Sagas of Salt and Stone
Saraband, May 2018
In Sagas of Salt and Stone, Robin Roble invites readers on a personal voyage of adventure and discovery of the history, nature and people of Orkney - from seabird colonies and startling rock formations, to fishermen's huts and prehistoric monuments.
We are delighted to share an extract from the book.
Around the Broughs
I am the sort of person who has a few favourite birds: the osprey, perhaps from the excited days of my youth; the Manx shearwater, from wonderful trips to the Small Isles; and the lapwing, that almost heraldic bird, which I associate so much with Orkney. And flowers as well: the minute Scottish primrose, Primula scotica, which is found only in these islands and along the magnificent North Coast of Scotland, and the fabulous grass of Parnassus. The latter I have found in many special places, and it, too, does well in Orkney. Presumably in response to the bracing winds, it grows shorter and more sturdily here than I have seen it elsewhere, and there is often lots of it.
We used to pass a small patch on the walk from our house on the Links to the crest of Marwick Head, and at the right time of year, perhaps after the middle of July, it bloomed superbly around Yesnaby. Some years it would coincide with a good flowering of the deep crimson scotica, and the combination of the two, wonderfully intermixed, reminded me of a renaissance tapestry; it was incredibly beautiful.
I found the Parnassia, too, right across Mainland Orkney, on the Deerness headland, on the North Sea coast. Here we would park close to the well-known Gloup, basically a very long sea-cave whose roof has partly fallen in. The splendid name can seem very onomatopoeic; with a wind from the east, the sea will rush in and slop around at the end of the open cave, the sound being magnified by the rock formation. Once, fairly carefully, I went there in a thick fog, and the sound of the sea combined fantastically with the eerie whistle of another favourite bird, the smart black guillemot or tystie.
At the seaward end of the cave, where there is a narrow geo, if you stand on one side you can get very good views of yet another special bird, the fulmar. Here they sit around at the top of the low cliff, almost at eye level. They lay just one egg, which they park, as it were, on a ledge, and this gives you a splendid opportunity to observe the young birds as they develop; initially, they look rather like a child’s toy, a ball of down or fluff featuring a prominent bill and two dark eyes. The fulmar was critical to the economy of the St Kildans, but it was not known in Orkney until comparatively recently.
Along the headland to the north of the Gloup the grass of Parnassus grows well, and the walk is pleasant, comparatively level and easy enough underfoot. On the right, the immense expanse of water is the North Sea, and you may look, if you wish, in vain for a glimpse of the distant Norwegian coast, marvelling perhaps at the hardihood of the Vikings, who crossed these great open expanses. It may look calm, burnished silver some days, but on others it is wild and frightening to the modern eye.
As we continue northwards, across the rough grass, an obvious structure comes into view. It looks for a while as though we could simply walk to it. However, a short way on, some sort of bank or wall appears to stand between us and the ruin, although access still looks simple. A few more paces make it clear, though, that a vertical drop lies between us and the structure – a sudden drop to the sea. The bank or wall and the building visible behind it are situated on a dramatic, spacious rock stack, with cliffs virtually all round. There is a path snaking its cautious way up to the flat summit; reaching that path means tackling an awkward descent. This is a route that requires real caution when it is wet, and a good head for heights.
If you achieve both the descent and ascent, you will find yourself behind what is possibly a rampart, on the flat summit of a naturally defended headland, with the remains of a short, rectangular, stone building and the grassy foundations of many longer structures. In many ways, this, the Brough of Deerness, mirrors the Brough of Birsay on the western coast, but on a much smaller scale. It is a very strong position, defended by nature. The structures you see here are virtually all Norse, but there may be something older (in this case, possibly, the rampart that defends the weaker aspect), and there is a strong religious presence – the stone building here is a chapel. It has been suggested that both sites may have been monasteries (despite the lack of any written record), although much of what you see is actually domestic in origin.
But there are also differences: the most obvious being size. Deerness is an awkward, restricted site and, unlike Birsay, there is no room for grazing animals or growing crops. I have no faith in iso- lated communities without the necessary infrastructure for life, and doubt that the quite sizeable community inferred from the number of buildings here could have survived solely by fishing from the rocks or eating the local puffins (surely everyone’s favourite bird, nowadays). If I were a local enthusiast I would be looking hard for a neighbouring farm or fields across the vertiginous gap. However, the vegetation looks rather unpromising apart from the obvious, much-improved new fields, and I have never seen anything relevant on my admittedly brief visits. The Mull Head, just a little bit further on (possibly a Celtic place-name, meaning bald or bare), is now martime heath, with much crowberry and luxuriant tormentil. Does this awkward site make sense as a strong location, occupied early on by the incoming Vikings? Did their occupation thereafter perhaps result from the prestige of the strong place, until most of them left to live in greater comfort on the adjacent Mainland of Deerness? If so, there are real parallels with what we know of Birsay.
Sagas of Salt and Stone: Orkney Unwrapped is published by Saraband and available to buy from all good bookshops.