'Bruntland' in Sandwick, connected by tradition with an Iron Age battle).

Back onto the Germiston road down into the valley. Here lies the Skaill after which the "mounds near Kebro" are named, under the credo that Skaill farms are always pre-eminent. The Burn of Skaill's west side is eroding a roughly seventeen by eleven foot platform where some large stones peek from the turf that covers the site of Tuskerbister kirk, HY31SE 7 at HY35481035. On the opposite side of the burn had been the churchyard (presumably access gaind by the ford marked upstream) which tradition held to be the burial place of the Earl of Caithness (his head took leave home though r.t.s.). It had been said that the palace of Earl Harold I and his half-brother Paul II as referred to in the Orkneyinga Saga lay facing north of the chapel, but when what is now referred to as the Earl's Palace gradually emerged in excavations across from the Bu of Orphir the traditional was dumped for the archaeological. What is said to be left of the original Oback croft lies 50m to the NE. Here tradition has it aforesaid Earl of Caithness was caught and killt in a close between the houses {given the proximity of the traditional Norse killing place at the palace one may be a little suspicious of this attribution). A reason given for the present location for the Earl's Palace being wrong was the saga's reference to the large farmstead being on a hillside with a height behind the houses from which the Bay of Firth could be seen, however on the page there is no conclusive correlation 'twixt the two, occuring with a gap between the mentions. If the archaeologists are wrong could the farmstead have been rather Kebro ? And I would like to see my site by the present Oback as where the fatal close was, it would have been the spur to the leaving of arms before the remnant of the Caithnessmen rushed down past the Kirbister loch to reach the sea. A very minority opinion mine -solitary I think nowadays. And what size of establishment those 'counts' had is to my mind still up in the air ; a mere drinking-hall with annexes, or an earl's palace and chapel/temple (Torfaeus). There is nothing to stop the presently named monument being a replacement Earl's Palace, finally abandoned (I'd hazard) when a new wark rose on part of the Bishop's Place in Kirkwall.

Beside the west side of the road after leaving Skaill is the Hamarscoo field where on the other side of the road from Nearhouse Hill, in 1887, Wes Slater of Obach discovered two stone cists. These held bone fragments, two celts and flint chips. The Hunterian has a part-polished axehead and a scraper from here & axehead B.1914.609 simply down as Orphir must surely be the other celt. Other relics had been found previously. The pasture has several areas of disturbance and is a triangle, the discovery came from Hemiscue's south end. Omond mentions a construction resembling a churchyard wall inside which he saw plenty of burnt bones and ashes - a kerbed mound ? Back to the uphill side. Here a spring is marked which I spotted without knowing what it was - I took several photos of an area where a low wall looked to run across a burn, not sure this wasn't a geological feature. Further south, east of Scows, are the Nearhouse Hill mounds (HY31NE 3) centred at HY35910861 on a false crest. There are now four of the known eight grass-covered earth and stone mounds left. Back over the other side of the road, on the hill above a souterrain came to light in the Second World War just west of Naversdale (the field just to the sw of the larger Tuskerbister legend on the 1:25,000). Its roofing slab lay a mere foot beneath the present surface and the simple hollow proved only ten feet across a little under a metre in height, the top slab resting on pillars at roughly two-and-a-half-foot apart that rather than being each a single stone like Grain were built up of smaller stones. Afterwards, no relics found, site HY30NE 1 at HY35030925 was filled in.


Over to the east of the Loch of Kirbister are several more sites I haven't visited. Starting past Skelbister, close to edge of a field on a false crest Groundwater HY30NE 2 at HY35460878 is a grass or heather covered mound of earth and a few small stones on and about it, some 22' across by two feet high with he centre partially opened." in A grass-covered tumulus of earth and a few small stones, situated near the edge of a ploughed field on a false crest. Then in the field E of Groundwater an obvious light-coloured rise with a broad stone scatter, HY30NE 4 at HY39020862, is thought to be the Kirkshed chapel site, no longer even a ruin. Unlike this the Upper Groundwater mounds appear on the 1:25,000, HY30NE 5 centred at HY37500873 on a small plateau. Two of the seven grassy mounds, ranging fom 6-10.7m diameter and under a metre high for the tallest, have evidence on top of excavation. The original report was for another mound to the south-east, 1.5m high and on the order of 13m across. Similarly my next site (HY30NE 14 at HY37450894), lying above the upper edge of the other field, appled to cists found (again) in 1928-9 where now their depressions can be seen as lighter grass in a disturbed patch. The discoverer couldn't tell whether they were on a a very slight rise or set dead level. Of these cists with earth three held varying amounts of bone fragmenst whilst the fourth contained a crouched skeleton. The present record adds three mis-shapen rabbit-infested mounds on a false crest that appears never to have been broken into cultivation. Even the largest, at about eleven metres, melts into rough grass of the hillside.

Avoiding another dead-end I continued to my bus appointment. Just before a dwelling with the mysterious name of The Ninth is a deep regular hollow looking like an abandoned quarry. Half-right, for this is the site of Newhouse 36260806. Never even survived long enough for a name-change [having said which we still have plenty of places called Newhouse or Nearhouse, evidence of the Orcadian's parsimonious panoply of placenames. Still, better that than the use of English names or acting as if we had been under the Gailteachd yoke (which the SNP would love to bring down on us if ever Scotland rose anew to full independence)]. Down the west side of the Loch of Kirbister my eyes lit on a small islet by the shore. This little green space is the Holm of Westquoy (HY36680773), named after the farm of Westquoy (HY365078), on one of whose fields in 1866 a cist was found with an adult skeleton in a "heads and thraws" posture. Another peculiarity is that there was no associated mound i.e. the top slap lay just below the surface. The Orphir mount over to the west, just east of Ward Hill and its undated tumulus, is Ackla with the Meadow of Huckla beneath. Looking left the big flat mound is the reservoir and to its right the Meadow of Burgir. On the other side of the loch is the larger islet, a likely crannog called the Holm of Groundwater with remain of a circular construction considered to have been a brigand's den. Reaching the latest Newhouse the track leading uphill from here is the old mill road through White Moss. Knowing that the bus wasn't long due I chose instead to continue following the present road to the 'A' road back to Kirkwall. Looking down on the beach of Waulkmill Bay [a difficult one to time right for a visit and it's a long trek down] the fresh water back of it was once the site of a saltings, probably connected with what look like old building remains under the end of the long snout that almost seals off the mill burn. Once I reached the Hobbister farmroad I stopped and picked up the bus. Some day I shall try to reach the Hobbister mill-mound - though it was probably larger than the Scalpa one where the distillery is now it should still give me some idea of how the land opposite Nevada Cott looked back then (the pond lay between the road and where the houses are now). Somewhere in the Hob(b)ister region about 1880 removing a mound brought to light a 6' tall man's skeleton reclining under a large stone slab. In 2006 peat-diggers found the bronze head of a LBA socketed axe south of the road in this area too.

wideford Posted by wideford
30th August 2007ce
Edited 2nd September 2007ce

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