Rev. Charles CLOUSTON on Sandwick in 1842


‘Parish of Sandwick’ (Synod and County of Orkney, Presbytery of Cairston)
by the Rev. Charles Clouston, Minister. (Part ii)
From ‘The Statistical Account of the Orkney Islands by the Ministers of the Respective Parishes...’
[William Blackwood and Sons, Edinburgh 1842]

III. Sandstone. This rock lies upon the slates, and is by most geologists considered the old red sandstone. It occurs neither in this parish, Stromness, nor Birsay, to which my observations on the slates refer ; but to understand the position of these rocks, it is necessary to trace them to Hoy, south of Stromness, where this sandstone rests on the slates. There it rises to the height of 1600 feet, above the level of the sea, in the Ward Hill. It varies much in colour, but is generally gray, red, or brown ; and is disposed in strata, which are often so soft that it is not much used for building. Government, however, employed it for erecting martello towers, which are fast crumbling away. This sandstone is easily decomposed by the action of the sea, and forms numerous caves and fantastic forms along the precipices where it occurs, of which the insulated rock, called the Old Man of Hoy, that is so conspicuous from Caithness, may be given as an instance. This singular rock is formed of the same strata as the precipice from which it is disjoined; and as this is nearly 1000 feet perpendicular, it affords magnificent exhibition of the strata. The top is red sandstone and the base on which it rests amygdaloid. In this precipice, I found, about twenty years ago, a fine vein of manganese ore, from which beautiful specimens may be procured, and in the other side of the island, that species of iron ore called brown hematite, is found in such quantity, that it was at one time worked.

IV. Trap Rocks. These occur as greenstone, basalt, porphyry, and amygdaloid. All the rocks formerly noticed are frequently intersected with whin dikes, from one to ten feet thick, which are sometimes shifted and contorted, but generally run directly west by compass, (the flag having a seam in that direction), till they disappear under the bed of the ocean. In the space of eight miles along the precipices on the west coast of Stromness and this parish, I have counted eighteen separate dikes of this kind, and, including Birsay, I have no doubt there are more than two dozen. The strata of the slate in contact with these dikes are generally contorted and pulverized, and easily washed away, leaving narrow inlets or 'geoes'. One of these, nine feet thick, cuts through the north-west extremity of the granite, and another bounds on its south-east side a mass of amygdaloid, containing zeolite, calcareous spar, green earth, &c. in Walls. The only place where I know of its overflowing the secondary rocks is one which I discovered about twelve years ago in the west side of Hoy, where there is a bed of it fully 100 feet thick, and, I believe, several miles in extent, in the middle of the sandstone. Near the same bed, on the sea shore of Rackwick, I also found a fine vein of fibrous gypsum, an inch and a-half thick. Porphyry also occurs ; and Dr Hibbert observed an interesting spot of it near the granite in Cairston.

V. Alluvial Rocks. The alluvial formation of Orkney is not particularly interesting ; but we have plenty of clay, in most places abundance of peat, though there is little in Sandwick, and, in many districts, marl. Bog-iron ore is very common on some of our hills ; and along our sandy bays, nature frequently erects a barrier of a sort of indurated sand, apparently formed by the mixture of siliceous particles with fragments of shells, which serve for cement. In our peat-mosses, roots of large trees are often dug up, and they have also been found in Sandwick Bay, where they are generally covered by the ocean. Hazel-nuts, deers' horns, &c. have likewise repeatedly been found imbedded in our peat and this makes it probable that forests have formerly grown in these islands, where there is nothing now that deserves to be called a tree, except in gardens.

Soil. The soil of Sandwick is of very different kinds in different places. Immediately east of the bay, it is nothing but sand, which blows about with the wind. In other places, there is a poor yellow clay, formed by the wasting of the clay flag; and our best soil is a rich black clayish loam. These are mixed together in infinite proportions; but there is no depth of mossy soil or gravel. The clays particularly rest on a retentive rocky subsoil, many parts of which would be much improved by draining.

Zoology. The rarer species of animals only being wanted for the Statistical Account, I would not be justified in inserting a complete list, for which I must refer to Anderson's 'Guide to the Highlands and Islands', where one will be found, embracing those of Mr Low, Drs Barry, Traill, Neill, and Mr Forbes, to which I have nothing important to add. I may, however, mention, that rabbits are very numerous in the sandy parts of this parish, and hares, which were only introduced into Orkney a few years ago, are now beginning to show themselves. Thousands of gulls, of different species, with scarfs and other sea birds, as well as common pigeons, build on the shelves of our precipices, and some hundreds of the pewit, or black-headed gull, on a little artificial holm in the Loch of Skaill. A few pairs of wild swans remain some months in winter in the Lochs of Stenness and Clumly. Wild geese visit us every spring, and several species of duck are found in all our lochs in considerable numbers. There are no trout or other fish of any importance in our lochs ; but in the Loch of Stenness, trout, flounders, and various other species are got; and there is great variety in the Atlantic, on our west shores; however, it is only when the sea is smooth that boats can get out to fish. Lobsters are caught in the bay for the London market.

Botany. The plants in this parish are not very different from those in the neighbouring ones, except Hoy, where there is a considerable number of alpine plants on the Ward Hill. The Scotch primrose (Primula Scotica), and vernal squill (Scilla verna), grow abundantly in this, and most parishes of the county, with some more plants that are rather rare in the south of Scotland. But, for a catalogue of these, I must refer the botanist to the works of Drs Barry and Neill, and my own contribution of 83 new species to the Orkney Flora in Anderson's Guide, which would occupy too much space to republish here, as they contain altogether 545 species. It is, however, in cryptogamous plants that the Flora of Orkney is particularly rich ; and we have the pleasure of adding several to the Flora of Scotland, besides the Chara aspera, new to that of Britain, Dr Pollexfen has paid particular attention to the sea-weeds ; and the addition which I am now enabled to make to former lists of these, prove his diligence in collecting, and acuteness in discriminating, for though I have also picked up a few of these when accidentally at the sea shore, yet, for the majority of them, I am indebted to him. Without deducting a few that might be subtracted from former lists, but, taking Barry's at 11, Neill's at 13, and mine at 44, there are still 65 new species to be added to the sea-weeds, making the Orkney algæ amount to 133 species, and its flora to 610; and yet much remains to be done, particularly in cryptogamous botany. It is deemed proper to publish the complete list of algae, including the old and new, on account of the rarity of some, alterations in nomenclature etc.

[I have omitted Clouston's List of Plants here.]

There are no forests in this parish; but some trees have been planted within the last fifteen years, and the kinds that seem to succeed best are, the plane, ash, mountain-ash, elm, and willow.


The only plans or surveys of this parish of any importance, in addition to those of the county in general, are those of the townships, in which the Crown holds property, made by Messrs Granger and Miller, and lodged in the sheriff-clerk's office.

Land-owners. The property is divided into very small portions here, as in the neighbouring parishes. William Graham Watt, Esq. of Breckness, holds about a third, and resides on it, cultivating a considerable part. The Crown holds about a fifth; and the remainder is held by nearly seventy other proprietors, most of whom cultivate their own little farms.

Parochial Registers. The date of the earliest entries in our parochial register, of births is 22d September 1728, and in that of marriages, 20th April 1727. They have for some years been kept and preserved with great care ; but they do not appear to have been so formerly.

Antiquities. In the former Statistical Account it is mentioned, that, on the west coast of the parish of Sandwick, close by the sea shore, is to be seen the ruins of a large building, which yet bears the name of the Castle of Snusgar also that several tumuli had been opened, one by Sir Joseph Banks, containing three stone chests, each enclosing a human skeleton, in different positions, and bruised bones, teeth, hair, beads, etc ; and others containing smaller stone chests, enclosing urns, in which were found ashes, with fragments of bone, or ashes and fragments of bone without urns. To these antiquities, a residence of six years enables me to add the following.

In the township of Yeskenaby, not far from the boat noust, [a place for boats] are the ruins of a small church, with an enclosure about it like a churchyard; and in several other places, a kirk green or burying ground. Between the top of Lingafiold and the loch of Clumly, are the stones of Via, which are worthy of the antiquarian's notice, and which are supposed to be a cromlech or heathen altar. Indeed, the figure of that, with the head stone in the hundred and fiftieth plate of Encyclopædia Britannica, published in 1797, might pass for a representation of' this monument before the displacing of its pillars. [The slab of Via is 1 foot thick, 5 feet 10 long, and 4 feet 9 broad. The four pillars under it are each about 3 feet long; and the head stone 3 feet 9 by 2 feet 9 on the surface, and I foot 4 thick. It is placed nearly in the centre of an old circular enclosure, 275 paces in circumference, with a small tumulus on the south side of it, which was lately opened, but nothing found in it except a parcel of large stones.]

On the hill north of Quoyloo there is a standing stone, and also a curious collection of large and ancient stones, to which the name Haly Kirk is still applied; and a gentleman residing in that neighbourhood informs me, that he recollects one of these, now prostrate, supported by those that are still perpendicular, thus completing that resemblance to an altar, which its name seems to indicate. Not far from the same spot, about 200 yards north-east of North Dike, and about 500 east of the summit of Vestrafiold, are the remains of an enclosure, 800 yards in circumference, and, I believe, of great antiquity, many of the stones being large, and set upon edge, particularly five or six on the north side.

About sixty yards nearer the summit, is a quarry, with enormous blocks of stone detached, so similar to the standing stones of Stenness in size and shape, that I suppose this to be the bed from which they were taken, as I know of no other quarry from which they could be procured, and no other purpose for which people would detach such blocks as these, from 13 to 18 feet long. The nearest circle of the standing stones is about six miles from this spot; but, though they might be considered geographically in this parish, they are ecclesiastically within the boundaries of Stenness. I may, however, mention, that numerous remains of antiquity, probably connected with them, may be seen at the adjoining boundary of this parish, and more particularly about a mile north of them; and within the west corner of the dike of Wasbister is a circle, which seems a miniature of that in Stenness, without the stones, surrounded by a ditch about 12 feet broad, and 6 feet deep, 219 yards in circumference outside of the ditch.

There are in the parish at least five broughs, which their name and situation prove to have been, of old, places of defence. Two of these are on promontories at the precipice in Yeskenaby, one jutting out in the Loch of Clumly, and two in the Loch of Stenness; each of these, not an island, or surrounded by water, being separated from the land by a ditch, which is still distinctly visible.

I have observed at several places vitrified cairns, similar to those in Sanday, &c. which Dr Hibbert supposes to have been produced by beacon fires. I know not that ours have the same origin ; for since that celebrated antiquarian called my attention to the subject, I have, in several cases, seen similar vitrified matter produced by burning a whole stack of sandy peats in the open air, during a strong breeze, which is sometimes done to obtain the ashes for manure.

During last summer, a man, who built a habitation for himself on the common between this and Isbister, in Birsay, found what seems to have been a Pict's house, in a knowe from which he took the stones. It consisted of a chain of four circular cells, connected together by passages too narrow and low ever to have formed an abode for men. [This building was unfortunately demolished before I heard of it ; but the following dimensions, which I had from recollection, are probably pretty correct. Cells, 4 feet in diameter, and 4 feet high; passages, 2 feet wide, 2 feet long, and 3½ feet high ; walls, 1 foot thick, or more, according to the size of stone, only built smooth inside, covered with large flags, the lowest across the passage, and the highest across the middle of the cell, with one between.] It seems more probable that the rubbish above the cells was the ruins of their residence, and that these were used as cellars or places of security.

Barrows or tumuli are particularly numerous in Sandwick. I believe there are more than one hundred, though it would be neither easy nor useful to count them. Eight of these, situated on the common, have been opened during the last year. A minute description of each would be tedious; but a brief account of the most important, which I opened in company with most of the other office-bearers of the Orkney Natural History Society, must be interesting to the antiquarian. The first, which was the largest of a numerous cluster between Voy and Lyking, was 50 yards in circumference, and about 7½feet high. It was formed of a wet adhesive clay. On reaching the centre, we found a large flag which formed the cover; and on raising it up, the grave appeared as free from injury, and the pieces of bone as white and clean, as if formed only the preceding day. At its end, which lay north-east by east, was an urn inverted, shaped like an inverted flower-pot; and at its other end, about a hat-full of bones, unmixed with ashes, which had been burnt and broken small, none being more than two inches long and one broad, covered by a stone of an irregular shape, about one foot across. It was sprinkled with a peculiar mossy-looking substance, of a brown colour, and white ashes which seemed, from the smell when burnt, to be animal matter. The surface of the urn is dark, not unlike burnt cork, and seems to be rude earthen-ware, into the composition of which, bits of stone enter liberally. It contained nothing that we could perceive, and soon fell to pieces; but 1 put them together with Rosman cement; and it is now in the Society's museum, with part of the bones. [The cover was 5 feet 7 in length, 3 feet 2 broad, and 3½ inches thick. The bottom of the grave was on the level of the surface of the earth, and it measured 3 feet long, 2 feet broad, and 1 foot 10 deep. The part of the urn that bore to be lifted up measured 1 foot in diameter at its mouth, 5 inches inside and outside of' bottonl' and 9 inches high; the bottom I inch thick, and the sides barely ¾.]

The next, in size, of the group of tumuli, was 34 yards in circumference, about 6 feet high, and contained six separate graves. The two nearest the centre seemed the principal ones. A large flag rested against the covers of these on the east side, jutting up about a foot above them. [It measured 5 feet long, 4 feet 2 inches broad, and 3 inches thick.] The space under this flag was quite empty. On removing it and the two horizontal covers on which it rested, the two principal graves were exposed to view. The first was formed of a double row of upright flags, on all sides except the south, next to the second, where there was only a single vow, and small pieces substituted at the corners, [The first grave was 1 foot 8 inches square inside, the outside flags were 6 inches higher than the inside ones, and those on the west and east sides very thick. Outside they were supported by some lumpy stones and the clay.] The space inside was filled for 9 inches with clay, and the corners of this and the second were also cemented with it. Between the cover and clay flooring, was a vacant space, about a foot deep, into which some fine sand had penetrated or fallen from the cover in wasting, and sprinkled the floor. On removing this, we found a small stone, which covered a cavity in the clay, I foot in diameter, and 9 inches deep, containing the bones burnt and broken, as in the first tumulus, and some little pieces of charcoal. It is worthy of remark, that in a tumulus lately opened in Circassia, Mr Spencer discovered a few fragments of unglazed terra cotta vases, containing charcoal also. [Spencer's Travels in Circassia, Vol. ii. p. 299, third edition.]

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