Waterways in the West Mainland of Orkney: a pilot study

Project Details


This study investigated the existence of navigable waterways in the West Mainland of Orkney, Scotland, in the Norse period (790-1350). In the parish of Harray, a Norse farm named Houseby is found. Farms with this name are known from Scandinavia and Orkney and are usually situated by major water routes. This is not the case here, which is puzzling. A range of evidence, above all place-names, topographical studies and archaeology, does however suggest that this Houseby was most likely situated by a significant water route. This was investigated by geophysical surveys and core sampling of sediments in relevant areas.

Key findings

The project tested the hypothesis using landscape reconstructions and further study of place-names. Specific objectives included geophysical analysis of abandoned river channels due to water course re-alignments and core sampling of silted-up lochs. Comparison of the landscape reconstructions with place names of significance allowed interpretation of possible routeways along navigable waters by shallow-draught Viking-Age vessels and provided the potential for re-drawing the map of Norse Orkney. This means that it may have been possible to transport produce from estates in the parishes of Harray and Sandwick through the waterways to the power centre at Birsay. This methodology could be useful to other parts of Orkney, and elsewhere, in understanding more about communication via navigable lochs and waterways through the Norse period.
Effective start/end date1/04/181/04/19