By John R. Tudor
Published in London by Edward Stanford,
55, Charing Cross, S.W. - 1883
This, the Hrolfsey of the Saga may be roughly described as a circular island, from five to six miles in diameter. On its eastern, southern, and south-western shores it slopes gently to the sea, whilst from Scabra Head round to Faraclett, or the Knee of Rousay, as it is called on the chart, with the exception of a small portion of the bay of Saviskaill, the coast is more or less precipitous.
On the south-east side a range of hills, of which Blotchinfield (811 feet) and Knitchenfield (732 feet) are the highest points, runs from a little to the west of Sourin to nearly above Westness; north of this again a valley, of which Muckle Water (322 feet) is nearly the summit, runs across the island; north of which is another hill range, of which the pointed peak of Kierfea (762 feet) is the highest point.
One special peculiarity about the Rousay Hills is the terraced outline of their slopes. This is very marked above Westness and again on Kierfea. Following up the valley down which the Sourin Burn flows from Muckle Water, you come on the southern side of the burn to the Goukheads, a very rough bit of broken-up bog ground overgrown with heather, and fissured with numerous holes, which, to save a sprained ankle or worse, necessitate very careful walking. This is the habitat of the Pyrola Rotundifolia, and is said to be the only spot in the Orkneys where this flower, known in the island as the "Round-leaved Winter Green," is to be found.
On a line between the eastern end of Muckle Water and the top of Blotchinfield is a curious ridge called the Camp of Jupiter Fring, some 600 yards long by 40 or 50 broad, and having very steep scarped sides on its northern and southern sides. How it came by this name no one knows; Wallace referred to it two hundred years ago, and seemed to think the name had been given by some dominie from Jupiter Feriens on account of its being frequented by Jove's bird. From the camp to the summit of Blotchinfield is a very short distance, and the view from the top, in clear weather, must be very fine. It is said that, not only Fair Isle, but even Foula has been seen at times from either Blotchinfield or Kierfea.
From the top of Blotchinfield a course, a little to the south of west, will bring you to Westness, the gardens of which, planted almost entirely by the late Dr. Traill of Woodwick, a former proprietor of the island, are the most beautiful thing of their kind in the group. Standing in them, on a warm summer's day, when a shower has brought out the full fragrance from tree and plant, when the wild bees are flitting from flower to flower, and the whole atmosphere full of the sounds of insect and bird life, and looking out on the rapid-flowing sound below you, it is hard to realise that you are not in the land of clotted cream and cider, and that you are on the north side of the Pentland Firth of evil repute.
About a mile further west you come to the church of Swandro, till quite recent days the parish church of the island. It is a parallelogram, 52 ft. 11 in. by 14 ft. 5 in. inside. The doorway is on the south side, near the west end, and on the same side are three flat-headed windows splaying inwards and outwards. There are also windows at the west end, north side, and east end. Close to the door is a recess, probably for holy water.
North-west of the church, and just outside the churchyard are the remains of mason-work, which local tradition says formed part of Sigurd of Westness' dwelling-house. West again of this are the grass-grown remains of one if not more brochs. To the east of the churchyard are some curious impressions on the rocks, as if made with naked feet.
On the south side of the little islet of Eynhallow (the Eyinhelga, Holy Isle of the Saga) were discovered some years back the remains of an old chapel, which, a gentleman informed the writer, have since been wantonly thrown down by a yacht-full of gorillas. It is somewhat rough on the gorilla, and, one could hardly realise such a piece of gratuitous vandalism, had there not been the case of the Logan Rock in Cornwall. The chapel, so far as could be made out, consisted of a nave 20 ft. 7 in, by 12 ft. inside, at the west end of which was a round arch, 4 ft. 3 in. wide, leading to a building 7 ft. 9 in. by 7 ft. 5 in., which Dryden is of opinion might have been a sacristy added at a later date, the doorway leading to it being the original entrance to the church, and the south doorway being opened when the chancel was added.
There was a regular chancel at the east end, 12 ft. by 8 ft. 9 in. Outside the south door of the nave was a square addition, 8 ft. I in. by 7 ft. 7 in. inside, with a radiating staircase. The building had long been occupied as a dwelling-house, and of course had been very much mutilated; but summing up the probabilities, Dryden is of opinion that the nave and chancel were 11th or 12th century work; that a new chancel arch was put up in the 14th century, at which date the buildings at the west end and on the south side were added. Mr. Karl Blind is of opinion that the name Eyin Helga meant “The Sanctuary (Heiligthwn in German) of the Isles," and that the islet held the same position to the rest of the group that Heligoland did to the Frisian Isles.
On the north-western and south-western sides of Eynhallow are the Burger and Wheal Rostis, which, as the flood-tide, with springs, runs seven knots an hour, must be a sight to see, when a nor'-wester has for some days been piling the waters of the Atlantic on the Orcadian coast. A little west of Swandro Church is a geo, rejoicing in the significant name of Paradise, in which boats sometimes take shelter, till the tide turns. Somewhere about here Swein captured Jarl Paul, when hunting otters near Scabra Head, and the name of the district, Swandro, appears to have some connection with that incident. A cave on Eynhallow Isle bears the name of "the Cave of Twenty Men," which may also have owed its name to the abduction of Paul.
A short distance beyond Paradise Geo you come to a series of gloups, or blow-holes, known as the Sinions of Cutclaws. The first is about thirty yards from the sea, thirty yards long, and twenty-four broad; the second a few yards beyond, circular, and about ten yards in diameter. Before, however, coming to the Sinions, and between them and Scabra Head, are some curiously formed arches, known as the Hole of the Horse, and Auk Hall; and without being of any great height, the cliffs are very picturesque and bold. A mile further you come to another sinion, known as the Kiln of Dusty. Here Bring Head commences, a very fine stretch of cliffs in places overhanging the water, the highest point of which, Hellia Spur, is probably about 300 feet. Close to Hellia Spur is the Stack of the Lobust, a long, narrow portion of rock which has slipped away from the cliff, from which it is now separated by a chasm not much over twenty feet in width. A little east of this is another similar stack in process of formation.
From this point you get a very pretty view of Sacquoy Head, with Westray behind it. Close to Sacquoy Head are the Kilns of Brin Neven, before coming to which is a gigantic edition of the well-known Grind of the Navir in Shetland, though not so accurately cut. The sea has seized hold of a weaker than usual spot in the stratification of the cliff here, and has carved out a huge gateway, or embrasure, the stones from which lie piled in heaps to the rear. The Kilns are a series of three gloups, extending about 200 yards, from east to west. The western one is a gruesome abyss. Both of the eastern ones have arches opening seaward, through one of which you get an exquisite peep of the sea outside. All this coast line, to be properly appreciated, should be seen from a boat, and there are any amount of caves to be explored. Owing, however, to the strong tideways off the points, and the “lift " of the sea close to the rocks, the weather must be something exceptional to render it worth a trial. Probably a week or so of light winds from east or south-east and tides at dead neap would be most favourable.
From the Kilns of Brin Neven it is best to make straight for Saviskaill, as the rest of the coast-line is not worth following round. The loch of Saviskaill, or Wasbister, though not more than forty-five acres in area, is one of the best in the islands for fishing, as the trout average nearly three-quarters of a pound each. On a small holm in the loch, where quantities of wild duck breed, are said to be the remains of a small chapel, known as the Chapel of Burrian - a name which looks as if it had been built, like the chapel dedicated to St Tredwell in Papa Westray, on the site of an old broch. There must have been in ancient days a perfect nest of these small chapels around this loch, as at the north end, close to the old burial-ground, was one known as Corse, or Cross Kirk; on Bretaness, a small promontory jutting out on the east side, was another; and N.N.E. of Langskaill, close to the sea, and dedicated to St Colm, a fourth.
Here you strike the carriage road again, a splendid instance of misplaced ingenuity, being carried over the shoulder of Kierfea Hill, instead of, as might have been done with very little trouble, round it. From the highest point (411 feet above the sea), you get some good views of Faraclett Head, in the face of which is said to be a very fine cave, access to which can, with the aid of a rope, be had from land, by a steady head and strong arms. The whole round from Sourin past Westness, if Blotchinfield and Jupiter Fring are not visited, will take some eight or nine hours. There ought to be very fair sea-trout fishing with wind off shore, and water slightly coloured by rainfall, at the mouth of the Sourin Burn; but, as a portion of the shootings is let, and the proprietor, Lieut-General Burroughs, C.B., generally has a houseful of visitors staying at Trumland, the tourist must not expect to get any fishing.
In the autumn of 1881 a cluster of grave mounds, near the farm of Corquoy, in Sourin Valley, was opened, and in the largest, which was fifty feet in circumference, and raised five and a half feet above the level of the adjacent ground, a stone cist was discovered, in which was placed a cinerary urn of steatite, 7 in. in height, and 8 in. across the mouth, which urn is now in the National Museum. The fact of the urn being made of stone, and especially of steatite, and not of clay, leads Dr. Anderson to suppose that these mounds formed a cemetery of the later Viking period, when interment after cremation was practised.