Exploring Orkney Archives for Birsay’s Medieval Past

I spent a fascinating two days with Sarah Jane Gibbon from UHI Archaeology and a group of volunteers who are participating in producing an historical account of Birsay’s medieval past. This is part of the Magnus 900 celebrations. The Orkney News has already featured the work done in the walk over survey of the village and the Barony. Delving into the archives at Orkney Library is an essential part of the process to bring the two types of research together. The aim is to get as complete a picture of medieval Birsay as possible. Birsay was extremely important in Orkney during that period and was the ecclesiastical and secular centre for the islands.

Sarah Jane Gibbon had already done a basic desk based assessment before the volunteer researchers arrived. She explained that although a lot is known about Birsay that there is also a lot of archive material not looked at.

The researchers will be following the development of the North and South side of Birsay by looking at the buildings: when they were built, any renovations that have been done, changing use, if they still exist. And the best way to do this is to work from where we are now and to gradually go back in time.

Sarah Jane Gibbon explained that the burn seems to have divided the area into an ecclesiastical side and a secular side. Much work has been done in the past and particularly by Robert Rendall and Hugh Marwick, the latter has provided us with an excellent record of place names. The volunteers will build up a story of a house by understanding its property history. Not as easy as it first appears as often houses change names or when people move they take the name of their house with them so you can get duplicate names and differences in spellings.

The volunteers were also given a tour of the extensive archive that we have here in Orkney and how to use it. In groups and working as individuals they will cover different archival material. I am looking at the Church records and as I have only gone as far back to 1930 (after two days) I have some way to go. It is time consuming but very rewarding as you focus on one area of research and with cross referencing a picture starts to emerge.

This week, 6th – 8th of September, will see another aspect of the research taking place when  archaeologist Dave Reay and his team will lead a group conducting a coastal survey of Birsay from Palace village to the point of Buckquoy area, and point  of Snusan on the links.

Numerous sites from prehistoric settlement, Viking Norse remains to more recent boat nousts were recorded in the 1970s and 1980s during the Birsay Bay Project. The remains of these sites will be identified, along with any new sites, and their current condition recorded (photographic and written record). No previous experience required, training will be provided.

  • Meet at Point of Buckquoy, Brough of Birsay car park, Birsay.
  • 10am – 3pm. Booking essential for the training, but drop by anytime to visit (from point of Buckquoy to Point of Snusan).
  • Warm clothes and stout footwear required.
  • booking:  studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk

Reporter: Fiona Grahame

Mapping Magnus poster 001


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9 replies »

  1. Many years ago, I worked with a group at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth, indexing 17th and18th Century marriage bonds.
    Our job was made more difficult by the difference in spelling of place names, as I don’t think standardised spelling had been established then. Something which confused the situation even more, was the Anglicization of Welsh place names. Often, the spelling was a phonetic version of what an English speaking person had heard a Welsh speaking person say. So, our solution was to try saying what looked like an improbable word, out loud, then we could ‘work backwards’ from the sound, to the probable original spelling. That all sounds a bit complicated, but it did work- mostly!
    Reading this piece, I wonder if there will be similar confusion caused by Anglicization of the Scots names and spelling?
    Some of the ‘chewed up’ Welsh names, were very difficult indeed to de-code.
    And, as you mention, names were often repeated within an area, so, was the person getting married from this Llandre – or that Llandre?
    It was an interesting, tho’ sometimes frustrating project to work on.

    • It’s the same the further back you go into people spelling names in Orcadian and further back Old Norse

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