The Norse Waterways of West Mainland Orkney, Scotland

Richard Bates, Martin Bates , Barbara Crawford, Alexandra Sanmark

Research output: Book/ReportOther report


This purpose of the study was to investigate the existence of navigable waterways in the West Mainland of Orkney, Scotland, in the Norse period (AD 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. An inspection of the oldest geographically referenced maps for the parish suggests that in the past significant waterways across wetlands may have extended north from the Loch of Harray towards Houseby in an area close to the power centre of the Norse Earldom at Birsay, in the neighbouring parish.
The main aim of this project was to test this hypothesis using palaeo-geographic 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 palaeo-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. Finally, the methodology applied here could be useful to other parts of Orkney, and elsewhere, in understanding more about communication via navigable lochs and waterways through the Norse period.

Original languageEnglish
Number of pages28
Publication statusPublished - 24 Jun 2019


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