Click on pictures to see them enlarged in a photo stream. Comments: word verification on to allow anyone to comment but try and deter excessive amounts of spam! I LOVE getting comments!

Sunday 10 April 2011

Archaeology Day on Graemsay

Yesterday, despite the mist, Dan Lee (project officer for ORCA), his partner Antonia Thomas, also an archaeologist and a few hardy folk from the Orkney Mainland visited Graemsay for a day looking at some archaeology on the island. The event had been organised by the Scapa Flow Landscape Partnership to give the Graemsay folk an opportunity to explore some of the heritage on the island. OK we don't have a Skara Brae, or any other major discoveries - but we have lots of "grassy mounds" and some wartime relics (the concrete variety, not human - just to be quite clear!).

We started off at Sandside, where a cist had been discovered in the mid 1970's by Gertie Seatter, then of Sandside while out walking her dog.  A skull was spotted poking out of the shore line after a storm and after some excavation work a single burial cist was found (radio-carbon dating put it around 11th Century AD - apparently a time when the isles were becoming Christian, and there were elements of both pagan and Christian burial. There were no "artefacts" found with the burial).

Although there is little to see at the site now, we did explore a little along the shore and Dan pointed out a potential earlier settlement site than the current 19th Centuray buildings, with flagstones lower down the soil base, and some signs of a midden with shells embedded.  Though it has to be said interest soon turned to the beach itself and searching for shells.  We told the visitors of the Graemsay tradition - you're not allowed to leave the "shell beach" until you've found a "groatie buckie" (a mini cowrie shell).  Some frantic searching took place as folk thought they would miss out on the hot soup for lunch if they couldn't escape from the shore!

Attention turned to the old croft of Quoys and a hunt for an old click-mill, then onto Hoy Low to explore the WWII relics - the old gun battery and lookout tower. I have mixed feelings about the brutal concrete structures in the soft landscape, but they are very much part of Graemsay's history and it was interesting inspecting them with "someone in the know". Dan explained that the battery was actually constructed quite late in the war. In fact the walls around the gun emplacement were unusual as they were well made with stone, whereas many others in Orkney were hastily constructed and the walls made of shuttered concrete. Dan also told us that the guns that were positioned there had been moved from the island of Burray once the Churchill Barriers had been constructed. The guns were no longer needed at Burray as the barriers were now the protection for the Naval fleet in Scapa Flow.

The gun battery on Graemsay linked up with that on Hoy and at Ness on the outskirts of Stromness, protecting the entrance to Scapa Flow.  As well as the gun emplacement and lookout tower, there were also magazine stores and search light points, generator sheds, and the remains of the concrete bases of accommodation huts with fireplaces still in situ.

On a misty day it was easy to understand how those deployed to Graemsay thought they had reached the "end of the earth" - and how cold and bleak it must have seemed on a winter day.

Also at Hoy Low is a site thought to be an early Christian church, St Colms. There is evidence, apparently, of some foundations of the early church, though the WWII generator building foundation seems to have been dumped on top of part of the site!

The party then moved onto Corrigal, an old croft, now unihabited.  There was a steep descent to look at the croft and another "grassy mound" which was thought to be an early site too, though as Dan said, without supporting evidence it was hard to say what it might have been or when it was built. One of the visiting children was heard to wearily say "Oh no not another grassy mound!"  Dan bore this with fortitude and explained that an archeologist's lot was often staring at grassy mounds.

Finally the mist begins to clear and the visitors could get their bearings..... Hoy Hills in the background.

The old croft of Corrigal

However even the flagging spirits of the children were revived by lunch in the community hall, with hot soup, tea and cake after which Dan gave a talk, placing the archaeology and WWII heritage in a wider Orkney context. Then there was time for another foray, this time meandering along the shore via Sandside and the Hoy High lighthouse back to the pier just in time for the ferry home.

We folk on Graemsay thoroughly enjoyed the day and the company, and thanks are due to Dan for making it an informal but informative day!


  1. How fascinating, Sian, and what lovely photos to illutrate your day. The nearest to this I've experienced is along the D-Day coast in Normandy, where the WW2 German gun batteries are still vey visible along the cliff-tops. I imagine there is much earlier archaeology there too, but we couldn't find any information.

  2. I had no idea of that history when I visited you on Graemsay. Obviously we need to return! :)

  3. Looks like a lovely - once the mist cleared - day out, full of interest and insight, with an informative guide/expert at hand! There's never been sufficient funds for archeological studies, I'm afraid. Likely to be even less these days! More's the pity.

  4. i wish i could write all my thougts in english after reading this interesting made me think about the unseen conections ww2 had made among so many father was in the british army and i remember his stories about the war.and about archiology- i live in a place with so many signs of the past that i can understand the feeling of being part of it. (if only i could say in hebrew it will sound better:)

  5. I really will have to come :) one of the few islands I've yet to get to :) glad you had fun

  6. How exciting to find all that history (recent and ancient) just outside your door! We'll just have to come back to the Orkneys - now that we "know" somebody there. 8^)

  7. This is so interesting. I've just been to York, and was thinking in awe of what an ancient city it is - Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, the Medieval Church all having left their mark - but I now remember that all this pales into insignificance compared to the history of human settlement in Orkney!

  8. So glad I have come across you whilst browsing blogland - its a dream I hold of visiting the islands at some point in my life - now I get to have a look whilst living here in Yorkshire !!

  9. Having been brought up on tales of Orkney I find your blog fascinating!

  10. Perpetua - There are still quite a few "relics" of WWII here in Orkney as of course it was where the "home fleet" were stationed. It tends to get overlooked in favour of the more ancient archaeology, but the social history of the time fascinates me.

    Bev - yes you MUST come back!

    Iain - Orkney is fortunate to have a number of digs going on this year, but as you say, funding is an ever scarce resource.

    Yuliya - I admire you for your ability to communicate in another language! Not something I can do....

    Fay - yes come on over - when the weather is calm and we'll try and arrange the "short route" as I see you're not keen on boats....

    MaryZ - Yes come and visit!!

    DancingBeastie - It never ceases to amaze me how much ancient history there is here in Orkney. I've enjoyed seeing your York photos. It's a city I'm quite familiar with and it's fun seeing photos from another perspective.

  11. Ash - well I hope you enjoy your "virtual" tour! AND that you get to visit sometime....

    WindForecast - it is :-)

    Shirlwin - oooh what stories have you been brought up on? Do tell :-)