Objects in Place: the Eynhallow Sound, Orkney

Stone steps washed with waves and selkie songs glitter in the late summer gloaming. Roaring tides sweep in from all sides to batter the shore with ageless determination, steadily devouring the remnants of cairn-raisers, Picts, Norse, and crofters with equal indifference. The west wind catches a string of hanging seashells put up by this season’s crew of archaeologists, filling the ruinous, long-silent halls with the music of the sea. Here, along the shores of the Eynhallow Sound in Orkney, eras and elements build into an unforgettable chorus. Join Digital Media Content Producer David C. Weinczok on a journey along the shores of Orkney’s Eynhallow Sound.

Linocut print abstractly depicting the Eynhallow Sound and various museum objects. A window-like stone frame focuses attention on a low island in the middle of a channel with a skeleton underneath it. A tortoise-shaped brooch, large pin, basket, and fabric hood are some of the object scattered around the image.
Original linocut artwork by Dundee-based artist Pamela Scott. © Pamela Scott

Rousay and the Westness Walk

Along the one and a half-mile shorescape known as the Westness Walk on the island of Rousay, time is anything but linear. Treading this sliver from one end to the other, you are hurtled through more than 5,000 years of settlements. Periods of history tidily divided from each other on paper crumble into and rise out from each other.

Under broad, cloudy skies turning colourful at sunset is a stony shoreline with several stone structures built near the edge. Rectangular flagstones slope down into the waters, and a rock trench cuts of a promontory in the foreground. A faint path leads to a hangar-like structure in the middle distance.
A stretch of the Westness Walk viewed from Midhowe Broch. The hangar-like structure containing Midhowe Chambered Cairn can be seen in the middle distance, with the jumble of medieval through 19th century structures of Skaill and Brough beyond. © David C. Weinczok

At Swandro, which loses a little of itself to the sea every year, Iron Age buildings are topped by a Pictish smithy and surrounded by the intermingled ruins of Norse halls, late medieval farmhouses, and cleared nineteenth century crofts.

A radiant yellow sun sets across a channel of water behind low, distant hills. Perched atop a roofless square stone structure, the view extends over a ruinous church and a cluster of grey stone buildings along the shoreline.
The sun sets over the ruins of St Mary’s Church, built in the 16th or 17th century, and The Wirk, an enigmatic structure thought to be a small fortified tower (foreground). © David C. Weinczok

The historical knot becomes even harder to untangle since almost everything was built from Rousay flagstone. Slabs of this extremely durable, multi-purpose stone are ready to use once pried with relative ease from their source. They proved just as useful to the people whose bones filled the stalls of Midhowe Cairn in 3,500 BC as it was for the tenant farmers who built their homes on the overlooking slopes less than two centuries ago.

A somewhat spooky image of a passage grave lined with tall, grey stone slabs viewed from above. Darkness closes in on the borders of the image, and the tomb's floor is deep green in colour.
Orthostats inside Midhowe Chambered Cairn. © David C. Weinczok
Closeup of a section of wall within a roofless, ruinous cottage. A thin, upright, grey stone slab rises out from within a section of wall, identical to the stone slabs seen in the nearby ancient tombs.
An orthostat within the walls of the 19th century cottage of Blowhigh in the Rousay uplands. © David C. Weinczok

A fertile strip wraps round Rousay, giving way quickly to steep slopes leading to an upland zone of heather and protruding stone. On Rousay’s southern shore the coastline is dotted at almost regular intervals with the grass-covered remains of brochs. At least thirteen of these Iron Age stone towers once lined the Eynhallow Sound, a daunting prospect for any hostile vessels and a potent expression of power for all to behold. The grandest of these ruins is Midhowe Broch at the western terminus of the Westness Walk.

A ruinous round stone tower surrounded by a complex of smaller structures and stone partitions sits atop a wall-like stone barrier protecting it from the sea. A rocky shoreline is below the wall, and views extend across the water to neighbouring islands.
Midhowe Broch viewed from the west with its 20th century retaining wall to protect it from erosion. © David C. Weinczok
A breathtaking yellow sunset casts light on the massive stone ruins of Midhowe Broch. In the foreground, a sunken area of stone walls and partitions is enclosed by grassy banks. Beyond it, a ruinous round stone tower rises to first floor level.
One of the domestic areas comprising the Iron Age ‘village’ surrounding Midhowe Broch. © David C. Weinczok

In a similar string, along the very line where lowland gives way to upland (though this divide reflects modern land use) are a succession of chambered cairns with enticing names – Blackhammer, Taversoe Tuick, and the Knowe of Yarso to name a few. Explore a 3D model of the Knowe of Yarso from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute on Sketchfab here.

A one-storey mound covered in grass rises up from an area of long grass and heather. Behind it is an expansive sea-scape with several distant islands, and some farm buildings and wind turbines on the nearest shore.
Taversoe Tuick, one of the chambered cairns dotting Rousay’s southern slopes. It is one of only two known two-storeyed chambered cairns in Orkney. © David C. Weinczok

Midhowe Chambered Cairn is one exception to this neat arrangement, being located on the shoreline next to Midhowe Broch. It was built around 3,500 BC, meaning that more time passed between its construction and the building of Midhowe Broch than between the broch and us today. Many of the brochs and cairns were excavated in the early through mid-20th century by George Petrie and Walter Grant, yielding a huge array of finds including human remains, pottery, animal bones of possible totemic significance, and Neolithic stone axeheads.

A stubby deer antler viewed from above on a black felt surface. The antler is relatively short, with two 'arms' both ending in rounded points.
Portion of an Early Neolithic antler from Knowe of Rowiegar chambered cairn, Rousay (X.EO 707).

Bronze and iron were worked at Midhowe Broch, which – like the Broch of Gurness within view across the Eynhallow Sound – had a village surrounding the broch tower. These were not the ‘remote’ or ‘simple’ places that modern writers too often describe such places as, but sophisticated and productive centres home to imaginative, resourceful, and well-connected communities.

Though little can be said with certainty about the appearance and beliefs of Rousay’s broch dwellers, one remarkable survivor from elsewhere in Orkney gives us a rare glimpse – the Orkney Hood. It is the only complete piece of clothing to survive from before the medieval period in Scotland. Learn its story in the video below.

Westness cemetery

In 1963, Ronald Stevenson was burying a dead cow near the shore at Moaness, part of Westness, when his shovel struck something unexpected. The strange things pulled from the soil were sent to the National Museum of Scotland, who promptly sent Audrey Henshalla team to excavate. They revealed the elaborate burial of an adult woman and new-born child. Mother and child almost certainly died in the act of birth. They were far from alone – their grave was part of one the most important Viking Age cemeteries outside Scandinavia.

One of the woman’s possessions was a bead necklace, various pieces of which had Irish, Anglo-Saxon, Frankish, Frisian, and Baltic origins. Two tortoise-like oval brooches rested below her shoulders, much like those found among the grave goods of another prominent Norse woman’s burial across the Eynhallow Sound at the Broch of Gurness. The elaborate Westness brooch, made of silver, amber, red glass and gold inlay, further marks her out as someone of high status.

A very colourful and intricate string of beads, perhaps a necklace, of dazzling variety on a black background. The beads vary from small red, blue, and yellow discs to cylinders with multicoloured geometric patterns and a large central bead made of off-white bone.
String of thirty nine glass and paste beads, 850 – 900 AD (X.IL 740).
A shining brooch with a long silver pin and disc-shaped top against a dark grey background. The top is decorated with reddish gemstones, and its bronze surface is heavily decorated with swirling patterns.
Brooch-pin of silver, with amber, red glass and gold inlay, 8th century (X.IL 728).
‘Tortoise’ brooches from the woman and infant’s burial at Westness, undergoing conservation at the National Museums Collection Centre in Edinburgh.

The long-disintegrated shawl her people buried her in was fastened by a hacked fragment of an Insular Christian shrine or book cover, modified into a brooch. As Glenmorangie Researcher and author of Crucible of Nations, Dr Adrián Maldonado, observed, she “had the whole Viking world in her grave.”

A metal rectangle coloured green with age, with flickers of gold underneath. It is elaborately carved with spirals and a wolf-like creature running with its mouth wide open as if barking.
Rectangular bronze mount depicting a wolf or lion, likely originally part of a Christian shrine or book cover, 850 – 900 AD (X.IL 730).

The Westness cemetery contained 32 burials dating from the seventh through eleventh centuries, including two boat burials of older Norse men. At first, these men’s graves seem to embody the popular image of Viking-age violence. Grave goods included the complete accoutrements of war: a decorated sword, a broad-bladed iron axe, iron spearhead, shield boss, and arrowheads. Both men had arthritis, chipped teeth, and heavy wear and tear in their hands. Everything suggests these were warriors who died past their prime. However, not all Norse men’s graves containing weapons are necessarily those of warriors, as these objects had wider symbolic significance and weapons buried with a person did not necessarily belong to that person.

A glass museum case displays several Viking-era weapons, all badly rusted with rough edges. A long sword with a decorated pommel takes up the most space, alongside an axehead, spearhead, and a shield boss in the shape of a dome.
Weapons from the Westness cemetery on display in the Early People galleries in the National Museum of Scotland (Level -1).

Alongside these finds, however, were many others that cast their society in a more settled, peaceable light. In the same grave that contained the above arsenal was an iron ploughshare. Others were buried with sickles, a strike-a-light, antler combs and gaming pieces. By the 11th century, the days of marauding Vikings were, with a few exceptions, long past. The Norse in Orkney had converted to Christianity, and prominent residents of the area are named in the 13th century Icelandic saga, Orkneyinga Saga, not as blood-soaked warriors but as influential farmers. The majority of people in Viking-age Orkney would have met non-violent ends.

A comb with all of its teeth wholly or mostly intact, made of off yellow-white bones against a dark grey background. Several rusted rivets poke out from the top, but it looks almost ready to use after 1,000 years in the ground!
Comb of antler, 850 – 925 AD (X.1997.767).
Strike-a-light (X.1997.1032).
Closeup of a small, cylindrical gaming piece, a little like the lower section of a chess pawn, upright against a grey background. The piece is orange-yellow, and has a hole burrowed into it from the top down.
Bone gaming piece from a set of twenty-five (X.1997.1031).

Indeed, the dead of Westness have at least one thing in common with modern archaeological approaches: they have little regard for tidy, binary identities. The Norse burials coexist alongside earlier Pictish burials, with no apparent attempt by the former to disturb the remains of the latter. Going much further back, new research has shown that many of the Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age ancestors of Orkney’s Picts were themselves incomers from Continental Europe by way of the British mainland.

Orcadian poet and storyteller George Mackay Brown, who often centred his timeless tales on Viking-age Rousay and the Eynhallow Sound, observed, “The people of Orkney today are a mingled weave.” So, too, were many Orcadians – Pict, Norse, Scots, and otherwise – of the past.

Cubbie Roo’s Castle and the island of Wyre

Across a narrow yet temperamental stretch of water from the eastern shore of Rousay is Wyre, an arrowhead-shaped island so low-lying that it seems a single high wave could wash over it.

Standing in yellow and brown moor grass on a hillside, a very thin and low-lying island is in the middle of an expansive body of water in the distance. Several other low islands rise up beyond it, with grey cloud cover above.
The sliver-thin island of Wyre seen from the southern upland slopes of Rousay, with Gairsay at centre-right and Shapinsay in the distance. © David C. Weinczok

Wyre’s population is now just five, though it was not always so sparse. For instance, excavations directed by Dan Lee and Antonia Thomas of the University of the Highlands and Islands at the Braes of Ha’Breck found a Neolithic complex containing the charred remains of Neolithic cereals dating to c.3,300 – 3,000 BC. This was probably from an extended family group living in Wyre’s western edge. Given that the family group would likely not have been alone in Wyre, and that the medieval period saw even greater activity in Wyre, it illustrates how parts of the Highlands and Islands are less populated now than at many points in history.

The most famous medieval resident of Wyre was Kolbein Hruga, a twelfth century Norseman who later passed into legend as a fearsome giant known as Cubbie Roo. In Orkney dialect, ‘cubbie’ is a word for a creel or basket-work carrier also known as a ‘cassie’. Cubbie Roo is said to have met his end when a stone causeway he was building between Wyre and Rousay collapsed, burying him in the rubble. This story gave its name to a cairn on the Rousay shore looking across to Wyre, ‘Cubbie Roo’s Burden’.

A basket of thick woven strands, turned greyish-brown with age and use, against a white background. Deeper than it is wide, the basket looks very sturdy.
Heather cassie from Orkney, 18th or 19th century (W.QP 36).

Kolbein was an innovator. Upon a small whaleback hill are the ruins of Cubbie Roo’s Castle, likely one of the oldest stone castles in Scotland. During the Viking Age, Wyre was plugged into a network of trading and raiding that reached out from the North Sea as far as the Eastern Mediterranean. The latest castle-building styles of Europe did not go unnoticed by Orcadian venturers, where they were adapted to local conditions and materials. Cubbie Roo’s Castle is now diminished to its ground floor, but would once have stood three stories high and its likely white-harled outer walls would have shone across the Eynhallow Sound.

It is likely that Kolbein had his castle built over the remains of an Iron Age broch which would have been 1,000 years old or more in his time. It’s easy to spot similarities between the castle’s layout and the Broch of Gurness, one of the best surviving broch sites located on the Mainland shore of the Eynhallow Sound.

The ruins of a grey stone castle surrounded by a ditch partially filled with water. The bright green grass contrasts with the grey stone and grey sky. The castle ruins are squat and only rise to first floor level. A channel of water and the island of Rousay are in the distance.
Cubbie Roo’s Castle, Wyre. © David C. Weinczok
The circular remains of a stone tower surrounded by a scattering of stone slabs. To its right is a deep defensive, grassy ditch lined with grey stones. The sky is blue with rolling clouds.
The Broch of Gurness, Orkney Mainland, which predates Cubbie Roo’s Castle by over 1,000 years. © David C. Weinczok

Finds from Cubbie Roo’s Castle and immediate area around it including St Mary’s Chapel speak to use over several centuries at least, including an annular bronze brooch, fragment of chain-mail, and part of a bronze hawk’s bell. In a report on Orkney published in 1774, James Fea wrote, “The Hawks of this country are deemed the finest in the world, insomuch, that the King’s Falconer sends persons annually to Orkney, to take them up; commonly in the month of May, when they brood.” Could this bell be a legacy of this prestigious practice?

A hollow circle of flattened bronze viewed from above against a white background. The surface has four bands, two decorated with diagonal lines and two plain, and a broken brooch pin extends into the hollow centre.
Annular brooch of thin sheet bronze from Cubbie Roo’s Castle (H.HX 242).
A small, round tangle of off-yellow chain-mail mixed with a dark grey substance that looks almost melted. Several sections of individual rings are visible against the white background.
Chain-mail with brass rings from Cubbie Roo’s Castle or St Mary’s Chapel (H.HX 852).
Fragment of a metal bell, perhaps one third of the whole object, with a tiny point atop it against a white background.
Part of ornamental bell of bronze from Cubbie Roo’s Castle (H.HX 246).

Eynhallow, the ‘vanishing island’

The Atlantic Ocean and North Sea are locked in never-ending battle in the Eynhallow Sound. This clash creates roosts, sudden and terrible chimeras of wave and wind that can sink ships in an instant. They appear as white-crested walls all around the island of Eynhallow. Once home to a monastic community and several households, the last permanent inhabitants of Eynhallow were evicted in 1851 following a typhoid outbreak.

A wide landscape view over a deep blue channel of water. A low whaleback-shaped island is in focus in the middle, with green-brown grass and a single tiny building. Waters churn around the island, and a high cliff face rises in the distance.
Eynhallow, seen on a clear day from the uplands of Rousay with Costa Head, Orkney Mainland, and the North Atlantic beyond. © David C. Weinczok
A soft yellow sunset over a channel of water, with an island and distant headland dominating the horizon. In the foreground, a strip of water in the channel is marked by sudden churning waves while the waters around it are fairly still.
The roosts that flank Eynhallow churning away, as seen from Scabra Head, Rousay. © David C. Weinczok

Eynhallow is a ‘vanishing island’, often lost to sea mists and regarded in Orkney lore as the remnants of Hildaland, the magical realm of the amphibious Fin-Men who were held responsible for disappearances, fishermen’s lost catches, and other misfortunes. To again quote George Mackay Brown, he supposed that this magical realm had not been seen “since fishermen folded up their sails and installed petrol engines in their boats.”

No person could make landing on Eynhallow unless they never looked away from it and grasped cold iron in their hands, such as a nail or cruik. Such was the magic of the Fin-Men that Orcadian chroniclers insisted animals would instantly seize up and die on touching its soils. Perhaps the spell had worn off by the nineteenth century, when the island was used for summer sheep grazing.

Painting of a romanticised hilly, coastal landscape under a yellow-grey sky. Three sheep take up the bulk of the image. A tiny black sheep stands at the front next to a yellow-white sheep twice its size, and a grey and white sheep with large curved horns stands on a raised hillock above them.
Painting of Orkney and Shetland sheep, including a black and white or piebald ram from Eynhallow, a ewe from Rousay, and a black lamb cross bred with a pure Cheviot breed. Oil on canvas by William Shiels, c. 1835 (H.OD 97).

The only inhabitable building in Eynhallow today is a ranger’s lodge. Remarkably, it contained cushions and coverings made of Morris fabrics (at least, as of the mid-2000s), brought over from Westness House in Rousay or Melsetter House in Hoy.

An elaborate, rectangular embroidered fabric decorated with swirling vines, colourful birds in flight, and a thin fruit-bearing tree in the centre.
Embroidered hanging of wool on linen depicting a pomegranate tree, roses and other flowers, foliage and birds. Designed by May Morris, 1891, and worked by May Morris and Theodosia Middlemore, for Melsetter House, Orkney, 1898 – 1902 (K.2014.47.2).

Yet, despite Eynhallow’s folkloric role as an island of mystery, not so long ago (in the grand scheme of things) it was not an island at all. When the first post-glacial settlers arrived in Orkney, sea levels were around twenty metres lower than they are now. Orkney was then two large islands, meaning that the first people to arrive in Rousay did not take a boat to reach it – they walked.

In our own times, the Eynhallow Sound’s waters may be fierce, but they are still shallow enough to see the bottom in clear conditions on the ferry from Tingwall to Rousay. During this short voyage you are almost certainly sailing over sunken remains of ancient human activity. Rising sea levels, resulting in large part from climate change, are a major threat to Orkney’s historic sites. Nearly 2,000 of them, including many in Rousay and Wyre, are actively being lost due to erosion and inundation.

Reflections from the Sound

It was in landscapes like these, filled with grassy mounds concealing remnants of the ancient world, that Scottish archaeology as we know it was born. The array of finds from the excavation of sites such as the Broch of Gurness, Midhowe Chambered Cairn, and Taversoe Tuick led to the recognition of Stone, Bronze, an Iron Ages, with many of them proving to be older than conventionally believed by centuries or even millennia. Investigations by members of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, founded in 1780, formed the basis of the collections of the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland, the precursor of National Museums Scotland.

Sepia image of two people in suits examining a large open book on a desktop. Above them is a huge display behind glass panels of hundreds of ancient artefacts, including pottery and stone tools.
Part of the collections of The Museum of the Society of Antiquaries in 1890, which had passed into public ownership in 1851.

To others, including writers, poets, craftspeople, and artists, the “mingled weave” of history on the shores of the Eynhallow Sound was (and remains) a bottomless well of inspiration. People as varied as Edwin Muir, Robert Rendall, Eliza Burroughs, and Will Self have drawn from it. Many modern archaeologists including Anna Ritchie, the late and hugely influential Caroline Wickham-Jones, and National Museums Scotland’s own Dr Hugo Anderson-Whymark have made many insights into the area and Orkney more widely. The Norse era in particular continues to inspire cultural activities in Orkney, including the St Magnus International Festival and the Orkney Storytelling Festival.

For anyone who finds purpose and wonder in the stories of the past, exploring the shores of the Eynhallow Sound as the roosts roar and seals sing, flanked by a conglomerate of sites spanning over 5,000 years, is an experience never to be forgotten. Armed with the stories and knowledge of the objects this place yielded (and, for extra immersion, a copy of the Orkneyinga Saga in hand) this landscape is unlike any other I have known. Who knows – perhaps you’ll even catch a glimpse of Hildaland through the mist.

Watch the creative process of Pamela Scott, creator of the linocut, in the time lapse video below.

The six-part Objects in Place blog series will next head to Stirling, the embattled heart of Scotland. Part five will look out from the ramparts of Tantallon Castle, East Lothian, and part six will bring the series to a conclusion with a special place very close to us – Greyfriars Kirkyard in Edinburgh. Dundee-based illustrator and printmaker Pamela Scott has been commissioned to produce a unique artwork for each installment. If you haven’t already, read part one about Kilmartin Glen, Argyll, here, and part two about the Eildon Hills and Melrose here.

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