‘Learning from Northern people’ seminar on Friday

Professor Leslie King

What the people of the Arctic can teach us to help respond to climate change is the subject of a University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute research seminar this Friday, November 27.

Arctic explorers owed their survival to the knowledge gained from Inuit during their expeditions in harsh but fragile environments. We are now experiencing another period of climate and rapid environmental and social change.

Part our survival and future depends on lessons learnt from people on the front lines of climate change and biodiversity loss about how to adapt and thrive in conditions of uncertainty and change. Climate researchers are modern explorers attempting to learn from the knowledge – ancient and contemporary – held by Northern people.

Led by Professor Leslie King of the Canadian Centre for Environmental Education and Visiting Professor at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, the talk will introduce some of the research results that may help us in lower latitudes prepare for, respond to, and survive dramatic changes in the social-ecological systems upon which we depend.

The free online seminar is at 4pm GMT on Friday, November 27. For details on how to view, click here.

Words on the St Magnus Way

Project poet Yvonne Gray with response box, Egilsay.

Dr Ragnhild Ljosland, a lecturer at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and co-ordinator of Words on the Way: A Literary Pilgrimage, outlines the collaborative project between Orkney College and the St Magnus Way.

The project, which was funded by the Scottish Book Trust, ran from July until November 2020 as part of Book Week Scotland. It was conceived as a socially distanced way of creating community engagement with Orkney literature.

Twenty texts, by 13 Orkney writers, were put up along the 55-mile-long pilgrimage route from Egilsay and across the West Mainland of Orkney via Evie, Birsay, Harray, Firth, Orphir, St Ola and ending in Kirkwall.

The texts were chosen to relate to a specific place or to the landscape, or the themes of the different legs of the pilgrimage: peace, loss, change, growth, forgiveness, and hospitality. 

Response box on the gate of Binscarth Woods, Firth, Orkney.

Along the way were also six postboxes, where members of the public could leave their own responses to the texts and the experience of walking the pilgrimage route.

At the end of the project, for Book Week in November, the boxes were collected, and poet Yvonne Gray crafted a new special St Magnus Way poem building on the responses and her own experience as a pilgrim.

We began in July, speaking with landowners and authors. All were very positive and happy to be included in this project. It has been met with enthusiasm all along.

Stewart Little, from St Magnus Way, and I sat down one day and decided on which texts we wanted to include and where they should go. What the texts all have in common is that they are deeply rooted in Orkney, either linked to a specific place, a part of its history, or the way of life here.

The writers were mostly contemporary authors who are active today, but some historical authors were also included.

Furthest back in time lies Rognvald Kali Kolsson, 12th century earl of Orkney, nephew of St Magnus and also himself a saint. Rognvald brought about what has been called Orkney’s 12th century literary renaissance, where he and other poets he employed drew on the rich traditions of Viking Age oral literature and updated it with European continental influences in a poetic fusion cuisine.

On the pilgrimage route, Rognvald was represented with a poem in the sometimes muddy Binscarth Woods. Beginning “Five weeks we’ve waded through wetness and filth”, this humorous poem was written in Rognvald’s youth on a trip through Grimsby, but perhaps captures the mood as you near the end of leg four of St Magnus Way on a wet autumn day.

Other historical authors, from the 20th century, were George Mackay Brown, Robert Rendall, Eric Linklater and Christina Costie, all much loved by the Orkney community.

Their heirs all very generously let us display their texts.

Eric Linklater lived in what is now Merkister Hotel, so this was a nice place to hang two excerpts from his novels The Wind on the Moon and The Dark of Summer. It is a lovely place for pilgrims to stop for tea and cakes. Sadly, his daughter Kristin Linklater, who has been a driving force in Orkney’s cultural scene this last decade, passed away shortly before the Words on the Way project began. Kristin was the original inspiration for the main character in The Wind on the Moon: the inventive and resourceful Dorinda, who rescues her dad from captivity during a war.

Robert Rendall’s Cragsman’s Widow, placed by steep cliffs in his beloved Birsay.

Robert Rendall and Christina Costie were friends and neighbours in Kirkwall in the mid-20th Century. They both wrote poetry that was deeply rooted in Orkney’s traditional way of life, and used Orkney dialect as their medium.

Though they both had a great sense of humour, they also wrote on deeper philosophical topics. Robert Rendall particularly loved Birsay, and was represented with three poems about specific places he knew well. Christina Costie was also represented with three poems.

One of them, Speir Thoo the Wast Wind, reflects on where the souls of drowned men go. Orkney, being an island community, has lost many to the waves, and the poem wonders if they are now free among the wind, the sea, the northern lights and the grey geese that fly across the sky.

This poem was put at Moan in Harray, where many grey geese could be seen on their autumn flight and grazing in the fields.

On the theme of loss, Christina Costie’s poem Speir Thoo the Wast Wind reflects on where drowned souls go. Shown at Moan, Harray.

The best known author in this project is George Mackay Brown, from Stromness. He was deeply moved by the story of St Magnus and as an adult converted to Roman Catholicism.

In his poem The Killers, he imagines Earl Hakon’s men during the moments and hours following the killing of St Magnus, and how what should have been a celebration of victory with food, drink and merriment feels hollow and subdued.

The Killers, by George Mackay Brown, displayed in Egilsay at the place where St Magnus is believed to have died.
A pilgrim, Christopher Gee, reflecting on George Mackay Brown’s poem. Memorial cairn, Egilsay.

A contemporary poet who has had a central role in this project is Pamela Beasant. She contributed three poems, one at, and about, the Norse settlement in Birsay, and two at Naversdale in Orphir: Out of Time and Land/Mind.

Pamela has been a very active Orkney poet for many years, and was one of the writers who, in the 1990s, did a project on poetry in place, installing concrete texts specifically made for their location, including the Earl’s Garden. This poetry-in-place project was among the inspirations for Words on the Way. Pamela’s partner Iain Ashman designed the poster for Words on the Way.

On the themes of forgiveness and growth, we had chosen poems by the exciting contemporary writers Luke Sutherland and Rosie Alexander.

Rosie’s poem Bog Cotton was brand new, written for the 2020 Orkney Pride festival. It was put up near Rosie’s home in Orphir, where bog cotton grows thick on the RSPB nature reserve. During a walk here, Rosie noticed how the bog cotton resembled many small flags.

In her poem, the bog cotton bravely dares put its flags up, many of them, all saying, with pride: here we are!

Rosie Alexander’s poem Bog Cotton was written for the first Orkney Pride, 2020.

Meanwhile, Luke Sutherland’s novel Venus as a Boy is perhaps not what you would call traditional Orkney writing. With its depictions of bullying, transgender themes and drug abuse, and mixing of realism with magical or fantastic elements, it has been seen as controversial by some.

However, it also speaks powerfully to the theme of forgiveness: “When you have lived there and come away, you never quite stop pining for the beauty and magic. Regardless of the nastiness and violence and hate and how shittily people have treated you, you can always imagine going back. What can I say? When I was a kid, I kind of took it for granted, but now I see how it’s almost everything I am. Islands everywhere. … A map of Orkney’s a map of my emotions, pretty much. A map of me.”

This healing power of Orkney and its nature are also strong themes in Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun and Victoria Whitworth’s Swimming with Seals. These memoirs, both written in poetic prose, came out in close succession in 2016 and 2017, both to accolades and praise from critics.

Victoria Whitworth lived for many years by Aikerness Beach in Evie, where she swam at all times of year. Coldwater swimming for her became a welcome relief from the demands and pressures of life.

In the book, and the excerpt we put at Aikerness, Victoria shares with us the immense depth of layer upon layer of archaeology, history, and folklore all within eyesight of this beach, such as the story of the magical fairy island of Hildaland which was tamed and fixed in place as Eynhallow, in the Rousay Sound.

Amy Liptrot grew up in Orkney, before moving to London as a young adult. The book is a very honest memoir of how returning to Orkney and taking up a job as a “corncrake listener” with the RSPB helped her overcome alcohol addiction. Both books show how the wild can restore life and renew hope.

A passage from Amy Liptrot’s memoir The Outrun was put up at Beaquoy in Harray, one of the districts where Amy worked as a corncrake registration officer.

Andrew Greig and John Aberdein both capture the essence of Orkney in their poems Orkney Movement and Orkney/This Life.

On the theme of hospitality, John Aberdein’s poem, hanging by Scapa whisky distillery, humorously claims that the cows here milk fudge and whisky, while “the ebb slips an oyster down the Atlantic throat”.

Andrew Greig’s poem, Orkney/This Life is absolutely beautiful with a deep and warmly understated love, well suited for example for a wedding anniversary celebration, but also as a general reflection on what togetherness and community means.

“It is the way you lean to me/and the way I lean to you, as if/we are each other’s prevailing;/how we connect along our shores,/the way we are tidal islands/Joined for hours then inaccessible,/I’ll go for that, and smile when I/pick sand off myself in the shower”.

Orkney/This Life by Andrew Greig, here at Hannabreck, Harray, with a view towards Hoy Sound.

Lastly, the project poet herself, Yvonne Gray, contributed the poem Nousts. This is the old word describing a hollow where boats are pulled up for the winter. Just such nousts can be seen at Hestigeo, St Ola, on the final leg of St Magnus Way.

Project poet Yvonne Gray’s poem Nousts was put up at Hestigeo in St Ola, where boats were pulled up for safekeeping on shore.

Yvonne was chosen as the project poet for Words on the Way because of her outstanding poetic skills, her vast knowledge of Orkney literature, and her experience with collaborative forms of poetry.

She is a published poet and retired teacher of English, with an M.Litt degree in Highlands and Islands Literature. For her Master’s dissertation, Yvonne researched Orkney poetry and place, focusing on place-specific poems by Pamela Beasant, Morag MacInnes and Alistair Peebles.

In recent years, she has taken a particular interest in collaborative writing, and led community sessions in the Japanese form Renga, where a poem is written collectively by a group. All of this made Yvonne Gray the perfect candidate as a project poet for Words on the Way.

Yvonne’s commission was to take the notes of response left in the postboxes along the route by members of the public, and turn them into a special St Magnus Way poem for Book Week 2020. In preparation, she took it upon herself to walk the entire 55-mile pilgrimage route, a first for her, in all weathers during October.

Acrostic poem by nine-year-old Rosa Leonard.

Finally, on November 3, the day of the pivotal US presidential election, Yvonne and I travelled together to Egilsay to collect the final response box and complete Yvonne’s journey.

It was an exciting day. We sat down and opened all the boxes one by one. It was like hauling creels: Is there a catch in this one? I was a bit nervous that we wouldn’t find anything, but luckily we did.

Some people had written down things that immediately came to mind, on whatever scraps of paper they had in their pockets. One had written on a piece of a TV licensing bill. Others had taken great care and prepared their response at home, before returning to the postbox with their text neatly written and secured in an envelope or sealed plastic bag.

The youngest was Rosa Leonard, nine years old, who had written a beautiful acrostic poem, using the names Finstown and Orphir and describing all the things she saw and experienced on her walk.

This response was scribbled on a torn piece off an old TV licensing bill.
This response calls for the end of greed.
Responses given by St Magnus Way walkers.

Yvonne took in not only what was written on the notes, but also the look of the notes themselves, what paper they were written on and so on, and the location of the box they were in, using it all as inspiration for her poem.

The result was the brand new poem, Words on the St Magnus Way, which was premiered on Radio Orkney on November 18, 2020, during Book Week.

Words on the St Magnus Way

Words from a yellow post-it note …

Sun on seagull


Words from A4 paper, folded …

            Islands of green and blue

            silent but never still

            a land scattered with rainbows

Beauty, life.

A wave

A smiling face

            Beauty, life.


            A broken heart

Beauty, life.

A cool breeze

on my face

            Beauty, life.

            Green islands, blue skies

            A crashing wave …

Journey to Egilsay, Tuesday 3 November

The ferry forges on for Egilsay –

Church island of the Celts

or to the Norsemen

the island of Egil.

Farm land.

A stronghold.

A Bishop’s estate.

A pilgrim island

with a kirk high on its ridge

seen for miles

across the bays and sounds.

A meeting point.

Neutral ground.

A place of hope

where hope died –

and where hope

grew green again.

The tut of the stonechat

The murmured doubt of the outcome.

The rasp of the corncrake.

Blade drawn.

The axe falls.

We walk from the pier

to the far shore.

Mae Banks

a slope by the meadow

And a wave swells

blue-green glass that holds

two curious seals suspended –

then shatters like crystal.

Footprints on the shore.

Faces you sculpted in the sand.

Children – siblings. At the end

of this day ballots will be counted.

What will they mean for our children,

our parents? Our friends, our cousins?

The sick and the frail

and the disenfranchised?

Cousins. What whisperings drove

Magnus and Hakon

Apart? What clouds swelled

like field mushrooms

against the blue of the sky?

What sails swept in

from the horizon and stole

the warmth from the spring air?

Hope dashed like a bird on stone.

Perhaps it was here Magnus

prayed and considered – saw perhaps

the slow repeated tracks of limpets

on the rocks and wondered why

he should hold fast to this world

if it brought conflict and bloodshed

hardship and loss – or if all he need do was let go …

Ships on the horizon.

The hours of his life played out.

Perhaps – and not for the first time –

he thought I have no quarrel with any man here …

and so shaped minds


by his conceding

of power.

And now in November a rainbow –

and perhaps that April there appeared

in the sky an airy hull –

bright strakes.

By Manse Loch –

the loch of the dwelling or the Loch of Magnus?

We dip our hands in water

and draw bright droplets through the air.

Words from the torn margin of a TV licence form …

A spring cool, clear

and sparking

still flows from that time on Egilsay.

Words on 2 lined pages from a small spiral-bound notebook …

I thought about my late father …

good, honest, kind, caring,

hard working and loving.

He guided me at times

when I didn’t realise

I needed guidance,

good, honest, kind, caring.

He guided me at times

without me knowing.

hard working and loving.

Only looking back

can I now see those moments.

Words from a page torn from a small lined notebook …

In waves of unrest

I am grateful for words

that can be grasped for

in the dark.

Like tiny anchors

digging into the ocean floor.


Let me bury my son, Thora said.

At Gurness we watch

before setting out.

Gannets gleam

arrows fletched

that rain on the Sound.

Journey to Birsay

Who comes in that ship

its sail swelling above the sound?

Its thafts are filled with silent men.

Their burden is heavy –

one who is no longer there.

Sail lowered they climb ashore

on a greening headland.

Among litter of rock a wide stone

where for a time they rest their burden –

the man they did not save.

Past empty crofts

a decaying chapel, the fallen brochs

they travel on, the weight of stone

in their hearts, the burden

of past and present, the time still to come.

By the wheelan stane in Swanney

they glance up at Erne Tower.

Vast wings spread and eagle eyes

light on their burden –

the man who gave up power for peace.

There’s talk of change in the divided land.

One tells of an island no ship can reach

that shimmers above the horizon.

Together they raise their burden –

Lighter now – and trudge on to Birsay.

On a margin torn from the bottom of a printed sheet …

… the past and the future …

for the future we need peace and humility –

the end of greed.

Another Archaeology Institute PhD student celebrates viva success

Jasmijn at work in the lab at Orkney College.

Jasmijn Sybenga, a student at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, has passed her PhD viva, with no corrections.

Jasmijn’s thesis, Seeing the Wood for the Trees; a palaeoecological approach into the research of past natural woodland in the Scottish Highlands, focused on three areas of peatland in Caithness and Sutherland.

Jasmijn at work in the field.

Using pollen, non-pollen palynomorphs and microscopic charcoal, Jasmijn identified the types of woodland previously present against today’s woodland survey of Scotland, causes for the demise of these woodlands and evidence of past woodland disturbances, such as those caused by people and climate.

The results were modelled against predicted climate change to identify what native woodland and tree types offer the best chance for establishment through re-afforestation of these areas – information that will have implications for future conservation strategies in the Highlands and potentially across Scotland.

Jasmijn started her PhD in February 2016 after finishing both undergraduate and graduate degrees at Leiden University in the Netherlands.

Her PhD supervisors were Dr Scott Timpany, Dr Roxane Andersen and Dr Melanie Smith and her research funded by a Forestry Commission Scotland Funded Studentship and the University of the Highlands and Islands.

If you are interested in postgraduate research at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, please get in touch by e-mailing studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk or see our guide page.

PhD candidate sought for Severn valley settlement research project

The Medieval Settlement Research Group (MSRG), in conjunction with the Universities of Leicester and Nottingham, is seeking a PhD candidate for its application for an M4C collaborative doctoral award: Dispersed Settlement in the West Midlands’ Severn Valley: An Interdisciplinary Approach.

If successful, the project will start in September 2021 and focus on landscapes of dispersed settlement (consisting of isolated farmsteads and hamlets) in the middle Severn valley.

The post-Conquest (1086-1500) settlement history of the West Midlands has been little-studied recently. Generally, medieval settlement studies have focused on areas of nucleated settlement (large villages, with houses clustered together), broadly stretching in a band from the south-west to the north-east of England through the East Midlands, so this proposed research fills both geographical and intellectual gaps in our current understanding of rural settlement formation.

Research questions:

  1. Which factors were more influential on patterns of dispersed settlement: physical (e.g. soils, relief) or cultural (e.g. lordship, agriculture, industry)?
  2. How do patterns of dispersal compare and contrast across the region studied?
  3. Is it possible to determine a chronology of development for dispersed settlement?
  4. To what extent did small, isolated settlements subsequently develop?
  5. To what extent did the colonisation of cleared woodland generate later foundations of dispersed settlement?
  6. Did the region have a distinctive social structure, with special regard to lordship, peasant status, holding size, community, parish, farming regime and industry that accounts for dispersed settlements?
  7. (Two local case-studies) To what extent is it possible to determine the lived experience, outlook and culture of medieval occupants of small, dispersed settlements, and how might it have differed from that experienced by people living in larger settlements?

The project will encompass methodologies from landscape archaeology, local history, historical geography, and toponomastics. The following aspects will be key:

  • Multi-disciplinary literature review focusing on landscape archaeological, historical, geographical and place-name outputs relating to English medieval settlement scholarship, alongside a comparative review of writing on European settlement.
  • Identification of dispersed settlement within the study area using historical documents (especially manorial surveys, court rolls and deeds), early maps, aerial photographs, and placenames.
  • Review of key local published histories, including the Victoria County History series and the output of county archaeological and historical societies.
  • Review of archaeological grey literature for the study area, alongside a thorough search of the data on the Historic Environment Record (HER), and the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS).
  • Analysis of existing placename datasets for the study area.
  • The development and population of a database for analysis of the corpus of settlement sites.
  • Use of GIS to map settlement sites, in particular the distribution of hamlets and isolated farmsteads and cottages.

The MSRG are keen to hear from applicants who have completed/are close to completing an MA/MSc in either landscape archaeology, local history, historical geography or toponomastics.

To apply, please send a covering letter and two references to Dr Susan Kilby, Hon. Secretary, MSRG, by email to sk565@le.ac.uk by Friday, December 11, 2020.

The group intends to hold virtual interviews for potential candidates.

Launch of Ness of Brodgar monograph a ‘proud moment’ for Archaeology Institute

Two of the Ness of Brodgar: As it Stands editors – Nick Card and Anne Mitchell – at Wednesday evening’s book launch in Kirkwall, Orkney. Missing from the picture is Professor Mark Edmonds.

The third volume in the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute’s research series was officially launched on Wednesday evening.

The Ness of Brodgar: As it Stands focuses on the ongoing excavation of a complex of Neolithic buildings in Stenness, Orkney, and is a major drawing together of all the strands of information available to date.

The background to the site, its discovery, excavation, the science and other specialisms being employed to tease out the story are all explored in the richly illustrated book.

Opening the launch event in Kirkwall, Orkney, Professor Jane Downes, director of the UHI Archaeology Institute, described the new volume as a “splendid addition” to the institute’s research series.

She said: “The Ness of Brodgar is the flagship excavation of the Archaeology Institute – an excavation that has grown to be of such importance to Orkney, not only economically, which it undoubtedly has been evidenced to be, but to a whole range of people, from students, tour guides, schools and Orkney visitors, to whom the site has become an annual highlight.

“This book has been eagerly awaited by legions of students, professional and amateur archaeologists and Ness of Brodgar and Orkney enthusiasts from all over the world. For the UHI Archaeology Institute this is a proud moment indeed.”

Discovered in 2003, UHI excavation at the Ness of Brodgar began in 2005 and the interim monograph features contributions from institute staff as well as specialists from around the world. The result is 27 chapters, each devoted to different aspects of the site, its excavation and interpretation.

Edited by Nick Card, Mark Edmonds and Anne Mitchell, The Ness of Brodgar: As it Stands is available from bookshops priced £35.99. Purchasing online from www.nessofbrodgar.co.uk will see proceeds from each sale go to the excavation funds.

The second volume in the UHI Archaeology Institute series, Landscapes Revealed: Remote Sensing Across the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site, was launched in September and also available from bookshops.

Orkney experience contributes to African climate-change project

The Sukur Cultural Landscape in Nigeria is one of two African World Heritage sites involved in the CVI-Africa project. The hilltop settlement, which dates back to the sixteenth century, will be the focus of Professor Jane Downes, director of the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute.

The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute is part of a new project focusing on the impact of climate change on African heritage sites.

Worldwide, climate change is threatening people, communities and their heritage. Africa is projected to warm more rapidly than most other regions on the planet, meaning this already vulnerable continent will be hard-hit by the impact of climate change.

The CVI-Africa project, led by institutions in Africa and the United Kingdom, will pilot the application of the Climate Vulnerability Index (CVI) to African World Heritage properties.

The CVI assessment tool assesses the risk to heritage by climate change and the vulnerability of associated communities based on their economic, social and cultural relationships to those values and their capacity to adapt.

It was first applied to a cultural World Heritage Site in 2019, when its focus was the Heart of Neolithic Orkney.  There, the site was found to be at risk of being destroyed within 50 years due to rising sea levels, increased storminess and rainfall but that the richness of the rest of the research meant there were options for economic and cultural sustainability.

Dr Albino Jopela of the African World Heritage Fund, a co-investigator on the project, said: “Despite the intensifying threat, there remains a lack of attention to the cultural dimensions of climate change and this is especially true here in Africa. The CVI-Africa project will help fill this gap.”

Professor Jane Downes is the director of the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and an expert on climate change and heritage.

She explained: “Cultural heritage in Africa is being destroyed by a number of climate change impacts. There is an urgent need to respond to this and the CVI-Africa project will work closely with heritage professionals and researchers from across the continent to better understand this ongoing challenge.

“The project has great potential to effect action on climate change through detailing the impacts of climate change on these internationally important sites.”

The project will provide training in the CVI method to six African heritage professionals and culminate in workshops at two World Heritage Sites affected by climate change.

Professor Downes will be focusing on the Sukur Cultural Landscape in the Mandara Mountains along the Cameroon-Nigeria border.

According to ICOMOS Nigeria’s Dr Ishanlosen: “Sukur reflects the complexity of assessing vulnerability. Located in the Mandara Mountains along the Cameroon-Nigeria border, the impact of climate change has induced shifts in the political and local economies, with attendant risks to cultural heritage. Supporting local communities and national authorities to develop tools that build on local experience and realities, can help them manage these risks and plan for the future. We hope that the CVI can contribute to fulfilling that need.”

The second site is the ruins of Kilwa Kisiwani and Songo Mnara, in Tanzania, where climate change is already affecting the coastal monuments.

Site manager Mercy Mbogelah explained: “Although we took some adaptation measures to stop the speed of wave actions going direct to the monuments, more action and learning experiences from others is needed. For this matter the CVI-Africa project will bring us together to find more actions to reduce or stop these challenges.”

The project has been funded by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Global Challenges Research Fund scheme with support from the UK Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. The workshops will include the six heritage professionals, local and national experts and stakeholders and international partners.

For more details, see http://cvi-africa.org.