Rousay: ‘Gods of the Earth, Gods of the Sea’

By Fiona Grahame Images by Martin Laird

Rousay is one of Orkney’s smaller islands and is but a short ferry journey from the largest in the archipelago, Mainland.

At 18.8 square miles, one road winds its way for 14miles round a community which has changed much especially over recent times.

Rousay is a Site of Special Scientific Interest with its magnificent flora and fauna but what is most stunning about it is that it contains at least 100 archaeological sites.

Humankind has been living in Rousay for millennia. Rinyo, a village similar to the World Heritage Skara Brae in the West Mainland of Orkney, dates from between 3,500 and 2,500 BC. Excavated in 1938 and then again in 1946 by V. Gordon Childe, who also excavated Skara Brae, it contains 7 cellular houses. The homes have central hearths, stone furniture, sleeping areas and evidence of drainage. The village, unlike Skara Brae,  was covered over after excavation . The houses were of drystone construction and the archaeologists found pot sherds identified as Beaker ware, 250 flint tools, polished knives, axes and carved balls.

Where people make their homes they also make their graves and in the case of Rousay these are in the form of burial tombs. Midhowe Cairn is the largest of 15 chambered cairns. Midhowe was bounded by a substantial wall and the chamber itself is 76 feet long with 12 compartments. When this magnificent communal house of the dead was excavated the remains of at least 25 individuals were found in addition to 9 complete skeletons. Today it is protected from the elements by a large roofing structure with a raised walkway that allows the 21stC explorer to view the internal burial chambers from above.

The other burial tombs may not be quite as large but they are impressive in their own ways. Tavershoe Tuick is unusual in having 2 burial chambers one above the other with a third further down. In Blackhammer, within its 7 compartments, there were 2 skeletons. Knowe of Yarsoe burial tomb was found to contain 29 people but also the bones of 36 red deer and 24 dog skulls.  The tombs would have been used by the local community for thousands of years.

Near to Midhowe Cairn is Midhowe Broch. Brochs are towering buildings of drystone construction found only in Scotland. This is the era we know of as The Iron Age but the people continued to also use the stone and bone tools their ancestors had found so useful. Midhowe Broch, excavated in 1930 -1933 was measured as being 30 feet in diameter with a wall 15 feet thick. It was a tremendous 14 feet high. It overlooks Eynhallow Sound, a fast flowing tidal stretch of water between Rousay and Mainland. The broch’s  entrance faces  out to sea.  Across the water is the impressive Broch of Gurness.

Inside the broch was a water tank, hearth and room partitions. It was surrounded by an outer wall and a ditch. There would have been a supporting village and occupation on this site continued after the broch was no longer in use. We still have much to discover about the people who lived in the brochs but there were a large number of finds at Midhowe including Roman pot sherds. This would most likely have come from trading links. Trade was by the sea and water ways.

 Rousay was ideally placed for trading links and raiding parties for the Norse came to the island and settled there. Viking graves have been excavated including ‘boat’ graves. Goods  in the graves of both men and women have been unearthed including the magnificent Westness Brooch which is of Celtic design and dates from about 750AD.

This island where giants once trod and  Cubbie Roo threw the Fingersteen from Westray to Rousay, where it now rests, has not surprisingly inspired writers and artists.

The artist and poet Ian Hamilton Finlay lived on Rousay in the winter of 1955-56 and the island was said to be the source of inspiration for symbolic landscapes in his later work. Today his sculpture, ‘Gods of the Earth, Gods of the Sea’, is bedded down at Sanskaill Bay. Carved by Nicholas Sloan out of 15 tonnes of Portland Stone from Cornwall it is a striking piece of modern art and yet it is a concept familiar to those first inhabitants of Rousay.

Today Rousay has a population of about 250 people but in the middle of the 19thC, 900 made their lives on the island. What happened to Rousay, a place where people had lived and thrived successfully for thousands of years, to strip it of its population which at one time was as low as 181?

That’s a story to be told in our upcoming exhibition for St Andrew’s Fair Saturday.

This article first appeared in iScot Magazine

1 reply »

Leave a Reply