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Damsay conjectures

On PASTMAP only one Damsay site is indicated. So I was surprised on doing a search on Damsay through RCAHMS that nine came up ! A linked map displayed them. These additions are mostly from a field and desk-based survey. At the west end of the island the survey found three possible sites. South to north these are a possible mound and cist (HY38761370, NMRS record HY31SE 75) an enclosure (HY38781385, HY31SE 76) and a possible prehistoric settlement (HY38781393 , HY31SE 74). Offshore is a possible fish trap (HY31SE 82), though I would see fish traps in features near near Eves Howe in Deerness before I would this. The ?feature is at HY39411390 and a possible prehistoric barrow or mound (HY39141380 HY31SE 78) isn't very far away, being just above the M of MHWS on the 1:25,000. Those who say that Clouston's possible castle is a broch site say the castle site would be more central, placing it somewhere north of this ?barrow. A pity we have no details on any of these sites, like size or appearance. Another site type found was rig-and-furrow. The official grid reference for HY31SE 83 is HY39011406 but the aerial view show several 'fields' on the northern side of Damsay that leave a large and suspiciously blank space between them and the ?barrow. The castle would be expected on the high point here (actually, to my mind, the space is large enough for this and other structures) but the survey threw up nothing. Of coure there is precedent for defensive structures to be completely removed, but I wonder if the surveyor actually walked onto this high point - I know from personal experience how even on the slightest knoll stones may not be apparent until you are right on top of them. In the 14thC there was both a castali and a skali on Damsay (in Orkney skali is translated as 'hall').
There are presently three bodies of water in the eastern half. However on the 1849 commonty plan of Firth [a large fragile map in the Orkney Archive, shewing Rennibister as Bull] only the main one appears - the other two are marshy areas on the 1882 25" O.S. This is in the north-east corner and its northern end seperates the St Mary's Chapel site from the putative broch. This lochan has a suspiciously straight western edge, making it resemble that at Ferry Point on the nearby mainland (used to land peats until an incoming owner of Quanterness stuck his oar in). I suspect this is the result of late 19thC landscaping, otherwise... (I have seen mediaeval or prehistoric furrows in a roadside field beside the track to Ferry Point, and seeing my photo Anne Brundle did not disagree). Recent underwater archaeology found a likely burial ground offshore.Once upon a time there was a causeway from the Point of Damsay north-west all the way across to the Skerries of Coubister in mainland Firth. A few years ago during an
exceptional low tide a man donned waders and made the full journey (there is a narrow channel that allows boats passage). Perhaps the end of the causeway is referred to in an alternative translation of a tradition related by Jo Ben "They say that sometimes ridges of hills are taken away and in the space of an hour restored again".
Anyhoo, St Mary's Chapel (HY31SE 21 at HY38951422) only exhibits an 8" high portion of drystane wall under six foot long, as has been the case since at least 1848. Its turf-covered mound is fourteen by seven metres and four foot high. Many early mediaeval chapels started out as private chapels belonging to a hall owner. Warebeth chapel is strongly associated with Munkerhouse and so surely the putatitive broch site on Damsay is [also] where the monasterium was (technically a nunnery is a foundation with a female head, so a man must have been in charge here). Storer Clouston found no evidence for the 12thC castle save "a very possible site of a small rectangular tower... the sea on one side and a steep bank on a second" unconnected with a drystone dyke there. Similarly John Fraser thought a small mound at the NE point of the island was connected with the castle. Presumably this is not the same as the chapel mound and is referred to an enclosure where I would put the monastery and thought a possible broch to boot - castle HY31SE 25, ?broch and mediaeval settlement HY31SE at HY39031460.
Amongst all this what isn't mentioned is the standing buildings there, including the (unroofed) two-storey house so evident to the eye. Could be they are subsumed under 'mediaeval settlement' I suppose. The big hoose had windows and I am torn between a construction date from the great Orkney-wide building expansion of the 17thC (like Breckness) and the much later period of mansion house building (Like Garson). It could even be on the site of an older structure. It is close to the shore and what seems to be the remains of a one-storey extension could be a boathouse. Or maybe a walled garden. Difficult to tell from the shore even after seeing it with a zoom lens from several different directions. Which is why (I guess) a field survey should survey everything, including what others have done
before. The building, or is it a pair of buildings, abut the division of two fields/precincts/?. These 'precincts' division is the longest edge. The western one is bounded by a stone dyke but not apparently the eastern one where the possible broch site is located, though it still stands out clearly. No boats to Damsay unfortunately.

wideford Posted by wideford
15th April 2011ce

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