Earl’s Knoll, Papa Stronsay

Earl's Knoll, Papa Stronsay
September 2022. The Earl’s Knoll, viewed from Griceness, Stronsay. (Dan Lee)
Type:Long cairn.
Possible Orkney-Cromarty chamber.
Notes:An exceptionally long mound in the south-eastern corner of Papa Stronsay. Aligned east-west, the cairn is 75m long, 12m wide at the western end and 20m wide and 2.2m high at the east.
It was in pasture in 1982, when broken flat slabs could be seen through the turf. The base of a dismantled windmill was also visible near the western end.
In 1795, the minister for Stronsay and Eday, Rev John Anderson, documented a presumed operation to open the cairn:
“About halfway between these chapels [St Nicholas and St Bride] there is, on a rising ground called the Earl’s-know (sic), the appearance of old ruins and graves, one of which graves, evidently defined by two stones, one at the head, the other at the feet, is eight feet and a half long (2.6 m); this grave was dug up to the deepness of about six feet (1 .8m), in the month of July 1792; the stones at the head and feet, which appeared about one foot (o.3m) above the surface, reached to the bottom of the grave.

“Many human bones of an ordinary size were found, and, moreover, fragments of a human skull, and of a lower jawbone, with the case of teeth, which were perfectly found, and fragments of thigh bones; these were all of an enormous size and afforded a convincing proof that the body buried there had required a grave of the dimensions above specified.”

From Anderson’s sparse account, it seems likely that it was the side cell of an Orkney-Cromarty stalled cairn that was encountered – the “grave stones” at the head and foot being orthostatic dividers.

The fate of the human, and presumed animal, remains is not known.

The Ordnance Survey name book of 1879 records:

“The Earls Knoll (sic) – This name is applied to a small knoll situated on the south-eastern side of the island of Papa Stronsay. There is a grave on this knoll with a rude stone standing at the head and foot. Tradition says it was the grave of a knight whose corpse was found on the shore clad in full armour.”

The association of a knight with the mound probably relates to Anderson’s enormous bones, which had allegedly been encountered 87 years previously.

What this account does suggest, however, is that the two dividing orthostats were still visible in 1879. It also shows that the original, and expected, name – Earl’s Knowe – had been supplanted by Earl’s Knoll.

According to William Aytoun, a Scottish poet and Sherriff of Orkney from 1852, “a large grave or tumulus” in Papa Stronsay was known by the locals as the grave of the fictional character Sir Patrick Spens.

In the first volume of his The Ballads of Scotland, Aytoun wrote:

“It is true that the name of Sir Patrick Spens is not mentioned in history; but I am able to state that tradition has preserved it. In the little island of Papa Stronsay, one of the Orcadian group, lying over against Norway, there is a large grave or tumulus, which has been known to the inhabitants, from time immemorial, as ‘The grave of Sir Patrick Spens’.
“The Scottish ballads were not early current in Orkney, a Scandinavian country; so it is very unlikely that the poem could have originated the name. The people know nothing beyond the traditional appellation of the spot, and they have no legend to tell. Spens is a Scottish, not a Scandinavian name. Is it, then, a forced conjecture, that the shipwreck took place off the iron bound coast of the northern islands, which did not then belong to the Crown of Scotland?”

Unfortunately, Aytoun does not name the site but, perhaps because of the knight story, the Earl’s Knoll has become attached to his statement.
Earl's Knoll, Papa Stronsay