Hammerfield and Rousay

Reminiscences of Hammerfield and Rousay


Ron Spence

In the fifties my family spent much of our long summer holidays in Wasbister, Rousay. My mother, Rhoda, had been widowed before my first birthday so her family consisted of my older sister, Elaine, me, and my younger brother, Jimmy. My first memory of Rousay was when I was about five years old so that might have been the summer of 1951/52. At that time the mail-boat ran from the pier in Evie to an old slipway near Hullion in Frotoft. The vessel was a clinker-built boat powered by an engine mid-ships and it seemed to be rather temperamental. At that time little protection was available for passengers but an old tarpaulin was produced in times of really bad weather. Some time later a cabin appeared, but I still preferred to stay outside. The ferryman was young Tom o’ Banks (Sinclair I learned later) who was Mum’s first cousin (one of the many). He sported a grizzly looking black beard and wore a heavy blue jersey and he was a merry fellow.

The Inkster family of Westness Farm.
Back row (from left):-  Ann, Janet, Lily, Mimie, and Mary.
Middle row:- Hugh and Mary (the parents), Isabella, and Fred.
Front row:- David and Robert.

Perhaps I should give a little background to my family’s connections with Rousay. My maternal grandmother, Jemima (Mimie) Inkster, was born at Greenfield in Harroldswick, Unst, as were all of her seventeen siblings. My great-grandfather, Hugh Inkster, was a Rousay man from Ervadale in Sourin. In 1861 he was working at Saviskaill as a ploughman and in 1865 he married Isabella Kirkness of Quoyostray. Soon thereafter the couple moved to Unst. Unfortunately in 1882 Isabella died, so in 1883 Hugh returned to Rousay to marry again, to Mary Kirkness of Grain, Isabella’s first cousin. Mary was my great-grandmother. Sometime between 1894 and 1901 my great-grandfather moved the whole family back to Rousay where, I understand, he took over the tenancy of Westness Farm. In 1905 my grandmother’s older sister, Mary, married Thomas Sinclair of Banks in Frotoft and their children were; Thomas, Anne (Cissie), Mary Isabel (Mabel) and Lily. Thomas ran the mail-boat, which was later taken over by his son, also Thomas, who married Bella Flaws of Wyre. Cissie married Bill Moar of Saviskaill and they moved to Leslie in Aberdeenshire. Mabel married Bill Flaws of Hammerfield and Lily married Dave Miller of Hestival in Evie. Lily was the schoolteacher for Wasbister and Dave worked as a radio operator for a whaler out of South Georgia. My grandmother, Jemima (Mimie), married James Groundwater of Kirkwall. He and his brother, John, owned J. F. Groundwater the baker and grocer.

My grandfather (Da, as we called him) drove us to Evie, a journey which seemed to take forever, and escorted us to the boathouse to await the crossing. Inside there were some men seated around a small table, or maybe it was a barrel, playing some mysterious game of cards. It involved lots of counting and  shouting. I learned much later that it was cribbage. The game had to be completed so we waited patiently. Presently, Uncle Tom took us all down to the mail-boat moored at the jetty. It was a sunny day with a light wind but the sea in the Sound looked quite choppy. I was looking forward to the trip and it did turn out to be rather exciting; lots of bouncing around and spray so I don’t think Mum liked it much. I don’t know how long it took but it might have been forty minutes. The jetty on our arrival turned out to be a rather rudimentary affair with many loose stones, so some care was needed in disembarking. In fact the jetty was abandoned later to an alternative a couple of hundred metres to the east.

Rousay post boat at the Evie pier, c1932.
[Photo: Tommy Gibson collection]

My First Memories

Uncle Bill (Flaws) met us and helped to unload the mailbags and then we piled into his car. It may have been the Old Fordie as Auntie Mabel called it later; I didn’t know about cars then. We set off along the single track road through the Westside past Banks and Westness. The car seemed to wheeze its way along and there were a great many gear changes. We eventually passed through the Quandale Dyke and turned left at Mansie Flaws’ house, a green painted wooden shack not far from Deithe. The track was rough and steep and took us down the hill to the rear of the farm. This road has long since been abandoned, however it can still be seen on Ordnance Survey maps. Hammerfield is located high on the braes and looks south and east towards Wasbister Loch and Saviskaill Bay. The road ‘ower the Leeon’ snakes up the hill towards Sourin and Faraclett Head is visible in the far distance. It is a beautiful view but at the time I didn’t really appreciate it.


Auntie Mabel welcomed us at the door and ushered us through the lean-to dairy into the kitchen. It was a bit of a shock; a huge black range dominated the room, a Tilley lamp hung from the ceiling among a curtain of caithes (colefish). On the wall opposite the range was the box bed where Mabel and Bill slept. And it was dark, with only two small windows to lighten the room. I suppose that Hammerfield was like many other small Rousay farms; the kitchen with the box bed, ben to the peedie parlour (quite bright and airy though) with a fireplace and another box bed backing on to the kitchen’s, up a step to a corridor with a store room (possibly doubling as a bedroom) to the right and on to the bedroom where the old lady slept. I don’t recall ever having met her but my sister tells me that she was always dressed in a long black dress and occupied the creaking rocking chair in the corner by the range. I discovered later that she was Bill’s mother but she died the following year. But no toilet or bathroom! You had to outside, round the back to the privy.

No running water either; this had to be collected daily in bright galvanised buckets from the well in the field below the farm. I remember the water being crystal clear but Auntie Mabe occasionally had to skim debris, mostly bits of grass, from its surface. Waste from the privy was buried; it was NOT considered proper to throw it onto the midden. After the old lady’s death some improvements were made, but still no indoor plumbing. The box beds disappeared, giving an extra room, and running water was introduced using a black Alkathene pipe running from a spring on the hill above the farm to a tap next the byre door. The kye were much more important than the mere humans. At some time later the stone-built dairy was rebuilt in breeze-blocks with a roof of corrugated asbestos sheets, but the roof still leaked.

Mabel, Bill and Spotty dog
– July 1975.

I remember that Auntie Mabe used to produce the most wonderful butter in the peedie dairy and I was fascinated by the kirn which was essentially a barrel on a pivot. Later, I even got a shottie but it was hard work and I had to get the speed just right. But I couldn’t fathom when the butter was ready. More expert folk would do that. I used to watch her baking oatcakes and bere (an ancient form of barley) bannocks (called bread) on the black range. Many an oatcake would fall apart at the crucial moment but I have never developed a taste for bere bannocks.

The main fuel of the range was peats. These were neatly stacked to the west of the farmhouse buildings just beyond the lean-to garage where the old Fordie lived. I didn’t know at that young age that the peats were cut earlier in the year from peat-banks up on the hill and left to dry before being transported down and stacked for use later. One summer we all got to help with the peats. At that time I was staying at the Schoolhouse and one morning we all piled into the trailer hitched on to a Fergie with our picnic and set off up the hill via the road between Cogar and Ivybank. I don’t remember who did the driving but it may have been Roderick of Cogar or Uncle Dave. The road was not much more than a track worn through the moorland so progress was slow. There were many places where the way had been abandoned for a more circuitive route. It was a lovely day. We kids were, I think, more of a hindrance than a help but we were set to work to help load the trailer. The peats had been cut some weeks earlier and had been set up to dry in mini stooks so the air could circulate. They had dried well so we had to load them with some  care  as  they tended to be a little fragile. The grown ups did the stacking on the trailer. We weren’t trusted. Picnic time, drinks and then back to the Schoolhouse.

Bill Flaws building haystacks at Hammerfield, late 1950s.
Bill at Sunnybraes, above Hammerfield, in 1975.

The farm buildings were in an L shape partially enclosing the midden on two sides, with the byre attached to the house. The short part of the L was the stable or steading, below which was a garage and workshop. This was to be the home of Fergie, a little grey Massey Ferguson tractor which appeared sometime in the mid fifties, under some sort of Government scheme I think; these ‘Fergies’ were ubiquitous in Orkney during the fifties. I have no memory of such machinery at Hammerfield before this, but my sister remembers ‘the Quandale Pony’ which she says was used about the farm. But I do remember clearly Uncle Bill broadcasting oats by hand over the field below the farm. Threshing would have been hair-raising if I had known better at the time. The threshing machine was behind the stable and was powered from the Fergie using a pulley. It all seemed to be completely without guards but we were well warned to keep clear. It could never happen nowadays.

Ron says: “I don’t know exactly where but I like the inquisitive cows.
My brother and me with Mum and Auntie Mabe. Must be the very early fifties.”

Outings and the Picnic

We spent much of our summers in Wasbister roaming over the braes and generally enjoying life. We stayed either at Hammerfield or the Schoolhouse (or sometimes both); it all depended on how many kids were about. There were cousins and second cousins to cater for so sometimes we overflowed into Lower Hammerfield. At that time Uncle Bill used it as his brewery so the usual bottles of home-brew could be found stored in the cupboard. For a few nights one summer, Ian, my cousin, and my brother were sleeping there so discovered the ‘hoard’. Temptation was too much so they had to have a few samples. Few turned into several but it didn’t seem to affect them. I was upset because I missed all the fun as I was staying down at the Schoolhouse.

The caithes hanging from the ceiling were, in earlier times, almost a staple of island life. Uncle Bill caught them off the rocks using a wand and line. A wand is a length of sturdy bamboo, probably a dozen or so feet long to which was attached the fishing line and hooks, red and white flies as I recall. Once he took my brother and me down to the shore to fish; he did the fishing and we did the watching. I remember the walk from Hammerfield over Brings to a geo which I think must have been Quoy Geo. Some of the walk was over shingle and on the way we were accosted by many birds. Uncle Bill’s knowledge was revealed – he seemed to know them all; terns, oystercatchers, bonxies, arctic skuas and others. He also had sharp eyes and stopped us treading on their nests more than once. We reached the geo and UB (as Auntie Mabe frequently called him) got things prepared. He got us installed safely and then crossed to the far side of the geo for the fishing. Almost at once he caught a large caithe, much bigger than the ones back at Hammerfield. Soon he caught another but it looked different; it had a sort of golden sheen to it. Later I discovered that this was a lythe, a close relative of the caithe. I cannot remember how long we stayed and how many fish were caught but it was a very exciting outing and a long trek back to Hammerfield for tea.

The ‘Pool’ at Quandale; my brother Jimmy, William Miller (2nd cousin), UB, Verdie Moar (2nd cousin), Uncle Dave.
Quandale; Billy Moar (2nd cousin), Mum, Uncle Dave, William, Jimmy, Auntie Mabe.

As is common in this life we had to endure the dreaded visits to relations. Most of these visits have long been forgotten but a couple of must have impressed me. I remember visiting Fa’doon probably because of the story Mum told on the way back to  Wasbister. I remember the trip there and the location of the house; you took a hairpin left off the steep hill down into Sourin and the house was just a hundred metres or so from the road. I have no memory of the folk but I was told that they were some relation, probably Grieve. All I remember of the story was that a son of the house wanted to emigrate to Australia but had died tragically on the way through the Mediterranean. This turned out to be partly true and the full tale is told by Robert C. Marwick and is reproduced on Rousay Remembered under the ‘Anthology’ tag. The son’s name was David Craigie and he died in 1884 of sunstroke in the Red Sea. He would have been my Auntie Maggie’s father’s cousin. She was Maggie Jessie Inkster, Hugh Craigie of Deithe’s daughter. The only other memorable visit was to Greenfield in Brinian. I was very young then but I remember that it really was green; hedges and climbing plants and a large garden. There were two old ladies as I remember and one must have been Isabella Inkster, nee Craigie. Her husband was Frederick (Fred) who was my Grandma’s oldest brother but he had died in 1944. The other lady was, I think, Mary, her sister. We were invited in and I was amazed; the parlour seemed to be packed with polished brass shell cartridges of many sizes. They were on the mantelpiece, bookcase and sideboard. That kept me quiet for a long time.

Quandale; Auntie Mabe, Mum, hidden but most likely Auntie Lily, my sister Elaine and Uncle Dave Miller of the Schoolhouse
UB, with one of the many cairns he built on these picnics

A highlight of the holidays was the picnic and we visited many places; the Muckle Watter, Mid Howe, Scockness and Quandale among others whose names I probably never knew. Picnics at Quandale down on the rocky shore were probably my favourite. We would all descend on Hammerfield and the lucky ones got a ride in the back of Uncle Dave Miller’s short wheelbase Landrover to the shore. On the way we watched the bonxies harrying the other birds, very acrobatic. When we got to the rocks we scoured the place for driftwood so we could get a fire going and the kettle on. We youngsters got on the dookers for a splash about in the pools and even the sea. I couldn’t swim then but that didn’t matter. UB was a dab hand at building so he would build a cairn or two. I had a little 127 Kodak at the time so I took a few shots. I’m afraid that the negatives were mislaid so these pictures were scanned from the original contact prints.

Some of our Escapades

The nearest neighbour to Hammerfield was Tou. Roderick and Evelyn Marwick and their family lived there but soon moved to Cogar, opposite the Schoolhouse. We had a great time playing with their offspring; Sheena, Jimmy, and Alastair around the Schoolhouse and loch; rowing about using a borrowed rowing boat with our second cousins Ruthie, William and Judy Miller; their mum was Auntie Lily, the school teacher. On the north-east side of the loch there is a boathouse, with a dam and a weir across the Saviskaill burn maybe adding a metre to the original level of the loch. I was told that a former laird had wanted a trout loch so had ordered the work and had stocked it. I always wondered who this was but I can find no record of when the work was done. Before that, the loch must have been quite shallow and it was rumoured the Burrian had not always been an island. One year one of the boys of Saviskaill had dammed the Saviskaill Burn down at the beach so creating a mini-loch. He had somehow got an oil drum partially split in two so that it formed a hinge along one side. The two halves were opened up like a book and some boards were lashed across to form a seat. It became a small boat. Fantastic fun, but it didn’t last long; the sea can be very mean.

The stranded whale at Saviskail, circa 1953. UB is there, as well as Roderick Marwick of Cogar.
Harold Grieve is the boy on the left; Roderick Marwick with the rope; Bill o’ Furse (Grieve);
the elegant lady in skirt Mrs Dickie; and maybe Hugh o’ Saviskaill.
Another option is the young man on the right is Colin o’ Saviskaill.

One summer there was great excitement in the Schoolhouse; a beached ‘whale’ had been reported on the shore at Saviskaill. We had to go and have a look so we all ran down to the beach. When we got there the creature was still alive and a group of men, including UB and Roderick Marwick, was working trying to get it into the water. The animal was stranded on the sandy part of the shore so the men were trying to dig a trench along its side in an attempt to roll it into the water so it could be pulled into the sea. Despite their efforts this was unsuccessful and I think the ‘whale’ must have got injured during the work; an angry looking gash could be seen on the animal’s side. It looked to be in real distress and was making a good deal of noise through its blowhole. It was a real pity, but nothing could be done to help the poor thing. I seem to recall that it lay overnight and died the following day. I do not know how or if the carcase was removed. At the time I thought that it was a baby sperm whale just because of the shape of its rather bulbous head. I now realise that this was unlikely as it was only about four metres long. More probably it was a type of porpoise.

Other entertainments included the Pictures at the hall, maybe once or twice a month. The only film which I remember was called The Prisoner starring Alec Guinness and Jack Hawkins, all dark and moody, and a bit nasty for a ten-year-old. These shows must have been quite a novelty because the hall was invariably full to capacity. Jimmy Shand and his band also paid a visit. I am afraid that I don’t remember the music but the show provided me with my first experience of a magician. I was fascinated, and still am. He was a dab hand at finding coins in all sorts of weird places.

As it is now Rousay was a place where there were few shops. As I recall there was one in Hullion and one next the school down the road from the hall in Sourin. There may have been one at the Pier; we rarely went there unless it was to meet the boat, the Earl Sigurd or Earl Thorfinn. And we didn’t seem to mind; Dave Gibson’s van came along from Hullion once a week so we could spend our pocket money then. All sorts of goodies were available and we were keen to spend the cash burning holes in our pockets. Grown-ups too had the opportunity to have a good natter.

Mum (Rhoda), Auntie Mabe
and UB at the Schoolhouse

The Craigies of Deithe

We were often visited by UB’s nephews, Neil and Francis Craigie of Deithe. Their father was James Craigie and mother was UB’s sister, Maggie Jessie. Neil went on the join the Northern Lighthouse Board as a lighthouse keeper while Francis, my sister tells me, joined the Kirk. Francis was a keen photographer and I was fascinated by his camera and pictures. His camera was a manual 2¼ square format and I seem to remember that it was a single lens reflex (SLR). If that was the case, it must have been a very early one. All his photographs which I saw were taken on Agfachrome slide film which he viewed though a hand held viewer. Agfachrome film was a very distinctive film with its intense reds. I was becoming quite keen on photography but all I could afford at that time was my little 127 format Kodak, complete with single lens, single shutter speed, single aperture and fixed focus! Monochrome films as well; colour was away beyond my means. However, he gave me a few pointers and showed me how to calculate shutter speeds and apertures. He demonstrated his ‘Color Calculator’, a manual device for estimating the light value and hence shutter speeds and apertures. Later I upgraded to a 35mm camera with a few bells and whistles so I went out and bought one. I still have it somewhere in the glory hole. Neil and Francis had a brother, Tommy who was adopted by his father’s sister, Barbara, so had the name Mainland. He was a regular visitor too. I remember him in Fergie’s garage making beautiful little models of WW2 aircraft out of pieces of scrap timber. He would carve out the pieces and fix them together with adhesive and shortened dressmaker’s pins and then paint them. One of these models, a spitfire, had pride of place on the Schoolhouse’s mantelpiece for a while.

The Wedding

In the summer of 1961 my second cousin Ruthie Miller got married to Jim Gibson of Lopness. The wedding service was held in the Kirk in Sourin and the wedding breakfast at the hall. In Rousay there was a distinct lack of limousines so it was decided that the bridal car would be the old Fordie (maybe because it was handy and black). But it needed some work. I helped to wash and polish it but, what about the rusty bits? UB came to the rescue and got out the boot polish and we blacked-up and polished the rust. It looked quite good – from a distance. It turned out a nice day and all went well. After the service the party moved to the hall where everyone had a great time. I think that Jim o’ Feolquoy and friends may have supplied the music: I remember him from dances at Wasbister School; being a demon accordion player; he really put everything in to it. He was a keen motor cyclist too (biker, they would say nowadays). I think that he had a Norton and it looked to me to be a huge and powerful beast. I had my first ever and last ever ride pillion ride, up the Leeon and back again. There were no safety helmets in those days.

Jimmy, Da, me, Mum, and Graham Rosie
before boarding the St Magnus – leaving
Orkney for a new home in Aberdeen.
Graham is a friend, son of Jean
Rosie, music teacher at KGS.

The Latter Days

In August of 1961 our family moved to Aberdeen so we had no more long holidays in Rousay, just the occasional short stay and day trip. Not long after we moved, the Millers of the Schoolhouse moved to Keig in Aberdeenshire where they took over the shop and Auntie Lily taught at a local school. But UB and Auntie Mabe stayed on at Hammerfield. Nothing much changed, although there was talk about a septic tank and an inside toilet. I got married in 1979 and in the summer of that year took Avril, my wife, to Hammerfield for a short holiday. We had a wander over the braes and down towards Quandale with Spotty, Bill’s faithful dog. He was very happy to come along with us and enjoyed collecting stones for us to throw for him. It was a beautiful day and a lovely walk.

At that time UB was showing signs of dementia and not long after was admitted to hospital in Kirkwall where in 1981 he died. I attended the funeral and was given the honour of being pallbearer no 8. I still have the Pallbearer card. No suitable vehicle was available so the coffin was transported from the ferry to the cemetery in the back of a van. Nowadays this would be seen to be disrespectful; but this definitely was not the case. It was all very sad.

Auntie Mabe stayed on at Hammerfield for a few years and we visited her again in 1982, the summer in which our son was born. In 1983 she moved to sheltered housing at Lambaness in Kirkwall, where we visited (and Mum stayed) several times before her death in 1995. I have visited Rousay for day trips several times since and taken a trip or two up to the farm after visiting Tou. Once I had a look in the garage at the end of the house and I saw a rusting old car. Maybe it was some other vehicle but I like to think it was the old Fordie. Sadly the house is no more but the steading has been converted to a dwelling house.

Auntie Mabe with our baby
son, Martin in 1982

© Rognvald Spence, January 2017

[My grateful thanks to Ron for sharing his fascinating reminiscences,
family photos and their captions]


Margaret Liddle

Memories of Margaret Liddle

Mrs Margaret Liddle, who died on 24th January 1996, was a long-serving member of St Magnus Cathedral, and a dedicated member of the Women’s Guild. As well as being good at painting, sewing and knitting, Margaret was also good at writing. She was encouraged by her grandson, Dave Gray, to write down her childhood reminiscences, and the Rev. Ron Ferguson quoted from some of them at her funeral service.

Margaret’s mother Agnes as a girl, on the right of the back row of this Corsie family photo
taken at Knarston, Rousay,  c1905. Her brothers and sisters are, standing, from the left:
William, Janet, Maggie Jean, John, and Agnes. In front are: Lizzie, mother Margaret
Skethaway with Cilla, Ann, Minnie, father John Corsie with Peter, and Tommy.
[Photo courtesy of Tommy Gibson]

Margaret Craigie, as she was, was born at the Post Office house, Hullion, in Rousay 83 years ago, the eldest of a family of four. Margaret’s mother was one of a family of 12 and lived at Knarston. Margaret had happy memories of family days at her grandmother’s house. Here is what she wrote – shortly before she passed away in 1996:

I do not know when exactly it happened but at some point in later life I stopped looking forward and began looking backward to days gone by. I do not know what the future holds for me but at the age of eighty three years I certainly have a lot to look back on. Memory is a strange thing and cannot be relied on to recall and fill in all the gaps in a long life. A rnarvellous book called “Rousay Roots” written by my cousin Robert Marwick has been a great source of inspiration and has spurred me on to put pen to paper before it is too late. I know most of the families in the book and it has been a great joy to trace the generations as they come up.

I was born at the Post Office House, Hullion in Rousay in the year 1912, two years before the outbreak of the first world war in 1914. During those early years the world was to me a very busy place indeed, for all the war messages and soldiers coming on leave had to pass through the post office. My grandfather was the postmaster and my Aunt Bella had to go away to be trained how to use the morse code. There were no telephones as such in those days and I can remember the tapping of that machine as it was dotting and dashing at all times, day or night. Sometimes the news was very sad and many tears were shed before that war was over. At that tender age I did not really know what was happening and was enjoying a normal happy childhood. At this stage I would like to mention my parents. My father, John Sinclair Craigie of Hullion married Agnes Corsie of Knarston. I was their first born and they named me Margaret Mary after both my grandmothers. My father came from a family of three – two sisters and himself. My mother came from a large family of twelve, five boys and seven girls. Their mother died at the early age of thirty seven, not long after the birth of the youngest of that large family. Being the second oldest my mother had to bring up all the younger members until she married and the next oldest took over. As I write this the youngest son George is still living in Canada and is well over ninety.

Big families make happy homes and Knarston was a happy place. I can recall many happy times spent there even when my very young days were behind me. We usually went there on Sundays and I can remember especially dinner time. If there is such a thing as organised pandemonium, that was it. The large table could not accommodate all the family as the younger members including myself had to eat at the girnel. The girnel was an important item of furniture in all farm kitchens. It was a huge wooden box almost filling one wall of the house. Its purpose was to hold the oatmeal and beremeal in separate compartments with hinged lids. The girnel was higher than the table so we had large quern stones to stand on. This did not detract from the lovely soup made about a big fat hen or a chunk of pork. The novelty of standing at the girnel was great. The quern stones were different sizes and had originally been used for milling.

Back now to the very early days and the continuing war years. My father was a joiner and no work being available in Rousay he went south to find a job. He went into construction work at Invergordon and later at South Queensferry. From time to time he came home on leave and always brought me lovely presents. Gifts of something to wear were my favourite and pleased my mother as well. I can remember getting a set of “fur and muff’. The fur had a little animal’s head at the one end and a tail at the other – this was worn round the neck and suspended from it by a cord was the muff worn to keep the hands warm. I must have looked like something out of “Little Women” by Louisa M Alcott.

Margaret in Rousay aged (we think)
about 8 which would make it 1920

Big families make happy homes and Knarston was a happy place. I can recall many happy times spent there even when my very young days were behind me. We usually went there on Sundays and I can remember especially dinner time. If there is such a thing as organised pandemonium, that was it. The large table could not accommodate all the family as the younger members including myself had to eat at the girnel. The girnel was an important item of furniture in all farm kitchens. It was a huge wooden box almost filling one wall of the house. Its purpose was to hold the oatmeal and beremeal in separate compartments with hinged lids. The girnel was higher than the table so we had large quern stones to stand on. This did not detract from the lovely soup made about a big fat hen or a chunk of pork. The novelty of standing at the girnel was great. The quern stones were different sizes and had originally been used for milling.

Back now to the very early days and the continuing war years. My father was a joiner and no work being available in Rousay he went south to find a job. He went into construction work at Invergordon and later at South Queensferry. From time to time he came home on leave and always brought me lovely presents. Gifts of something to wear were my favourite and pleased my mother as well. I can remember getting a set of “fur and muff’. The fur had a little animal’s head at the one end and a tail at the other – this was worn round the neck and suspended from it by a cord was the muff worn to keep the hands warm. I must have looked like something out of “Little Women” by Louisa M Alcott.

About this time strange things began to happen at our house. My Craigie grandparents and my Aunty Bella and her husband lived in one part of the house and my father and mother and myself lived in another part called the “back house” with its own door into the garden but all under the same roof. By a strange coincidence completely unplanned I am sure, both my mother and my Aunty Bella were expecting babies about the same time.  At that time the word pregnant had not reached everyday use as it has today. In Rousay the term used for a woman in that condition was “in the family way”. I, of course, was quite unaware of what was going on. As there was no resident doctor on the island at that time and difficulties could arise getting one across from Evie, they both made arrangements to go to Kirkwall to have their babies. To Kirkwall yes, but not to the Balfour Hospital or any hospital at all for at that time there were no maternity facilities as now. It was only then that my Granny whispered in my ear that I might be getting either a little brother or sister. My mother went to stay with my Uncle John and his  wife  at  Orquill where he was a farm servant and Aunty Bella stayed with friends at Sulisquoy. Now another coincidence – they both had their babies on the same day,  the 9th of February – at which time I was only three years and eight months old. They had a great welcome home – Anna Evelyn Craigie and Mary Isabella Kirkness Yorston. My sister lives in Stromness now and Mary is in Australia. It is not difficult to guess the competition that took place between the two mothers. At that time I was only aware of the fact that I was being overlooked, in fact almost ignored.

Details of the real competition and also the funny side of it have been passed on to me as I grew up. One of these incidents I would like to relate and which I do vaguely remember myself. Visits from the tinker community were frequent and always added a little excitement in an otherwise quiet day. The day in question was brightened by a visit from Jessie Ellen Newlands and her baby daughter Tibby to the post office house. There she was with her pack on her back and the bairn at the front, skilfully wrapped in a large tartan shawl where Tibby snuggled cosily against her mother’s breast. Tibby however was not being breast fed, as a small lemonade bottle with a teat on the end of it was in evidence. Both the Rousay mothers were there with their offspring. When asked when Tibby was born her mother answered “sometime in February, I’m no sure o the date”. Mary and Anna were born on the ninth of that month too, so you can guess the look on both mother’s faces when Jessie Ellen opened her shawl and let them see her bonny big baby. Tibby was very much bigger than the resident babies. Auntie asked what she was feeding her on and the answer was “nestles milk missus, thinned doon wi water”. There was much talk about this after the tinky wife had gone for it plainly states on the condensed milk tin – not suitable for babies. Tibby however thrived on it and grew up to be a woman of ample proportions. lf I remember rightly she did not live to an old age. There are no tinker families in Orkney now, not as a separate community anyway. They have married and mixed with the Orkney folk and life goes on as it should with no class distinction.

Margaret with her younger sister Anna
in Rousay in (we think) 1924

Old traditions die hard and it’s not easy to forget the thrill of seeing small reekie tents sprouting up along the burn and the lovely smell of stolen peats wafting in the air. Also the clanging of the real old tinker men (tinsmiths) as they hammered their varied shapes and sizes of pails and other utensils. Every home had a jeck and several tinnies. The tinny was the forerunner of the mug and a jeck was about a two pint size with a handle at one side.

I can remember the screechy slates and the smell of chalk – and the names of the other pupils at the school. It was a pleasant walk to school – about a mile I would say. On the road or path between the school and the public road, there was a big flat rock, level with the ground, that carries a somewhat unhappy memory for me. A boy called Billo o’ Corse began school at the same time as I did, and we used to get out of school earlier than the rest to go home. I used to get on to the flat rock and dance about and swing my school bag. One day Billo tried to push me off this stone and we had a bit of a fight. In the end I hit him across the face with my school bag – and bled his nose. I was terrified then when I saw what I had done. He was howling and threatened me by saying his “faither” would be ower at the Post Office that night to get this sorted. I took a long time getting home that night for I was really scared stiff. However, I came to Breck which is a house not far from home, here was my mother coming to look for me. In tears, I told her what had happened, making out of course that I was not to blame, so I expect she wiped my tears away and comforted me. Billo’s “faither” never appeared, so that was then end of that. The lovely flat stone was thereafter avoided, and school life continued until we moved across the sea.

I cannot remember any mention being made, previous to our moving. Of course, everything in those days was very hush-hush, and nothing was said in front of the children. I do remember being terrified of the boat as I had never been on one before. It was a big open boat, used for crossing with the mails and other goods…..We were met at Evie pier by Marwick of Furson’s horse coach. To me this was a very grand affair, and a welcome sight after the sea crossing. My father and mother and Anna and myself got cosily seated among the helter-skelter of rugs and blankets and baskets of food, and off we set on the unfamiliar path to somewhere…..

Margaret in her early 20’s
so probably about 1933 or 1934
Margaret on her wedding day in 1935. Husband William Tait Liddle was the son of Orphir based builder and contractor William Tait Liddle (Snr) who built (amongst other things) Kitchener’s memorial at Marwick Head in Birsay
This is the Liddle family in 1942. William (Willie) Liddle and Margaret Liddle, daughter Jean, born in 1936, and sons John (Johnny), born in 1941, died 1988, and Bryan, born in 1942 and still to the fore living in Dorset.

A recent painting of Hullion by Claire E Rowlands, who writes:- “Margaret was my dad’s sister. My dad was Sinclair Skethaway Craigie. There were 4 siblings. Anna, Margaret, John and my dad. I used to visit Margaret and Willie when they lived in Palace Road. She was very wise.”

Margaret’s memories of her Rousay upbringing and the photos
of her and her family are courtesy of her daughter Jean Gray,
Kirkwall. My thanks to her, and her son Dave for locating and
sharing their treasured material.


Sourin – Part 4 of 4

The fourth and final part of ‘Sourin,’
written by Tommy Gibson, Brinola, Rousay

The terraced eastern slopes of Kierfea Hill; Digro to the left, Lee just above and right a little, and Fa’doon lower right.


Most farms and houses had a planty creu. This was a small walled garden usually away from the house or steading. I can mind a few creu’s still being worked in Sourin in the fifties, this was usually planted with early tatties and keel (cabbage). The ground in the creu was always in good heart. When Willie Inkster of Woo moved to Faroe, he tided up the old creu and which was dug and manured. He tended the plants all summer, and in the rich soil they bloomed.

Potatoes were the staple diet, and when the tatties were nearly, and it was a waste digging up whole plants, it was not uncommon to see folk purran in the drills for a dinner. I will explain, purran for tatties was scraping around the roots of the plant for enough of the largest of the immature potatoes for a dinner.

Janet Sinclair milking the house cow at Knarston c1935.
Looking on is husband Harry Sinclair [right] and their sons Harry jr, and Gordon.

When tatties were boiling you had to try the tatties, this was to see if they were boiled and when the tatties were ready they were syed (drained). And long ago they were put on the table without a dish, this was common practice in most of the farmhouses. When kye was milked and the calves were given their ration the remaining milk was taken into the house and syed through a syer. The syer (it must have had magical properties) was a large sieve with a very fine gauge wire filter. This was to take the odd piece of straw, cow hair and even the odder impurity out of the milk. Then it was safe to use. Nobody ever used the milk before it was put through the syer. Water used to be carried from the wells and springs. Up to the 1950’s very few houses had piped water into the houses; water was carried from springs or wells. All good wells had their clocks in them, and it was said that water from a well without clocks was not good. Clocks were water beetles.

Most of the houses had pigs! Pigs were a valuable food. Some were housed inside, some roamed around outside. Killing pigs was only done by certain folk in the district. In those days, no-one had a piece of paper to say “I have a licence to slaughter”. I remember in Sourin, the late James Russell, Myres, Hugh Gibson, Bigland, Hugh Mainland, Hurtiso, and James Lyon, Ervadale, all killed pigs. This was always done at the respective houses. Of all the jobs and traditions I think was the worst, but speaking to these men they did not agree. All of them had a pride in what they did, and carried out the job in a very professional manner. The day of the killing, a large amount of water had to be boiled for the plat (to remove hair). The pig or pigs were led out for the kill. The carcass was then amerced in the “platting tub” and cleaned, then a block and tackle hoisted the pig to the twartbacks in the barn, then it was gutted. Very little if the pig was lost, and folk lived on various dishes of fresh pork for a week or so. The rest was salted down. Pigs were usually to 220 to 250 lbs and some houses fed the pig to a massive 300 lbs. This was a big carcass.

Baking was usually done every day. Bere, flour and oat bannock adorned the tea table. No bannock today can compare with the bread baked with kirn milk (butter milk). All baked on the yetleen, (girdle), (spelt as said).

Boreholes and springs

The very first borehole in Sourin was at Bigland. This is situated on the East side of the meadow. 1954 was a dry summer and Hugh Gibson decided to have water troughs in the fields and have a proper bathroom in the house. This needed a good supply. Water was divined and a large hole was dug out by hand down to bedrock. A homemade T-shaped drilling rig was then erected over the hole. This was driven by an Iron horse, this was a British Anzani tractor, with an arrangement fixed to the driving wheel to lift a jumper. The jumper then bored a 3-inch hole in the rock. As the hole went deeper the jumper got heavier, but the rock also got harder, someone had to sit in the hole slowly turning the jumper. Some days the jumper went down, perhaps 3 feet, and other days they were lucky if they managed 1 foot down. Water was found at 55 feet. The surface of the ground at the site was 30 feet above sea level and the bore went down 95 feet. I can remember discussions about seawater in the supply, but this never happened. It was an excellent supply with the water rising to 15 to 20 feet below the surface. A small shed was built and an engine and pump installed. This bore is still in use today, and as good as ever.

John Harrold, Springfield, and William Sutherland,
blacksmith, Viera View, drilling for water at
Brinian House in the late 1920s.

The farm buildings of Banks, Sourin.

The only bathrooms in Sourin in the early fifties were in the two manses and the district nurse had one in Woo. A new house was built at Banks, started in 1949-50 and this had a bathroom. It was in the sixties that bathrooms came became common in houses. The bathroom in Bigland was the fifth in Sourin.

Every household had to carry drinking water from a well or spring. The water was usually poured into a large earthenware jar. A tin with a handle soldered on the side was called a jeck or tinnie. This was dimmled into the water for a drink.

A water cart at Broland, Sourin circa 1900.

There are lots of water springs in Sourin, but there are half a dozen seriously strong springs never been known to go dry. The first one is the Meean Well, situated below Essaquoy in a field called Fananoo. In very dry summers I can remember, cattle from Bigland, Swandale, Broland, Hurtiso, Fa’doon, Breck and Myres were driven at different times to this well for a drink. I can remember the folk of Faraclett carting water in a wheeled tank behind the tractor. This was for their own use and also drinking water for the cattle, sometimes this happened twice a day. This water was cold and pristine clean, and the supply more than adequately coped, it flowed out at a steady rate. It was nigh on impossible to keep this well empty of water by a bucket. I remember sticklebacks were common in the burn in the early fifties, but I have never seen them since. One wag said that he threw a filly (part of a cart wheel) into Gin Janet, a small loch near the top of Kierfea, three days later it came up in the Meean well!! The next is Oro, a well on the land of Knarston. The next spring is on the lower land of Ervadale and as far as I know, no name. The last but not least is a spring on the lower land of Brendale, which is fed to Woo, again a very strong spring which never dries up. There is also a very strong spring supplying Faroe.

Pretty, or Standpretty, occupied by members of the Cooper family
throughout the 1800s.

House Names

Many house names in Sourin were pronounced differently to the spelling. Firstly Faraclett was always known as Fara-klee. Wasdale was Wassdeal. Swandale was Swen-dal, Stand Crown, Styno, Stand Pretty was Pretty, Midgarth was Midier, Gorehouse is G sounds as D. Goard, a enclosed field, hence Goarhouse (Dyorehus). The best one is House Finzie, a small croft on Banks was known as Finyo. Near Brittany was Hillside, now gone, as was Bogle Ha, Windbreck was known as WindyWa’. Above Curquoy were two houses, East and West Crey. This spelling is wrong; the nearest to the pronunciation is Krei.

A view of the Sourin valley, with Outerdykes in the forground, Breval, beyond,
and peat banks showing up after a dusting of snow on Brown Hill.


A lay. In cold weather men working outside at menial tasks would get cold.  One  way to get warm was to have a lay or a wrestling match, but this was not to decide a winner, it was only to get the blood circulating again. Two well-known Sourin men, one from Woo and the other from Brendale, were fencing across the road from Essaquoy, the day was cold. One said to the other “bouy, weell hae a lay” The two men started up, grunted away for a while, and one of them got up and walked away. He had a broken arm. “Bouy” he said, “thoo ar stronger than thoo lucks”.

A couple of Stories

It is strange how stories stick in the mind. The story below was told to me by someone in Sourin in the early sixties. I remember the story well but I cannot remember who told me. Below Knapper there is a quarry. Long, long ago as the story says, lived two old ladies in a small house near to this quarry. This two lived in abject poverty. Through time one of them died, and the parish buried her. Time passed and the other one died, again she was buried by the parish. When neighbours went into the house to sort out what meagre effects there were, the only sustenance left in the house were some salted snails. This must have happened a long time ago, as there is no record in any census of a house in that locality. There is no indication of a house or steethe there.

This one is on a lighter vein. The old man in Sourin had a very sore back. He lay groaning in bed for a few days. His wife fed up with this went to the shop at Banks and bought some Winter Green. Back home, she lifted his shirt and starting rubbing his back. She became a little too generous with the Winter Green, and with the heat of his body the rubbing melted and slowly ran down his hips. After a few moments a terrific pain forced him out of bed, next thing, his wife saw him in the water barrel, outside the door cooling off. The Winter Green went too far down!

Place Names

Dr Hugh Marwick’s excellent book “Rousay place names” gives most of the place names in Rousay but not all. Unfortunately over the years a lot of unrecorded names have been lost. Some of the old men like Alan Gibson of Bigland, Old John Craigie of Breck, Jeemie Willie Grieve of White Ha’, all were a fountain of knowledge of the district, but all gone. Some names in Sourin not in the place names are Girss-e-quoy, (Grass quoy) a field above Swandale.

The Grit o the Nort Green, this is an area to the north of Broland where were two dried up ditches. I have no idea how or what this means. The Long Sheet was the name of the field of Woo above the crossroads. Between Heshiber and Scroo on the Head of Faraclett was a fishing place called the “New Found Craig”. It is not an easy place to find and access to this place was a near vertical face of rocks. This was the most dangerous fishing rock in Rousay.

Jeemie Willie Grieve, White’ha, with his wife
Mary Ann and visitor Jean Hackston. c.1930

Digro – former home of James Leonard, the ‘Champion of the Rousay Crofters.’


In the mid 1960’s Digro was sold. It was bought by The Hon Ivor Montague and his wife, Hell (Helen). Their other home was in Watford. His family were merchant bankers, and he was a director of the London Zoo. When he was at Digro he was always writing and travelling around in his mini-van. On fine days he went down to Saviskaill for a swim; he would walk out with his plimsolls on to chest height then swim back to the shore.

Thrashing Mills

In Sourin, due to the hills, ditches and burns run towards the sea, and farmers were able to use this water to thrash their grain. Farms who had a water driven mill in Sourin were, Curquoy, Digro, Fa’doon, Broland, Banks, Pretty and Gorehouse. Farms who had a mill course were, Wasdale, Ervadale, Brendale, Essaquoy, Bigland, Hurtiso, Breck, Myres, Pow, Faraclett, Scockness, Woo, Knarston, Glebe and Avelshay.

The well-built walls and neat flagstone roofs at Digro are a testimony to
James Leonard’s skills as a mason, as is a miniature water-mill
standing behind the original house and supplied from
a small dam farther up the hillside.

Technology came to Rousay in the late 1920’s. John Logie of Myres bought a two hp. Lister engine for driving the thrashing mill. Engineers came out from Kirkwall and installed the machinery. They left instructions how to start the engine and a can with two gallons of petrol. No petrol pumps then. Everything went well for about two months. One day the engine would not start. They tried for about an hour, and failed. Those engines had to be started with a “wap” (handle). John went to Breck to his neighbour for help. “Bouy, dis thoo ken anyting aboot the leem and iron thing on the side o the engine”. A new name for a sparking plug.

Old Johnny Gibson of Broland bought a Tiny Mill; this was a semi high-speed mill, and was made in Banff, Scotland. It was driven by a two-horse power Lister engine, which made the thrashing drum rotate at 750 rpm. The drum usually has five rows of beaters with about twenty inch-and-a-half iron spikes. A very efficient tool. Shakers or straw walkers separated the grain from the straw. When mill and engines were new, all the old farmers had not the slightest idea how to work the mill. This was a dangerous piece of machinery. Old John was feeding the mill with a sheaf, and this sheaf pulled his hand into the drum and he lost most of his hand. Help was sought from the doctor who in turn put for an ambulance from Kirkwall. A steamer was sent out with the ambulance, which in turn collected John and back to the hospital. This was the first time an ambulance was in Rousay. Isabella Grieve, a servant girl and a first cousin of John saw this accident happening; this gave her a tremendous fright, which she never recovered fully. The time of this accident was about 1930-1. Isabella died on October 23rd 1932 aged 32 and John died on December 9th 1934 aged 90.

The Bay of Ham, with Blotchniefield hill to the left and Kierfea to the right.


I have read that whales came ashore in Sourin. This was in the Bay of Ham at Scockness in 1861; the whales came into the Sound and the Sourin men drove them ashore. Sixty animals were in the pod, some were over sixty feet long. This number of whales must have filled the small bay to capacity. Some of them were rendered down for oil and £260 pounds were paid for this. This would have been quite a windfall to the Sourin men. The stories of this event are very limited, which happened over 140 years ago. One old man who was killing the whales with a large gully (knife) was stabbing away, somehow managed to cut his hand in two. There was so much fat and meat left over that farmers from Scockness, Faraclett, Pow and Myres carted the blubber on to the land as a fertiliser. There is still part of a backbone from one of these whales still in a dyke at Woo in Sourin. It was another jawbone and vertebrae at Rose Cottage, in the Brinian. The jawbone was used as an arch for a gate, this is long gone, but the vertebrae is still there. Over the years a few dead whales have drifted ashore in Rousay, nothing remarkable about this, but one huge whale came ashore in a small bay, to the north of Faraclett, called the “North Sand”. Legend has it, that the whale was so large that it nearly filled the bay. Nothing more about this is known.

A Rousay dance band: from left – James Grieve, Fa’doon; James Craigie, Deithe;
Tommy Inkster, Woo; Michael Grieve, Knapper; Lilly Miller.


Long before radio and television, people went visiting each other’s houses; this was an important part of socialising. There were many reasons for this event, people would gather at a house for perhaps, singing, checkers, gossip, or perhaps just for seeing friends or relatives. The evening would pass and usually supper was given. When the folk went home, it was not unusual for them to be followed home, talking all the way. This was a common custom, possibly more so in the summertime.

Many stories were told about the folk going to the houses. In the days before torches or Tilly lamps there were not many visible lights on a dark windy November evening to guide anyone anywhere. I have heard about a man who left Brendale to go to Treblo, he ended up at the Glebe – about a mile off course. Another man left Hanover and ended up in Frotoft; he was going to Wasdale. Misty evenings was another problem. When folk left a house after a visit in the summertime thick mist sometimes came down like a blanket. Folk would leave a house and after a while they lost all recognition of the land, and soon had no idea where they were.

All black and white photos were provided by the author


Sourin – Part 3 of 4

The third of a four-part article
written by Tommy Gibson, Brinola, Rousay.


At Swandale is a small round pigsty. This was built by William Harold, stonemason, from the Blossan. William was an excellent mason and built arches about the Blossan, now sadly all gone. I remember a small wheelbarrow house with an arched roof and in the house was a large arched fireplace. He also built the first part of the Leean dyke below the  Blossan. The stones in this wall are small and must have taken a while to build. This dyke still stands and could be up to a hundred and forty-to-fifty years old. William also built or rebuilt Swartifield, plus a lot more in the vicinity.

Swandale – at the head of the valley between Kierfea and the Head of Faraclett


To the north of Swandale is a place called Garsnie Geo. It marks the boundary division between the farms of Swandale and Faraclett. A horse of Swandale was supposed to have jumped across the Geo about the middle. This would be an enormous leap. A body came ashore in WW2. This was found by Hugh Gibson, Bigland. Volunteers took a ladder and strapped the body and lifted it out. Another time Hugh was down in Garsnie Geo and around the corner a mine went off with a tremendous explosion. Just think about it, a mine exploding about 20-25 yards away. This must have been one of the worst experiences in his life. He was uninjured. Garsnie Geo was mostly passed by on the way to the fishing rocks of Lyber and Heshiber. Going down to Lyber was easy but Heshiber you had to use a rope to steady yourself. A long rope was usually kept at Swandale, and the fishermen called along to collect if they were going to Heshiber. There was a triangle on the top rocks and a knotted end of a rope was laid in this and a small stone was placed on top. With the aid of the rope fishermen went safely down the rock shelves to fish. To the west side of Garsnie Geo is the Blue Geos. This is high overhanging cliffs, and is one of the most dangerous places around the shore in Rousay. I know of two persons who went over and were killed. Many animals also went over here. The stable and midden of Swandale was said to be built on top of a chambered cairn. Long ago when empting the dung out of the midden the folk said that they could hear stones falling beneath them. I have never seen any record of such a mound at Swandale.

The Castle of Garsnie Geo


One of the stories I heard about early fishing in Sourin was about fishing from top of the Knee of Faraclett. The men would make horse hair lines, attach a hook to the end and sit on the edge of the cliff with their legs dangle over. They would run the line over their boot down to water. A height of 90 to 100 feet of overhanging rock, this was said to be a excellent place for catching cod, and they say fish is cheap!

In Rousay’s past, fishing boats played a small part in its economy. Six large boats were hauled at the salt-water loch at Scockness every winter. The names are all but forgotten. I only know two. This was the Lively and the Rainbow. I know that a lot of stories are lost about the fishing. Some of the things I have heard, that it was cod was most abundant. Halibut was plentiful in the Sounds. In fact they used halibut to haul the boats upon. Another story of long ago, a huge whale was washed ashore at the North Sand at Scockness. It was said that the whale was that big it nearly filled the bay. The North Sand is about 110 yards wide at the bottom and tapers out to the top. If a large whale were lying halfway up there on the beach it would have looked massive. Along the Sourin shore there were five fish houses. This was used mainly for salting cod. The first one was below Breck. I can remember this house standing on the shoreline and where were four boat nousts alongside. There were two fish houses below Finyo on the land of Banks. The next house was below Gorehouse, and there is still a part of the foundations left. There was supposed to be another fish house below Cruar but there is not any evidence to where it was.

North Sand and the Bow of Cavequoy; Kili Holm, and Eday in the distance

Willie Inkster, born Swartifield, told me a story about a duff and a boat. The story took place about 1885. James Johnston was a servant at Scockness and he was going out with an Alexander girl, a servant at Faraclett. This night the Learmonth family was having a muckle supper. Family, selected friends and neighbours were invited. The Stevenson’s of Scockness were invited but not JJ. Neither was Willie’s father, John Inkster who worked at Pow. This was next door. These two men along with others went to the cottage and took the plum duff out of the pot, (it was a large duff), ran down to the shore, pulled out to the Lively, and hid the duff in a bunk. They then went to Myres to Alan Gibson, who was sitting up with a mare who was having a foal. They went out to the stable with Alan checking the mare, saw lots of lights up at Faraclett. The folk were out looking for the duff, and they were extremely vocal when the duff was not found. The Lively went out the next day as usual, but the crew had a lovely tasty duff to eat. One of the reasons why this story has been kept and retold over and over, was probably, that not very much skull duggery took place, and when anything did happen it was well noted, told and retold.

Bill Mainland’s boats in the Bay of Ham…
…the Fisher Lad [to the left] and the Sunbeam above.

There were usually two or three creel boats based in Ham in the fifties and sixties. The first boat I remember was the Fisher Lad. This boat came from Shetland, bought by William Mainland of Essaquoy. As well as creels, Bill also went to Kirkwall every Friday, taking some passengers and returning back in the late afternoon. A few dinghies were along the Sourin shore, and they were used for a few creels and going out for cauthes on a fine summer evening. Usually there were two in the soo boat. This was the old name for a dinghy in Rousay. The old fisherman never used the word dinghy, always a soo boat. When fishing cauthes one man sat in the starn (stern) and usually had two or three wands (this was always bamboo) and one man had to ando (row slowly) the boat. On the “wand” bought from the shop at a price of 2/6 in the fifties, and the line was sixpence. This strong green line was tied in the middle of the rod and half hitched to the end and tied so as not to twist. A set of three white feathered hooks was tied to the end of the line. They cost eightpence. This was the standard fishing equipment for many years. Cauthes and lythes were caught and dried and salted. I can remember when young, having fresh boiled cauthes with tatties and butter, and enjoying them, but could not now.

The west side of Faraclett Head – bearing the brunt of a winter storm.

Wind and Weather

In the autumn of 1917 a severe thunderstorm was up in the side of Blotchnie Fiold. To say it was severe was an under-statement. It burst the sluice wall on the Muckle Water. Water that came down the Sourin burn was nearly at Woo. The Sourin Brig could not cope with such a volume of water. The water spread over the lands of Woo and Hurtiso, and nearly covered the Volspreet, and a lot drained down the Leean burn. There were drills of potatoes washed away at Lower Breck. At Lopness, the water was at the foundations of the house and water was in the mill, the miller was marooned in the house. Children from up the Sourin Brae, going to the school, could not even get to the cross roads. This was the largest amount of water ever to come down the Sourin burn. It must have been quite a sight, if someone was looking from, say Knapper, seeing all this flooding.

February 2nd 1952 a hurricane hit Britain with devastating results. The wind was in a north-westerly direction. Large amounts of fish, lobster, and crab etc. was washed up on the land of Scockness near the North Sand. This wind caused a lot of damage everywhere. That night the wind was that strong there were no waves on the sea due to the enormous pressure of the wind; a fine mist from the sea covered everything in salt. Damage was done to the school, the Kirk, the Comrades Hall was blown down, also dozens of henhouses. Hundreds of hens were killed. Dozens of stacks of crop were blown down and blown into the sea. The only good thing about the storm (not many good things can be said about the storm) was it took place at night. The amount of slates, sheet iron, felt, and a verity of every-day objects flying about did not cause any injury to anyone. I remember seeing a large turnip cut in two by a piece of roofing felt that was caught in the high winds.

A ‘snow roller’ – photographed in Wester in 2006.

In the winter of 1959 I remember the wind was in the north and with it came a night of snow. Nothing unusual about that, but the wind blew hundreds upon hundreds of large snowballs over the fields in Sourin. The wind caught and somehow rolled the soft snow along the ground and was gathered to a height, from about one foot to about three feet for the largest. By the afternoon a thaw had set in and everything was gone the next morning.

Sourin under snow: Swartifield and Faraclett Head to the left, Fa’doon, Bigland, Egilsay above and beyond.

Dykes and Quarries

Sourin has its fair share of dykes but it is only the farms along the shore. Faraclett and Scockness, Banks, Glebe, and Avelshay have the lions share. There are hardly any dykes at Woo, Curquoy, Wasdale, Ervadale, Brendale, Broland, Bigland, Swandale, Hurtiso, Knarston, Myres and Essaquoy. Swandale has only one field dyked called Mugly. Most of the dykes in Rousay were built around 1860 to 1880. Good grants were available from the government for farming improvement. One day a Frotoft man was walking through Sourin going to Wasbister. Passing Hanover he came upon a woman gathering stones in her sekky brat (an apron made of coarse cloth). He greeted her, “whit err thoo duan?” he said, “Am biggan a byre for me coo”.

The man stopped and helped the woman and by the evening the byre was built and the man continued on his journey. Sourin like the other districts has a lot of small stone quarries. This was for stones for roads, houses, steadings and dykes. The quarries at the Blossan, Howdis (pronounced “Howdees) Knowe and near to the old community centre were road quarries. At Howdis Knowe the stones were quarried and broken down to road metal (stone chips). The roadmen were paid by the cube yard. Flag quarries were up the side of Kierfea, at Hunber, on the Head of Faraclett, and some were stones were quarried on a ridge to the south of Swandale. The stones that built the steadings of Hurtiso and Banks were quarried below the shore at Lopness. James Munro, mason, of Breval, built a dyke from Hurtiso along to the Leeng Burn in the late Twenties or the very early thirties.

The County Quarry at the top of Kierfea.

The last dyke built in Sourin was the wall around the old Community Centre. The stones came from a quarry at the rear of Cruannie, this stone had good edges and was ideal for building. Berty Learmonth from Wyre and Magnus Wylie from the Blossan built the dyke in 1963-4. The last dyke built on agricultural land in Sourin for division and shelter was at Avelshay. This was 320m built for Sinclair Taylor. The mason was Graham Mathews from the Mainland.

A Sourin man was fencing on the lower reaches of Kierfea in the second war. Wooden strainers were scarce and he used a stone strainer. One was found up in the flag quarries near the top. He struggled and managed to get it down, dug a hole and secured the strainer. He then strained the wire, and tied it off. A warplane flew past, low down, near to the strainer, and it fell over! It was thought the noise broke the strainer. I can’t write what the farmer said.

Plane Crashes

On June 12th 1941 at 16.03hrs at the Blossan, a plane crashed near a small quarry between Digro and the Blossan. This was a Hurricane. Pilot Officer Reed from Bristol was in difficulties flying up the Sourin valley. He flew north over Swandale and then banked left, losing height, and crashed. The engine of the plane broke off and went tumbling down the braes and stopped quite near Fa’doon. A lot of debris and a lot of bullets were scattered  around  the  site. All the neighbours quickly went to help, as there were not many vehicles about all the folk had to run up the hill. The Doctor was called. The plot was unconscious so he was laid on a door and carried to Digro. A nurse was sent out from Kirkwall to look after him. He lay in Digro for a few weeks then he recovered sufficiently to be transferred to hospital in Kirkwall where he made a complete recovery, the only effect was that he lost his memory. He could not remember being in the Air Force. The Home Guard was called out to mount an armed guard over the plane to stop theft.

On May 1st 1944 a Martinet from Twatt Aerodrome, Birsay, crashed-landed to the west of West Creay. Canadian pilot G.H. Abbott and L/ A TAG A.S. Boar were killed. They came in from the east over Bigland, the plane was on fire, and he was losing height. The plane crashed into a small green field on the side of the Brown Hill exploded on impact, a tremendous amount of smoke billowed forth. Both men were buried in the St. Ola kirkyard.

An aircraft crashed landed on the land of Avilshay, safely with no injury to the pilot. The pilot assessed the ground saying it was unsuitable for a  take-off. The two fields of Trumland farm at the Lodge were chosen. The pilot then said that the fields were too short, and wanted to fill in the ditch between the fields. A boat was sent out from Kirkwall with a lot of men armed with spades and picks. The fence was taken down and these men tried to fill in the ditch. Local men who saw this were having a good laugh, most of the men had no idea how to work a spade and pick. The men eventually finished and the plane was manhandled to this long field. This meant taking down dykes and fences and building them up again. The pilot started up the engine and taxied, then took off in a very short space. The pilot wanted a few days leave. The fence was taken away and the two fields became one.


The first evidence of conflict is of one John Craigie who was wounded in the Battle of the Alma in the Crimean War in 1854; this was reported in the first page of the very first Orcadian newspaper. But perhaps before this is the Batteries on the Point of Avelshay. This is two small buildings, which both are still standing. The construction work of the buildings has been of a very high standard. This was perhaps built in the Napoleonic wars, around about 1814. Two cannons used to stand in recesses between the buildings. This was on hard core with large sturdy Rousay flagstones used for the floor. This was supposed to be fairly big guns, and they were pointed out towards the sound between Egilshay and Wyre. The emplacements were hidden from the sea, large quantities of earth were piled high and covered the two houses, the mound then tapered off to each side of the batteries. The cannons were gone by 1880. Inside the one house is still the timber rack, which held the muskets of the soldiers. General Burroughs of Trumland House was in charge of the territorials, and he had a cottage built for a sergeant, William Charlesworth. The name Bellona is after a God of War, and was built in 1877. A long dyke nearby was the shooting range of the territorials, this stretched from the public road at Bellona to nearly the shore. This was marked off in 100 yards, 200, and 300 yards. At one time, at certain target areas along the range, lead shot fell was gathered up and re-used. There is not a great deal of info about the but I have heard one story, a Wyre man was on parade with his comrades, somewhere on the land of Avelshay, was given a order, he refused, the officer said nothing, took the man’s rifle, smashed his face with the butt, then said, “next time you will answer me”.

Seated left is John Grieve, Fa’doon, who was killed in WW1. With him are his brothers William, Digro [right], and Robert, Cruannie.
Two more Rousay men who lost their lives in WW1 – Edward Seatter, Banks, seated left, and John Hourston Marwick, Quoys, Wasbister. On the right is John’s brother Robert.

Like the rest of the country the first and second wars had a big effect on everyone. There were over sixty men from Sourin involved in some way or another with the First World War. This must have caused a huge impact with everyone. Sons of families killed were John D. Grieve, age 18, Fa’doon; George Craigie, age 19, Pretty; John Inkster, age 18, Essaquoy; Edward Seatter, age 19, Banks; George Inkster, age 35, Knapper; Hugh Gibson, age 18, Oldman; David Munro, age 28, Old School; Graham Spark, age, 28, from the Established Manse. Eight killed in Sourin and many more injured, some were badly hurt. The young boys shed many tears when they left Rousay for the war. Some of them seemed to know that they would never see their home again. The second war, although serious, did not have the same impact as the first, nowhere near the same amount of men were called up for service. Like the first war watches was kept on the Head of Faraclett. A hut and telephone line again was installed. Thomas Walls from the Co-op House was killed. He was a clever young man of slight build, who was dux in the Kirkwall school. He joined the Royal Signals. At the fall of Singapore early in 1942 he was taken prisoner. He was subjected to harsh treatment by the Japanese army and he died shortly before the war ended.

The look-out hut on the Head of Faraclett Head at the end of WW1. From the left:- Drever, Westray;
Smith, Longhope; Cormack, Deerness; and John Harrold, Kirkwall,
who married Jeannie Harrold, Rose Cottage.

New Year

Long ago there was usually a holiday on New Year’s day. Then back to work for the second. In the 1880’s a lot of Sourin men went out shooting on New Year’s day. The Meadows of Swandale and down by Bigland to the meadows of Hurtiso was popular for snipe. Alan Gibson of Myres later Bigland, and some of his pals were walking up through Cuppo discussing this and that. They then wondered if their guns could be held up by their trigger. Alan then took his gun and tried this. Unfortunately the gun went off with one unholy bang and blew a substantial hole in the ground between his feet. He was very lucky that his feet were not close together. That put a stop to any more “fools” wark.

Hunting, shooting and fishing – Rousay style.
[No names I’m afraid]

Some Sourin boys went first-footing, visiting the folk at Breck one New Year, about 100 and something years ago. They knocked on the door, the old man arose from his bed, welcomed the boys in. He tended to their needs and insisted to give them shortbread. The shortbread was in the bottom of the girnel. The old man was bent well over trying to retrieve the bread, and his nightshirt rose up and revealed a bare bum. He, by this time, was stuck. The boys, instead of helping him, took the water bucket and sloshed his rear end, then ran. So much for kindness!

All black and white photos are courtesy of the author, Tommy Gibson.


Sourin – Part 2 of 4

The second of a four-part article,
written by Tommy Gibson, Brinola, Rousay

Kierfea Hill dominating this north-westerly view of Sourin – Woo in the foreground.

Squaring of the land

In about the 1850’s the land in Rousay was squared. Before this the ownership of the land was scattered about. For example, Scockness used to own small pockets of land in the meadow of Bigland, which was about a mile away, Woo had land across the boundary of the Sourin burn. This meant that the farmer owned or rented all the land within the boundaries of his farm or croft. Some of the houses came out better than others. For example Essaquoy originally was 300 hundred yards to the north, and was moved to its present site. The land was squared and this took some of the good land of Hurtiso and Broland and this was given to Essaquoy. Hurtiso and Broland had to take some poorer land. New fields were marked out and dykes and ditches were built and dug to mark the boundaries. Most of them are still there. Few houses were moved in Sourin. Breck was moved to the north about 150 yards; Hurtiso was moved to the west about 100 yards. Classiquoy on the land of Avilshay was moved 200 yards to the west. The Manse at the Glebe was moved 30 yards to the South of its original site.

An ancient tattie-lifter rusts away on the corner at Banks.
Sandy bay just west of Scrimpo, Scockness; Egilsay in the distance.

Rights of way

Sourin like any other place has its own rights of way; this gave access to an individual across someone’s property for a particular purpose. One thing sticks to mind was the sand links at Scockness in the mid fifties and very early 1960’s. When someone wanted sand for the land this was taken from the links, and if it was for cement this was taken from the shore. The road went past the steading of Scockness down the valley, over the brae, then to the shore. I can remember 10 to 15 tractors carting sand off a day. The rule of the road for sand was the same as the peat road. The travelling people going around the houses had a hawkers licence to sell. They also had right of way over any field. They would never cross a field of grain or hay turnips, they always went along the side. If they took a turnip from a drill, they always ate it. Taking away a neep was theft, eating was not. The worst episode of trespass I ever saw was about 1953-4. This was some terribly posh upper class twits out on a shooting spree. They came out of a car near to Hurtiso, armed themselves with shotguns, their dogs were chasing the cattle at Hurtiso. Next minute, the five of them was walking across a field IN the crop. In that days NO one ever walked in crops. They walked on; shooting and killing or wounding anything that flew. It mattered not to them. They continued crossing fields of Essaquoy, Bigland, Broland, Swandale, Breck and Myres. Funny thing in that days no one did anything to stop them. Was this a hint of the gentry returning? Even at that time, these gentlemen (I use the term loosely) they did not have any right to walk across any field or less to shoot. They did not even have the manners to ask the landowners to shoot on the land. May the Lord help them if they were caught doing that now.

Sourin today – looking south from Faraclett

A lot of those rights have been lost through time. At one time all the openings to the shore was a right of way. The shore being the source of ware, sand, gravel and stone. Most of them are gone, but I can remember some of the Sourin ones. The peat roads, this was for carting peats only. There was a path, a public right of way from the corner at the shop down past Hanover, across the burn past a long gone house called Quaddraa, (near to Faroe) then to the Kirk. I can mind Dorothy Munro leaving Breval at 8.45 every morning and walking to the shop where she worked, we were walking down the Sourin Brae to the school at the same time. There were ways past Nethermill at the west side, past Lopness, down the Leean Burn to the old fish house, in front of Breck, back of Breck, down past Myres, across the South Meadows and to Ham and up to the Kirkyard at Scockness. The last one can never close. There were also lots of ways to wells and springs. I suppose, due to its locality the Meean well had the most use by its various neighbours for use of its water. I also can suppose that this right may never be used again due the use of boreholes. I can also say that rights of way caused more arguing than any other subject.


The shops in the district were at Guidal, Isaac Marwick, pictured here with his wife Betsy Yorston, was a general merchant also a joiner shop and cobbler. Many other things took part as well. The registrar was at Guidal for many years. The odd tooth was extracted, hair was sometimes cut. Another shop was at Banks; this was situated in the east end of the dwelling house. This shop closed in 1896 when the Mainland family left Banks and the Seatter family came from Ness in Westray. The Seatters lived and farmed in Banks till the mid 1960’s. In 1870, James Yorston started up a small grocery store at the Old Man. I would have thought that this was not a very good site, but he carried on and was taken over by a Co-op about 1890. A new building to house the Co-op was built near the school. The Co-op was moved to its new premises about 1906. A house was then built for the manager. The Co-op used to employ 3 to 5 workers. They were managers, van men and assistants. The van went out most days with deliveries and for collections. A horse van was used for delivery and collections. The Co-op kept a horse for the van, but when the van was due for Wasbister, the horse of Woo was traced into the van. This horse helped pull the van to the top of the Sourin Brae. A two-ton Commer lorry was then purchased in the mid 1930’s. The Co-op stable was converted as a garage to house the lorry. For deliveries and collections the platform was used; old lorries were high and the platform was about 5ft. 6ins above the ground. Top speed was about 30 mph. For selling groceries, the old horse van was converted to fit the lorry, with an arrangement at the rear for the elderly and infirm to get into the van. There was a remarkable amount of groceries in the shelves for sale. The van usually stayed on the public road, but if a farm road was good the van went to the house. When the van was not used, an endless chain fixed to the garage roof lifted the van off the platform.

Some van men I remember were John Seatter of Banks, then John Grieve, Digro, Fred Craigie of the Bu in Wyre. This shop, like the Hullion one, was remarkable. The shops carried all the groceries and animal and poultry feeds, oils, tools, and hardware needed by all the families in their respective districts.

The Rousay Co-op lorry-van

The first manager was a Mr. Work from the Mainland; next was Sandy Grieve of Nethermill, then Harry Gibson, whose parentage came from Upper Knarston, married Hannah Grieve, Fadoon. By the 2nd World War a Mr. Walls from Rendall took over as manager. Mr. Wall’s son Thomas lost his life in the war in Burma building an infamous railway. The next manager was Magnus Flaws from Wyre, then two brothers from Kirkwall John and Gib Taylor was manager and store man respectively. Two ladies were next, Annie and Bella Craigie, they were born at Treblo. Their father, John Craigie, owned the Queens Hotel in Kirkwall. He had been a miller in Sourin for many years. John and Dorothy Inkster, from Hurtiso were next. They had the post office and telephone exchange. This was transferred with them. The Sourin Shop as it was then, closed in 1973-4. It was sad day for Sourin. At one time the shop did deliveries of animal and poultry feed and collected 1000’s of eggs. Hullion’s shop closed in 1989. This was transferred to Marion Clark who opened a shop at Essaquoy in November. Shelves  were  erected,  groceries  were  bought,  and  a  large  van  was   acquired.  A remarkable amount of groceries adorned the shelves. Petrol pumps, and a tarmac road for easy access were put in in 2000. The first recorded shop was at the Oldman in the 1871 census, with Robert Yorston. This would have been, to say the least, modest. With merchants at Banks, Guidal and the Co-op, and a period of about 15 years without a shop, Sourin folk have been shopping for 115 years.

Post Office

There is no record of any early post offices in Sourin. The first record I can find is one Barbara Craigie of Pharo (Faroe) who was a letter carrier. The first  post office in Sourin was at the Old School. Mary Ann Munro was the first Postmistress. The first postman in Sourin I think was John Inkster of Swartifield. Born on August 3rd 1864 and as a young man went fishing and later took the tenancy of Essaquoy, He was appointed to the postal service in 1898. His round was a daily one. During the First War this was reduced to three times a week till 1931 when it went to a daily service again. John retired after 35 years service and he said that on his rounds he walked 65,000 miles. The next place for the post office was a new house called Millburn near the Mill, when Rene and Robert Lyon took over. This was in the early 1950’s. They left and went to farm Curquoy. The next house was Hurtiso where John and Dorothy Inkster took over. Annie and Bella Craigie from the shop were due to retire and wanted to go to Kirkwall. John and Dorothy took over the shop and the post office, pictured to the right, was moved back up to the shop. This remained in Sourin till the early seventies, when the office moved back to Frotoft, to Broch.

Postmen I remember in the Island were Albert Munro, who lived for a time in Eastaquoy, his niece Dorothy Munro, Breval, who delivered the Sourin mail. This postal round was walked. This round started at the School. They delivered up to Curquoy, then the hill houses, up to Cruannie, down to Swandale, across to Scockness, back by Myres and Lopness to the School. This was a long walk every day. John Marwick, Breek, William Gibson, Hullion, Roy Russell, Myres, John Inkster, Co-op House, were Rousay postmen, each one of them looked the part and were excellent. Mailboxes were situated at the road of Avelshay as it is today. The Old School was the position of the next one. The road end at Faraclett, this was called the South-Meadow box and again below Cruannie on the Sourin Brae.

Postman John Marwick at Avelshay, c1938.
Postman John Inkster, Craigearn, 1975.

The Smithy

Smithy’s and blacksmiths played an important role in any community. In Sourin there used to be smithies at Hanover, Woo, Banks, Cruannie, and Faraclett. On the northeast land of Hurtiso near the old fish house, was said to be an old smithy in that vicinity, but there is no evidence now. The spring was a busy time for the smith with the shoeing of horses and repairing implements.

A long-lens view of the Sourin Brae from Egilsay. The shop is lower right,
Fa’doon above it, Digro top left, and Blossom at the top.


The Sourin Brae, a long steep road, goes from 44 feet above sea level at the cross roads straight up past the road of Digro to a height of 364 feet. That makes this road the highest, longest and straightest road in Orkney. I can remember in the late fifties or early sixties the public road at the Blossan was in a bad state of repair. I think it was after frost and the surface softened. Tractors and trailers made severe ruts in the road. The council, at the time had no money to effect repairs. This state of affairs went on for some time; the road got worse, a letter sent to The Orcadian from an irate Wasbister farmer, said, “when travelling along this bumpy road at 30 mph, false teeth were ejected from the mouth.” The road was eventually repaired.

J. Wylie, Blossom, with first steam road roller in Rousay, and below are more members
of the road maintenance crew at the top of the Sourin Brae, c1920.

The late 1950’s the District Council decided to build a road into Curquoy, Wasdale, Ervadale, Brendale and Knapper. When the road was applied for there were people living in Gripps. The road then was built to the next house, which was Curquoy. This road was built in 1958-9. Total length of the road was about two thirds of a mile. 10 men and one lorry were used. All the ditches, verges, any moving of earth or clay was dug out by hand. No mechanical aid was used in those days. All the work was done by pick and shovel. Large amount of stones and bottoming was carted from the quarry at the Blossan, all loaded by hand. Tarmac was also laid by hand, and a very large road roller finished off the job. 16 inhabitants lived along the hillside and this road made it possible for them to have cars and drive them home. Two wooden caravans, belonging to the Council, were in the quarry of Grindleysbreck; they housed some of the workmen. One of the men living in one of the caravans was a Englishman, and if I remember correctly his name was John Sharky; he was a gifted pianist, who 40 years later I heard that he was living in Edinburgh writing poetry. The next road in Sourin was to Bigland, this was only about a third of a mile. This road was built about 1962-3. Seven or eight workmen built this road, still with picks and shovels, but this time with the help of tractor and loader and a lorry. This was the last time that the old District Council paid for new road building in Sourin. A short private road was laid into Marion’s Shop at Essaquoy; this made easier access to the shop and fuel pumps.

Lochs, Brigs and Burns

There are only two lochs in Sourin. On the land of Scockness is a small salt-water loch near the point of Longataing; the area is 4 acres but seems to be getting smaller. Between the farms of Scockness and Faraclett is the fresh water loch extending to 12 acres. This loch is mainly fed by springs. The Loch of Quoys, near the school has filled  in  over  the  years;  this water was used to drive the thrashing mill at Banks.

The Loch of Scockness.

About the 1840-50 transport in Rousay was non-existent. There would have been horse and sledges, I doubt if there were any carts in use in Sourin. Walking was only mode of transport. Let us take a walk in the winter time, after a day of rain, from the Blossan to the old Kirk in 1840. We leave the house and walk down the Sourin Brae; we come to a large ditch between Cruannie and Digro, a torrent of water, but we manage to jump across. Next is the Sourin burn; how can we cross a wide burn in spate? The narrowest place to cross is near to Hanover or go down to the shore. We walk on, and another ditch, below Quoys past what will be near to the school, we can jump this one. We carry on past Knarston, to the burn of Cruar. We have to go up the side of the hill to cross over. We can carry on to the Kirk. As you can see it was not very easy to walk across districts long ago. Through time bridges and roads were built. A square bridge was built at the top of the Sourin Brae and at the bottom was the Sourin Brig. This was a single-span bridge built perhaps about 1853-4. I have never seen any record of this; another brig was built across the burn at the mill. The Leeng burn has a square brig built below Breck. At the Loch of Quoys a square brig and sluice was built, perhaps in 1852. The brig of Cruar has a central pillar and this supports very thick flagstones. There is an arched brig across the burn of Peeno near to Hanover.

Collecting water from the Meean well.
The Sourin/Suso burn close to the Sourin Mill.

One of the strangest names in Sourin is a field on the land of Essaquoy called Fananoo, in this field is a very strong spring called the “Meean” Well; this is attached to the “Leeng Burn”. This flows into the Geo of Bigland, below Breck. The Leeng burn has quite a large catchment area, from Lea on the side of Kierfea down the valley to Swandale, and Bigland on the other side of the valley. The Sourin burn was at one time called the Suso burn. This flows from the Muckle Watter to the mill at Lopness. At one time the course of the burn was changed below the Sourin Brig. (The Sourin Brig is the bridge at the salmon hatchery.) The burn below the brig used to flow through the field of Hurtiso called Volespreed in a large curve and go to the mill. The laird had the burn dug out to a gentle curve to the mill. Above the brig is a dam at Woo to which a large ditch was dug to feed the waterwheel at the mill. He also had a track quarried out for the last part of the burn at Nethermill down to Kirsty Pabies Pow. This is the name of the pool at the end of the Burn. A large heavy stone was placed across the burn. This was moved by a huge amount of water in the mid 1960’s.

All black and white photos are courtesy of the author – Tommy Gibson


Sourin – Part 1 of 4

The first of a four-part article
written by Tommy Gibson, Brinola, Rousay

Sourin is the largest of all the districts in Rousay. In the 1841 census 316 persons lived in 74 households compared with today (2003) with only 65 in 29 households. I remember about 1956-7 about 120 folk in Sourin. The terracing on the eastside of Kierfea at 762 feet, and the Head of Faraclett 341 feet, is very noticeable when coming into Sourin from the South. This was due to the ice age. The traditional divisions are to the south is the Red Road, or Kirk Brae, and to the north, the Council dump at the top of the Leean, and from Scockness up the Sourin Valley to the west. The different districts divisions in the hill are not very well defined. Sourin as its name suggests had a lot of sour wetland, especially under the north side of the hill of Knitchen. Sourin also boasts some excellent dry fertile land, with some of the best land in Sourin on the steepest fields. Traditionally the Blossan, or Hammermugly, at 455 feet was the highest elevated house lived in, in Orkney. Blackhammer in Wasbister is about the same elevation. Sourin is surrounded on three sides by hills.

Fa’doon dominates the foreground in this 1950s view of Sourin

To the east is the sea. If anyone stops on the public road below Hammermugly, they have before them the very best view in Orkney. This is from the Noup Head, Westray to Deerness to the south. All the north Isles and countless holms and skerries. On a very clear day, usually in summer time, Fair Isle can be seen over the Red Head, Eday. Foula can be seen over Papa Westray. Foula is on the same latitude as Lerwick but I have never seen any part of the Shetland mainland on the horizon. In the days of herring fishing out to the east of Orkney, fishing boats coming back, could not distinguish the Islands and Kierfea, being one of the highest points and was known as Culldee Hill, was one of the points of navigation.

Looking east from the top of the Sourin brae, with Bigland, Breck and Myres in the foreground; the Holm of Scockness;
the northern tip of Egilsay; the Westray/Stronsay Firth; the southern tip of Eday;
and the western coast of Stronsay in the distance

The Mill

The Sourin Mill is a large well-built stone building of three storeys, situated at the end of the Sourin burn near Lopness and Nethermill. This was the largest building in Sourin, and today still stands as straight and square as it was when it was built. On the west end of the building four plaques have the dates of 1777, 1861,1880 1937. The first date is presumably when the building was constructed. It is not known if there was a mill there before, and I doubt if there were. The wheel on the east end of the mill is a cast iron construction, and was made in sections. The wheel was 14 feet in diameter, and 4 feet across with 48 buckets. The axel, holding everything up, was 5 inches of solid steel. The arrangement at the wheel for the water was overshot, this was quite a powerful wheel to drive all the equipment, which were three sets of grinding wheels. The first one was for bere meal; the stone was from Derbyshire, called Derby Burr. The oatmeal stone was manufactured; it was made in sections and then banded with iron hoops, called a French Burr. The shelling stone usually came from Yesnaby in Sandwick. Also the hoist; this was to lift the sacks of grain to the top of the mill, and elevators and separators and fans. The water driving the wheel came from the Muckle Water, with a small dam that was built at Woo. A ditch was dug from the dam to the wheel above the burn to the mill course as the wheel was overshot. A wooden trap in the mill course diverted and governed the amount of water to and from the wheel. In the 1940’s a small shed was built at the rear of the mill.

The Sourin mill

This was a room to house a small dynamo driven by a small water wheel, to provide electric light in the mill. The only light was from paraffin lamps, and this was the only light used since the mill was built. Before the days of the mill, most of the houses had a kiln attached to the barn, which the corn and oats for drying was done. After the mill was built, a lot of drying was still done but then the grain was sent to the mill. This practice was continued up to the 1850’s, then more and more grain sent to the mill undryed. The kiln at the mill became too small, and in 1861 a larger kiln was built. This was slightly wider than the mill and slightly higher. This increased the floor area for grain drying. I have no record for 1880, but there must have been some structural work taken place. In 1937 the kiln took fire. The roof of the kiln was badly damaged and the mill was out of production for a while. Had the fire gone into the main building the whole lot would have been destroyed. There is a tremendous amount of timber in the mill. Heavy beams under the floor, holding up untold tons of grain, huge beams, a foot square holding up the hoist mechanism, which is housed in a wooden structure in front of the mill. Repairs to the kiln and a new roof was put on and the mill started up again.

The miller, or his son or servant, had to walk up to the tepping (sluice) early on a Monday morning to open the sluice as it took a few hours for the water to flow down. This water ran till Saturday when it was closed in the afternoon. The water ran on till 9-10 o’clock when the mill closed for the day. Only in the springtime when the water was not so plentiful that the sluice was closed every afternoon. The miller usually worked for 14 hours a day and six days a week and usually employed a kiln man and at busy times a labourer. On the average working day the mill ground 25 sacks of oats and 22 sacks of corn or bere. A sack of grain was 2 cwt, this was traditionally the correct weight for the mill, and the meal came in how (boll) sacks. A boll was 10 stone.

Corn or bere had only two rows of grain while barley has four. Long ago it was mainly black oats and red sandy; it was only in later years that heavier oats were available. The best yield was from the smaller oats. Products from the mill were oatmeal, bere meal, grapp and souan sids. Grapp was an inferior grade of grain and hull, ground for pig and poultry feed. Souan sids, was when the flour was riddled small bits of husk and the finest flour was gathered up. This was then soaked and made into a sharp porridge. I remember in the mid 1950’s Robbie Seatter of Banks had a square of corn growing in a field above the mill. The area was about half an acre, and this was about the last of the corn grown in Rousay for the Sourin mill.

A view of the Sourin mill from Egilsay

Each sack of grain weighed 2 cwt. each. This was traditionally the correct weights for the mill. Carts which came to the mill with grain usually went under the hatch in front of the mill. The grain was then lifted to the top of the mill by a hoist. Once the hoist was engaged the sack had to travel to the top of the mill. A chain with a loop was then put around the sack. Once a farmer put the chain around the sack, and unfortunately the hoist was engaged before his fingers were out of the chain. The miller looked down when he heard shouting. “Woe, woe, stop, stop,” the farmer was coming up holding on very, very tightly to the sack! The Sourin mill took most of the grain in Rousay. In the springtime when the weather dried, the Sourin mill had plenty of water and grain came from Westray, Eday, North Fara, Egilshay and Wyre. When the North Fara men came to the mill, they went to Hurtiso for a horse and cart to take the grain from the boat to the mill. Sometimes the horse was working, or in the hill, so they were quite happy with a cart. Fara men were big and strong: they pulled the cart themselves. Three Westray men were drowned near the Clett at Scockness. The boat was a Westray skiff, loaded with grain. Northerly wind and a back tide cause a nasty upheaval in the water along the Clett. The boat, perhaps too close to the shore, missed a tack and capsized at the shore. The mill was a meeting place for local boys from the district of an evening. Some of the more popular ones were going hand-over-hand over the twartbaeks (couple backs) in the roof. Another thing they did was to write their name on a wall using a fifty-six pound weight as a pen, hooked on their little finger and only very few of them could do this. In many ways it is a pity that the mill had to close, for it was a source of food and as a social gathering place in the evening for the people of the district, for news, views, contests and trivia etc. The mill closed down in 1955.


Sourin has a large area of peat banks, and this is situated below Blotchnie Fiold and Knitchen. Every household has a right to cut, dry and cart peats. Working in the hill, was thought by some, a pleasant job, others did not like the work. Access to this part of the hill in this area was by two roads. The lower road was past the Free Kirk, over the waddie (across the burn), past Breval and over the quagmire; this was an area of soft clay in the road where sometimes tractors and trailers mired. Tons of stones were carted there every year and tipped into road but they soon disappeared in the soft wet clay. The upper road was in by Knapper, past Curquoy then into the hill. Anyone who came out with a load of peats had right of way, carts and tractors going in to the hill had to get off the road when they met a load coming out. Every year up to about 1960, most of the Sourin men took a set day to repair both of the roads, and clean up ditches. The peat banks used by the Egilshay men was on the hill of Knitchen. The road to this hill went up past Kingerly and Clumpy. The Egilshay peats were built on a piece of land below the Gorehouse and the Geord of Banks along the shore. There are also old peat banks on the hill of Avelshay, with a road up past Classiquoy, and it is been a long time since this area was cut.

William Costie & son William carting peats back to Kingerly. c1900

The first peat banks in Rousay were on south side of the Brown Hill. The marks of the banks are still to be seen. The early peat cutters only cut the top tough moss. This was what was called “foggy” peats and when dried they carried home the dried peats on their back. The old folks thought that the black moss would not burn properly. It was less than two hundred years since they discovered that black peats were the best burning. In the days of the estate anyone needing a peat bank went to the land officer; he in turn told the gamekeeper, who set out the bank. Malcolm Hourie of Braehead was the last gamekeeper to lay off peat banks. The last bank laid off by the gamekeeper was about 1958-9. The length of a peat bank was usually governed by the state and depth of the moss at the upper end of the bank. Gock heeds, was tussock grass with roots that was nearly impossible to cut; this made banks bad to work. The width of the bank was for twenty-one years cutting. I know that there was no record of the peat banks kept in Rousay. Everyone knew their own bank, but they also knew nearly every bank in the hill. Woe betide if anyone went into the hill and cut the wrong bank. I suppose that there are not many folk alive today who know the proper location of many of the banks. Where is the banks of Digro, Swartifield, Grindleysbreck, Feelyha’? Very few folk know, most folk don’t care. The peat bank then went with a particular house. If that tenant or owner left that house, he lost the peat rights of that particular bank. When a household became empty, folk left the Island or died, and if someone asked for the use of that peat bank, they could only use that bank under sufferance. They still had no right to that bank. The house that he went to had a separate bank, and if there were any dispute, the gamekeeper was sent to sort it out.

John Craigie, Breck, Jimmy Rendall, Braes,
and James William Grieve, Outerdykes

The old peat banks on Brown Hill, below Loomachun.

In the 1960’s folk from other districts came to the Sourin hill for peats. Some of the older men in Sourin were not pleased about this. By this time fewer and fewer folk were going to the hill and a large number of peats banks were idle. Roads to the other part of the hills were becoming impassable. If a bank had not been cut for three years, some said they could cut this bank, and by this time there were plenty of spare banks in the hill, and little attention was paid to this. A day’s work in the hill was called a “doward”, traditionally started at 7 o’clock working till 11-30. A break to 1 o’clock then finished at 6. Plenty of food and home brew ale usually went to the hill as well. In the 1930’s it was not uncommon to see 30 to 40 folk in the hill flaying, cutting or spreading peat. Long ago the men went to the hill for flaying (removing the top turf) the bank and when it came to cutting women nearly always took out the peats. This was by far the heaviest job in the hill. Women then usually did most of the work, spreading and setting up the peats to dry. In olden days women used to wear spleetos (combinations) and some did not. On a dry windy day summers day, with the ladies bending over the peats, dare I say more.

Taking home the peats. Ronnie Shearer crossing the Sourin burn. 1938

In the first half of the last century the average farm would use around 100 cartloads of peats. In Sourin the road to the hill was quite level and was not too a heavy pull on the horse. A load of peats in a cart was about 8 to 10 barrow load, again depending on the size of the horse. Some of the smaller houses only had work ox. A big work ox was extremely strong, but very slow. An ox was not as handy as a horse because it could not go backwards. The cart shafts had to be lifted over the back of its back, and if pulling a sleigh, they had to be turned into the front then hitch up. If, for example, someone living at Goarhouse went to the hill for a load of peats with an ox, on a hot day, it would take hours and hours. Some of the oxen would pull sledges piled up with peats and this was quite a heavy load. Horse and carts were about twice the speed of an ox. The roads were very busy when peat-carting time came. Farmers tried to avoid getting behind a slow work ox. Certain places along the road there were passing places and meeting places. Empty carts coming into the hill always gave way to the loaded carts going out. When the peats were finally carted a huge stack was usually built near to the house. Some of the stacks in other places were built with the peats in a herringbone effect, but in Rousay the peat’s in the stack was always built flat. With peat fires and thatched roofs, and stockyards near to the dwelling house, high winds meant sparks and hot ashes came out of the chimney on very windy nights; some houses gave a spectacular display of sparks out of the chimney. There were never any house fires or stacks burnt down due to sparks as far as I know in the parish. In the olden days the folk followed a certain code about the hill and the way they worked the hill. They went about their duties cutting the peats, spreading, setting up and carting, and if for any reason someone needed help, nearly every one rallied around. There has not been any peat’s cut in Rousay since 1999.

All black & white photos are courtesy of the author.