Community Archaeology At Its Best

Mapping Magnus Project: Birsay

The Birsay Community Centre was packed on a very bonnie evening on  Wednesday 6th June to hear the results of the Mapping Magnus project from its leaders, Dan Lee and Sarah Jane Gibbon of UHI Archaeology Orkney College.

Mapping Magnus Presentation

Dan Lee described this as a community research and training project which indeed it was with 109 participants and 92 school pupils from 5 local primary schools. The training took people through the archaeological process of research. Those who took part learned techniques of:

  • archive survey
  • geophysical survey
  • walk over survey
  • coastal survey
  • excavation

They also took part in  a noust survey and walks around the Magnus 900 way – including a trip to Egilsay.

More importantly than learning the skills of archaeological research was the awareness residents of Birsay, Orkney and visitors now have of the importance that Birsay had particularly during the Medieval Norse period.

The enthusiasm and expert knowledge Sarah Jane Gibbon has of St Magnus was evident in her talk which revealed not just the story of Magnus from the Orkneyinga Saga but of the cult that grew up around his martyrdom.

The Orkneyinga Saga is core to the story of Magnus. Earl  Magnus ruled Orkney jointly with his cousin  Earl Hakon without much incident for 10 years. Magnus was from Icelandic nobility and Hakon from the Norwegian nobility which was perceived to be of more worth. Meeting up on Egilsay to sign a Peace Treaty on 16th of April – Magnus and his men were vastly outnumbered and Hakon ordered him killed. Thereafter his body was left on Egilsay.

St Magnus Church Egilsay

St Magnus Church Egilsay © Copyright Helen Baker

Magnus mother, Thora, however, pleads with Earl Hakon now sole ruler of Orkney to have her son’s body brought to hallowed ground in Christ Church Birsay which was the centre of the Earldom.

There were 12 estates in the Earldom of Orkney and Birsay was by far the largest. Despite attempts to suppress the Magnus cult it continued to grow and after 20 years the bones were exhumed and placed above the altar in Christ Church.

At about the year 1135 the bones of Magnus the Martyr were moved to Kirkwall probably to St Olaf’s Church where St Olafs Wynd now is. The Cathedral was not yet built. This became a processional route and possibly one of pilgrimage. The bones of St Magnus are today within the Cathedral

St Magnus Cathedral Kirkwall

St Magnus Cathedral today

Mansie Stanes

The casket (or perhaps earlier the coffin) of Magnus was rested on its route to Kirkwall on what are known as the Mansie (Mans) Stones.

Mans Well in the Barony is recorded in the late 19th C but its use goes much further back in time. It is in the middle of the Barony and is where people came to get their water. Was it also where the body of Magnus was washed? Or where the coffin was rested? There are many different stories about the Mans Well but what they all point to is a strong connection with Magnus.

There were 28 Mans Stones in Orkney all connected with Magnus and thought to be resting places. The route follows the old roads through Harray with a cluster of them in Birsay. Many of them used ancient sites from pre-historic times and they are located on higher ground. One such place is the Knowe of Crustan.

Today there is only 1 Mansie Stane to be seen at Strathyre, Birsay.

Once the bones of Magnus are moved to Kirkwall, Birsay begins to wane in influence  – ecclesiastical  power moves with Magnus.

Magnus is a revered saint across the world from the Faroes, Iceland, Sweden,Prague, Rome, Germany  to New Zealand. You can find out more about the St Magnus Way  in Orkney by clicking on the link.

What did the archaeology reveal about Birsay?

Being an important Barony means there  are a wealth of documents about Birsay and they are kept in the Orkney Archive, Kirkwall. Orkney is unusual in that it has so many of its documents still remaining in the local Archive which means it is accessible to residents and visitors to Orkney. It is a treasure trove of information.

Orkney Library K Armet

Orkney Library and Archive, Kirkwall photo: K Armet

Sarah Jane took us back through maps of Birsay where we could see the change in land use and where buildings were located. It is most likely that the burn marked a dividing line between the ecclesiastical/administration sector and the secular side where ‘ordinary’ people lived. They would have worked the land and served the Bishop and in later years Earl Robert Stewart when he built his Palace at Birsay.

The 1760 map completed by Alexander Aberdeen for Lord Dundas when he took ownership of the Barony illustrates the importance of the coastline to the area. There are even rentals as far back as 1595 which not only gives us the value placed on buildings and land but also their names. Some of those names would indicate several large buildings, “Langskail” and “Bu” – from the Norse period.

Boat Nousts

Coastal erosion is a significant issue for many of Orkney’s archaeological sites and Birsay is no exception. The work of the Mapping Magnus Project was able to utilise information from a previous study in the 1970s – the Birsay Bay Project. Not only did the 2017 project revisit sites surveyed by the Birsay Bay Project but it also looked at ones previously missed.

Birsay Mapping Magnus

Coastal survey during the Mapping Magnus project

The Skipi Geo Nousts have never been properly recorded (up till now) and consist of 12 boat nousts which may go back to Medieval times – hundreds of years of use by fishermen.

Boat nousts Birsay

The Buckquoy Nousts have now been recorded for the first time. Hardly noticeable to many who visit Birsay they are the remnants of what would have been the vital connection to the outside world. The sea was the way people moved about, not over land.

Inside the village – what lies beneath

Birsay Village

Birsay Village

The search was on for the location of the Bishop’s Palace which would have been an imposing building using the finest of materials. Experts are divided between thinking the Bishop’s Palace was on the Brough or in the village.

The poet Robert Rendall had recorded walls and stones around where he would stay when on holiday in the village. This included architectural structures of fine moulded yellow sandstone. These can still be seen in resting in residents’ gardens.

Watch: Mapping Medieval Birsay

The Mons Bellus stone is embedded in the church that today stands in the village. It is known that in 1560 Bishop Adam Bothwell signed a letter at Mons Bellus.

Dan Lee pointed out to the audience that the village of Birsay sits atop a mound – it is on a plateau. The area of the houses and the shop had never been investigated before. That was to change.

Despite limited time and challenging weather conditions several trenches were dug in the tight area of the village. Most of the trenches revealed the same type of layers: top soil, deep wind blown sand,midden deposits then structural remains.  In Trench A , where the householders were re- laying their path, a substantial wall was found and a fragment of a copper alloy challice/cup.

Watch: Birsay Dig

The work continues

The artefacts continue to be washed, recorded and categorised – it’s a long process. The pottery found is sand tempered – not grass tempered as was the case with many Norse sites – and is similar to that found on the Brough of Birsay. It may be 10th /11th century.

Animal bone of cattle, sheep and pig will be radio carbon dated. The remains of pig would suggest a high status place. Also found were large fish vertebrae from cod which would be a clear indicator of Norse settlement.

Birsay Mapping Magnus red sandstone

Dressed red sandstone that was once part of a high status building now found in walls about the village

Red Sandstone can still be seen in the village embedded in walls and in buildings. This was a high status building material and it could be from Earl Robert’s Palace and/or from the earlier Bishop’s Palace.  Sarah Jane Gibbon also suggested that it has another link with Magnus with its colour representative of the blood of martyrdom.

Mapping Magnus Presentation Sarah Jane

Mapping Magnus is a real living project which continues as more  research is conducted and evidence emerges.

The talk was dedicated to Birsay village resident Bertie Harvey. He had been a key figure in getting the project going. All the volunteers and residents of the village were thanked. Birsay Heritage Trust are to be congratulated for the amazing work they are doing in preserving Birsay’s past .

Reporter: Fiona Grahame

Birsay old map

Buckquoy Earls Palace Brough_of Birsay Ordinance survey one inch 1912 By OS [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

2 replies »

  1. You cover it all, and cover it well, Fiona.
    I can’t help thinking that the Bishop’s palace wouldn’t be likely to have been on the Brough. The Vikings probably liked the Brough, as it’s a good defensive position. The monks probably liked the Brough, because it was cut off. By the time of the Bishop – life was a bit more peaceable, and – the Bish. would have wanted a big showy-offy kind of place. Also – not a lot of room there, on the Brough, without building over what was already there, and, fortunately for us – it looks like that didn’t happen, or we wouldn’t have what’s here, now. Which, to my mind, is much more interesting than a Medieval Bishop’s showy-offy palace!
    I’m no historian, I’m just thinking through it, thinking through how people may have been likely to behave – Bishops , especially Medieval Bishops, tend to be terrible show-offs – I think he’d want something on the mainland – big, showy and easily accessible to all his VERY IMPORTANT visitors. Just a thought – which is what your piece did – got me thinking about the things I know about Birsay – the things I don’t know – the possibilities of things I’d never even thought about – and ………….what might still be there, to be discovered.

    I have a liking for Magnus – I like his approach to life – what a good man. I like to sit in the remains of the little chapel, on the Brough, and think about him, there – in a happy time – before the weight of state came on his shoulders. I also sit in the cathedral, and stare, hard, at the pillar where his bones a thought to lie – just thinking about him and his life, and what happened to him.
    Sitting in the cathedral, is A GOOD THING, and one of his legacies, in a round-about sort of way.

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