A Description of the Western Isles of Scotland

The following is from A Description of the Western Isles of Scotland by Martin Martin:

The Isles of Orkney

THE isles of Orkney lie to the north of Scotland, having the main Caledonian Ocean, which contains the Hebrides, on the west, and the German Ocean on the east; and the sea towards the north separates them from the isles of Shetland. Pictland Firth on the south, which is twelve miles broad, reaches to Dungisbie Head, the most northern point of the mainland of Scotland.

Authors differ as to the origin of the name; the English call it Orkney, from Eric, one of the first Pictish princes that possessed them; and it is observed that pict or pight in the Teutonic language signifies a fighter. The Irish call them Arkive, from the first planter; and Latin authors call them Orcades. They lie in the northern temperate zone, and 13th climate; the longitude is between 22 degrees and 11 minutes, and latitude 59 degrees 2 minutes. The compass varies here 8 degrees. The longest day is about 18 hours. The air is temperately cold, and the night so clear that in the middle of June one may see to read all night long; and the days in winter are by consequence very short. Their winters here are commonly more subject to rain than snow, for the sea air dissolves the latter. The winds are often very boisterous in this country.

The sea ebbs and flows here as in other parts, except in a few sounds, and about some promontories; which alter the course of the tides, and make them very impetuous.

The isles of Orkney are reckoned twenty-six in number; the lesser isles, called Holms, are not inhabited, but fit for pasturage: most of their names end in a or ey that in the Teutonic language signifies water, with which they are all surrounded.

The main land, called by the ancients Pomona, is about twenty-four miles long, and in the middle of it, on the south side, lies the only town in Orkney, called Kirkwall, which is about three quarters of a mile in length; the Danes called it Cracoviaca. There has been two fine edifices in it, one of them called the Kingís Palace, which is supposed to have been built by one of the Bishops of Orkney, because in the wall there is a bishopís mitre and arms engraven, and the bishops anciently had their residence in it.

The palace now called the Bishopís, was built by Patrick Stewart, Earl of Orkney, anno 1606.

There is a stately church in this town, having a steeple erected on four large pillars in the middle of it; there are fourteen pillars on each side the church: it is called by the name of St. Magnusís Church, being founded, as the inhabitants say, by Magnus King of Norway, whom they believe to be interred there. The seat of justice for these isles is kept here; the steward, sheriff, and commissary do each of them keep their respective courts in this place. It has a public school for teaching of grammar learning, endowed with a competent salary.

This town was erected into a royal burgh when the Danes possessed it, and their charter was afterwards confirmed to them by King James the Third, anno 1486. They have from that charter a power to hold burgh courts, to imprison, to arrest, to make by-laws, to choose their own magistrates yearly, to have two weekly markets; and they have also power of life and death, and of sending commissioners to Parliament, and all other privileges granted to royal burghs. This charter was dated at Edinburgh the last day of March 1486, and it was since ratified by King James the Fifth, and King Charles the Second. The town is governed by a provost, four bailiffs, and a common council.

On the west end of the main is the kingís palace formerly mentioned, built by Robert Stewart, Earl of Orkney, about the year 1574. Several rooms in it have been curiously painted with scripture stories, as the flood of Noah, Christís riding into Jerusalem, &c., and each figure has the scripture by it, that it refers to. Above the arms within there is this lofty inscription, sic fuit, est, et erit. This island is fruitful in corn and grass, and has several good harbours; one of them at Kirkwall, a second at the bay of Kerston village, near the west end of the isle, well secured against wind and weather; the third is at Deer Sound, and reckoned a very good harbour; the fourth is at Grahamshall, towards the east side of the isle, but in sailing to it from the east side, seamen would do well to sail betwixt Lambholm and the main land, and not between Lambholm and Burray, which is shallow.

On the east of the main land lies the small isle Copinsha, fruitful in corn and grass; it is distinguished by sea-faring men for its conspicuousness at a great distance. To the north end of it lies the Holm, called the Horse of Copinsha. Over against Kerston Bay lie the isles of Hoy and Waes, which make but one isle, about twelve miles in length, and mountainous. In this island is the hill of Hoy, which is reckoned the highest in Orkney.

The isle of South Ronaldsha lies to the east of Waes, it is five miles in length, and fruitful in corn; Burray in the south end is the ferry to Duncansby in Caithness. A little further to the south lies Swinna isle, remarkable only for a part of Pentland Firth lying to the west of it, called the Wells of Swinna. They are two whirlpools in the sea, which run about with such violence, that any vessel or boat coming within their reach, go always round until they sink. These wells are dangerous only when there is a dead calm; for if a boat be under sail with any wind, it is easy to go over them. If any boat be forced into these wells by the violence of the tide, the boat-men cast a barrel or an oar into the wells; and while it is swallowing it up, the sea continues calm, and given the boat an opportunity to pass over.

To the north of the main lies the isle of Shapinsha, five miles in length, and has an harbour at Elwick on the south. Further to the north lie the isles of Stronsa, five miles in length, and Eda which is four miles; Ronsa lies to the north-west, and is six miles long. The isle Sanda lies north, twelve miles in length, and is reckoned the most fruitful and beautiful of all the Orcades.

The isles of Orkney in general are fruitful in corn and cattle, and abound with store of rabbits.

The sheep are very fruitful here, many of them have two, some three and others four lambs at a time; they often die with a disease called the sheep-dead, which is occasioned by little animals about half an inch long, that are engendered in their liver.

The horses are of a very small size, but hardy, and exposed to the rigour of the season during the winter and spring: the grass being then scarce they are fed with sea-ware.

The fields everywhere abound with variety of plants and roots, and the latter are generally very large; the common people dress their leather with the roots of tormentil, instead of bark.

The mainland is furnished with abundance of good marle, which is used successfully by the husbandman for manuring the ground.

The inhabitants say there are mines of silver, tin, and lead in the mainland, South Ronaldsha, Stronsa, Sanda, and Hoy. Some veins of marble are to be seen at Buckquoy and Swinna. There are no trees in these isles, except in gardens, and those bear no fruit. Their common fuel is peat and turf, of which there is such plenty as to furnish a salt-pan with fuel. A south-east and north-west moon cause high water here.

The Finland fishermen have been frequently seen on the coast of this isle, particularly in the year 1682. The people on the coast saw one of them in his little boat, and endeavoured to take him, but could not come at him, he retired so speedily. They say the fish retire from the coast when they see these men come to it.

One of the boats, sent from Orkney to Edinburgh, is to be seen in the Physiciansí Hall, with the oar he makes use of, and the dart with which he kills his fish.

There is no venomous creature in this country. The inhabitants say there is a snail there which has a bright stone growing in it. There is abundance of shell-fish here, as oysters, mussels, crans, cockles, &c.; of this latter, they make much fine lime. The rocks on the shore afford plenty of sea-ware, as alga marina, &c.

The sea abounds with variety of fish, but especially herring, which are much neglected since the battle of Kilsyth, at which time the fishermen from Fife were almost all killed there.

There are many small whales round the coast of this isle; and the amphibian here are otters and seals.

The chief products of Orkney that are yearly exported from thence are corn, fish, hides, tallow, butter, skins of seals, otter skins, lamb skins, rabbit skins, stuffs, white salt, wool, pens, down, feathers, hams, &c.

Some spermacetti and ambergris, as also the os cśpier, are found on the shore of several of those isles.

This country affords plenty of sea and land fowl, as geese, ducks, solan geese, swans, lyres, and eagles, which are so strong as to carry away children. There is also the cleck-goose; the shells in which this fowl is said to be produced are found in several isles sticking to trees by the bill; of this kind I have seen many: the fowl was covered by a shell, and the head stuck to the tree by the bill, but I never saw any of them with life in them upon the tree; but the natives told me that they had observed them to move with the heat of the sun.

The Picts are believed to have been the first inhabitants of these isles, and there are houses of a round form in several parts of the country, called by the name of Pictsí houses; and for the same reason the firth is called Pictland or Pentland Firth. Our historians call these isles the ancient kingdom of the Picts. Buchanan gives an account of one Belus, king of Orkney, who, being defeated by King Ewen the Second of Scotland, became desperate and killed himself. The effigy of this Belus is engraved on a stone in the church of Birsa, on the mainland. Boethius makes mention of another of their kings, called Bannus, and by others Gethus, who being vanquished by Claudius Cśsar, was by him afterwards, together with his wife and family, carried captive to Rome, and there led in triumph, anno Christii 43.

The Picts possessed Orkney until the reign of Kenneth the Second of Scotland, who subdued the country, and annexed it to his crown. From that time Orkney was peaceably possessed by the Scots, until about the year 1099, that Donald Bane, intending to secure the kingdom to himself, promised both those and the Western Isles to Magnus, king of Norway, upon condition that he should support him with a competent force: which he performed; and by this means became master of these isles, until the reign of Alexander the Third, who by his valour expelled the Danes. The Kings of Denmark did afterwards resign their title for a sum of money, and this resignation was ratified under the Great Seal of Denmark, at the marriage of King James the Sixth of Scotland, with Anne, Princess of Denmark.

Orkney has been from time to time a title of honour to several persons of great quality: Henry and William Sinclairs were called princes of Orkney; and Rothuel Hepburn was made Duke of Orkney; Lord George Hamilton (brother to the present Duke of Hamilton) was by the late King William created Earl of Orkney. The Earl of Morton had a mortgage of Orkney and Zetland from King Charles the First, which was since reduced by a decree of the Lords of Session, obtained at the instance of the Kingís advocate against the Earl; and this decree was afterwards ratified by Act of Parliament, and the earldom of Orkney, and lordship of Zetland, have since that time been erected into a stewartry. The reason on which the decree was founded, is said to have been, that the Earlís deputy seized upon some chests of gold found in the rich Amsterdam ship, called the Carlmelan, that was lost in Zetland, 1664.

There are several gentlemen of estates in Orkney, but the Queen is the principal proprietor; and one-half of the whole belongs to the Crown, besides the late accession of the bishopís rents, which is about 9000 merks Scots per annum. There is a yearly roup of Orkney rents, and he that offers highest is preferred to be the Kingís steward for the time; and as such, he is principal judge of the country. But this precarious lease is a public loss to the inhabitants, especially the poorer sort, who complain that they would be allowed to pay money for their corn and meal in time of scarcity; but that the stewards carried it off to other parts, and neglected the interest of the country. The interest of the Crown suffers likewise by this means, for much of the Crown lands lie waste: whereas if there were a constant steward, it might be much better managed, both for the crown and the inhabitants.

There is a tenure of land in Orkney, differing from any other in the kingdom, and this they call Udal Right, from Ulas King of Norway, who after taking possession of those islands, gave a right to the inhabitants, on condition of paying the third to himself; and this right the inhabitants had successively, without any Charter. All the lands of Orkney are Udal lands, Kingís lands, or Feued lands.

They differ in their measures from other parts of Scotland, for they do not use the peck or firlet, but weigh their corn in pismores, or pundlers; the least quantity they call a merg, which is eighteen ounces, and twenty-four makes a leispound, or settee, which is the same with the Danes that a stone weight is with us.

The Ancient State of the Church of Orkney.

THE churches of Orkney and Zetland isles were formerly under the government of a bishop; the cathedral church was St. Magnus in Kirkwall. There are thirty-one churches, and about one hundred chapels in the country, and the whole make up about eighteen parishes.

This diocese had several great dignities and privileges for a long time, but by the succession and change of many masters, they were lessened. Dr. Robert Reid their bishop, made an erection of seven dignities, viz.: ----- 1. A provost, to whom, under the bishop, the government of the canons, etc., did belong; he had allotted to him the prebendary of Holy Trinity, and the vicarage of South Ronaldsha. 2. An archdeacon. 3. A precentor, who had the prebendary of Ophir, and vicarage of Stennis. 4. A chancellor, who was to be learned in both laws; to him was given the prebendary of St. Mary in Sanda, and the vicarage of Sanda. 5. A treasurer, who was to keep the treasure of the church, and sacred vestments, etc., he was rector of St. Nicholas in Stronsa. 6. A subdean, who was parson of Hoy, etc. 7. A subchanter, who was bound to play on the organs each Lordís day, and festivals; he was prebendary of St. Colme. He erected seven other canonries and prebends; to which dignities he assigned, besides their churches, the rents of the parsonages of St. Colme in Waes, and Holy Cross in Westra, as also the vicarages of the parish churches of Sanda, Wick, and Stromness. He erected, besides these, thirteen chaplains; every one of which was to have 24 meils of corn, and ten merks of money for their yearly salary; besides their daily distributions, which were to be raised from the rents of the vicarage of the cathedral church, and from the foundation of Thomas Bishop of Orkney, and the twelve pounds ratified by King James the Third, and James the Fourth of Scotland. To these he added a sacrist, and six boys to bear tapers. The charter of this erection is dated at Kirkwall, October 28th, anno 1544.

This was the state of the Church under Popery. Some time after the Reformation, Bishop Law being made bishop of Orkney, and the earldom united to the Crown (by the forfeiture and death of Patrick Stewart, Earl of Orkney), he, with the consent of his chapter, made a contract with King James the Sixth, in which they resign all their ecclesiastical lands to the Crown; and the King gives back to the bishop several lands in Orkney, as Hom, Orphir, &c., and his Majesty gave also the commissariat of Orkney to the bishop and his successors; and then a competent number of persons for a chapter were agreed on. This contract was made anno 1614.

The Ancient Monuments and Curiosities in these Islands are as follows: ----

IN the isle of Hoy thereís the Dwarfie-stone between two hills; it is about thirty-four feet long and above 16 feet broad; it is made hollow by human industry: it has a small square entry looking to the east, about two feet high, and has a stone proportionable at two feet distance before the entry. At one of the ends within this stone there is cut out a bed and pillow capable of two persons to lie in, at the other opposite end there is a void space cut out resembling a bed, and above both these there is a large hole which is supposed was a vent for smoke. The common tradition is that a giant and his wife made this their place of retreat.

About a mile to the west of the mainland at Skealhouse, there is in the top of high rocks many stones disposed like a street, about a quarter of a mile in length, and between twenty and thirty feet broad. They differ in figure and magnitude, are of a red colour; some resemble a heart, some a crown, leg, shoe, last, weaverís shuttle, &c.

On the west and east side of Loch Stennis, on the mainland, there are two circles of large stones erected in a ditch; the larger, which is round on the north-west side is a hundred paces diameter, and some of the stones are twenty feet high, and above four in breadth; they are not all of a height, nor placed at an equal distance, and many of them are fallen down on the ground.

About a little distance further there is a semi-circle of larger stones than those mentioned above. There are two green mounts at the east and west side of the circle, which are supposed to be artificial, and fibulas of silver were found in them some time ago which on one side resembled a horse-shoe more than anything else.

The hills and circles are believed to have been places designed to offer sacrifice in time of pagan idolatry; and for this reason the people called them the ancient temples of the gods, as we may find by Boethius in the Life of Manius. Several of the inhabitants have a tradition that the sun was worshipped in the larger, and the moon in the lesser circle.

In the chapel of Clet, in the isle of Sanda, there is a grave of nineteen feet in length; some who had the curiosity to open it, found only a piece of a manís backbone in it, bigger than that of a horse. The minister of the place had the curiosity to keep the bone by him for some time. The inhabitants have a tradition of a giant there whose stature was such that he could reach his hand as high as the top of the chapel. There have been large bones found lately in Westra, and one of the natives who died not long ago was for his stature distinguished by the title of the Micle, or great man of Waes.

There are erected stones in divers parts both of the main and lesser isles, which are believed to have been erected as monuments of such as distinguished themselves in battle.

There have been several strange instances of the affects of thunder here; as that of burning Kirkwall steeple by lightning in the year 1670. At Stromness a gentleman had twelve kine, six of which in a stall here suddenly killed by thunder, and the other six left alive; and it was remarkable that the thunder did not kill them all as they stood, but killed one and missed another. This happened in 1680, and is attested by the minister and others of the parish.

There is a ruinous chapel in Papa Westra called St. Tredwels, at the door of which there is a heap of stones, which was the superstition of the common people, who have such a veneration for this chapel above any other, that they never fail, at their coming to it, to throw a stone as an offering before the door: and this they reckon an indispensable duty enjoined by their ancestors.

Ladykirk, in South Ronaldshaw, though ruinous, and without a roof, is so much reverenced by the natives, that they choose rather to repair this old one, than to build a new church in a more convenient place, and at a cheaper rate: such is the power of education, that these men cannot be cured of these superfluous fancies, transmitted to them by their ignorant ancestors.

Within the ancient fabric of Ladykirk, there is a stone of four feet in length, and two in breadth, tapering at both ends: this stone has engraved on it the print of two feet, concerning which the inhabitants have the following tradition; that St. Magnus wanting a boat to carry him over Pentland Firth to the opposite main land of Caithness, made use of this stone instead of a boat, and afterwards carried it to this church, where it continues ever since. But others have this more reasonable opinion, that it has been used in time of Popery for delinquents, who were obliged to stand bare-feet upon it by way of penance. Several of the vulgar inhabiting the lesser isles, observe the anniversary of their respective saints. There is one day in harvest on which the vulgar abstain from work, because of an ancient and foolish tradition, that if they do their work, the ridges will bleed.

They have a charm for stopping excessive bleeding, either in man or beast, whether the cause be internal or external; which is performed by sending the name of the patient to the charmer, who adds some more words to it, and after repeating those words the cure is performed, though the charmer be several miles distant from the patient. They have likewise other charms which they use frequently at a distance, and that also with success.

The inhabitants are well proportioned, and seem to be more sanguine than they are; the poorer sort live much upon fish of various kinds and sometimes without any bread. The inhabitants in general are subject to the scurvy, imputed to the fish and salt meat, which is their daily food; yet several of the inhabitants arrive at a great age: a woman in Evie brought forth a child in the sixty-third year of her age.

One living in Kerston lately, was one hundred and twelve years old, and went to sea at one hundred and ten. A gentleman at Stronsa, about four years ago, had a son at one hundred and ten years old. One William Muir in Westra, lived one hundred and forty years, and died about eighteen years ago. The inhabitants speak the English tongue; several of the vulgar speak the Danish or Norse language; and many among them retain the ancient Danish names.

Those of distinction are hospitable and obliging, the vulgar are generally civil and affable. Both of them wear the habit in fashion in the Lowlands, and some wear a seal skin for shoes; which they do not sew, but only tie them about their feet with strings, and sometimes thongs of leather: they are generally able and stout seamen.

The common people are very laborious and undergo great fatigues, and no small hazard in fishing. The isles of Orkney were formerly liable to frequent incursions by the Norwegians, and those inhabiting the western isles of Scotland. To prevent which, each village was obliged to furnish a large boat well manned to oppose the enemy, and upon their landing all the inhabitants were to appear armed; and beacons were set on the top of the highest hills and rocks, to give a general warning on the sight of an approaching enemy.

About the year 1634 Dr. Graham being then bishop of Orkney, a young boy called William Garioch, had some acres of land, and some cattle, &c., left him by his father, deceased: he, being young, was kept by his uncle, who had a great desire to obtain the lands, &c., belonging to his nephew; who being kept short, stole a setten of barley, which is about twenty-eight pound weight, from his uncle; for which he pursued the youth, who was then eighteen years of age, before the sheriff. The theft being proved, the young man received sentence of death; but going up the ladder to be hanged, he prayed earnestly that God would inflict some visible judgment on his uncle, who out of covetousness had procured his death. The uncle happened after this to be walking in the church-yard of Kirkwall, and as he stood upon the young manís grave, the bishopís dog ran at him all of a sudden, and tore out his throat; and so he became a monument of Godís wrath against such covetous wretches. This account was given to Mr. Wallace, minister there, by several that were witnesses of the fact.

The Isles of Shetland


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