Antiquarian Notes On Rousay




Though undoubtedly one of the most picturesque islands in Orkney, Rousay is not, in the eyes of an antiquary, by any means the most interesting. Even to-day the greater part of its surface is covered with heather and in early days it can have offered but few attractions to the primitive agriculturist in comparison with the lower-lying and more fertile islands of the group. Round the skirts of the isle, however, there are signs of cultivation from very far-off days; nor are indications lacking that the island was inhabited thousands of years earlier still for how long exactly it is impossible to say until we have learned to read more intelligently the memorials left behind by these nameless folk of long ago.


Of these memorials, the standing stones and the chambered mounds form two groups that are among the oldest of all. The relative antiquity of each I shall not attempt to determine; suffice it to say that both are supposed to date back to the early Bronze Age of this country, if not to the still earlier Neolithic. Today, only two of these standing stones remain erect – one on the roadside in Frotoft beside a house named after it – Longsteen, the other on the south-east slope of the hill to the north-east of Faraclett. The Long-steen [below left] is about seven and a half feet high by two feet three inches broad at the base, tapering to slightly under two feet at the top, and varying from about eight inches to eleven inches in thickness. That at Faraclett is about seven feet high, with a fairly uniform rectangular section of five and a half feet by one and a half. It is known as Yetnessteen [below right], i.e., O.N. Jǫtunna-steinn, ‘ stone of the giants.’ Obviously the stone was as mysterious to the Norsemen when they came over as it is to us, and they ascribed its erection to the giants who figured so largely in their mythology. But there it still stands, and an old island tradition tells how on each New Year morning, immediately after midnight, it is wont to take a trip down the slope for three hundred yards or so to the Fresh-water Loch of Scockness – covering the distance in two steps – have a drink, and then return once more to resume its lonely vigil.

In his Tour Through the North Isles of Orkney (in 1778) Low makes mention of this stone and another at Westoval. He does not mention the Longsteen in Frotoft, and, hence, in the Old Lore Miscellany, Vol. VIII., Pt. 111., where the Tour was published, an attempt was made to identify the Westoval stone with the Longsteen. On the northern slope of Blotchniefield, however, just above the fence near which most of the Sourin peats are now cut is a ridge known as Steenie Vestifal, and, though no standing-stone is apparent now, there is no doubt that this is the place to which Low refers.

Indication of a fourth stone may be found, I think, in the farm name – Stennisgorn. Gorn represents O.N. gardðr, a farm, and though the first part of the name may be a personal name – Stein(s), it is more probable that the reference is to a standing-stone near. This is supported by the same name in Birsay – now pronounced Stanger (sténdzer). In the 1595 Rental this is spelt Stansgar (in Peterkin’s edition), and Stainsgair (in the copy in the Sheriff Court House, Kirkwall). Close to this house is the solitary standing-stone of Qweebuin (hwibon). The earliest form I can find of the Rousay house name is Stennisgar, which occurs in a deed of 1578 – for a note of which I am indebted to Mr. Storer Clouston. In the Uthell Buik of 1601, we find a Stevin Stennisgair in Wasbister, Rousay, who was evidently the farmer in this house. Hence the presumption is that both the Birsay and the Rousay name arose from a similar reason – the proximity of a standing-stone.

What the original purpose of these isolated stones has been no one can now say. They may not all even have had the same purpose, but, in some cases at least, there seems no doubt that they have been connected with the worship of what Dr. Craven, in his History of the Church in Orkney, Vol. I., p. 3, has termed the ‘generative powers in Nature.’

[The images above show the location of the Taft o’ Faraclett at the northern end of the Loch of Scockness.
The lower photos show the Taft, and a rope to aid the adventurous in exploring its subterranean chamber.]

Of chambered mounds, or picts houses as they are called, it is difficult to say how many specimens are to be found. There are several mounds still unopened which may be of this class, but, so far as I know, only three have been opened. One of these is at the north end of the above-mentioned fresh-water Loch of Scockness, in a small park known as ‘The Taft of Faraclett .’ An account of this, by Mr. John Loutitt, may be found in the O.L. Miscellany, Vol. IX., pt. I.

[The original entrance to Taversoe Tuick. Once inside from today’s ‘modern’ entrance one has the ability to clamber down into the lower chamber…..]

Another example, discovered on the top of a hillock called Taiverso, near Trumland, showed the usual features of a relatively long entrance passage and central chamber. Opening off this chamber were small recesses in which were found the remains of human skeletons. On the point south of Skaill on the Westside, a third specimen of this class of mound is said to have existed.


The next group of antiquities – that of the brochs – is generally reckoned now-a-days to be much younger than those we have just mentioned. Into that vexed question, however, we need not enter here; I shall merely indicate the sites in Rousay where brochs have stood. On the Frotoft shore, a few hundred yards west of the Longsteen, stand the ruins of one still bearing the name Burrian (i.e. O.N. borg-in, the broch). This has  been  dug  into  but  never  properly  excavated. At Brough on the Westside is the site of another, from which the house has its name. A few hundred yards west of this, on the edge of the cliffs – flanked on each side by a long narrow geo – is the Midhowe, a mound that pretty certainly conceals a third. Then, on a small islet, called Burrian, in the Loch of Wasbister, we have the site of a fourth, which has been approached from the shore by means of a causeway or stepping stones.

The broch of Midhowe on the Westside.
Burrian, in the Loch of Wasbister.

Besides these, there are other mounds that look like broch-remains. One at the shore, between Nears and Hunclett, called the Knowe of Hunclett, is almost certainly such. A very similar mound is to be seen at Viera Lodge, and the Knowe of Lairo – near Hullion – is very likely a third.

None of these sites has been properly excavated, though one at Brough has apparently been opened at one time. In an account of a pleasure-trip from Kirkwall to Rousay recorded in The Orkney Herald of 26/7/1870, some mound is thus referred to: “About the same locality (i.e., the Westside) are a couple of mounds commonly designated Picts Houses or Broughs. One of them having been partially-explored, we were able to enter what seemed to be the principal apartment, from which there were at least two entrances to other passages or chambers, but from neither of which the earth and other debris had been cleared.”

The distribution of these broch-sites is also instructive. They are all at or near the shore, and are surrounded by the best land in Rousay. This in itself suggests that the broch~builders were cultivators of the soil, and to support this view one has but to point to the quern-stones found in practically every broch which has been excavated. It may be argued quite well that these querns have been used by inhabitants of much later date than the builders, but one is still left with this noticeable coincidence of the sites with the best land.

Langskaill, at the foot of The Leean – Kierfea Hill to the right and the Head of Faraclett to the left.


In my Paper last session on Sanday, I dwelt at some length on these puzzling structures known as Treb Dikes. In Rousay that name is not known, but one at least of these earthen rampart-like structures is to be seen still, running down from the public road to the shore a short distance up from the Leean Slap of Langskaill. It is strikingly green as compared with the adjacent ground, and goes by the name of the Green Gersty, i.e., ON. garð-stœdi, dike-steethe. The land around is not cultivated, now at any rate, and no tradition of its use or origin is extant. Hence, and also on the analogy of the Sanday Trebs, one is disposed to regard it as a memorial of the pre-Norse population.


As I have dealt elsewhere with the Celtic element in the place-names of Orkney, I shall not linger here on those Rousay names which seem to me to have been given by that earlier race which the Norsemen conquered and assimilated. These names are among the most difficult that exist, and certainty about them is hard, if not impossible, to attain. But such names as The Camps of Jupiter Fring – a ridge on the northern slope of Blotchniefield, Marlaryar – a hill above Hullion, and Cannamesurdy – a well on the beach in Frotoft – seem to have no Norse semblance at all, and may with tolerable assurance be ascribed to the earlier Celtic race.


It would have been intensely interesting if the writer of the Orkneyinga Saga had given us an account of the first settling of Orkney similar to that we have of the first colonisation of Iceland. The fact that he does not, suggests that the settlement had been made so long before his day that he knew nothing about it. In Nordiske Minder isœr sproglige paa Orknøerne, Dr. Jakobsen mentions a Rousay legend, which he was told by Mr D. J. Robertson. According to this, when the first Norsemen came to Rousay they were confronted at landing by strange elf- or troll-like beings who marched down against them – armed with glittering spears. In such a curious fashion has been perpetuated the first meeting of the Norsemen with the alien Celtic race.

Who the first Viking to set foot on Rousay was, we do not know. One would fain like to identify the Rolf (Hrólfr) whose name is commemorated in the name of the island – Rousay, Hrólfsey – with Torf Einar’s half-brother of that name – the famous Rolf who founded the Norse power in Normandy, but for that one has no justification at all. It is known that he went from Norway to the Hebrides and must thus have visited Orkney en route, but it is probable that the Orkneys were settled some generations at least before the great Viking age, and that had begun nearly a hundred years before his day.

The replica Viking longship ‘Sea Stallion from Glendalough’ passing
Rousay in July 2007 during her voyage from Roskilde in Denmark
to Dublin – near where the original vessel was built c.1042.

Besides the unknown Rolf, the names of a few other early settlers may be deduced from the farm names. The present farm-name Innister appears to be a corruption. The name does not appear in any of the early rentals, but in a deed of 1664, recorded in David Forbes’s Protocol Book, we find Rowland Insgaire in Insgaire. In the Valuation of 1653, thls gentleman evidently appears again as Roulland Ingsgarth. In a deed of 1671 the name appears as Ingsgair, and even as late as 1799 Innisgir in Wasbister is found in the Register of Births. By some strange accident the house name has now become Innister and the surname Inkster. The original form is doubtful, but almost certainly the first syllable represents a personal name.

A clue to the original form of Hurtiso, a farm name in Sourin, is to be found in the 1492 Rental where Hurtiso, in Holm, appears as Thurstainshow, i.e., Thorstein’s mound..

The first syllable in Knarston is almost certainly also a personal name. In most cases in Orkney tunship-names, the termination -ston, which represents the dative plural of staðr, a stead, settlement, ‘tun,’ is suffixed to a man’s name, and this is unlikely to be an exception. There are two names suitable Knǫrr and Narfi – and, as old forms of the name regularly show the initial K-, the former is to be preferred – Knarrar-stǫðum, the settlement of Knorr.

Avalsay appears in both the 1500 and 1595 Rentals as Awaldschaw. The first part of the name represents a man Augvald, and judging from the analogy of Horraldshay in Firth, which the 1500 Rental spells Thorwaldishow, and the 1595 R. Horraldsay and Horraldshay, we conclude that the Rousay name has been Augvaldshaugr, Augvald’s mound.

Lastly, in Frotoft we have a form that points to an earlier Froða-topt, the site of a house of a man Froði. Munch suggested that the word must have been Freys-tupt, the site of a temple to the god Frey, but that is not in accordance with the phonetic development.

These four men – Froði, Augvald, Knǫrr, and Thorstein – were in all probability among the earliest Norse settlers in Rousay; they may even have been among those who were challenged at landing by the ‘glittering spears’; but to us to-day, none of them is other than a pale shadow of a name.

A few place-names still remain to show that in these days Rousay was not so devoid of trees as it is at present. Scockness is most probably an O.N. Skogar-nes, the ‘shaw-’ or forest ness, and the old house name Skuan in Sourin and the field Skuanie in Wasbister point unmistakably to the same feature. Probably it was rather brushwood than real forest, but these names show conclusively that there was something of the sort.


In the Orkneyinga Saga, only one Rousay family – that of Sigurd of Westness – figures at all largely. If, as has been surmised, the author was Bishop Bjarni, we need not be surprised at the prominence given to Sigurd, for his wife was Bjarni’s grandaunt – a niece of Jarl Hakon Paulsson, and grand-daughter of Jarl Paul Thorfinnsson. Nothing is known of Sigurd’s own ancestry, but he was one of Jarl Paul Hakonsson’s closest friends and supporters – his wife being a cousin of the Jarl. They had two sons, Hakon Pik and Brynjulf.

The Broch and covered Cairn at Midhowe.
St Mary’s, the Westside kirk.


Whether the Westness of Sigurd’s time was at the site of the present Westness House may be doubted. For one thing, there is no ness at the present house to justify the name. It is probable that the whole promontory on the west side of the island – terminating at the south-west corner in the bold and majestic Scabrae Head – formed the original West Ness. At all events, Scabrae was included in the old Outer Westness of the early rentals. Approximately half-way between the present Westness House and Scabrae Head stands the old house of Skaill – quite close to the beach, with the old parish church adjacent. Just outside the church-yard wall are the ruins of an old building, and a few years ago, Mr. Storer Clouston discovered here the remains of a square tower or keep with walls about eight feet thick, enclosing a room nine or ten feet square. Excavation would be necessary to reveal the exact size, but these figures are approximately correct. The stones used in the building are massive, and have been well laid in lime.

In a charter of 1556 of the sale of the lands of Brough in Rousay by Magnus Cragy to Magnus Halcro, specific mention is made of a fortalice which went with the property. In all probability, the present ruin represents that building.

Old people on the Westside knew of this ruin by the name of the Wirk (i.e. 0.N. virki, a fortification), and a legend existed that it was built as a stronghold in which to keep a beautiful woman whom the builder had taken a fancy to and carried away forcibly from her friends.

What element of truth is in this legend we cannot say, but the very close correspondence of the building with that of Kolbein Hruga’s fortress in Weir is striking. According to Wallace’s account of the latter building, it also was not more than ten feet square inside, had very strong walls about eight feet thick and was built with lime. Mr. Clouston is thus strongly of opinion that both buildings are more or less contemporary. We know that Kolbein built the one, and the great probability is that the other was built about the same date by his kinsman Sigurd. If that be so, we have another weighty argument for locating Sigurd’s home at Skaill.


More than ordinary interest attaches to the site of Sigurd’s house, for it was while on a visit to him that Jarl Paul Hakonsson was suddenly kidnapped by Sweyn Asliefson and borne away to end his days – no one knows how or where.

At this stage the Saga narrative becomes very puzzling, and is not in accord with known facts. It is stated that Sweyn came round the west of the Mainland and by Evie Sound towards Rousay. As Evie Sound, nowadays, is applied only to the sound inside Eynhallow, one would be led to believe that Sweyn came inside also. But we are then told that Sweyn sailed towards the ‘end of Rousay’ where there was a big headland (hǫfði), underneath which was a mass of stones where otters were often to be found. The ‘end of the isle ’ and the ‘big headland ’ can only refer to Scabrae Head, which, be it noted, still retains the name Head. This, however, is outside – to the north-west of Eynhallow, and to approach it from the west one would not pass through the present Evie Sound at all.

Another difficulty arises when we read that the Jarl and his men had gone ‘south along the island’ that morning, to hunt otters at the place just referred to. Now, whether Sigurd’s house was at Skaill or at the present Westness, the way to Scabrae Head would be north rather than south.

This confusion regarding the scene of the Jarl’s capture is a strong argument against Bjarni’s authorship of the Saga, for he, having been bred in Weir, must often have visited his relatives at Westness and been perfectly familiar with the place – especially a place associated with such an event as the capture of the Jarl.

At the head of a small bay a little bit south of Skaill there is a mound known as Swandro, around which, according to Barry, are to be seen graves formed with stones set on edge. From this fact, and the apparent similarity of Swandro to Sweyn, Barry and others have thought that this may have been the scene of the fight. For that view there seems no justification. In Vol. X. of the Proc. of the Society of Antiquaries, Dr. Joseph Anderson gave an account of a Viking sword and shield boss found near here, but he was disposed to think that they dated from a century or two before Sweyn’s time. The place, too, is over a mile from Scabrae Head, and if any man’s name were to be attached to the scene of the struggle it would be Paul’s rather than Sweyn’s. And by that time also, when Orkney had been Christianised for over three generations, burials would have been more probably made in consecrated ground. The Bishop visited Westness immediately after the event.


One other vivid Saga scene in which Sweyn figures is laid in Rousay. After the death of Jarl Erlend, Sweyn, it is told, went to Rousay. With five men he climbed the hill and went down to the shore on the other side – where exactly we should dearly like to know. In the dark “they concealed themselves at a certain farm where they heard a great talking going on. Thorfinn and his son Augmund were there, and a son-in- law Erlend. Erlend was holding forth to his kinsmen that it was he who had given Jarl Erlend his deathblow, but they were all of them of opinion that they had borne themselves well. When Sweyn heard that he leaped into the house at them, his fellows coming behind. Sweyn was quickest and dealt Erlend his deathblow forthwith. They took Thorfinn away with them prisoner; Augmund, too, was wounded.” It is a commonplace tale enough – told without any form of embellishment, and yet how the scene lives for one down the centuries!


At what period exactly, the skat tax was imposed on Orkney is not known, but, for that purpose, we learn from the old Rentals that Rousay was divided up into 6½ urislands or ouncelands. These were as follows :- Scockness ½; the rest of Sourin, north of Knarston 1½; Knarston (including Avalsay), Trumland, Over and Nether Hunclett, Frotoft, Corse and Inner Westness were a ½ urisland each; Outer Westness (Skaill & Brough). Whome, & Quandal was 1, as was Wabister (excluding Langskaill), and Langskaill itself was a ½. Total urislands 6½.

A view of part of Sourin from Faraclett. Hurtiso to the left, the Mill, Banks, Quoys, the School,
and Howdis Meadow in the right foregound.


These divisions do not retain their individuality as of old. Scockness, Knarston, and Avalsay are now all reckoned in Sourin; from Avalsay to Trumland is known as the Brinnian; Frotoft now includes the whole district between Trumland and Westness; Westness to Quandal – both inclusive – are sometimes referred to as the Westside, though Quandal – now a sheepwalk – still retains its separate identity; Wasbister now includes Langskaill also.

Two views of Frotoft – looking south-east from above Corse…
…and back the other way, looking north-west just along from Breek.

Thus, in each of the three chief districts of to-day – Sourin, Frotoft and Wasbister – there has been an extension of the districts originally included under these names. Wasbister seems to have swallowed up two others at least. The termination ‘bister’ (O.N. bólstaðr, a settlement) is very common in Orkney, applied sometimes to a single farm and sometimes (as probably originally) to a whole tunship. In the present Wasbister there is a house up in the hill still called Everybist, i.e., yfri-bólstaðr, the ‘upper bister.’ But there was another bister in the district formerly – Libuster – a name which appears frequently in old documents, but is quite forgotten locally. It probably included the present Langskaill, as the park to the east of that house is still called the park of Lee, and the whole long slope east of that is called the Leean, i.e., O.N. hliðn, the slope. Hence we have a ‘bister’ on the slope, an upper ‘bister,’ and a West- ‘bister’ all included in the present Wasbister. Besides this, we know that the farm of Tafts went along with Wasbister Tunship, and thus a fourth district is added.

Looking down on the Loch of Wasbister – with Cogar, Ivybank, and the old school to the left, Falquoy lower central, Vacquoy and Nedyar to the right. Skatequoy, upper left and the Head of Saviskaill, the firth, and Westray away in the distance

Sourin is a puzzling name. The old word was Sowrick or Sourwick, which means a muddy or dirty bay, unless Sour- be a contraction of suðr, south. But why this should have become Sourin, and the old form be totally forgotten locally, I cannot explain. It is just possible that the -in termination represents an O.N. vin, pasture, and that both words were current formerly, but that is very doubtful. What seems to have been in old days the main tunship or farm in Sourin has now disappeared altogether as an independent farm, but the name still survives, applied to a stretch of land on the farm of Hurtiso, and up on the top is a patch still called the Taft o’Husabae. The house nearest to this – Essaquoy – sometimes is referred to still as Husabae.

The site of the old Frotoft is also forgotten, but the probability is that it was somewhere about the present Hullion.


Mr. Clouston, in one of those invaluable papers contributed to the Scottish Historical Review, has pointed out how the old Orkney chapels are intimately connected with the old tunships. After the introduction of Christianity in the 11th century a considerable period elapsed before any regular system of parish churches appeared. The rise of these is wrapped indeed in considerable mystery. But, during the intervening period, well-to-do odallers built chapels for themselves, and one or other of these tunship chapels seems frequently to have developed into the parish church. Many of them, too had consecrated burial-grounds attached. When parish churches were established the sites were not always dictated by the general convenience of the parish. In some cases it would seem that the chapel of the most important tunship or the most prominent odaller became the chosen site. In any case that is what seems to have happened in Rousay where the old parish church was situated at Skaill. The church was dedicated to the Virgin, and there is a well close to it still known as Mary Well.

St Mary’s – the Westside kirk

At the opposite extremity of the isle there was another old chapel in what is still the graveyard at Scockness. I have been told on good authority that in former days this was a place to which child-bearing women were wont to repair and pray. I can find no record of the dedication, but from the above practice one may suspect, this also to have been dedicated to the Virgin.

At the shore below Knarston is another graveyard called simply ‘The Cheppel,’ and at the shore near the pier of Hullion is yet another chapel site. These three sites thus represent the chapels pertaining to the old half-urisland tunships of Scockness, Knarston and Frotoft.

Brettaness, jutting out into the Loch of Wasbister.
A section of the oldest part of the Wester kirkyard.

Wasbister is a nest of chapel-sites – no less than four being still known. One stood on a small peninsula called the point of Breetaness which juts out into the Loch of Saviskail on the east side. This name strongly suggests a dedication to St. Brittiva, Bridget, or Bride – which name in Norse is shortened to Brite. On the opposite shore stands the graveyard and chapel site known still as Corse Kirk – a dedication to the Holy Cross. A third chapel has been built, as so often elsewhere, on the site of an old broch on the islet in the Loch called Burrian. On some old maps of Orkney a dedication to St. Peter is marked in this part of Rousay, and one may suspect that this has been the spot. For the fourth site is an older dedication still. It is called Colm’s Kirk and is pointed out at the very verge of the shore down below Langskaill. This site must date from the old pre-Norse Celtic mission, and is thus by far the oldest church site in Rousay. Nothing of the walls is now to be seen, but stumps of stone are still visible and indicate a truly venerable spot.


In addition to these old chapel sites, there are a few other place-names that carry us back and give us a peep at the religious customs of our forefathers in pre-Reformation days. Just to the east of the house of Stennisgorn there is a field known as the Grange. This name is not Norse, but a borrowing from Latin through Scots or English. It was the regular name given to a farm or lands attached to a monastery or other religious house, and it appears twice elsewhere in Orkney – in Eynhallow and Paplay in Holm. We have no indication of the monastery to which this pertained; it may have been an outlying farm attached to the monastery of Eynhallow, visited and supervised by ‘outriders’ such as Chaucer’s monk. But as we have no information about it, speculation is idle.


Praying crosses by the wayside were a familiar feature in old days and particularly at spots where the traveller came into view or lost sight of a church or holy place. In Rousay we have two, if not more, of these praying-sites commemorated in place-names. Corse in Frotoft is one of these, a house built near an old Corsegate or road to the church. In this case the church has probably been the parish church of Our Lady at Skaill, but it is not impossible that the spot to which pious eyes here turned was the more venerable church on the Holy Isle of Eynhallow. The house name Cruisday may have had a similar origin, but that is not so certain.

On the western slope of Mansmas Hill, the northern spur of the Ward Hill, a park just above the public road still goes by the name of Bonie Hole. This looks like two Scots words, but the name has no connection with either ‘bonnie’ or ‘hole.’ There is no hole there – bonnie or otherwise. It is the Norse bœnar-hóll, prayer-hill, the ‘Bonie’ being the same word that occurs in the common Rousay phrase for prayers – especially a child’s prayers at bedtime – bonie-words.

Thus, here again, we have another example of the same custom as we saw at Corse, and the church in this instance has also been apparently the parish church at Skaill. Somewhat farther on in Wasbister the old road to the church is remembered in the house name of Kirkgate.

Stained-glass window dedicated to St Magnus in Kirkwall’s cathedral.


Mansmas Hill is an interesting but puzzling name. It signifies the ‘hill of the feast of St. Magnus.’ No house bears the name to-day, but in the parish registers in the General Register House I discovered the name of a house in Rousay – St. Magnus Hill. I have heard no scrap of tradition about this hill, but it would seem that St. Magnus’s day, the 16th of April, was celebrated here in some fashion. As a local saint St. Magnus was held of course in the highest veneration in Orkney, and doubtless many ceremonies attended his festival. From the top of the hill, looking down the Sourin valley, one may see the famous old church in Egilsay that bears his name, and no doubt the exact spot of his martyrdom would have been well known and revered for many a long day. But beyond the name of Mansmas Hill itself, there is nothing left us to-day to tell us how the festival was celebrated.


The methods of administering law and order in the old Norse days are very obscure but, arguing from what is known of other Norse lands, there were local assemblies or ‘things,’ as well as a central ‘thing’ for the whole group. In Rousay this would appear to have been held at a. place half-way up the Sourin burn, where a rocky knoll deflects the course of the burn and is half encircled by it. This place is called the Gallows. It is practically in the centre of Rousay and its name testifies to the summary methods of punishment in these downright times.


After the islands came under Scottish rule, bailies and lawrightmen looked after local affairs. From old Bailie Court Records in the Sheriff Court Record Room we learn that about 1690 the Sourin district of Rousay, together with Egilsay, and Work and Carness in St. Ola, formed one bailiewick with Douglas of Egilsay (the owner of these lands) as bailie-principal. From one record we get a peep into local matters in that year. “At St. Magnus Kirk in Egilsay…..The Balzie (name not stated) continues James Craigie in Avilshay, Patrick Yorstone in Banks and John Allan in Faraclet as former Lawrightmen of Sowrick, and adds to them Magnus Banks in Cudraw.” There follow edicts requiring everyone to “keep their own cornland”; no one in Egilsay or Sowrick to take sheep “without the sheepman”; the people of both districts to pay a herd; the officer of Rousay has to keep an account of all beasts in Sowrick, and all dogs above a hundred are to be killed, except with special permission.

The following document, from the Sheriff Court Record Room, also casts some light on the duties of these officials and the need for such regulations:-

2/ Nov./ 1700

Proces and Judgement of Theift [blank] and John Brown writer in Kirkwall, Proc Fiscall of the Justiciar and Stewart court of Orkney for his Majesties interest contra Thomas Craigie in Suandall in the Island of Rousay.

That quhair by the Lawes and acts of Parliament of this and all other weill governed nationes the crymes of Stouth, pyckrie theift and reset of theift are abominable crymes, etc., etc. Yet true it is and of veritie that ye the said Thomas Craigie pannell Commone notorius theiff are guiltie of and have committed the said crymes In sua farr as about the space of twa yeires bygone or thereby George Craigie in Skoknes and Thomas and Patrick Allanes in Farraclett ransell men within the foresaid ylle Having at the direction of the Baillie gone in ransell anent several goods that have been stollen and having come to the pannells house and after ransell made there they did find about foure or fyve merks of gray whyt and black wooll which ye the said pannell could give no proof that the wooll was your owen or from whom ye had it.

Item ye are Indyted and accusd that about the space of a moneth bygone or thereby John McKindlay Patrick Yorstone and Thomas Allan in Farraclett thrie ransell men having Lykeways at the directine of the Baillie gone in ransell for some tedders that was stolen and having come to the pannells house as the person suspect and after ransell made be them they did fynd lying hidd in your kaill yaird ane kessieful of wooll and having enquired at you who hidd the same there ye told them that your wyfe had done the same and which ye the said pannell commone notorius theiff cannot deny. Item ye are Indyted & accusd that upon the same day when John McKendlay and the rest of the ransell men abovenamed were in your house ranselling for the tedders Margaret Robertsone spouse to Magnus Craigie in Sowrick was standing at the back of your barne keeping her kyne she did sie you the sd pannell come from your corne rigg upon great heast and did enter your barne and open the door thereof being locked and there did carrie out in your airmes ane lairge bound whyt sheep belonging to Hugh Marwick and did louse the sheep and put it to the fields at libertie for fear of being apprehended by the ransellmen knowing them to be ranselling in your house.

Item ye were Indyted and accusd that about the space of Twentie yeires bygone ye did goe to the hill and take ane sheep in the daytime and did bind the same and putt it in ane Swyne sty in the hill a little from our own house and in the evening ye desyred Magnus Banks now in trumland then your servant to take ane of your horss and to go to the sty and bring home the said ship to your house and when the fd. Magnus hadd come there and haveing looked to the mark of the said sheep he found the same did belong to some other person and not to you qrupon he came home agane and left the sheep lying in the same place.

Item ye are Indyted and accusd that when Sir William Craigie of Gairsey was Stewart and Justitiar of Orkney ye were enacted in the (Court ?) books for your good behaviour in all tyme therefter under the paine of Banishment.

Item ye are Indytted & accused That notwithstanging of severall acts made against you be the Baillie of Rousay dischargeing you to keep a sheep dog knowing you to be a man sub mala fama yet in contempt of authoritie ye still did keep ane or two sheep dogs and makes use of them as if the said acts had never bein standing in force against you. A—nd generallie ye are holdine and repute a commone notorius theiff be the whole Inhabitants of the Ille of Rowsay who has knowen you from your Infancie And therefore ye ought and should be adjudged to the death and your haill goods and gear both heretable & movable be escheate and Innbrought to his Majesties use in example and to the terror of others to committ the lyke in tyme comeing.”


In spite of these terrible thunderings Thomas was only fined £30 Scots – to remain in prison till paid.

Across the firth from Rousay is Fitty Hill, Westray, Skatequoy lower left.
Kierfea Hill, the Leean, and Saviskaill Bay – seen from the Head of Faraclett.


As in my former Sanday paper, I shall conclude with a few scraps of island tradition. You may remember that in that paper I mentioned the legend of “Cubbie Roo’s Burden” – a hillock said to have been formed by the stones that fell out of his kaisie when the fettle broke. Another legend is sometimes also fathered on Cubbie Roo. He is said to have been the giant who, from the top of Fitty Hill in Westray, threw a huge boulder at another giant on Kearfea in Rousay. The stone, however, failed to carry the distance and is to be seen near the shore in the Leean still. What are said to be his finger-marks are still visible in the stone which is known as the Finger-steen. As children we were told that unless we laid a small stone or some such object on the Finger-steen as we passed it, we should meet with trouble on our way back. An older name for this stone is, I think, preserved in the name of a fishing spot just below – Beya-steen. So far as I know, -steen is not used elsewhere as a name for a jutting crag such as this, and Beyasteen has thus, I fancy, simply been named from the stone above.

Rousay’s spectacular north-western coast – a view from Sacquoy Head towards the Lobust and Bring Head.

Another legend survives about a witch called Katho. This lady is said to have been churning in the house of Savaskail one day. She churned away harder and harder until at length the milk foamed up over the lid. She then stopped and exclaimed: “Tara gott, that’s done; Saviskeal’s boat’s casten awa on the Riff o’ Saequoy.” Sure enough at that time the boat was wrecked. The interest in this story attaches to the strange opening words. They are an old Norn phrase pat er gort, ‘ that is done,’ and it is curious to note how in the telling the phrase is immediately translated. Strangely enough, I have heard the same phrase used in connection with a Birsay story of a man who pushed his wife over the crags.

My last story is of interest to the naturalist as much as to the antiquary. On the top of the Brown Hill is a small tarn called Loomachun. This is O.N. lóma-tjǫrn, the tarn of the loom or red-throated diver. This bird in Orkney is known as the rain-goose. Some years ago I asked an old man if he had even seen a rain-goose. “ Yea’m I, boy, an’ I’m seen the eggs o’ her, too.” “Where?” I asked. “On the Loch o’ Loomachun.” The same year a friend of mine told me his son had found a nest of that bird at the same place a few weeks before. Thus, year after year, down the ceaseless procession of the ages, amid the tumult and change of human affairs, instinct has brought back this bird to nest by the lonely shores of Loomachun as it did when first the name was bestowed, and doubtless for long centuries before.

[Hugh Marwick ‘Antiquarian Notes On Rousay’,
Proceedings of the Orkney Antiquarian Society, Vol II, 1923-24, pp 15-21
(Kirkwall: Orkney Antiquarian Society, 1924)]


‘Rousay Millionaires’

Geordie Corrigall was born in 1904 and lived all his life at West Ballarat in Harray. He was a quiet modest man with a great sense of humour and great love of all things pertaining to Orkney. He was a hard working farmer by day but his thoughts were often elsewhere so by night time he was brim full of ideas to write hilarious poems and ditties on every imaginable topic: courting couples, local ‘millionaires’, the St Magnus Cathedral Weather Cock and a Tired Coo, to name just four. He was eventually persuaded to perform in public and immediately had his audiences in stitches. Word soon swept around the parishes that a Corrigall performance simply could not be missed…… Orkney terms, he was a ‘box office smash hit’!

Sadly, Geordie died at a fairly young age in the 1960s but a book and audiocassette entitled The Bard of Ballarat was published in 1999 by The Orcadian, giving the Orkney folk of today a chance to enjoy his tireless imagination and humour. The entire profits from the sale of the pack, mounting to many thousands of pounds, were donated to The Cancer Research Campaign Scotland charity.

With grateful thanks to the Executors of the late Bella L. A. Mowat [Geordie’s sister], c/o Lows, Broad Street, Kirkwall, Orkney – I am able to reproduce two of Geordie’s poems which brought the house down when he performed them in Rousay.

Rousay Millionaires

Weel here we are foregathered in a vast and happy throng,
And here I am tae deu me best tae cheer yi wi a song,
Wir here tae hiv a jolly time and cast aside wir cares,
The poor hard up musicians and the Rousay millionaires.

For music’s no the kind o’ job that brings the money in,
An we a’ come fae The Mainland whar the soil is poor and thin,
But Rousay is a wealthy place, yi’ll see hid at a glance,
Hid’s kent throughoot the county as a seat o’ high finance.

And Rousay men are brainy, thirs no doot o’ that whatever,
Hugh Marwick is yir postie and he’s mighty cute and clever,
For roond aboot the New ’ear time he aye survives the crisis,
The more he pits the spirits doon, the more his spirit rises.

You’ve got a lovely hall here and Ah’m led tae understand,
Your worthy County Councillor supplied the piece o’ land,
His name is Robbie Seatter and he works both night and day,
And his wife’s so good wi poultry she can mak the rooster lay!

And Robbie Johnston is a man that everybody knows,
He ferms the ferm o’ Trumland and he’s aafil keen on shows,
And he’s a Justice o’ the Peace, I ken that for a fact,
And if his stots begins tae doose, he reads the riot act.

And the Marwick man o’ Falquoy is a plooman o’ repute,
At feereens and at feenishes he kens whit he’s aboot,
He’s surely been tae Africa or some way for a tour,
For he’s merried tae a Lyon and her dad’s a champion brewer.

And the Mainland men o’ Westness are most aafil go ahead,
And John’s the famous bachelor that never goes tae bed,
And his brither James they tell me is as good as any two,
At amateur dramatics or the biggeen o’ a skroo.

And at Woo the worthy Inkster brithers cultivate their acres,
And Tommy wooed and won the nurse while Willie plays at chequers,
And everybody tells me they’ve got an aafil dose,
O trophies that they won wi calves and horses at the shows.

The Dickey man o’ Langskaill is a hero, that’s the truth,
He even flitted north when ither folk were flittan sooth,
He thinks the Rousay folk the wisest folk he’s ever seen,
Since them that hidna muckle sense cleared oot tae Aberdeen.

And a song aboot the Rousay folk wad never, never do,
Unless I made some mention o’ the famous wife o’ Too,
The worthy Annabella whom you love so tenderly,
In aal yir joys and sorrows whit a tower o’ strength wis she.

And Tom Sinclair is the fellow whar commands the Rousay Navy,
He seems tae be the man that brings the mails across fae Evie,
He his a muckle pocket book that’s always getting fatter,
He says deep litter’s payan even better than deep water!

And yi a’ ken Willie Marwick, he’s a most terrific wag,
His shop’s doon at Brinian whar the steamer dumps hids slag,
He’s aye prepared tae tak ye roond the island in his ker,
And his yarns’ll had yi laughan till yir very sides are sair.

And aal the folk in Rousay noo are healthy and weel fed,
Because they eat terrific fills o’ Dave o’ Hullion’s bread,
No winder a’ the Rousay people traet him wi respect,
They always thowt that loaf wis green till he began tae bake!

And the men o’ Brough they tell me are the worthiest o’ pairs,
Thir caught so many lapsters that thir multi-millionaires,
They both believe the Harray folk’s a lot o’ cheeky swabs,
So Ah’m very, very glad thirs no demand for Harray Crabs*

And the Gibson man o’ Avelsay, they tell me his a flair,
For trace-an back the pedigree o’ every horse and mare,
He’s absolutely certain that he kens the pedigree,
O the fither and mither o’ the Horse o’ Copinsay.

I ken tae see yir faces noo yir saired o’ a’ this blether,
So seean hid’s wir evening oot we’ll a’ rejoice taegither,
We’ll hiv a jolly time and be as chummy as you please,
The millionaires o’ Rousay and this bunch o’ refugees!

Rousay Concert

Good evening tae you each and all, hid fills me wi delight,
Tae see so many Rousay folk assembled here the night,
And yir happy faces tells me that there is no doot whatever,
That the Reel Society and you are happy here taegither.

We ken the Reel Society are happy tae be here,
And plaised tae entertain you wi thir music sweet and clear,
The musicians all declare a Rousay audience is prime,
For yir that weel aff in Rousay that yir happy all the time.

And fine we ken that Rousay folk can fairly go thir dinger,
And as me song continues noo I don’t intend tae linger,
Ah’ll mention twa three bits o’ news Ah’m heard aboot yirsaels,
So I hop yi’ll a’ hiv patience while I mention some details.

I’ll start wi Mansie Craigie, he’s a man that’s worth the mention,
As soople as a two year old, he always draws attention,
A pensioner that’s happy as a lark and full o’ beans,
Can tak the floor and dance like any laddie in his teens.

And Heddle Omand is a man that everybody kens,
A baker he delivers bread and feeding stuff for hens,
Wi a’ the added vitamins on which the poultry thrives,
And extra currants in the baps tae plaise the Rousay wives.

And we ken that Ian Craigie is most aafil tired noo,
Wi runnan back and fore atween his sweetheart and his soo,
Poor chap, hid’s aisy understeud that he wis in a swither,
Post Offices and piggeries just dinna go taegither.

Roderick Marwick and Hugh Sinclair at the special sale o’ kye,
In Kirkwall wir inclined tae think the price wis kinda high,
So they did a bit o’ dealing whar the price wis no so siccar,
They went doon tae the “Albert” tae a special sale o’ liquor.

They tell me Roderick’s a man wi talents rich and rare,
He keeps the Rousay clocks and cars in excellent repair,
Bit Willie Inkster’s compass seem tae hiv him baffled clean,
For Willie sailed for Shetland and arrived in Aberdeen.

And Ah’m sure yi’ll aal agree this is the proper time tae speak,
O Peggy Corsie’s prize she won at Stromness Shopping Week,
At Stromness Shopping Week, thirs alwis prizes big and small,
Bit tae win the owner o’ the shop’s the finest prize o’ all.

And the Rousay Youth Club seems tae be a most unique affair,
For they tell me Mansie Wylie is the youngest member there,
For Mansie tae be there at aal is gey valiant wark,
For many a boy o’ Mansie’s age is frightened in the dark.

And George Sutherland is thinkan that he must be gittan owld,
For when he goes tae bed at night he shivers wi the cowld,
A hot water bottle as we ken can serve a worthy caas,
Bit whit he needs aside him is a cuddly Orphir lass.

And Mr Nelson seems tae like the Rousay atmosphere,
His family and transport is increased since he cam here,
We a’ hop that in future ’ears hid will continue thus,
Until he his tae swap his fine Land Rover for a bus.

And judgin fae reports I feel I safely can deduce,
That yir very prood indeed o’ the new laird o’ Trumland Hoose,
He’s very popular indeed so generous is he,
That Rousay people daily drink his health in Brooke Bond tea.

I doot the Rousay lads are findan life a wee bit drear,
For ootsiders cam and merried a’ the bonny lasses here,
Bit Edward Seatter says that he’s no gan tae sit in sorrow,
He wants an import licence for a lass fae Edinburgh.

Jack Craigie o’ the ferm o’ Corse is lukkan gey dejected,
His wife’s that trang amang her hens, he’s thinkan he’s neglected,
She talks aboot her poultry in her sleep – hid’s hardly fair,
Jack’s feelan that concerned, he’s faered he’s gan tae loss his hair.

And I hear that yir exponents o’ the game o’ badminton,
Are in a owlder age group than the youth club everyone,
If that’s the case I doot they must hiv lived a middling whiley,
If the youngest member o’ the Rousay youth club’s Mansie Wylie.

And noo I must confess tae you me song is nearly ended,
I hop that everybody’s plaised and nobody’s offended,
Hid wis very, very kind of you to listen till hid’s doan,
So Ah’ll just git aff the stage and let a better turn come on.



The Last Home-Coming


The Reverend Thomas Alexander

Come when l’m lying
Restful at last:
Come when I’m dying
ls all over past.
With bearing-trees come
Down from the hill
All silent and still.
Carry me home
Where the breakers roar,
For l’m wishing to be
By the sound of the sea
For evermore.

Over the streaming
Rush of the Sound,
Sea-birds screaming
In circles around,
Over to Rousay;
I know l will feel
The lift of the keel
As you sail me to Rousay
Again as of yore;
For I wish to be laid
Where my forefathers prayed,
Near the shore.

Sailing from Rousay,
Leaving her there;
Leaving her sleeping
In hallowed ground.
By the edge of the Sound,
Where billows are leaping
And breakers roar,
We have laid her to rest
In the dust she loved best
Till time is o’er.

Mr Alexander wrote that poem in his Manse at Evie one January day in 1926. He had just returned from the funeral of Annie Leonard of Lowlands, who had been taken by boat to Rousay to be buried beside her husband in the Wasbister kirkyard. The verses were simple and spontaneous, and one can sense in them the deep impression that winter journey made on the sensitive mind of the author. The very rolling of the boat, getting nearer and nearer the island and then returning, worked itself into his poem.

[Thomas T. Alexander was Minister of the Free Church of Evie and Rendall, 1923-1926]

Inscription on the family tombstone in the Wasbister Kirkyard:

Erected by the Leonard family in beloved memory of their father
John Leonard who died 12th March 1912 aged 31 years,
their mother Annie Gibson who died 2nd Jan. 1926 aged 43 years,
also their brother James Marwick Leonard
who died 6th Oct. 1908 aged 4 months.

John Leonard was the son of James Leonard of Quoygray, later Cruannie, and Ann Marwick of Tou. Born in 1879 he married Annie Gibson of Langskaill, daughter of David Gibson, latterly of Hullion and Ann Sinclair of Newhouse. John and Annie had six children: Ann; Estelle; John, who died in infancy; Rose, who went to America; Peggy, twin of Rose; and James, who died at the age of 4 months.


My thanks to Tommy Gibson, owner of the original poem, for allowing its reproduction.


Rousay Drama Club – c.1938

This picture was taken at a dance after a performance by the Rousay Drama Club in about 1938. The photographer was W. S. Thomson, who worked in Orkney for about 10 years from 1937. The photo originated from Gordie Peterson of Stromness, whose grandparents lived at Westness before taking over the Blossom in the 1930s. Robert Craigie Marwick contributed the accompanying information, and in doing so he added his thanks to Edith Gibson, Burrian, for help in identifying many of the folk.

Front row, from the left:- Robert Johnston. James Mainland, and Hugh Russell.

Second row:- Jim Craigie, Lizzie Craigie, James (Steebly) Craigie, Chrissie Russell,
Hugh Marwick, Hugh Gibson, Maisie Mainland, Peggy Cooper, Rita Shaw,
Cissie Gibson, and half image (unknown).

Third row:- Alice Logie, Charles Logie, John Gibson, Marjory Gibson. James Marwick,
Sadie Gibson, Hugh Craigie, Maggie Grieve, Hugh Robertson,
Ann Lyon, and William Gibson.

Fourth row:- William Craigie, John Mainland, David Benston, James Craigie,
Leonard Marwick, Jim Yorston, Mabel Grieve, Cissie Sinclair,
Sarah Smith, and Edith Gibson.

Back row:- Edwin Moar partly behind curtain, Stanley Moar, Fraser Moar,
James Clouston, Sinclair Craigie, William Moar, Nellie Harcus, Evelyn Pirie,
Jim Gorn, Evelyn Shearer, Thora Kirkness, Anna Reid, Kathleen Gibson
(top of head showing), Alice Cormack, John Shearer (partly concealed),
and Molly Gorn.


The Island of Eynhallow

My thanks to Tommy Gibson, Brinola, Rousay, for allowing me to reproduce
the document above, which contains….”information supplied by the
late David Mainland, Bridge Street Wynd, Kirkwall
– Born Eynhallow, Orkney, June 1827.”

Occupation of the old monastic buildings on Eynhallow by Rousay folk is alluded to in John Mooney’s book Eynhallow The Holy Island of the Orkneys:-

……..In digging a hole in one of the divisions of this building, the chapter-house had been made into two apartments by the erection of a division wall, two skeletons were found. The late Sir Victor Horsley, who was staying at Rousay at the time, regarded these as evidence of burials in the days of the monks; but the opinion was expressed to him that the bones were those of islanders who had died in the fever epidemic in the middle of the 19th century; and, after the examination of a skull, he seems to have thought that might have been so. There are, however, facts which prove the contrary. The remains of those who died of the fever were conveyed from the island for burial elsewhere. The families residing there belonged to, or had most of their relatives living in either Rousay or Evie, chiefly in Rousay; and a portion of the old churchyard in the latter island (opposite Eynhallow) was reserved for and known as the Eynhallow graves. People are still alive who knew the islanders who survived the fever (this was written in 1923), and who remember seeing the coffins conveyed across the sound for burial. Each coffin was placed in a boat which was attached by a long tow-line to another boat, rowed by two or more men……..

The 1851 census of Eynhallow tells us that 54-year-old farmer William Mainland and his 53-year-old wife Jean Sinclair were living in the church, or East House as it was called. With them were their six children; John, who was 25; David, 24; William, 21; Mary, 19; Janet, 16; and Ann, 13. Three of them died when the fever struck, and their bodies were interred in the Westside Kirkyard. The following inscription is on the gravestone:

“To Eynhallow folk Janet Mainland who died 1851 aged sixteen years.
William Mainland died 1851 aged 21years.
Jean Sinclair, mother of the above died Jan. 1852 aged 55 years.
William Mainland her beloved husband died Dec. 1870 aged 75 years.”


The Road That Has No End

Let’s join Minnie Russell as she takes us on a beautifully descriptive tour around Rousay. – Reproduced by kind permission of the editors of
The Orkney View from issue number 68: October/November 1996.

Come to the Isle of Rousay
A place beyond compare
You’ll see lots of lovely scenery
When you set off from the pier
Below the road the fields of green
Stretch down onto the shore
And up above the brown hills
Bring joy for evermore

In spring the wild flowers cheer you
The primroses are best
Sprinkled in their millions
In all the crevices
If you look up to the hillside
When autumn sun is warm
You’ll see miles of purple heather
Lie blooming in the sun

If you travel on the Frotoft way
And look out to the sea
You’ll see islands in the sunshine
Both near and far away
Trumland House is on the right
A mansion very grand
Built by General Burroughs
When he did own the land

Standing there so stately
In its sheltered grove
It has a lovely setting
With Knitchen up above
We leave the Brinian now behind
And go down by Cot-a-Fea
Frotoft lies before us
A homely place to see

With tidy crofts along the way
And up above the hills
As we go on by Hullion
We look up to Blotchnie Field

We soon look down to Westness
And Eynhallow ’frank and free’
We think of all the legends
Heard at mother’s knee
An ancient brough can now be seen
Its like is very rare
It’s such a place of interest
Folk come fae far and near

We can now see the Westside
With its houses in decay
The crofts they all lie vacant
And been for many a day
We hear about the clearances
The folk just had to go
Once a thriving district
lt’s empty now and full of woe

Soon we’ll be in Wester
With Burrian and the loch
Some houses are now occupied
With people from the south
When we reach the corner o’ Cove
Our journey is half over
We hasten on through fertile fields
Of lovely scented clover

As we travel up the Leon
We see Westray far away
We even see the Fair Isle
On a very bonny day
We turn now at the Blossom
And go down Sourin Brae
Behind us towers Kierfea Hill
And we look across the bay

Many are the holms and isles
That now come into view
Shapinsay and its castle
Stronsay and Eday too

We hasten on the road again
Past many a well known sign
The ancient church in Egilsay
Where St Magnus he was slain
The historic isle of Wyre
It now comes into view
Makes us think of Edwin Muir
And the castle of Cubbie Roo

We are getting near the pier again
After many a twist and bend
And many a lovely view we’ve seen
On the road that has no end


Rousay in the late 1700s



1795 – 1798


The Reverend Mr. JAMES LESLIE

Situation. – This parish is composed of four islands, Rousay, Egilshay, Weir, and Inhallow, and two small holms or uninhabited islands. They are situated about three leagues north-west of the county town, Kirkwall, and lie contiguous to each other.

Rousay. – The largest island of the parish, is altogether one range of hills; and the arable ground is separated from the hill ground by a poor irregular earthen dyke. The hill ground is covered with heath, and contains deep moss. It is a pleasant island, and healthful, and abounds with moor game. In it are abundance of springs of the purest water, and of rivulets which issue from small lakes, of which there are numbers in the island. All around the island is safe harbour for shipping of any burden. The soil is good; and might produce plentiful returns, were it well cultivated. There is a small church, about five miles distant from the manse, dedicated to our Lady. The number of inhabitants is, in this island of Rousay, 772, the youngest child being included.

Egilshay. – Egilshay is a pleasant, low lying island, with a small Gothic church in the west part of the islands, which has been dedicated to St Magnus, the tutelar saint of all Orkney. It has a pyramidical steeple at the west end, and a vaulted quire at the east end, which joins to the body of the church. In Egilshay there is a small lake of fresh water; and the soil is very good, and fit for culture; but it is poorly cultivated. There is a small bay of shell sand, of the best kind, on the west side of this island, and a large track of sand on the north side, with much bent [stiff grass], and many rabbits. Sponge is cast on shore in October, in great abundance, about this island. The number of inhabitants in this island of Egilshay is 210, the youngest child being included.

Weir Island. – Weir Island is a small low lying island, not so large as is Egilshay. The soil is the same, and the culture very poor, and the crops unequal to what might be expected from proper management. There is a ruinous church here, but no steeple; and there are the vestiges of a fortification on a rising ground, a little from the place where the church stands. There is moss ground in a part of this island; and many seals are to be seen on the rocks at the west end of this island. The number of inhabitants is 65, the youngest child included.

Inhallow Island. – Inhallow Island is very small, but very pleasantly situated, being overlooked by the hills and headlands of mainland, on the south, and of Rousay, on the north. The soil is good, but not skilfully managed. The number of inhabitants is 25, the youngest child being included. The whole united parish of Rousay and Egilshay includes in it 1072 persons. In 1755, the numbers were rated at 978.

Manners. – There is no difference in manners and habits between the cottager and the master of the farm. The master often turns to cottager, and the cottager sometimes becomes the master. They all take social snuff together. Their houses and their furniture are exactly the same. They all, without distinction, sit at the oar in their boats; and at land they all jointly perform the same labour and work. Youth and old age constitute the only distinction of rank. The old often are so reduced, that they betake themselves to going from house to house for sustenance; and then they are well received; and it is not accounted beggary when they do so.

Boats. – In Rousay they keep 24 boats, in Egilshay 12 boats, in Weir 6 boats, in Inhallow 2 boats, making in all 44 boats, each being about the value of 3l. Sterling. With these they used to go to fish; but, for some years past, the fishing has failed entirely.

Cattle. – They plough with horses of a small size, which are brought from Strathnaver when two years old, and some Shetland horses. Three horses, or, at the most, four horses are put to the plough. These horses are, of value, from 3l. Sterling to 4l. never hardly above 5l. Sterling. There are in the parish upwards of 200 ploughs. There are a prodigious number of black cattle, no less than 2500, almost all cows, from which they make grease butter. The value of the cows may be from 2l. to 2l. 10s. hardly ever 3l. Sterling.

Sheep. – The sheep in this parish have fine wool, and, for the most part, two lambs at a birth. The sheep, when sold, cost 4s. a head, or thereabout. The number of small swine is considerable, as are the flocks of geese. The swine sell for 3s. or 4s. and the geese at 1s. There are no mice on the island of Inhallow, and no rats in any one of the other islands of the parish. – There is a great quantity of kelp made annually in this parish from May to July. The people employ themselves at this work. There is a little woollen stuff made, and some linen, but to no amount. These they trade with to Shetland, and sell at the great annual market at Kirkwall.


Married in Rousay



Maggie Ann Clouston

(Mrs Maggie Ann Clouston was for quite a few years Orkney’s oldest inhabitant, living to the age of 109. She was born at Claybank [on the bank of the burn almost opposite Vacquoy] in Rousay in 1880 into a large family*, in which everyone had to work from a young age, and all her life she enjoyed being active. Visiting her to record an interview when she was over 100 was a special pleasure. She would sit you down and make a cup of tea and cut a large slice of her birthday cake, and then gladly recall bygone days with great delight and good humour. This is part of a recording made on her 104th birthday with Kathryn Gourlay for Radio Orkney. (It is reproduced here with permission from the editors of The Orkney View, in which the article appeared.)

I was nineteen when I married and he was twelve years older than me – old men’s the best! Never marry a fisherman – it’s a hard life when they’re at sea and coarse weather comes and peedie boats: very, very worrying. Waiting for them all the time and hearing they’re coming in on a very coarse day and hauling their boat to a better piece and you hear them coming and you’re glad to see them.

He was not a very strong man, he didn’t last a long while – consumption was rife in those days but they can master it now. It was enormous, the number of folk that had consumption, and I was at the houses with it and I said I’m surely immune from it for I never took it, working so much among it, you see.

He went out every day; every morning he rose with the tide. When the tide was in they had to get up and go to sea, and they were small boats. We sold some of the fish and dried them on the dykes and pressed them, and we sold them in Kirkwall. Salted fish – the merchant bought them and sold them out of Kirkwall. Lobsters were very cheap in my young days. Lobsters were only a shilling, and they got eleven pence sometimes. That was the way we were kept down, you see. We could dress ourselves and go to kirk too, all the same.

We had a set of clothes we kept aside and only put on on a Sunday for going to the kirk. What a grand day we had – everybody was walking then. There were no cars or anything; everybody was walking. What a grand time we had on the road, all speaking together! Fourteen miles was the size of Rousay right round it, and I’ve been round it on a Sunday, every bit of it and at my auntie’s home at night for tea and milking the kye then. We’d go home at eight o’clock, running pieces of the road to get home on time then as well as now. Far better – dances at night, and all. And it was spoken about for a while. Now they never speak about a dance, it’s just that common.

My father was the only fiddler on Rousay for a great while, and he taught the other ones to play. He was a grand fiddler; he just fairly fitted into the dances and the time. Polkas and Schottisches and the Four-Couple Reel and the Flowers of Edinburgh. There were dances that came in and they learnt them from Kirkwall: Rory O’ More and Strip the Willow and the Queen Victoria.

We had a grand walk at our wedding, everybody went out with their partners and my father was there with the fiddle playing and played the whole road home and we were going with him – I suppose we did maybe fully two miles. We married in the house, decorated up for it. Plenty of whisky and plenty of ale and plenty of cakes and plum pudding and sweeties. We had our dance and we had our walk – the Quadrilles and the Lancers – that’s dancing! – and they take the sweep and everybody takes hands and they sweep in and that’s good dancing!

* Maggie Ann’s parents were Magnus Craigie and Ellen Cooper. Ellen’s parents were David Cooper and Douglas Craigie [Douglas being a popular female name in those days.] Ellen was born in 1859 when they were living at Sound in Egilsay, and was the eldest of their fourteen children.

Maggie Ann’s father Magnus married Ellen in 1879 and between 1880 and 1898 they had thirteen children. Magnus was the youngest of seven children born to Alexander Craigie of Whoam, later Falquoy, and Ann Murray, whose parents were Magnus Murray and Janet Robertson of Tofts, Quandale.

Maggie Ann married John Clouston, son of Magnus Clouston and Jane Craigie of Tou [later Shalter] in 1899 and they had two children, John and Maggie Jean.

Maggie Ann was born on 17 May 1880 – and passed away on 23 February 1989, just ten weeks or so short of her 109th birthday.


Alexander Marwick

Alexander Rufus Marwick

[This article was printed in issue No 75 of The Orkney View, Dec 1997/Jan 1998.
My thanks to the editors Alastair and Anne Cormack, and of course
Tommy Gibson himself for allowing its reproduction.]

Alexander Rufus Marwick was born at Loweshouse, on Rousay, and moved later to Lerquoy and then to Corse. His wife was Isabella Gibson, Langskaill, daughter of old David Gibson and his first wife Jean Marwick. Mr Marwick of Corse had five children.

He wrote the following for General Burroughs about 1870. Thanks go to Tom Gibson, Brinola, Rousay for passing these memories on to us.

”l was born in Loweshouse in the district of Wasbister in the year 1801. First of my minding the Island of Rousay belonged to eleven different proprietors, viz;

Mr Traill of Westness
Mr Rowland Marwick of Estquoy
Mr John Harrold of Cot and Cliver
Mr Traill of Quandale
Earl of Zetland
Mr Balfour of Shapinsay
Mr Baikie of Tankerness
Mr Rae of Viera
Mr Spence of the Mill and Brake
Mr Traill of Frotoft
Mr John Craigie of Hullion

The first tenant I mind in Westness was widow Craigie, and in the farm, Archibald Hume. The first tenant I mind in Saviskaill was John lnkster who afterwards became the proprietor of the estate of Saviskaill. The first tenants I mind in Langskaill were David Gibson and William Harcus. In Faraclett was I McKay, in Scockness was Hugh Marwick, in Banks, Sourin was James Mainland, in Knarston G W Craigie, in Avelshay Leslie Mainland, in Trumbland James Yorston, in Nears William Craigie, in Banks (F) Alexander Mainland, in Corse James Yorston.

From the dyke of Grind to the Lobust I remember forty families, all of whom had land more or less. On that land together with the hill privilege they kept seventy horse, 220 cattle and between 600 and 700 sheep. All the land at that time was ploughed with the old side-plough with one arm, and drawn with three or four horses. At that time there was not a cart in the island, nor a harrow with iron teeth. The first two-armed plough I remember was on the farm of Saviskaill, and the first cart belonged to Drummond Louttit on the farm of Upper Quandale. The only crops grown at that time were oats and bere and a few potatoes. Every house also had a large cabbage yard, which was very useful for the family use and also for the cattle.

In the summer the hill swarmed with horses, cattle, sheep, pigs and geese. The sheep were divided into flocks or haants, as they were called. They came to the shore in the winter to eat the seaweed when the sea was down, and they went to the hill when it began to flow. There was more beef and mutton used in one year than is now used in ten years.

The first church l attended was the church on the Westside. The minister’s name was Paterson who preached in the Egilshay Church one Sabbath and in the Westside on the other, till the Established Church was built in the Brinian in 1815. There was one parochial school in the island and one Society school. In the parochial school was Mr Leask, and in the Society school was Mr Smeaton.

In my boyhood there were some men belonging to this island that went to Shetland every summer for the purpose of bartering goods. They gave linen and other goods for bed rugs, ponies and gin. They would have given fifteen shillings for a fine Shetland pony. The boats that they went with would have been from sixteen to twenty feet of keel rigged with a large square sail. The time they would be away would be about three weeks. Sometimes they were much annoyed by French pirates during the French war. About the end of the French war Britain was so short of men that they had to press men for the army and navy. There was some very exciting scenes come under my observation trying to avoid the press gang. There were some young men of Wasbister who had to sleep in the Haas of Gamlie, the rocks behind Stennisgorn, for safety all night. I knew a man belonging to Egilshay who slept in the middle of a stack of oats all night, for the whole of one winter, in a room which he had prepared for himself.

The principal means which the young men had of earning money was the whale fishing at Davis Strait, and some of them went to Hudson Bay service. The old women’s earning was the spinning of lint. The young women’s earnings was of plaiting straw. The farmers‘ summer work was the making of kelp.

In the first of my minding Christmas was kept as follows. Every house that grew crops brewed some ale for Christmas. On Christmas Eve every house killed a sheep, but they had neither white bread nor tea. Their bread was oatcakes and sowan scones. When they got cod in the Christmas week they baked a cake of bere meal and cod livers which was as good as, and liked as much as, any shortbread of the present day. The young men played football until dark, then they went to a fiddler’s house and danced until twelve at night. New Year’s Day was as well kept. On New Year’s Eve young men went from door to door singing the New Year’s Song, whereupon the door was quickly opened and the singers were set down to the best in the house. It was looked upon as a token of respect to those whom they visited, but ill-loved neighbours were general y passed over.

In 1801 a ship was wrecked below Saviskaill under ballast (pink granite). In 1807 a ship was wrecked below Langskaill loaded with lint. In I816 a ship was wrecked in the Klink Geos in the Lean under timber.

The grouse were very plentiful then, much more so or what they are at the present day. Whenever a bull got mad it was put to the hill, making it not a very safe place to go without some weapon of defence. I once heard of a daring adventure which a man had with a bull in the Rousay Hills. The man was at the hill in search of his horse when the bull saw him, above the Muckle Water. The man ran to the soft bog or quag, as it is called. The bull followed him into the quag and stuck. The man, John Craigie of Claybank, drew his big knife and killed the bull.

About the commencement of the century a child of the name of Mowat, two years of age, strayed from the house of Myars in Sourin in a thick mist. They looked for him for two days in vain. A dog belonging to Furse in Wasbister was missed the same day the child went away. The dog came home the third day and got some food. He went away as soon as he had taken it. He was followed by the servant man. The dog ran to a pigsty on the Brings. When the servant man came to the sty the dog made for springing on him. He looked inside and saw the child alive and well. He took it home with him and went and told its parents who gladly came for it. He lived in Rousay to an old age. I knew him well. The most remarkable thing about it was that before the dog would venture home for food he sent all the swine about a mile away from the sty in which the child was found.

In those days superstition prevailed among people to a great extent. But when the home brewn ale was less used their superstition died away.”


Hammerfield Lease – 1896