Culture

The Oyce of Firth: Part Two

Published in Orcadian Papers (1905) by William MacKay F.E.I.S. 


The Scottish hills are not real mountains or puckers in the earth’s crust, but the results of glacial and other denudation, the mountains themselves having been hurled into the depths of the sea. Is it not pretty apparent that the existence of the Oyce of Firth is due to the same denuding agency? Nor is the scope of this agent’s work traceable only here. Assisted by volcanic action in weakening the strata, its was the potent arm that ploughed the whole depression that, as has been already said, so nearly here divides the mainland.

Diabase and trap are met with more or less all round the shores of the Bay of Firth; at Rennibister, on the beach below the churchyard, at the hillock and north-west side of the Oyce before mentioned, at the north shore near the boat-house of Bunnyarow, etc. And if the bed of the bay were laid bare no doubt like traces would be found.

Indeed, about 200 yards off shore from the battery, the water suddenly deepens several fathoms, and there is there a hollow equal probably in extent and similar in origin to the Oyce. Over the whole bay and right out to Shapinsay, on which island the same evidence of volcanic action is manifest, there have probably taken place feeble outbursts which have rendered the sandstone strata, perhaps afterwards deposited in the molten matter, specially susceptible of glacial denudation.

At any rate the valley of Binscarth and the Oyce of Firth are no Syncline of even”fault” like that so apparent at Scapa; and from the evidence which the phenomena everywhere present, we are prepared to conclude that during the ice age, when a great part of the Northern Hemisphere was as Greenland still is, clutched in the embrace of the Frost King, the grinding, tearing, pushing force of the great continental glacier as it advanced from the Norwegian hills over the ground now covered by the North Sea, and across our islands, has swept before it the anticline which we assume to have existed here.

That small elevation which we see behind Finstown in no doubt one of those roches moutonees so common in the Swiss valleys and in the Highland glens; and its presence there is partly accounted for by the fact that diabase occurs in the burn of Bellaquoy which runs through the valley separating this elevation from the Heddle Hill.As the ice drew to a close, small local glaciers took the place of the sea of ice, and hence the moraine which is so patent to the eye of all to the north-west of this roche moutonee.

Before ending the geological part of the paper, I may add that terraced hills are a remarkable feature of Rousay scenery, conspicuously so immediately about Westness. The same giganitic power has there been at work. It has dragged along its relentless course, forcing before it the mountain mass that erstwhile filled up Rousay Sound, Leaving as wrack behind it the roches moutonees, Gairsay and Eynhallow.

Now let us go on to consider the Flora of the Oyce. The land all round it is peculiarly rich in the variety, abundance, and luxuriance of its flora. This is due to the circumstances of its sheltered situation, the calm shore affording excellent ground for the production of salt-marsh plants; and its soil in some places being the results of weathered trap.

To name all the flowers found in this neighbourhood would be to give almost the complete flora of the county with the exception of about a score of plants, chiefly alpine. The following list has been selected because it embraces those either that are rare in Orkney (such as the first eight) or that grow here more abundantly than I have seen them anywhere else. They are for this reason not arranged in orders:-

  • Sea Tassel, ruppia rostellata nana, a variety not found elsewhere
  • Michalmas daisy, aster tripolium, found also at Rocks of Quendale, Rousay
  • wild strawberry,fragria vesca, not elsewhere in Orkney except at Westness
  • wood germander, teucrium scorodonia, also found at Naversdale, used formerly as a cure for jaundice
  • the bugle, ajuga pyramidalis et reptans, very scarce
  • great wild valerian, valeriana officinalis, found also in Hoy
  • sea spurr, spergula marin, found at the Ayre and at head of Stromness harbour
  • jointed glasswort, salicornia herbacea, also found at Swanbister and Peerie Sea
  • sea pearlwort, sagina maritima
  • sea campion, silene maritima
  • sea milkwort, glaux maritima
  • scurvy grass, cochlearia officinalis
  • mountain willow herb, epilobium montannum
  • wild angelica, angelica sylvestris
  • shepherds’ needle, scandix pecten veneris
  • goose grass or cleavers, galium aparina, thrift or sea pink, armeria maritima
  • spreading fruited orache, atriplex babingtoni
  • the squill, scilla verna
  • common dog rose, rosa canina (two varieties)
  • bog pimpernel, anagallis tenella

The Fauna of the district may be disposed of with the simple statement that the living creatures of all classes are in no respect different from those of similarly situated localities in the county.

The only object of interest from an archaeological point of view is the Picts’ house near the bridge. When the hillock or mound which covers it was opened up some years ago the usual appearance of such structures was presented. The stone cists dug up in Firth a few years ago were not found so near the Oyce as to call for description in this paper.

With reference to the Etymology of the name, I just quote that given in Tudor’s Orkney and Shetland”:- “Oyce a lagoon formed by the erosive action of the sea (?) throwing an ayre or bar of shingle alone, or shingle and sand combined , across the head of a bay; Icelandic, Oes”.

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