Seeking the Stones: A 19thC Visit to Orkney

For well over two hundred years visitors have been drawn to Orkney to view the ancient archaeological remains. Sir Walter Scott, top novelist of his day, visited in 1814, which gave him the inspiration to write ‘The Pirate’.

plaque for William Schollay's Ship Inn where Walter Scott once dined
Bridge Street Kirkwall image credit Bell

Writing journals and giving talks once you had visited the islands was very popular because not everyone could afford to take such trips which were long and could be hazardous.

Just like today some visitors liked to seek out the less known places.

In 1890 The Orkney Herald published one such account by ‘An American Professor’. (The spellings are as they were published at the time).

little remains now of the Ring of Bookan just this little mound
the remains of a cairn, a bit downhill from the henge of Bookan (photo B Bell)

‘My meditations near the Ring of Brogar were momentarily interrupted by an Orcadian peasant. “Can you point out to me,” I asked ” The ring of Bukan?” “It is just opposite” was the answer, ” But tell me, are you interested in stones?” ” Yes,” I answered hesitatingly, for I have the weakness of an old collector for specimens of all kinds, and I knew that, if a bargain were offered me, I might be over tempted.

I was led to the barn and saw fragments of slabs taken from a quarry near at hand. I wished then that New York was not so provokingly remote, or that my trunk were not already filled to repletion; for I held in my hands fine ichthyolites that would have been mine almost for the asking. One slab of considerable dimensions, containing a large fish in basso relief, with scales and fins all intact, and the lower spine and tail slightly recurved, as one often sees the fish when alive, won my affections so entirely that I said ‘Yes I will take it’, and then, reflecting, I had the late prudence to change the yes into a no. But I have since learned, both from observations and from casually turning over the pages of one and another work upon the islands, that the old red sandstone of the Orkneys is richly stored with interesting forms of marine life. In the chips filling the intersections of a stone wall near Stromness I found one day a number of fragments, worthless of course as specimens, but attesting the richness of the deposit.

With a heavy heart but unlightened pocketbook, I crossed the road, and climbing what I had supposed to be a mound, found it to be a ring, altogether resembling that of Brogar in character, though of considerably smaller dimensions, having a diameter of only 135 feet and lacking altogether the stone slabs. How or when these were removed I did not learn.

I had been directed, before starting, not to turn back until I had seen the ‘Stones of Via’, so now I resolutely addressed myself to the search for them. Knocking at the door of one farmhouse after another, accosting wayfarers and labourers, I gradually succeeded in gaining the eastern slope of a hill, on whose further side I knew the stones were to be found; but where? “Over the brae and the first farmhouse you see; near there” these were my final directions.

A little peat-besmirched shoonless lassie took me into the cow yard and pointed out a rude heap of stone just over the wall. The ‘Stones of Via’ are the remains of a rude cromlech or stone altar. The stones forming the supports have become separated and the altar has fallen.’

Via, Stones of Via – Canmore

Information from Historic Scotland, scheduling document dated 10 February 2003.

Geophysical and topographic survey HY 260 160 Gradiometry and resistance, combined with topographic survey, were undertaken between September and December 2005 over c 1ha, covering the Scheduled area known as the Stones of Via (HY21NE 3). The site comprises the remains of a prehistoric stone setting lying within the remnants of a ploughed out enclosure. Interpretation of this monument is unclear, although it has been suggested that the stones are the remains of a severely damaged chambered cairn.

The data did not show any responses clearly associated with the Stones of Via, although the stones appear to lie on the southern edge of an area of increased magnetic response which may be archaeologically significant. Several anomalies were also detected in the gradiometer survey to the W of the stones, which may be related to the monument.

Both the gradiometer and resistance surveys show hints of the oval enclosure recorded on the 1st edition OS map; the responses are ephemeral, making it difficult to clearly categorise the anomalies as being due to a ditch or a bank. However, the topographic survey was able to record the presence of this enclosure, and would appear to suggest that the enclosure forms the boundary of a shallow bowl-shaped hollow, although whether this is natural or anthropogenic is unclear. The geophysical survey also located a clearly defined ring-ditch anomaly, c 6m in diameter, which correlates with the location of a ploughed-out burial mound (HY21NE 4).

What is clear from the survey, in particular in the resistance data, is damage to the buried archaeological deposits caused by later rig and furrow cultivation, and possibly modern ploughing.

Reports lodged with Orkney SMR and NMRS. Sponsor: HS. S Ovenden 2005

Stones of Via, enclosure and stone setting, Loch of Clumly – Scheduled monument , Historic Environment Scotland

The Ring of Bookan – Canmore

Ground Survey (August 2011)

HY 2834 1450 In August 2011 two days of non-intrusive recording were undertaken by MA students and staff from Orkney College UHI. The work aimed to enhance understanding of the Ring of Bookan, a possible henge/chambered cairn, in light of the geophysical survey work undertaken in 2009–10 (DES 2010, 126). A detailed survey of the interior of the monument recorded a discrete and coherent group of earthworks. Initial comparison with the results of the geophysical surveys appears to confirm the presence of a concentration of in situ stonework, which may add weight to the interpretation of the site as a chambered cairn. Survey work was also undertaken over the nearby barrow of Skae Frue.

Report: Orkney SMR and RCAHMS (intended) Funder: Orkney College UHI Orkney College UHI and ORCA, 2011

Fiona Grahame

5 replies »

  1. Aaaaannd…re. the Orkney stones with fish fossils – there are some good examples at the Fossil & Heritage Centre, Burray

    And – we found this one at Skaill Bay..

    When digging our garden we’ve found bits of rock with tiny bits of fossil fish scale in them – they’re in pride of place in the room we call The Office. A direct link with the distant past – even more distant than the Neolithic!

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