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Roger McCann

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Articles - Archaeology: finds in Scotland


The Orkney Isles

2017-03-07 19:36:14

The earliest settlers arrived at the Orkney Isles some 6000 years ago. They had travelled slowly, west and northwards, driving sheep and cattle before them, part of a migration that had begun somewhere around the Mediterranean. Their progress along the way is still marked by the stone structures they left behind.

Orkney was a sort of terminus for these Stone Age people. With so many of their megaliths a feature of this landscape the islands can be thought of as a very large archaeological site.

Some buildings are particularly special. Maeshowe on Mainland Orkney is regarded as the best example anywhere of the ancient stone builder’s art. From outside, the grass covered, upturned pudding bowl shape hardly merits attention. But all who venture inside along the low, paved passageway can’t help being impressed.

The passage walls are constructed of solid blocks of smoothed stone weighing around 30 tons each. Inside the chamber, the walls taper upwards, to end in a skylight that was closed over with a single slab of stone. Recessed compartments in the thick walls were possibly used as tombs.

The huge lumps of stone used in the building were transported from a quarry about seven miles away. How were they moved, lifted, placed so accurately? Could they really have been shaped using stone axes?

Its purpose, so one theory goes, is that Maeshowe was designed and constructed as a sepulchre for priestly kings or kingly priests. However, no sign of burial has ever been found.

Later, in the mid 12th century, Vikings, possibly seeking treasure, broke in through the ceiling. Their runes, the graffiti of the times, can be seen carved into the walls. Probably most notable, is the carving in the shape of a dragon that has since come to be known as the Maeshowe dragon. Present day Orkney jewellery makers have been inspired by this ancient, small work of art and use it in designing their own pieces.

In a field nearby there is a standing stone that throws up all sorts of other questions. At the winter solstice, around 22nd December, as the sun sets over a nearby hill, the last rays shine on the Barnhouse Stone and along the passageway of Maeshowe to illuminate the far wall. How did these Stone Age people come to notice such a phenomenon and get the alignment just right?

A mile and a half away, across a spit of land separating Stenness Loch and Loch Harray, you can stroll around the standing stones of the Ring of Brodgar. The ring is incomplete but there are still 27 of these undressed lumps of natural rock, (originally there were probably 60), each one about 10 feet tall.

The stones encircle an area of rough heather. Why this particular patch of moorland was especially dignified is not known. There have been many suggestions including for burial ceremonies, in worship of the sun or the moon, as some sort of clock, or calendar. We can only wonder.

At the Ness of Brodgar, between the Standing Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar, archaeologists are now digging out even more astonishing finds that may prove people were arriving on these islands even earlier than previously thought. A raised platform allows visitors to look out over the site, see the archaeologists and hear about the painstaking work that is taking place just below.

It’s not far from the Ring of Brodgar to the village of Skara Brae overlooking Skail Bay. The settlement was discovered by accident when it was uncovered by a fierce storm in 1850. The story goes that William Graham Watt, the 7th local laird, was out walking with his dog. The dog sniffed, dug, and fell down a hole - straight into a stone-age living room.

The stone beds are surprisingly small but it’s thought the people slept in a half-sitting, half-lying position. Though visitors are not permitted to walk through the rooms, you can see from above, that a stone dresser was deliberately placed to face the front door. One theory suggests that the household’s best possessions were placed where they could be seen, to impress the neighbours.

Nearby, the local laird’s mansion, Skail House, is now a visitor centre. An interesting display laid on a table is the blue dinner service used by the late Queen Mother on her last visit there. The visitor book reads, ‘signed Elizabeth R August 24th 1983’.

Marvellous in a different way is the little church of Lambholm, which has come to be known as The Italian Chapel. With its statue of St. George nearby, this modest church is a last reminder of Camp 60 where several hundred Italian prisoners were housed in the later years of the Second World War. Under their hands the Nissan hut became a thing of beauty that still inspires countless visitors today.

Most of the material available was second hand and apparently worthless scrap. Inside, the unlovely corrugated iron of the hut was hidden by plasterboard and painted to resemble brickwork. The altar, altar rail and holy water stoop, all beautifully designed, were moulded in concrete. The tabernacle was fashioned from wood obtained from a wrecked ship.

Domenico Chiocchetti, a prisoner with great artistic ability, painted frescoes on the sanctuary vault. The rest of the interior was painted to resemble brickwork with a dado along the base of the curved walls to imitate carved stone. Another prisoner fashioned an intricate screen and a gate from wrought iron.

These men, captured during the North African Campaign, had been send to Orkney to work. Their job was to establish a series of concrete barriers to seal the eastern approaches to Scapa Flow, a sheltered area of sea used as a British Naval anchorage. The order came from Winston Churchill, so ever since, the barriers have been known as the Churchill Barriers.

Until then, four channels between islands had been blocked with sunken ships and it was considered that attack from that direction by sea was impossible. Early in the war however, in October 1939, a brilliant U-boat commander, Lieut - Commander Prien, took advantage of a gap in the defences and an exceptionally high tide. He penetrated the Flow and sank the battleship Royal Oak and managed to get out again safely. In the Royal Oak, over 800 men perished and the Navy, having learned a hard lesson, left its anchorage until the entrances could be securely sealed.

The massive barriers of stone and concrete on the seabed became causeways and are now part of Orkney’s road network. They have proved to be a boon, but at the time, some of the construction workers were dismayed by the seemingly futile task of “filling in the sea.”

Boat trips out into Scapa Flow take people to see wildlife such as seals and seabirds. For the scuba divers coming from all over the world, the wrecks on the seabed are a great attraction. These wrecks are part of the German High Seas Fleet interned at Scapa Flow pending Armistice negotiations. On 21st June 1919 Admiral von Reuter gave the command for seventy German battleships, cruisers and destroyers to be scuttled rather than fall into British hands.

All roads on mainland Orkney lead back to Kirkwall, a sizeable seafaring town with a busy harbour. Dominating the centre is St. Magnus Cathedral, founded in 1137, whose red sandstone glows in the sunshine. The walls are adorned with plaques commemorating Orkney poets and painters, explorers and saints. A large wall tapestry, gifted by the King of Norway, was given to the late Queen Mother on 19th August 1987. Symbolising a sail, it expresses the friendship between Norway and the people of Orkney.

St. Magnus Cathedral was part of the Norwegian arch -diocese of Trondheim for most of the pre - Reformation years. Orkney only became part of the kingdom of Scotland in1468 and in 1486 the Cathedral was given into the care of the people of Kirkwall by the Scottish king, James 111.

Across the road are the ruins of the Bishop’s Palace built in the mid 12th century and the Earl’s Palace begun in 1600, by Earl Patrick Stewart. Using forced labour to quarry and ship in the stone required, Stewart planned to build a dwelling that was unrivalled in design, comfort and beauty. His palace was finally completed in 1607 but shortly afterwards Patrick Stewart was arrested and work was abandoned. After his execution in 1615 the portion of the Palace already built became the residence of Orkney’s bishops.

Across Broad Street, the Orkney Museum tells the story of life in these islands from the Stone Age to the present day. Amongst the many fascinating exhibits, a display gives details of the Ba’(ball) game that is usually played by men on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.

Imagine a game of rugby without rules. The ball is football shaped, though slightly smaller and filled with cork dust. Play rages along the main streets. Shops are barricaded with stout planks for the duration. The ball can even be smuggled inside a coat or baggy sweater. The object is for one team, the Doonies, to land the ball in the sea at the harbour or for the other team, the Uppies, to land the ball at a certain piece of wall, up the town.

It rains often in Orkney. For the whisky makers at the distillery in Kirkwall, this is a blessing. Visitors escaping a downpour can enjoy a guided tour with a film and a dram. A plaque in the visitor centre shows some thoughts on whisky from James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd. It reads, “If a body could just find oot the exac’ proper proportion and quantity that ought to be drunk everyday and keep to that, I verily trow that he might leeve forever, without dying at aa, and that the doctors and kirkyards would go oot o’ fashion.

At Orkney’s distillery they obviously agree.

Further information: A stroll around Kirkwall Harbour and through the garden behind Orkney Museum are both well worth a wander. Close by, there are café/restaurants making use of Orkney produce. To hear local, traditional Orkney music try visiting The Reel pub/café/meeting place.

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The Shetland Isle of Mousa

2017-01-26 13:10:12

'There were a few porpoises here just days ago but a pod of seven or eight killer whales chased them away,” said Tom Jamieson, the ferryman. “However, you never know what might appear.”

Hearing this, a number of passengers aboard the Solan 1V readied their cameras and binoculars as the boat eased away from the pier and headed into the Sound of Mousa.

The ferry crossing to the Island of Mousa, an RSPB Nature Reserve off the east coast of the south mainland of Shetland, takes about 15 minutes from the township of Leebitton.

From Mousa pier, a roughly circular trail around an area in the middle of the island has been marked out with short posts. Using these as a guide and a brochure map we began an easy walk on springy turf.

It’s no distance across the narrow neck of land to the opposite rocky shore of an inlet that reaches far in from Mousa’s east coast. Here our first sighting of the abundant bird life was a chorus-line of shiny black shags (scarfs in Shetland dialect). Seemingly unperturbed, they stood on sun warmed rocks, wings spread akimbo, catching a drying breeze.

The path follows the shoreline of the inlet then turns southwards to wind through long grass covering the hillside. The

downward slope ends in a craggy coastline battered constantly by the North Sea.

Further along, the path reaches a flatter area of shore that is protected by a dry stane dyke. Peer over this wall to the inlet known as the East Pool and there’s a very good chance of spotting Grey seals and Harbour seals. Grey seals are more horse-like in profile with a flatter head and longer snout. Harbour seals have a shorter muzzle.

The nearby West pool is a much larger lagoon with a more open aspect. On the day our party were exploring Mousa, the West Pool had an impressive number of seals (selkies) visible in the water while more were hauled up on the surrounding sand. When a few of the beached seals did shuffle awkwardly back into the sea, they only retreated to the comparative safety of the pool yet were still within good viewing distance.

With so much wildlife present, this is obviously a sensitive area and the ground-nesting artic terns (tirricks) and great skuas (bonxies) soon let you know that you are getting too near their territory. In at least one instance, blood was drawn as a member of our party strayed too close and was pecked on the head for his trouble.

It’s strange to see people walking with their arms in the air, shaking their hands and fingers all the while, but this is the advised method of protection against these aerial attacks. It’s best, of course, if you can leave the wildlife in peace, undisturbed.

From the beach, the trail now leads back up the hill. Big, brown, great skuas still make their presence felt here, swooping low, squeaking then soaring skywards.

Dainty, white flags of bog cotton grow in the wettest areas while broken walls and the stones of an old water mill are smothered in tufts of silver grey algae known in Shetland as Old Man’s Beard. This growth is said to signal the absence of pollution and the purity of the air.

When the way ahead flattens out, Mousa Broch dominates the view. This is the best preserved broch in the world (there are none outside Scotland). Built around 2000 years ago of local sandstone, it still stands over 13 metres high. Possibly, there was at least 1 metre more of stone, now long gone, on the top of the building which was probably roofed with timber and turf, or thatch.

Brochs are thought to have been symbols of power as well as fortified farmhouses for the leading families of the area. Safe inside, the inhabitants could hold out against attacks by enemies who might be using the best weapon technology of the day.

There may have been three wooden floors inside giving living spaces that could be reached from a stone stairway winding clock wise between the inner and outer walls. It’s thought that symbolically and perhaps spiritually, there was some significance in this clockwise design of stair construction.

When you follow in the footsteps of the Iron Age broch dwellers and climb up the stairs, the views from the top are vast. From up here, the siting of Mousa Broch and another broch that once stood on a headland across Mousa Sound at Burraland would suggest these structures were also used as watchtowers.

The Broch has given refuge to at least two famous runaway couples. In 900 AD, a couple from Norway were on their way to Iceland when they were shipwrecked on Mousa. They married and spent a winter in the broch.

In the 12th century, Harald, Earl of Orkney laid siege to the broch where his mother and her lover were taking refuge, but eventually matters were settled amicably and they left the island.

In 1774, eleven families lived on the isle, but by 1861 all were gone.

From the Broch, the marked trail leads back to the ferry pier. It’s worth walking on a little way to see a part of the coastal geology where the rock appears to have been formed like a sandwich cake, from layers of a near-similar thickness. Slices of this sandstone were used to make flagstones for the streets of Lerwick, the capital of Shetland.

Having taken our seats aboard the Solan 1V for the return journey and now moving at a good rate of knots across the Sound of Mousa, we were surprised when the ferryman cut the engine. In the ensuing silence, 3 or 4 porpoises could be seen, dorsal fins arcing out of the water only a few metres from the boat - an added bonus to a splendid day.

Back on the pier at Sandsayre it’s worth taking time to explore the old boathouse which has been converted into a small waiting room/ heritage centre with wall panels giving information on the history and natural history of the area.

Further Information: The smallest British seabird, the storm petrel (aalamootie) breeds on Mousa and there are special evening trips to the island to watch these tiny birds returning to their breeding sites. Bat-like, they flutter in from the sea, disappearing into crevices in the walls of the Broch with cropfuls of food for their single chicks.

Daily trips between early April and September

Tel: 01950 431367

First published in Scottish Islands Explorer Magazine

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Jarlshof, Old Scatness and other Shetland Archaeological Sites

2017-01-13 10:23:13

For the summer and autumn of 1814, Sir Walter Scott joined a party of Commissioners for the Northern Lighthouse Service on a voyage around the coast of Scotland. Their main aim was to check the condition of the many lighthouses in their charge.

It seems to have been an agreeable trip and the company got along very well. On Orkney, Sir Walter Scott ‘learned the history of Gow the pirate from an old sibyl’ and for much of the rest of the voyage, he was left alone on deck, pacing and muttering to himself as he plotted a new novel.

From Orkney, they sailed on to the Shetland Islands where Scott became acquainted with the Roost of Sumburgh – tides ‘running with force only inferior to the Pentland Firth,’ as he describes in the introduction to his tale, The Pirate.

As well as fierce currents, Sumburgh Head, at the southern tip of the mainland of Shetland, has a craggy coastline that is deeply indented with sandy bays. Of a once impressive building at the head of one of these inlets, Scott wrote, ‘Yarlshof (his spelling) seemed to imply an ancient Earl of the Orkneys had selected this neck of land as the place for establishing a mansion house. It has long been deserted and the vestiges only can be discerned with difficulty. But at the end of the 17th century a part of the Earl’s mansion was still entire and habitable.’

At the time Sir Walter Scott gave the building the name ‘Yarlshof’, sand had filled the rooms to a depth of three feet and the township’s few cottages were ‘wretched’.

On the surrounding land, ‘it was hardly possible,’ he said, ‘to raise the most culinary vegetables. As for shrubs or trees, they are entirely out of the question such is the force of the sweeping sea – blast.’

If the cottages reminded Scott of a Scottish ‘ferm toun’ that is less than surprising. In 1469 Shetland came under the control of the Scottish king, James 111, and many Scots moved there.

In the sixteenth century the lordship of Shetland passed into the hands of Earl Robert Stewart, an illegitimate son of James V. His ‘Palace at Dunrossness’ as he called it, in which the local magistrate held his court, was the New Hall, the building nearest to the ancient Norse settlement of Jarlshof (as the site has come to be known).

In 1592, William Bruce Symbister leased the house from Earl Robert. From 1604 to 1605, Earl Patrick, Robert’s son, had possession and he built another house that came to be known as the ‘Old house of Sumburgh.’ This was the building that Sir Walter Scott later named ‘Yarlshof’ and set in his novel, The Pirate.

Unbeknown to Scott, there was far more to Jarlshof than a sand-filled ruin and a few sad looking houses.

At the end of the 19th century violent storms broke into the low cliffs at Jarlshof. The landowner, Mr. Bruce dug into the sand and discovered structures that were still in place from the day they had been built during the Iron Age. In 1925, he placed the site in the care of the State. Archaeological excavations have since revealed many more exciting finds.

When a plane is due to arrive or take off from Sumburgh Airport vehicles must stop and wait at the roadway barriers. As soon as the runway is clear, the roadside warning lights stop flashing, the barriers lift, and drivers can then carry on their way across the runway. After hardly any distance, a turn off leads to the car park of the Sumburgh Hotel and the start of the short path which ends at Jarlshof. From the trappings of the 21st century you can wander into the stone outline of a building where a blacksmith wielded a hammer some 2800 years ago.

The entrance fee to Jarlshof includes headphones and an audio cassette which gives information on what lies beneath your feet as you make your way round the site.

Near the first stopping place, three middens (rubbish dumps) were found separate from each other by layers of wind-blown sand. The lowest, or earliest midden, was piled beside hearths and much-damaged walls. Pottery found here has been dated to before 2500 BC but nothing is known about the people.

In one house the remains of four freshly made steatite (soapstone) bowls were found and among the many stone tools were ploughshares and cleavers. Bone chisels and awls suggest that leather working was common and leather clothing may have been worn.

The middle midden revealed that the inhabitants grew grain, kept cattle and sheep and fished the sea. It’s not known what happened after the visible house, (associated with the middle midden) was abandoned, but it is likely that the occupants moved to other nearby sites.

The latest (topmost) midden is of roughly the same date as the Bronze Age village nearby.

From there, a few steps takes you forward in time to the remains of a large Iron Age roundhouse standing in the courtyard of a Broch built about 2000 years ago. The houses here have distinctive cells formed by thick buttresses extending into the living space and are of a type that can be traced back well before 2000BC in Shetland.

By this time, the introduction of iron had probably eased some tasks involving cutting and piercing. Spindle whorls show that thread was made from fibres, implying woollen cloth was now in use for clothes and coverings.

The villagers farmed in much the same way as their forebears. They bred sheep, including Soay and other breeds similar to modern day Shetland sheep. They kept short-horned cattle, a few pigs, and ponies the size of modern Shetland breeds. They were active fishermen and also hunted grey seals and walruses on the beaches of offshore islands.

In the fields around the village, cereal crops like bere (an early form of barley) and emmer (a kind of wheat) were grown. Stone querns were used to grind the grain. Seeing the actual hollowed out querns and heavy stones used in the grinding process is proof that making a loaf of bread would not have been a quick or easy job.

It’s difficult for visitors to disentangle the Jarlshof Broch from later structures since there are cells in its wall thickness, a courtyard attached to it, and a roundhouse with an outhouse in the courtyard. How tall this broch stood when it was complete is not accurately known. The surviving solid base is 2.4m high but many great stones found nearby during excavation had probably fallen from the upper storeys.

The tallest broch known in Shetland, and the best preserved in Scotland, is found on the Island of Mousa, about 15 miles from Jarlshof. Mousa Broch stands 13m high but many others were probably no more than 5 to 6m tall. Brochs may have served as fortified farmhouses for the leading families of the area and as watchtowers to guard the shores. It’s thought that inside the towers there could have been several wooden floors where people lived.

Jarlshof is 48 hours by sailing boat from the coast of Norway. In the 9th century AD, Shetland became an important link in the raiding and migration routes ‘west over sea’ to Britain, Ireland, Iceland and Greenland. There are indications that the Norse settlement at Jarlshof expanded and contracted over several centuries, perhaps some twelve to sixteen generations. After its first phase, it seems by comparison, with sites in Norway and Greenland, to have been more than a simple farm.

The first Norse dwelling house was a bow-sided building about 75ft long and built of drystone and turves, except for its east gable which was of timber. It was divided into two rooms, the hall or living room, and a much smaller kitchen or pantry. The hall was provided with a characteristic long hearth down its centre, with raised platforms on either side for both sitting and sleeping. Outbuildings consisted of a byre for wintering animals, a barn for storing their fodder, stables and a small smithy. Another building of similar size to the smithy may have been a bath house where water could have been thrown over hot stones to make a steamy sauna.

Amongst many changes over the years, new buildings and extensions were added when necessary to the original farm complex. Barns and byres were built. Houses were lengthened and the inhabitants continued to exploit both the land and the sea.

There must also have been some leisure time. Beautifully carved bone pins have been found that were used as cloak fasteners. Various types show thistle - head, axe -head, or cross-head designs. The high quality animal – head pins are similar to those found alongside 11th century remains in Dublin. Clearly, Jarlshof stayed in touch with other parts of the Norse world.

From Jarlshof, it’s only a short drive north to another site known as Old Scatness. Here again there are remains of a broch, an Iron Age village and evidence of a Viking settlement. But since the overall site is an ongoing ‘dig’ in progress, visitors are given a guided tour.

“As you can see from the stone work on the face of the Broch, it’s very well built,” said the guide. “We believe it stood around 15m high and was at least as tall as the Broch on the Isle of Mousa which is missing 1m in height of stone. The internal staircase runs clockwise up the structure which seems to have been of some significance to these early people.”

In the remains of a building close by, thought to be Pictish from around the time of the late Iron Age, part of a slab of stone was found that shows the outline of a bear. Since it is a very fine depiction, complete with teeth and claws, this is another mystery. Who was the artist? Where did he usually work? How did he come by his knowledge of such an animal?

“We think an artist, an extremely good one, has been brought here to create this symbol for a chief,” said the guide. “The bear was an emblem of power and strength.”

Since Scatness Broch is central amongst several other brochs, the guide suggested that this site might have been some sort of administration centre or even the site of a parliament. Geophysical research revealed the whole site to be fairly extensive, and potentially, archaeologists could be kept working there for a very long time.

Another unusual feature at Scatness is that two replicas of dwellings from Pictish times have been built to give the researchers more practical information on daily living conditions within such structures. As well, over the summer, members of a living history group try and recreate some of the everyday skills of the period such as metal working, spinning, baking, beer making and carving local soapstone to make replica artefacts.

At one side of the path leading in to the Old Scatness Broch and Iron Age Village there is a relatively recent, fine stone built house. This was where Betty Mouat lived - Scatness’ most famous resident. In January 1886, this sixty year old lady boarded the smack (a small sailing boat) Columbine at Scatness to sail to Lerwick. However, during the storm, the crew were lost and she spent nine days and nights alone on board existing only on milk she had brought with her. Eventually the smack was driven ashore at Lepsoy, Norway. She became a celebrity and her story was told in many newspapers. Subscription funds were opened and even Queen Victoria contributed.

Little could Betty Mouat have imagined that her home would in time be refurbished, renamed, ‘Betty Mouat’s Bod’ and given a new purpose. The hostel now offers simple accommodation to visitors from around the world.

The history of Scatness is slowly being uncovered and archaeologists are learning about Betty Mouat’s predecessors.

I wonder what she would have made of the fact that she was living on top of one of the most important archaeological sites in Shetland.

First published in The Highlander

The Magazine of Scottish Heritage

May/June 2008

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