Conference Marine archaeology

‘Our Islands, Our Past’ – connectivity and communications

Over the next few months, we will explore the exciting and interesting themes of the conference in a series of blog posts. In this blog post we explore the theme of Connectivity and Communications within our island environment.
Wide Firth
One of the North Isles ferries approaching Kirkwall Bay, Orkney.

The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute conference, ‘Our Islands, Our Past’, is being held in Kirkwall, Orkney from 14th September to 17th September 2017.

Over the next few months, we will explore the exciting and interesting themes of the conference in a series of blog posts. In this blog post we explore the theme of Connectivity and Communications within our island environment.

Living on an island in the North Atlantic in the 21st Century is an experience. It is almost universally accepted by most people living in the UK that they can communicate and connect to anyone else on the planet. The internet, rapid transit systems, motorways and the ever increasing capacity of airliners means that people take these things for granted.

There are no railways on Orkney. The nearest motorway is 200 miles to the south. The rapid transit system is the X1 bus which traverses the length of the Mainland on an almost hourly basis (amazingly there is even a night bus that runs at 2am on a Sunday morning).There are frequent ferries and flights that link us to the mainland of Scotland and beyond. And there is internet.

Even though I have spent most of my life living in an urban or semi-urban environment far to the south, I do not feel unconnected to the world – despite living in South Ronaldsay which is connected by four causeways to the main Orkney island.

The fourth Barrier linking the island of Burray to the island of South Ronaldsay.

But what was life like on South Ronaldsay before the building of the Churchill Barriers? How connected were the people in our islands in our past?

We are lucky in that we can still ask older residents who still remember the days before the Churchill Barriers. It would seem that connectivity between islands and people was by boat. Innumerable piers and jetties facilitated movement between the islands. The relatively sheltered waters of Scapa Flow allowed people, goods, news and ideas to move between the islands.

Remains of piers in St Margaret’s Hope, South Ronaldsay

In the village of St Margaret’s Hope itself, even now, the houses on the shoreline each possess their own pier. And along the shoreline of South Ronaldsay itself, each house seemed to possess its own jetty. So perhaps we can say that the islanders of South Ronaldsay, in particular, did enjoy connectivity through the use of small boats and their individual piers and jetties and this perhaps led to the survival of the island before the barriers were built.

Almost all of these piers and jetties have fallen into disuse as the residents prefer the connectivity offered by the bus, car and the road over the barriers.

Remains of the old ferry pier connecting South Ronaldsay and Burray

It will not be long before even the function of these strange lines of beach stones stretching out to sea, will be lost and they in themselves will become future archaeology.

Many thanks to Terry and Sandy Cuthbert-Dickinson at Ayre of Cara for their help in making the photograph of Barrier 4 possible.

Paul Sharman and Julie Gibson are working on a paper entitled ‘Prospecting for Orkney’s medieval harbours and landing places’ which they will explore at the conference as part of the wider connectivity and communications theme.



  1. Many years ago I mentioned to Andrew Appleby that the Eagle Cairn and Unstan Cairn are very similar, and that, at the time, seemed strange to me, as even now it takes a while to get from one to the other by land. I was picturing the ancient folk as not getting about much, as distances – as I saw it then – must have been more of a barrier to contact. I did say that this was many years ago!
    Andrew sagely replied that they are very similar, because………it wouldn’t be a hard job, on a fine day, to go by boat from what is now South Ron. to what is now Stenness.
    Different ways of looking at things – that’s what we need to apply, and what I hope will be applied at this conference.
    I’m learning.


    At the Bay of Hinderayre, down from us, there is what’s left of an old slipway. There’s also what I consider to be a telling set of nousts and sheds. One boat shed is still intact, with a boat in it which isn’t by any means sea-worthy, but which is still a boat. It could, maybe, with a lot of work, still be used. And there are bits and pieces, such as old cork floats, still in the shed. To the right hand side of that boat shed, is a noust with what is very much the remains of a boat – fast disintegrating – in it. To the left of the boat shed – if you look hard, you can see that there was a noust and a boat there – there’s now just the wooden prow of the boat, sticking up, with a metal ring attached. Since we came to live here, I’ve liked this assemblage of past and present – no future I think – as the house there is now a holiday cottage.
    I’ve thought it’s the kind of thing Rebecca Marr might take interesting images of.
    There’s a sketch by Sylivia Wishart of it.
    So, maybe it does have a future after all – in images.
    And….right on our doorstep. As often in Orkney – it’s all there.

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