Orkney – Rousay and Egilsay

We’ve been to Orkney several times, but haven’t really done many of the Outer Islands. On Tuesday 28 June I ambled down to the Ferry office and a couple of staff sorted me out for a trip to Rousay and Egilsay the following day (we were the standby car on the final leg which could have meant we were unable to travel – they weren’t having that, so phoned the ferry’s captain to ensure there would be space for us). The following morning the question was “which idiot booked us on the 0820 boat from Tingwall to Rousay? When the alarm went off at 0630, there was silence the other side of the bed. We left about 0715 and were parked by check-in time at 0800 – not that there was any sign of a boat. It comes in from the islands, and is met by the bus to Kirkwall (which is the bus from Kirkwall if you don’t mind a guided tour of Orkney en route) and a second bus for the two pupils for the Grammar School. I had not realised that you reverse onto the boat – I hope that is part of the Orkney driving test.

An easy crossing to Rousay, and we arrived at Trumbland Pier at 0850 – easy off and we drove the main road. It runs along the south side of the island, and Taversoe Tuick Chambered Cairn is the first place signposted. It was built about 5,000 years ago and is a fascinating double-decker burial mound – they could certainly build tombs and took venerating their ancestors very seriously.

We drove on to the laybye for Midhowe chambered cairn and broch. It was a 15 minute walk down to them – and rather longer to get back (it was steep and I am unfit). First you
come to what looks like a barn – you open the door and wow. It is huge and, although you can’t walk round it, you can walk over it, and you get a sense of the size of the structure and the resources that must have gone into it. Yet they only found the remains of about 25 humans – surely there must have been more. It seems likely that the dead were first buried in a crouched position on the shelves of the tomb, allowed to decompose to bones, and then rearranged. When the tomb was excavated in the 1930s, nine corpses were found crouched in the stalls, facing towards the central chamber. Three skulls were placed upright on one of the benches, and the remains of at least 15 other individuals were scattered around the chamber. Presumably the nine corpses were the most recent burials, awaiting rearrangement. At some date the tomb was deliberately filled with stones to prevent further use.

Next to the Cairn is a Broch – it’s Iron Age, so 2000 BC (about 3,000 years after the cairn – makes you wonder if the cairn was visible and what the broch-visitors thought about it). It stands over 4 metres high, and would originally have been double that. Inside you can still see stone partitions, a spring-filled water tank, and a hearth. Archaeologists digging here in the 1930s found a remarkable array of everyday artefacts, stone and bone tools associated with grain processing, spinning and weaving; pieces from crucibles and moulds, indicating bronze working, but rather oddly not iron working, and a fragment from a Roman bronze vessel. According to the website “the last item is of special interest to archaeologists. It recalls the proud boast by Roman historian Eutropius in the AD 300s that the king of Orkney had submitted to Emperor Claudius in AD 43.” The website does not tell us where this fragment is.

We drove round the island and went to the Heritage Centre by the harbour. There was a sign to “The Moorings” for refreshments. We were a bit surprised to find it was a catering van, but she was friendly and it was an excellent bacon sandwich with cheesy chips. The ferry arrived – on its third crossing of the day – and it runs to Egilsay on request at 1315. In other words, we had our own ferry to Egilsay!

A short crossing to Rousay, we arrived at 1335 and drove up to St Magnus church. Earl Magnus was killed on the island on 16 April c. 1117. He had arrived for a peace summit with two ships. Earl Hakon arrived with eight ships and he followers demanded Magnus be killed and the earldom united. Lifalf the cook was made to execute Magnus after Hakon’s standard bearer Ofeig refused. Magnus told Lifalf “he who forces you sins more that you do” and died by a single axe blow to the head. Bishop William of Orkney recognised Magnus’ sanctity twenty years later, in 1136, and made him a saint. St Magnus Church was likely built soon after that, on one of the spots where Magnus’ murder is said to have taken place.

Historic Scotland says that “the ruin today is, after St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, the
finest surviving Norse church in Scotland, testimony to the wealth and authority of Orkney’s Norse rulers. It stands remarkably complete in three parts: a chancel to the east, a central nave, and the distinctive round tower to the west. The tower was originally at least 4m taller than it is today, and comprised five floors. Its design has architectural parallels in north Germany and around the North Sea, demonstrating the far-flung contacts of the Orkney earldom. The church’s chancel housed the altar. Above the altar was a room that probably served as a treasury and sacristy. The nave, where islanders and pilgrims stood or knelt during services, was covered by a high-pitched roof.”

Sadly Historic Scotland have fenced it off due to dangerous high-level masonry – which seems to be a catch-all term for “lack of funding means lack of maintenance”, but it was still a very evocative place. Gorgeous lichens on the gravestones. The War Memorial has one name from the First World War and one name from the Second.

We then walked/rolled for about 3 miles – down the road to the Magnus Monument and onto the RSPB reserve. The track wasn’t good enough for J to get all the way down to the beach. I think I have a career as a wildlife photographer.

The memorial shows what men in London really think of the locals – my one visit to St Magnus Church in London did not make me think they would be happy bedfellows with a Scottish Kirk!

We went down to the pier, used the loo (the island’s only facility!) and two vehicles (us and the RSPB rangers) joined the ferry. We left at 1655, called at Wyre (one more vehicle), then at Rousay (they had nine vehicles on, and could probably have squeezed another couple in). They also had the mail bags on board. Is there anywhere else in Britain where ordinary human beings can now travel with the post? Mail trains with passengers have gone, no more mail in the guard’s van, no buses (I assume), certainly no Postbuses – feels like a research project!

Back at Tingwall at 1800 and we drove home. Along, but wonderful, day.

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