The Modern Antiquarian. Stone Circles, Ancient Sites, Neolithic Monuments, Ancient Monuments, Prehistoric Sites, Megalithic MysteriesThe Modern Antiquarian

wideford’s TMA Blog

Post to the TMA Blog

2 mediaeval Orphir mysteries

The sources collected in one place to wipe the slate clean of errors introduced - misquotes and misreadings even by the best


Orkneyingasaga :-
"There was a large homestead (farm buildings) there ; it stood on the hill-side, and there was a height behind the houses (brent backe brekka 'oblong rising hillside'). From the top of the hill Aurridafi├Ârd [Bay of Firth] may be seen on the other side... In J├│rfiara [Orphir] there was a large drinking-hall ; the door was near the east gable on the southern wall, and a magnificent church was in front of the door ; and one had to go downn to the church from the hall. On entering the hall one saw a large flat stone on the left hand [suggested to be a partition]... {the murder} There Magnus... accompanied him away behind the house, and into Aurrida Firth."
("on a hillside sloping down behind the buildings the hall, just a few paces down from it, stood a fine church").

1697 in Ancient History of Orkney etc
"There were at Orphir very magnificent buildings which stood on a rising ground ; behind the house there was a gentle declivity ; and at a distance above it the hill of Orphir... there was in these buildings a very large hall... In the south wall, and near the east corner, which joined the two sides of the court, there was a door, and before it a most magnificent temple [hof], to which they entered from the great hall by that back door, where you entered the court there was on the left hand a large vaulted cellar, then you came to another door, and opposite it a drawing room."
1797 in O.S.A. :-
"In the district of Tuskibister, at a place called Obak, resided several of the ancient Counts of Orphir; particularly Harold... and Paul... The situation is so circumstantially described by the Icelandic historian, as not to admit of a doubt; although, except an ancient chapel and burying ground, alluded to by the historian, scarce a vestige of the ruin remains."

1910 in Book of Orphir :-
"the ruins of Oback are close to the Burn of Skaill. A little above the farm, and near it... what is supposed to have been an earl's palace and church".
1966 O.S. on NMRS HY31SE 7 :-
"a building, known locally as a chapel... indicated... at HY 3548 1035 on the west bank of a burn and 50.0m.SW of a ruined croft [HY35511041]... the original "Oback"... no trace of ... burial-ground or ... residence of the "ancient counts"." . [but this 'chapel' is downhill of the steading]


It is Clouston in the twentieth century who first essays that from their landing place in Orphir the Caithnessmen came to Summerdale via the Loch of Kirbister (also in the past called Groundwater loch), there are no indications of the route in the source materials themselves. One author says the Caithnessmen came via Wasdale in Firth, but no-one gives this credence [perhaps he was confused by a tale of refugees taking asylum at the kirk on the Loch of Wasdale, or could there have been a smaller second group that did come from this direction - a convergence would explain the circuitous route taken by the Caithnessmen that historians find so puzzling].

1529 in Description of the Orkney Islands :-
"The grave of the Earl until now remains in the place... called Symmerdale."

1797 in O.S.A. :-
"In the neighbourhood of Garmiston... in the side of a peat-moss, are several heaps of earth [HY375105] said to be the graves of those who fell in a skirmish. Landed at Howton... beat back in a place called the Moss of Bigswald... the Battle of Summersdale, or Bigswell... the Moss of Bigswald, where the Earl and most of the people were killed."

1861 History of Caithness :-
"The battle, says the tradition, was fought on a piece of smooth grass, where no stones were seen previous... but then... found in such abundance that the Orkneymen threw down the pitchforks with which they were armed... the Caithnessmen... were at last compelled... to do an ignominious flight. Throwing their arms into the Loch of Kisbister [sic], they fled pell-mell over the broken ground [brekka] towards their landing place ; but... in a short time only a few of these survived... Amongst these was the Earl of Caithness, who reached the farm of Oback... dashing through the 'close' between the dwelling-house and the offices [workers' quarters]... into the arms... of his foes, who slew him on the spot."

1898 in Saint-Clairs of the Isles :-
adds "Notable events are seldom limited to one tradition, and another informs us that "the Earl entered a farm house to solicit refuge... an old woman... led him to the far end of the byre... A little after... he was betrayed... At length, he was... slain... He was buried in a field not far distant from the cottage, and a slab was erected over his grave, which was afterwards broken and carried away for some domestic purpose."

1910 in Book of Orphir :-
"On the top of the hill, beyond the furthest end of the loch, are the ruins of the old house of the farm of Oback. The Caithnessmen are said to have thrown their arms in the Loch of Lummagen. Lummagen, which is now almost dried up, lies a little to the north of Kebro. A great many small stones have been carried out of the bed of the loch... the ruins of Oback are close to the Burn of Skaill. A little above the farm, and near it... wahat is supposed to have been an earl's palace and church. On the other side of the burn a place is pointed out as the grave of the Earl of Caithness."

1925 in P.O.A.S IV :-
"The place indicated on the Ordnance sheet as the battlefield is about a mile eastwards from Upper Bigswell, below which is a spot on the meadows as the Hole o' Pow, which one tradition gives out to be where the fight began. The ground to-day is practically stoneless, but stones are plentiful at the base of the hill."

1927 footnote to O.S.A. :-
"It is said that the Earl of Caithness and Lord Sinclair were killed... and there is a stone yet to be seen [??HY34831058], upon a green spot in Garmiston, near Bigswald, which was placed over the grave of one... or... the other."

1966 O.S. on NMRS HY31SE 7 :-
a chapel... indicated... at HY 3548 1035 on the west bank of a burn and 50.0m.SW of a ruined croft [HY35511041]... the original "Oback"..[but this 'chapel' is downhill of the steading]

2007 conversation August 17th :-
The old farmer at Kebro informed me that John Slater of Tormiston, deceased, used to play as a boy at the loch [of Lummagen, southern edge HY353107]. But between one day and another the loch completely drained [though the area is still boggy even now]. As pow is 'pool' something similar could have happened with the Hole o' Pow [Symmerdale is named for its numerous springs etc.].

wideford Posted by wideford
7th October 2007ce
Edited 15th October 2007ce

Comments (0)

You must be logged in to add a comment