Culture

Bernie Bell: Orkney Walks (with Stories) – Shapinsay Ingenuity – Auskerry Hospitality!

For all these walks, take a good map with you, and wear stout footwear!


We visited Shapinsay a few  years ago, for my birthday!  By this time, Ben-The-Dog had passed on, to whatever is next, for Ben-The-Dog – maybe he’s running with the terriers, on Cuween!

There is much to do, and see on Shapinsay, and most of it is covered by various guides and leaflets.  So, I’m going to tell you about one place that we visited, which turned out to have a connection with another of the Orkney islands.

Broch of Burroughstone

Broch of Burroughstone, Shapinsay (B Bell)

Broch of Burroughstone

To get to the Broch of Burroughstone, park, considerately, by the road, and follow a well-defined path through farmland, to the Broch.  This is a well-preserved and impressive structure, in an imposing situation, right by the sea.  Something which particularly interested us, is the fact that the folk who lived here didn’t have access to fresh water.  So, they built a ‘tank’, which collected rainwater as it flowed through the stones.  Though the rock is sandstone, it must contain limey deposits, as you can see the stalactites forming, as the water drips through the building , even now.

We were very impressed by the ingenuity shown by these ancient people.  It also needed strong engineering skills, to work out how to collect the water, presumably incorporating this facility, as the Broch was being built, whilst avoiding producing a damp building!

We had a look round the Broch, and went down to the sea-shore for a mooch about.  This may not seem like much of a walk – I suppose it isn’t!   And the story, is of the method of water collection.

bird watchers on Auskerry B BEll

RSPB trip to Auskerry (B Bell)

But……………. the next spring, we went on a trip to Auskerry.  This is a tiny island, which is privately owned by the Brogan family.  They, very kindly, allow both the RSPB and the Orkney Archaeology Society, to bring small groups of people, to visit the island, which has much of interest  to both sets of visitors.   If you happen to be visiting Orkney when either of these trips is happening – go for it!

We went on a trip with the RSPB, which meant that we walked around the coast, for the bird-watchers to watch birds, and the people-watcher, to watch people!

We arrived at the Brogan family home, where Simon Brogan offered to make everyone a cup of tea.  It was a lovely, spring day, and I was hot, so I asked if I could have water.  They do have a source of water , which is pumped from under-ground, and they need to use it sparingly.  The water I was given, wasn’t from this source!  Mr. Brogan gave me a glass of water, and asked what did I think of it?

It was un-usual.  It had a bit of a taste to it, but what struck me, was the texture.  Water doesn’t usually have a texture, but this was what I can best describe as silky.  The water, felt silky, and tasted, very slightly, like memories of Milk of Magnesia, when a child.  Mr. Brogan explained.  When the lighthouse was built, it didn’t have a source of water, so , a tank was built, which collected the rainwater as it flowed through the rocks.  Exactly the same principle, as at the Broch of Burroughstone!  The silky texture, and slight taste of the water I was drinking was due to it having passed through rock which contains traces of lime, and so picked up a slightly ‘chalky’ influence, on the way.  So, the Iron Age broch builders, and the Nineteenth Century lighthouse builders, used the same basic technique to produce a source of water.  How about that?

The Brogan family have a flock of North Ronaldsay sheep on Auskerry, and they can be met with, rattling about on the stony shore.  They are much tougher than ‘normal’ sheep, and look more like goats!  They have a different attitude, too , and are more likely to run at you, than away from you!

This is a bit of a jumbly-tale, combining a bit of Shapinsay, and a bit of Auskerry.  Mainly, I wanted to tell about the water collecting method, spanning the ages,  and of Mr. Brogan’s delightful hospitality!


Bernie Bell is a regular columnist with The Orkney News and has written a series of ‘Walks with Stories’ – check out more of them.

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