Discovering the Norse Drinking Hall, Rousay, Orkney

Rousay is known as the Egypt of the North for its amazing archaeological sites and now it has got even better with the discovery of a Viking Drinking Hall at Skaill Farmstead.

Skaill Rousay

Skaill Farmstead looking towards St Marys Kirk and Midhowe Broch. Photo: Bobby Friel @Takethehighview

Archaeological work involving  the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and the local community has been ongoing at the Skaill Farmstead site for a number of years.

Discover the History of Skaill Farm Rousay

Skaill Rousay

The later stages of the farm complex reveals its middens (waste heaps), with a particular focus on past diet, farming and fishing practices.

Project co-director Dr Ingrid Mainland said:

“We have recovered a millenia of middens which will allow us an unparalleled opportunity to look at changing dietary traditions, farming and fishing practices from the Norse period up until the 19th century.”

The exciting find this summer, was that walls extending from below the extensive settlement mound have been confirmed as a large Norse building, which is likely to be the hall. Substantial 1m wide stone walls were found 5.5m apart with internal features such as stone benches along either side. The building appears to be in excess of 13m long. The hall is oriented down the slope towards the sea.

Viking Drinking Hall Rousay

Skaill Norse Hall below the present farmstead. Photo: UHI Archaeology Institute

Finds have included steatite (soap stone from Shetland), pottery and a bone spindle whorl. A fragment of a Norse bone comb was also found.

Viking comb Rousay

Norse bone comb fragment from the site at Skaill Farm. Photo: UHI Archaeology Institute

The excavation is part of the Landscapes of Change – Archaeology of the Rousay Clearances and Westness Estate project. The aim of the project is to explore the farmstead at Skaill from the Norse period to its abandonment in the nineteenth century.

Volunteers completing a building survey at Skaill Farmstead

Volunteers completing a building survey at Skaill Farmstead

The present farm at Skaill dates to the 18-19th centuries and was part of the Rousay clearances during the mid-19th century; however the name Skaill suggests the site was home to a Norse hall or drinking hall, and was a high status site. Westness is mentioned in Orkneyinga saga as the home of Sigurd, a powerful chieftain, so it was always likely that a Norse settlement was located somewhere at Skaill. Earlier structures have been found below the present farm during previous seasons, and this season explored more of the Norse phases of the site.

Project co-director Dan Lee said:

“The exciting news this season is that we have now found the hall at Skaill, as the place name suggests. You never know, but perhaps Earl Sigurd himself sat on one of the stone benches inside the hall and drank a flagon of ale!”

Norse hall Rousay

Skaill Norse Hall showing the northern outer wall. Photo UHI Archaeology Institute

The project is led by Dr Ingrid Mainland, Dr Jen Harland, Dr Sarah Jane Gibbon and Dan Lee from the UHI Archaeology Institute, based at Orkney College. Funding is from the Orkney Islands Council Archaeology Fund and the Rousay, Egilsay and Wyre Development Trust. Many thanks to landowners Russell and Kathryn Marwick.


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