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Westray 2001: General Information

The Isle of Westray

Westray is nearly-northernmost of the islands in the Orkney archipelago. People came to these islands, to farm and forage, in the Mesolithic. From the Neolithic forward the islands are rich in archaeological remains. The Vikings came here as well, and behind them left their structures and nautical outlook - and graffiti on the earlier monuments they found here! Westray shares this remarkably abundant heritage.

In 1981, the 'Pierowall Stone' was discovered in the island's quarry. Three stones were recovered in all, each bearing the same back-to-back spiral design, and dating back 5000 years.

Between 1978 and 1981, David Clarke and Niall Sharples excavated a settlement at Links of Noltland dating to around 3000 years BC. The excavations were covered over, but the site remains protected by Historic Scotland. It has been suggested that the settlement may compare with the famous Neolithic village of Skara Brae on Mainland. Other important prehistoric sites have also been explored on the Island, at Cott and Pierowall Quarry for example.

The island's Viking heritage is equally important. The largest cemetery of pagan Viking graves in Scotland was excavated in Pierowall in the mid 19th century and several sites of Viking and later Norse date have recently been excavated. One of these, at Tuquoy (excavated by Olwyn Owen), revealed a substantial hall associated with the 12th century ruin of Crosskirk. The site may have been the focus of a large estate held by a bondi - a member of the free farming class of the Norse world. It has even been tentatively equated with the residence of Thorkel Flettir, an overbearing 12th century figure who, according to Orkneyinga Saga, met an unpleasant end on Stronsay. Today, the hall at Tuquoy has been reburied to protect it from the encroaching sea.

Three sites will be investigated by the archaeologists working on Westray this summer, funded by Historic Scotland, Orkney Islands Council , Orkney Archaeological Trust, the University of York and EASE Archaeological Consultancy.

Berst Ness

At the south-western end of the island, on top of the headland at Berst Ness a probable prehistoric tomb will be excavated this season. This follows on preliminary work last year which revealed a central chamber and secondary burials inserted into the periphery of the mound.

  • Is this a Neolithic chambered tomb, a later (perhaps Iron Age) structure or a Neolithic monument reused in later times?
Berst Ness penninsula looking south Berst Ness under excavation in 2000 Bone disc excavated in 2000

Links of Noltland

Further north, the Links of Noltland - an area of about 42 hectares of 'machair' grassland, dunes and blown sand south of Rackwick Bay - is suffering from recent erosion. This has exposed a number of exciting ancient features: Possible Neolithic houses (4-5000 years old), a square cairn of uncertain date and function, which may prove to be Pictish, and some ancient cultivation surfaces - all need recording to assess how the archaeology in this fragile landscape can best be conserved, which may include the need for further investigation. We will take advantage of the exposure of the cairn and houses to conduct some excavation, and learn more about the date and purpose of these structures before they are lost to erosion. Topographical, geophysical and soil survey will also be used to record the extent of surviving and threatened archaeology.

  • How old is the square cairn? What was its purpose?
  • How old are the houses and how well preserved are they?
  • What associated archaeological monuments are concealed in the dunes?
The Links of Noltland possible cairn


Further north still, the site of Quoygrew contains the remains of a farmstead and fishing station, occupied from Viking times until the 1930's. The site comprises the remains of a stone built longhouse of late Norse design, the middens from a farm and fishing station, and buried beneath the ground lie field systems which provide clues to how people farmed the land 1000 years ago. We will be continuing the excavation of the Norse house, excavating the associated middens, and conducting soil sampling. For more information on last year's excavations, see the 2000 Interim Report.

  • At what period was the house in use? What lies at its eastern end where geophysical survey suggests the existence of another building?
  • How did the inhabitants' way of life change from the Viking Age to the Middle Ages?
Aerial photo of the Quoygrew site

The University of York Quoygrew Home Page

© 2001       Last updated 28 August 2001.
This web page is a project of students of the Department of Archaeology, University of York.