Archaeology ORCA

New Research-Finding Ancient Harbours on Papa Westray, Orkney


It is well known that Orkney is open to the elements and is battered by storms during the winter months. Activity, even now, is governed by the weather and harbours have been and are an important element in Orcadian life.

If you visit or indeed live in Orkney you will notice the well known archaeological sites, but you may not notice the traces of human activity in the intertidal zone-the shoreline exposed between high and low tide. If you do stop and look at the mud and sand, you may just notice stones curving out towards the sea. These could be landing places or sheltering places for ships; used by Orcadians over the centuries to protect their vessels from storms.


New research by Edward Pollard, Julie Gibson and Mark Littlewood explores the intriguing ‘ayre’ or spit harbour complex at Weelie’s Taing on the Orkney Island of Papa Westray.

The study revealed a previously unknown type of harbour since identified in several locations around Orkney. Situated in exposed environmental situations, shelter is formed by an ‘ayre’-a type of spit that encloses a loch-and which has been used historically as a landing place or crossing of the inter-tidal zone.

journal-of-maritime-archaeology-copyA complex landing area, pier, tower (which could be defensive or a sheep fort) and ship-blockage suggest Weelie’s Taing was used as a harbour. Important fishing grounds exploited since the Neolithic are nearby, and Papa Westray was the site of water-focussed religious communities.

It is suggested that Weelie’s Taing was in use in the medieval period when Papa Westray was less isolated than today.

This project on medieval harbours and landing places is being taken forward by an expanded team from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and Sula Diving that includes work on some underwater ballast piles off Gairsay (the home of the notorious Viking pirate Swein Asleifarson).

The full paper is available to view online in the Journal of Maritime Archaeology

The project was funded by Orkney Islands Council Archaeological Fund.

To find out more about Papa Westray then visit the Papay Development Trust website. There is also an excellent video taken from the shortest scheduled flight in the UK.