With ex-Provost, PC Flett

This article was originally published in The Orcadian newspaper on 17th July 1952. Peter C Flett was Provost of Kirkwall between 1940-1947.

Under the auspices of the Orkney branch of the Workers’ Educational Association, a company travelled by bus on a recent Saturday afternoon, under ideal weather conditions, to visit places of historical interest in the West Mainland.

They were exceptionally fortunate in securing the services as leader and lecturer of that well-known and competent authority, Ex-Provost Peter C. Flett, O.B.E., of Kirkwall, whose comprehensive knowledge of Orkney history is equalled by his detailed acquaintance with points of antiquarian and archaeological interest rarely mentioned by recognised and leading authorities.

Starting from Kirkwall in the afternoon, Mr Flett, from his seat in the bus, and speaking from memory, without notes, and rarely forgetting a name or a date, explained how the name Kirkwall originated and expatiated for a while on the so-called “Peerie Sea.” There was nothing “peerie” about it when the Norse galleys first sailed into it, anchoring at places today known as Broad Street and Victoria Street.

At the head of the town, where the old Stromness road branches off, Mr Flett pointed out a “howe” that has been in existence for 3000 years. It is also in alignment with the Onstan Howe and a particular stone in the Brodgar Circle.

A fine view of Scapa Bay coming into sight suggested several suitable topics, ancient and modern, for discussion, one of which was the fact that the construction of the pier at Scapa was a compromise arrived at between the Kirkwall and Stromness local authorities of that time, who even then showed considerable rivalry.

Another site mooted for a pier was Waulkmill Bay which, Mr Flett explained, was the locality where the weavers shrink their cloth and where facilities for bleaching were ideal.

Proceeding along the Orphir road an extensive area of the finest peat ground was pointed out as being extensively worked, as this particular quality of peat gives a peculiar and much valued flavour to Highland Park whisky.

The first stop was made at the Bu of Orphir, a very famous Viking settlement. Here can be seen remains of the stone base of the Castle of Orphir used by Earls Sigurd and Hakon, the latter cousin and murderer of Earl Magnus. In this locality, Sweyn Aslief and Sweyn Braestrope had supper one night and then went to midnight mass, after which a quarrel ensued and the former Sweyn murdered the latter Sweyn.

Two other notorious murders, one the well-known story of the poisoned shirt occurred and the Earl’s Palace here.

The apse of the Round Church of Orphir, built by Earl Hakon after his return from pilgrimage to the Holy land in expiation for his murder of Earl Magnus in Egilsay in 1115, is the only remaining part of the building which was built on the model of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. This portion of the Round Church is perhaps the oldest building extant in Orkney today.

Returning from this historic scene of murder, feasting and high revelry, combined with religious ceremonial in the palmy days of the early Orkney Jarls, the company proceeded to the Germiston Junction and the bus driver was instructed to halt at the funeral mounds of Summerdale on the farm of Skaill, three on each side of the public road and one or two being less conspicuous owing to cultivation.

Further along the road Mr Flett showed the actual scene of the battlefield of Summerdale in 1529, the last battle fought in Orkney. It was most interesting to hear Mr Flett explain the landing place of the Caithnessmen and the points from which the Orkney contingents assembled; the routes followed by the two armies; the weapons used and the overwhelming victory won by the Orkneymen. No Caithness man got back.

On arrival at the main Kirkwall-Stromness road and turning west, a stop was made at Tormiston to see something of unusual and unexpected interest, which turned out to be a fish trap, one of two in Orkney, constructed no one knows how many centuries ago, but long before laws against poaching and illegal methods of fishing trout and salmon were heard of. This sinister looking and ingenious contraption made rod and line of course unnecessary.

From here it followed as a matter of course, that a visit had to be paid to Maeshowe, which is pre-eminently the most noteworthy chambered mound of antiquity in Great Britain and Ireland, with its Norse runes chiselled on the smooth massive blocks which form its walls, buttresses and passages.

As several of the company were making their first visit to Maeshowe, Mr Flett had so much to explain and so many questions to answer that 5 p.m. had already arrived when the Standing Stones Hotel was reached and tea was ready to be served.

The Standing Stones Hotel, date unknown, but the WW1 Royal Navy’s seaplane station huts can be clearly seen on the left. The Stenness base was established on the south shore here on the Stenness Loch and flights 309, 310 and 311, consisting of 18 Felixstowe F3 seaplanes, operated from here. The staff of 200 were billeted partly in the hotel, and partly in the hutted camp. The hotel became HQ of the Royal Navy Air Service serving Scapa Flow. The loch proved too shallow and exposed for the seaplane base, which was eventually moved to the more sheltered Houton in Orphir.

On resuming the journey about an hour afterwards, Mr Flett asked his audience to note particularly the Standing Stone of Barnhouse, one of the most conspicuous of the few outstanding monoliths not embraced in the circles. The alignment formed with this Barnhouse Stone and the long passage of Maeshowe seemed to have a peculiar significance, and was too remarkable to be merely accidental.

The straight line thus formed, points in a south-west direction to the point where the sun sets a few days before the winter solstice, whilst the same alignment in the opposite directions points to where the sun rises on midsummer morning.

Taking our stand again outside the entrance to Maeshowe and, looking directly westwards, the eye falls in line with the Watchstone at the Bridge of Brodgar. The stone at Barnhouse and the Watchstone also form a straight line with the centre of the Brodgar Circle in a north-easterly and south-westerly direction.

Another alignment from the centre of the circle at Brodgar to Maeshowe points to the rising sun at Hallowe’en. These alignments indicate all the important feasts of the sun worshippers held at the sunrises and the sunsets.

Besides these important alignments pointing to the rising and setting sun at all the high feasts of the sun-worshippers Mr Flett’s account now began to exercise a fascinating influence over the company when he talked about the inner and closer relationship between these circles and the worship of the sun and the moon.

The two stones which stand near Brodgar, not very far apart, represented the planets Jupiter and Saturn, and the Venus Stone on the small mound with tow stumps was pointed out the smaller circle or the Moon Circle occupied considerable time and aroused considerable interest and much discussion on the evidence that sun and moon worship were the main predisposing factors which led to the erection of these huge stones, each one of which seems originally to fit into its special place in the scheme devised by these early astronomers of 3000 years ago.

The next place visited was not so easy of access and none of the party had ever been there before. It was the Ring of Bookan, the Orkney Stonehenge, situated a mile to the north-west from the Brodgar Circle, occupying a mound of about 140 feet in diameter, surrounded by a trench.

The ring consisted of several fallen cromlechs but no standing stones, and in the opinion of Mr Flett represented a civilisation and form of worship much earlier than that of the sun worshippers know as the Phallic worship.

By this time only one more visit could be made, and that was to Stoneyhill road in Harray, near which is the standing stone which marks the longest day sunrise from Brodgar Circle.

Entering the Dounby road on the way back to Kirkwall, the Appietown Howe was indicated, where the relics of St Magnus were rested while being carried from Christ’s Kirk, Birsay, to St. Olaf’s Church, Kirkwall. The next halting place or Magnus Mound was shown to be the central mound opposite Binscarth, near the present main public road.

On the way in from Finstown to Kirkwall, Mr Flett discussed Damsay, the old House of Cursiter, Earl Erlend, and Rennibister, and was cordially thanked for his guidance, good company, and his arresting and charming descriptions of ancient men and events.

Six hours having been already occupied, the remainder of the proposed tour of Sandwick, Birsay, Evie and Rendall had to be given up.


Original text The Orcadian.

Caption information from Lamb, G. 2007. Sky Over Scapa. Bellavista Publications: Kirkwall. p26