Discover the History of Skaill Farm Rousay

It is often the case that we do not truly appreciate the amazing historical sites we have in our own communities. We are well acquainted with the iconic neolithic sites of Orkney but there is so much more to discover.

Skaill Rousay

Skaill Rousay (F Grahame)

This week archaeologist Dan Lee from the UHI Archaeology Institute (Orkney)   has been out in Rousay fieldwalking and exploring the remains of what was once the large farm enclosure at Skaill,Westness. I joined him on Wednesday to see for myself what can be discovered about this important part of Orkney’s history.

This is  part of a  community archaeology project – Rousay, Egilsay and Wyre Land and Sea: Exploring Island Heritage, Past and Present –  and runs until Friday 16th June. If you get the chance get out to it. On Friday there is an open afternoon where visitors will be invited to meet the team, see the results of the work and try some practical activities.

Skaill Rousay

photo F Grahame

Dan guided myself, local resident Anthony and Jan from Stenness around the immediate area and explained what they had discovered already. A geophysical survey had been conducted and thrown up some interesting results in an enclosed area beside what was once a kiln complex.  It could be that under the nettles lies the remains of earlier farm buildings from the Norse period.

On Wednesday our group was walking around the site, taking measurements, sketching, photographing and looking closely at the boundary walls. It soon became evident that there were several stages of wall building with later attempts not as skilfully constructed as earlier  ones.

Skaill Rousay

Photo F Grahame

A boundary wall was identified which had used quarried and cut stone and this ran the full length of the area. It ended near the shore line in what must have been a very substantial stone gate post. The opposing one was no longer visible.

The Laird at the time George William Traill would have used this wall and imposing gate to delineate what he owned as he had bought up the lands of Skaill to add to his extensive lands at Quandale (where he cleared the people from their crofts).

The farm buildings still standing at Skaill range from the 17th & 18th Centuries but there is clear evidence that previous buildings, including a kiln were dismantled at sometime. In the usual way with Orkney farms, buildings were added on as families grew – a practice which continues to this day. The walls enclosing the area around the farm buildings were constructed using stone much of which was taken from the beach as it showed signs of ’rounding’. This was an older section of dry stone dyke than the long quarried stone wall of the laird.

Also working on the site in a loose partnership with Dan Lee and his team were experts from Historic Environment Scotland (HES) who were meticulously measuring the buildings. When I was there the kiln and its attached room were being surveyed. Tape measures and sketching may look archaic in these days of laser devices but it compels the surveyor to take time and look very closely at the buildings being recorded.

Interestingly in the lintel above the doorway to the room attached to the kiln was hidden away the sole of a shoe.

Skaill Rousay

Hidden above the lintel – the sole of a shoe (F Grahame)

HES surveyors recording the old church and the building next to it found another shoe sole in the lintel above a doorway. There are lots of superstitions involving shoes and people in the 17th and 18th C in Orkney would have practiced these in farming communities although this was no doubt frowned upon by the presbytery. Even today we still have the custom of tying strings of old shoes to the cars of newly wedded couples to wish them good luck.

The HES archaeologists were examining the remains of the building of Wirk which appears to have been late medieval and of a high status. This is evidenced by the standard of the worked stone of the 13th & 14th C and some of the features like a garderobe (indoor toilet chute) not something you would expect to find in an ordinary household of the period. It is still too early to tell but it may have been a manorial building or be connected with the adjacent Church. It has been an imposing building of at least 2 storeys but very likely more. It has also been serviced with running water.

Dan Lee sees this community archaeology project as part of a much wider examination of the Rousay built environment. He has previously excavated at Quandale. There are remains close by at Swandro which were once thought to be an Iron Age Roundhouse but are now known to be a Neolithic Tomb. Last year at Skaill an extended trench was dug within the walled enclosure which along with the geophysical survey demonstrated that there are many layers of occupation there. Dan Lee explains that his intention is to gather all the pieces of information from digs, HES building surveys, walk over surveys, geophysical surveys and archival research to put together a picture of the richness of the built landscape at Westness Rousay.

If you would like to find out more you can attend the open day on Friday where all are welcome or  contact Dan Lee at

The results of the HES survey will eventually be available on the Canmore site – an online catalogue of Scotland’s archaeology buildings, industrial and maritime heritage.

The National Library of Scotland is another great site for finding maps of the area.

Reporter: Fiona Grahame

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7 replies »

  1. A fascinating article, I will follow developments on this with great interest. Thanks for publishing it

  2. The shoe sole found at the church may be from a boot belonging to one of the crew who died on the mail boat disaster. It lay on the window sill for many years after it was found on the shore.

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