Orkney’s Early Thing Sites
Orkney’s thing sites are somewhat mysterious. There is very little information relating to them, and what we know mostly comes from saga stories, folklore and partial records.
The Orkneyinga Saga contains many references to thing meetings occurring in Orkney. These meetings often involved consultations between the chief men of the area, or the settlement of disputes between rival Earls. The things were mainly held in spring and autumn, and although locations are not always given, the mainland often seems to be the preferred meeting place.
Today, two place names point to thing sites. Tingwall is in the west mainland on the border between the parishes of Rendall and Evie, whilst Dingieshowe is in the east mainland on the border between the parishes of Deerness and St Andrews.
At Tingwall the Vikings probably used the grassy ruins of a broch (a circular, tower-like structure dating to the Iron Age) as a thing site. A large green mound with a stepped profile is still visible today, next to the road to the ferry terminal. It is strategically placed to take in views of Rousay, Wyre and Egilsay, once home to the 12th century Viking pirate Sweyn Asleifsson. The Orkneyinga Saga tells us that Sweyn’s uncle, Helgi, lived at Tingwall, and it is believed that this may have been the location of some of the meetings mentioned in the saga.
Dingieshowe also makes use of an earlier prehistoric monument. Somewhere around 300BC a broch was built on top of an earlier Neolithic site which had been in use some 3000 years before. Much later the ruined broch was then used as a thing site. Local folklore tells of the burning of a witch at Dingieshowe; her skull is said to have frequently reappeared in the sands around Dingieshowe.
Other prehistoric sites have also been associated with the creation and dissolution of legal contracts. The largest collection of stone carved runes in the UK can be found inside the Neolithic chambered cairn and World Heritage Site of Maeshowe. It is not known if it was used as a thing site, but it has been suggested that the bank which encloses the mound would create an ideal enclosure. The nearby church of Stenness has a medieval history whereby legal contracts, made by shaking hands through the Stone of Odin, could be undone by walking through the church.
Kirkwall and St Magnus Cathedral
Kirkwall became Orkney's centre of administration in the twelfth century. The Orkneyinga Saga recounts several meetings taking place in the city, including in St Magnus Cathedral.
The Cathedral was significant as both an ecclesiastical and judicial centre. Documents record it being used as a courtroom and market place; this is supported by a number of curious features inside the building. There is a hangman’s ladder, gallow cross-beam and even a prison. Known as Marwick’s Hole, this was the holding place for criminals before they were tried and hanged.
The Cathedral was situated close to the Market Cross where burnings were carried out; the original cross is now located in the north transept of the Cathedral with a replica outside on the Kirk Green.
Place names also provide information about Orkney’s early judicial system. The gallows and strangling post were near the Cathedral at Gallows Ha’, at the top of Clay Loan. Local legend says that Thieves Holm, in the entrance to the bay, was once the home of banished thieves and witches. The area once known as Parliament Close (now occupied by 6 Albert Street) is also thought to have been where the thing met. There was also a Parliament House nearby.
Orkney is a group of about 70 islands and skerries situated 10 km off the north –east tip of the Scottish mainland. The islands boast beautiful rolling green fields, dramatic coastlines, spectacular wildlife and an astonishing wealth of history and archaeology.
Orkney has been inhabited for over 6000 years. The west mainland contains one of the richest Neolithic landscapes in Europe. Known as the Heart of Neolithic Orkney, this area was given UNESCO World Heritage status in 1999, recognising these sites are on a par with the Egyptian pyramids. At its centre stands the iconic Ring of Brodgar. Built around 2500-2000 BC, this impressive stone circle, enclosed by a bank and ditch, has 27 of the original 60 stones still standing today. Nearby, the massive Stones of Stenness are the remains of another henge monument. The World Heritage site also includes the world famous Skara Brae, a spectacularly preserved prehistoric village, and Maeshowe, one of the most famous burial chambers in Europe. Excavations at the Ness of Brodgar continue to reveal the story of this magical landscape today.
When the Vikings came to Orkney they left behind more than just their sagas. Many place names have Norse origins, and you can still hear the influence of their language in the dialect spoken today. Viking hoards, such as the one found at Skaill, Sandwick, and the Scar Boat Burial, show us just how rich and complex their culture was.
Orkney played an important part in both World Wars. The British Grand Fleet used the great natural harbour of Scapa Flow as a northern base in World War One. You can also see the legacy of World War Two particularly, by travelling across the Churchill barriers, the causeways linking Mainland to the South Isles. The barriers were constructed by Italian POWs based on the islands of Burray and Lambholm. Their legacy is the Italian Chapel, Orkney’s most visited tourist attraction.
www.orkney.gov.uk/Service-Directory/S/orkney-museum.htm), a fantastic laird’s townhouse, is home to exhibits chronicling 5,500 years of Orkney’s history from Neolithic times to modern social history. Opposite the St Magnus Cathedral are the Bishop and Earl’s Palaces (www.historic-scotland.gov.uk), two of the finest examples of architecture in Scotland. Whilst here why not visit Highland Park, the UK’s northernmost distillery, or pop into the Orkney Wireless Museum (www.orkneywirelessmuseum.org.uk), which traces the history of early domestic radio and wartime communication in Orkney.The city and Royal Burgh of Kirkwall is the capital and administrative centre of Orkney. There are plenty of places to visit, shop, eat and stay in the centre. Orkney Museum in Tankerness House (
The picturesque town of Stromness is Orkney’s second largest town. The award winning Pier Arts Centre (www.pierartscentre.com) is located in the centre of the town and the museum (www.orkneycommunities.co.uk/stromnessmuseum) gives an excellent account of Orkney’s maritime history.
Orkney is easily accessible by air (www.flybe.com) and sea from either Aberdeen, Scrabster, (www.northlinkferries.co.uk), Gill’s Bay (www.pentlandferries.co.uk) or by passenger ferry from John O’ Groats (www.jogferry.co.uk)
For information about local ferries visit www.orkneyferries.co.uk
St Magnus Cathedral
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