Rousay in the late 1700s



1795 – 1798


The Reverend Mr. JAMES LESLIE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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