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Burgar to Midgarth

BATTLING THE ELEMENTS December 30th 2007

On St.Andrew's Day all Historic Scotland sites were free to visit, so I took the opportunity to go to Evie. The weather looked fine. On the bus from Kirkwall as I looked to Evie, the adjoining parishes, and the North Isles, things were distinctly misty. But as entering north Mainland where I had just come from appeared equaly dingy I presumed it was a distance thing, low cloud or whatever. How wrong I turned out to be. Anyway after leaving the bus I took the track that goes down to the beach past the Evie cemetery. My plan on reaching the beach was to see if I could get to the brochs north of that place and then turn back and go to the Broch of Gurness (specially opened for that day as it is officially closed at this time of the year). Dave Lynn remembered summer evening spent going along to the other brochs so I thought I would give it a try. The Evie cemetery is built over a chapel site. It is not generally known that St.Magnus body came back to the mainland in this area (I hated when Radio Orkney said the sites would be free on our patron saint's day as our saint is Magnus - Scotland is another country). Unfortunately I'm uncertain whether the creek to which the Man's body came is on the east or west of the mainland as this was south of the "Aikerness point" and not only is there is no Point of Aikerness but also Gurness and Aikerness tend to be interchangeable. The Man's body went straightways to Birsay. On the east near Howes Breck there was a Port of Aikerness, on the west side south of the Point of Hellia there is the creek system emtying onto the Sands of Evie. One would expect there to have been an ecclesiastical site where landfall was made. Only two are known. These are Desso (HY37692602) inland from the Sands of Evie, which is closest to either possible landing, and that beneath Evie cemetery. The latter was the parish chapel, NMRS record no. HY32NE 8 at HY37132623, assigned to St.Nicholas (there seems to be no recorded dedication for t'other, so ?Magnus or was there a site by the Viking settlement at the brock).
Jo Ben, circa 1590 by the usual account, said that the mounds in this area were often seen playing host to mysterious lights (similar tales are told of Eves Howe broch in Deerness). But sometime before 1778 all lay dark, even the great light of St.Nicholas Chapel shone no more. This latter year is when this ceased to be the parish church. This "poor small house in Stenso" (the district named for the standing stone that was part of the Redland North chambered cairn) had a thatched roof renewed every year, which I think should rule out 'swamp gas' as an explanation. One Sunday shortly after 1788 the walls collapsed. Now its site is marked by a slight swelling in the much later graveyard, and on the odd occasions when a grave is dug the foundations have sometimes disturbed the spade. So far book spake. The burial-ground is now reached by a track turning east off that to the beach. On old maps this does not appear and the old churchway is a track running from the shore along the eastern edge of the enclosure and then curving round the south-east corner before continuing straight uphill again. At the corner a short branch goes in front of the south side of the graveyard. In doing so it curves a little rather than following the wall closely. I suspect that it originally did this to pass around the southern aspect of the old chapel. Here now there is a sub-rectangular pile of multifarious stones that appear to have come from assorted places - perhap even some from the footings. This enclosure's western end (by the present entrance is a drystane wall of uncertain date abutting the graveyard wall. I regret I did not take closer inspection of the enclosure's composition e.g. any further walling, only going to the south-west corner for a different vantage because of the cemetery being overgrown with low trees in that part. The entrance gateposts are consistent with a late 19thC date ; large square drystane columns topped by a stepped pyramid on a thin plinth or somesuch. The gravestones I could make out were 'modern'. One small upright slab grey with lichen I first took for an orthostat until I saw a larger one next to it - perhaps they are re-used from the old building nevertheless. The most curious feature of the place to my mind is the inbuilt stone stile west of the entrance, three long slabs in a slanting line neatly seperated and then a space left out of the wall top. Remind me of those in the golf course wall as you go up the Muddisdale Loan path (I refuse to call it the orkney golf course, it was and is the Kirkwall Golf Course and I despise the present fashion of replacing Kirkwall in establishments with Orkney - all too literally parochial). Except these are white whoppers sticking hugely out either side of the wall. No idea what use is intended here and the entrance is only two short wooden gates presently.

Leaving St.Nick behind I went on down to the beach. This is obviously a very popular place as the public convenience is a well-kept modern block, though as I had no need for a loo I do not know for definite if these are accessible outside of the tourist season. There is also a World War II decoy building here, apparently. From here you can go south onto the Sands of Evie or follow the coastal track alongside that also eventually goes down onto the shore near where the creek system ends or alternatively across the burn to meet the farmroad that takes you to the Broch of Gurness. My business lay for the moment northwards where the beach is more rocky. Oh yes, I thought to myself as I looked forward, the trail ahead is easy. A man walking his dog said there was a dolphin ahead. Being used to having my special walks sealed this promised a change, but in the event disappointment greeted me with a slightly decayed cetacean on the shore instead. The shore was slippery with seaweed upon the bared strata, and I kept coming back down onto it as however close I held to the fence the coastline above kept giving out as my first target beckoned.
The broch tower mound is surrounded by a larger mound. At the edge of the former the presumed wall height tops off sharply with a fragment like the end of a curled Elvis lip. Unfortunately the barbed wire now about the field containing the Knowe of Stenso (HY32NE 11 at HY3639426747) is taut and a mite too high for my wee legs. Probably I could have simply climbed up onto the available height. The grass being somewhat damp I felt it best to grab tight onto that instead and haul myself up carefully. Unfortunately another give in the coastline prevents going down the other side. Looking south there is an outer bank at right angles to the coast that resembles a glacial moraine, in shape like a large tunnel emerging from the earth, being higher at the fenceline and fading back to level with the land uphill. Between this and the outer mound can be seen several obvious orthostats of no obvious plan. These seem to be along either edge of this 'ditch'. The broch settlement is asymmetric like Gurness and Lingro - here the Burn of Woo plays a similar role to the Scapa burn or that by Ingsness broch. By my high spot on the main mound and just inside the fence is what surely must be a structure, two orthostats roughly north-south and another north of these east-west by the fence along with several more slabs in the earth on the long side. The site is officially unexcavated but the depression within the broch tower mound is the most likely spot where a local climbed deep inside sometime before 1916, when the mound is described as measuring fifty yards by ten. On the north side there is another bank about the mound, though this is far lower and of more even height and far closer in. From this side I could see several yards of the outer broch wall from which the known finds come. I can see what might be a few more blocks on the other side. At one low place in the cliff edge there was a band of loose stones above the bare rock - evidence of settlement ?

Now the rain started. Its a very strange arrangement starting the final stretch of the Burn of Woo. Fortunately it wasnae coming down enough to stop me snatching a couple of snaps to remind me how it looks. Looking south to north ; i) a tall stone in the field ii) several orthostats across the shallow banked burn (with some displaced either side of these, only one erect I see) ending with iii) a larger erect stone at a field corner that is pinned by a barbed wire fence, then after a few yards more fence another erect stone not much smaller. On the second photo I see that the first stone orthogonally terminates a row of small edge-set slabs (like you might find atop an old wall in Orkney). All these things not a particularly straight line except (as far as I can tell) the low 'wall' ii-iii. The strange thing is the burn itself is dry but instead there was a narrow band of water tearing down the iii-iv 'gap' on the south side of the last stone across the burn before going down between the banks to the sea. Must be some kind of blockage somewhere - the old ones must be so disappointed. A little further upwater near the burns north side is Robie's Knowe, HY32NE 21 at HY36202665, though I didn't see it, and what with the rain y'all I didn't care to look much. Depends how far its one metre height merges into the background too - the slope may be slight but it is turf-covered. The grass covers a mound of smallish stones, but though some look burnt the record has reservations in calling it a burnt mound.

Trying to describe my coastal sojourn I am unsure of the exact order of geography between the Burn of Woo and the place at which I had to leave the shore. That is I am not sure where my second target came in the sequence, forcing me to put them into this paragraph en masse, so to speak. I crossed a few burns, sort of hopped across the stones nearest the surface or else followed the waters as they flowed across the shore until I found a spot where I could rush them as they glazed the rocks. Mostly the shore is shallow cleavage, large overlapping plates of exposed strata. At least where these inclined significantly to me I knew to hunch down on all fours and creep on clawed hands like some Gothic horror. This usually took me up onto the field edges, walking along which there were two or three places where the grass masked sodden ground to bound over, though in one such my shoe took on water worse than any burn I trod that day ! The more level shore needed more care as I had no surety in which pieces to cross or which seaweed lines might prove slippiest. One place I came to instead of the usual plates the rock of the cliff's edge presented as interconnecting blocks like a poor man's Churchill barrier or a cubic Fingal's Causeway. My obvious way forward to clamber up these to field level once more. It would have been easy to walk the cliff edge but my imp of perversity had me climb down the other side. More let myself down really, almost sitting on the blocks then gingerly twisting between and letting go. The blocks that little bit higher than my short legs could reach down. Only a few meagre inches but such invigoration. I think there was a burn there.
Near the Burn of Woo, or there itself, I tried as best I could to use the low cliffs to block the breezy rain from most of my crouch-ed self. Either it eased or I felt the onward pull. The 1:25,000 leaves out so many names even along the shore where the map has space. Between the Knowe of Stenso and Buckquoy (which should be quoy=field as in Birsay except it is now only shore) are Stooan, Gressy Geo and Sandy Geo. Geo/Goe roughly translates as ravine, but rather than the expected deep cut can be merely a rather rocky burn. Between Buckquoy and the Knowe of Grugar are Livera Tongue and Boarst Hellia. Then there are Crinly Geo, Lee Hellia, Verry Geo, Scarra Geo. Either side of the Point of Hisber are the Taing of Burgar and Burra Pool. Only fractionally north of the Burgar cairn, are two natural arches with Castle in between them. The latter is a settlement you wouldn't know of otherwise (similarly I must sometime look for the noust bolts near Peerie Howe along Dingieshowe Bay in case there are traces left of any boat nausts, anything remotely like those at Mill Sand in Tankerness and I'm laughing). Ain't I a clever bugger ;-) But the point is always to take note of where your maps say there's nowt. And all power to old-maps afore ye go.

Back on course. My second target, the Knowe of Grugar. This is named for a farm up on the on the other side of the main road. Grugar, more properly Grudiar/Grudair, is named for a Viking wifey Gruda (so it is thought). Also known as the Knowe of Ryo, which might be roo 'pile of stones' or more likely another line of phonetic descent to Grugar. I would imagine that the small steatite whorl found at Grudiar in the Twenties came from near the farmhouse rather then the knowe or someone would have mentioned it. The amorphous grass-covered mound (HY32NE 10 at HY35642730) is believed analogously to cover yet another broch, a large one going by the numerous edgeset stones projecting through the cover. Being roughly sixteen feet high and somewhat over a hundred across there are believed to be outbuildings within too. It didn't feel like a broch to me, not even with the 'eye of faith'. Climbing to the highest point of the mound available to me and standing on tippy-toe I could see a slight depression about the apex that, if there haven't been even local investigations like they say, could be settling material within a broch tower. The field fence on this section of coast at last is 'slack' enough to boost oneself over. But what with the lack of any significant material in sight and the rain's continuance I left the site in peace the nonce. For some reason I thought the mound to be longer in one axis, and head on to the cliff edge, which to my mind would rule out a broch with or without outbuildings. Alas back home I had no image to enlighten me, my belief that I had one taken from the main road on a prior visit to Evie proving fause. Ah, well. Where I stood was very similar to my Stenso high point, so perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised to make out a similar structure. Only these were mere intimations, a few scattered bits indicating rectangularity to the seasoned mind. Unlike Stenso there are obvious structural fragments both sides of the fence - where the mound goes over to the shore several orthostats show throught the ground and on exposed slab eroding horizontally and sticking out like, maybe, the side of an entrance such as one has seen on the edge of ruinous broch mounds. I Hedge my bets you see.
As I drew within naked site of the Broch of Burgar, HY32NE 27 at HY35212771, I could see my way blocked. Ahead of me a very large rock a few yards in front of the cliff. The actual Point of Hisber ? Perhaps there is a way between the two. Not when there are stormy seas where a chance wave could lay you low or suck you in. Fortunately it is a simple matter to enter the field here. I followed the field edge only to find no way to the broch because of a massive dark field wall, made of larger than usual stones (that must surely have been robbed from an early structure) continuing clear to the cliff top. There is also a small burn between here and the broch, and this side of the burn there is a a half metre tall earthfast slab, Taing Of Burgar HY32NE 45 at HY35262767, that Raymond Lamb in 1981 thought might be a cist. I'd like to see it in case it is the remain of some structure like those already percieved by me at the two knowes. Following the line of the wall uphill I had thought to enter the field from above only to see entrance came via another field, presently occupied by sheep. Well, there is a gate in the wall. Except it is over-secured and sat over a pool. Once on the main road I could see that the other side a broad farmtrack followed the wall-line and the sheep were well over toward Burgar. My friend Dave remembers sitting on top of the broch. Still, another time I hope.

Continuing along past Burgar farm and the mansion house I couldn't make up my mind whether to go on to Birsay or turn back. The bus timetable decided against Birsay today. On the uphill side of the road is a bumpy bit of ground near where the burn goes under fieldwalls. Later I found out that this is down as a quarry - for Burgar or for the old schoolhouse I'd hazard. Looking to the shore for a moment I thought I saw the Broch of Burgar. Then I thought it a small settlement mound with cottage ruins shining at me. Much older than that. Now that I saw the Broch of Burgar to the right I worked out this was the chambered cairn, HY32NW 15 at HY34822782. This had once been called the West Broch of Burgar, the idea being that these were a pair of brochs like those on Burray. That idea hasn't survived, but the monument type to which it is ascribed has oscillated over the years, so who knows what it might 'end up' as. From the main road it appears as a low mound with a highly visible close pair of standing stones with their broad faces towards you and a jumble of stones to their right. Made me think on Stanerandy, now Tumulus formerly Stones.The fieldgate had several puddles behind it, and there was still some rain. So I paced along the short stretch of road, back and forth until I became determined to make the attempt. The gate proved the easy it, as not only was the ground thoroughly waterlogged but also the field is fair peppered with hoofmarks. I thought this might be only the stretch there so I simply zig-zagged left of it. All to no avail. Nothing for it except to plod plink plod downhill and try not to slip (much). Not bad for a cairn so thoroughly quarried throughout one half to make farm buildings. If only I'd had faith first thing in reaching here (ah, but it hadn't been on my agenda) I would have had the chamber's plan. For it isn't all that evident on the ground otherwise without. The pair of tight fitting stones alongside, which despite the disparity in size compared with the slabs are considered displaced from the chamber, resemble nothing so much as the top of some large stone (the bigger six foot long) which has cleaved vertically. If it weren't for the staight vertical edge of the smaller my certainty would be 100%

The mound is close to the field edge. The border with the broch field is a fieldwall twin to that at the southern side. This one, however, possibly passable at the cliff end. The cairn field's coastal edge has a far lower wall and there is a piece where this has tumbled and I could slide over the stones under the fence. That dreadful word... slide. The stones are slippy and the grass damp. Though the waves aren't the huge ones you see crashing high onto Rousay this day they were bad enough for the spray to mount the cliffs by me full force - not for nothing is the race in the sea here called the Burgar rĂ´st. By the corner looking through binoculars I made out the tempting section of goodly broch tower. Hah, I'll have ye yet. As I turned up the strengthening wins hurried hard hail harshly onto my balding pate. Going up beside the burn there at last I found a virtually dry way up, a raised sort-of bank most of the the top. On the other side of the burn is a place on the bank where can be seen two long white portions of stone at right angles to it, and I make one as maybe three or so metres long. Surely not anything man-made but to my mind perhaps telling us where the stone for the cairn came from. This is a decent sized burn and even has a petite waterfall. Going past Burgar I admit a momentary temptation to visit the broch. However it deserves a memory-card to itself under better conditions. And now the rain pelted down, soaking into my soul.

Similar temptation held at the junction for the long wending way to the Broch of Gurness. And to a lesser extent that to cross over to Dounby. Coming to Woodwick and following the Burn of Woodwick upstream into the Dale of Woodwick brings you up on the map to South Kews, with the Styes of Aikerness cairn to its south showing how much the name Aikerness covers. And somewhere between the stys and South Kew there was a Cubbie Roo's Stone, one of several that kobold landed all over Orkney.
South of Wood Wick bay the map bears the legend Knowe of Midgarth. Either side of the un-named mudflats called The Leeans it shows a tumulus and a cairn. On the ground the former shows as a green mound by the shore, the Midland mound HY32SE 7 at HY39732366 covering a stony earth mix. The record declares it four foot high and perhaps once over ten yards across, overcultivated inside the field with one large barely projecting stone atop it to say why they think a prehistoric structure lies within. Amorphous and without a known typing. On the other hand the Knowe of Midgarth to its east has a surfeit of theories as to what it is, mostly in the area called settlement. Actually the NMRS applies the name takes in both HY32SE 6 at HY39812361 and HY32SE 1 at HY39872360, a long mound that just might be a sequence of souterrainea and a circular mound of which barely a thing is known. The P.O.A.S. said the Knowe of Midgarth as a grassy mound with sailor's graves which is how the Burgar cairn was seen by locals also. All I se from the road is the long cairn. There has been a boathouse in their vicinity but all we have is the bare "no bibliographical references" as a matter of, cough, record. My next thought was to catch the bus at Tingwall after getting a close up view of that odd entrance at the top of the thing mound. Only the bus popped ahead of me and I felt it safer to keep going on the main road for it to come to me rather than turn down to the ferry without my peek and fail in catch-up with it. At some time the rain faded away. Where the road climbs and approaches a blind corner (after the junction IIRC) a small burn, not necessarily natural drops down the hill on the upper side with a couple of teeny waterfalls. Then there's a section below the road where several large erect stones weave either side of the present fence. Perhaps they are in a straight line. To their right is what seems to be a broad track framed by steep banks like a treeless hollow way. It doesn't seem to be arriving anywhere or coming from somewhere, back to its ?start becoming level with the hillside forming a wedge. Also north of the road there is what sems to be a large rectangular quarry of no great depth. Or perhaps there used to be some grand hall now replaced by the farm buildings behind. Even more intriguing geometry near another set of farm buildings along from this; a triangular pool apparently man-made with a tiny circular islet in the middle. I have observed something vaguely similar south of the Loch of Wasdale when there has been enough rainfall. Oh what strange sights I see with ma own twa een [Where are our new antiquarians when you want them, not these straightjacketed leave-it-as-is gadflies with archaeology often only a job for office hours, all imagination sere and pushed beyond the underground. Too few indeed]. These two are in their correct order to one another, but only IIRC after the Tingwall junction.

Carrying on the next big thing on the right-hand view is a jumbled bunch of large hill, on the tallest of which a large pimple oversees the area. This is the Enyas Hill mound, HY42SW 14 at HY40772073, which though now only three-and-a-half metres high would be noticeable even without the trig. pillar on top. At least the authorities allow it a certain prehistoricity, unlike the Ernie Tower on Costa Hill where they no longer have even that knowledge which did survive. The Enzie Hill mound looks to sit in splendid isolation, but in 2004 my friend checking possible wind-power sites came upon the sad remains of a low mound about fourteen metres across about sixty metres along the same ridge at HY40812077. And finally the bus caught me in it holding arms and I was safely hame again

wideford Posted by wideford
10th January 2008ce

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