Archaeologists Return To Rousay For Skaill Excavation

By Sigurd Towrie

An overhead view of the Skaill farmstead excavation in 2019, showing the Norse hall on the left. (Bobby Friel)

A team from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute are back in Rousay to resume excavation at the Skaill farmstead.

The site, which was in use from the Norse period until the 19th century, is also the home to a large Norse hall. This structure, revealed in 2019, and probably dating to the 10th to 12th centuries AD, was discovered beneath the more recent buildings.

Substantial one-metre-wide stone walls were found 5.5 metres apart, with internal features such as stone benches along either side. The building appears to be over 13 metres long and is orientated down the slope towards the sea.

Finds have included steatite (soapstone, the nearest source of which is Shetland), pottery and a bone spindle whorl. A fragment of a Norse bone comb was also found.

The “Skaill” place name has long suggested the area was home to a high-status Norse site.

Derived from the Old Norse “skáli”, meaning “hall”, it is usually found in Orkney associated with large, important settlements. The 13th century Orkneyinga saga records that the Westness area of Rousay was the home of Sigurd, a friend of the 12th century earl of Orkney, Paul.

In 1136, Paul was staying with Sigurd, when the notorious viking Sveinn Ásleifarson kidnapped the earl and spirited him away,  leaving the Earldom open for Rognvald II to step in and take control.

Aerial view of the Wirk, Rousay. (Bobby Friel)

This year, the team will also be investigating the Wirk – an enigmatic structure that has which has variously been interpreted as a 12th century Norse Castle, a hall-house tower, a defensive church tower and a 16th century tower and range.

Geophysical surveys of the Wirk in 2020 identified possible wall lines that matched documented plans of the building. This suggests that wall footings survive just below the ground surface. Other high resistance anomalies to the south of the hall could indicate additional structures.

The dig runs on weekdays from July 5 until July 16. Visitors are welcome to visit the dig between 10am and 4pm.

Readers may also be interested in previous articles published in The Orkney News about Skaill and Rousay which you can find using the ‘search’ button.

And the articles and book published about the Rousay Clearances.

The Rousay Clearances - Exodus from the Egypt of the North

Look out for our future articles about Sveinn Ásleifarson of Gairsay.

Many thanks to Sigurd Towrie for permission to republish his article and to Bernie Bell for sending it into The Orkney News

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