Virtual Vault Rev James Wallace's Description of the Isles of Orkney, 1684 (MS)
Chapter 1

[Inscription on flyleaf]

This volume, presented to Dr Traill by Jas Baikie Esq Octr 1833 appears to be the original M.S. of the “Description of the Isles of Orkney by Master James Wallace, late minister of Kirkwall”.  It is in his handwriting ; has more antiquated spelling than the printed work of 1693, which is the first Edition, published by his son after his death, & dedicated to Sir Robert Sibbald.  In general, it corresponds verbatim to that Edition ; but in some places, there are a few additions made to the printed text, as at p. 30, when to the text of the M.S. p. 28, there is introduced a compliment to the beauty of the women, not in the M.S. ; and the document respecting Mayrie or Majory Bimbister is here wanting.  In p. 61, of M.S. Bishop Mackenzie is spoken of as alive ; whereas, in the printed text his death is accorded as haveing happened in Feb. 1688.  A few verbal differences occur in other parts and the names of existing functionaries mentioned at the conclusion of M.S., are omitted in the book.

These differences confirm the opinion of this being the original M.S.  They were probably introduced by his Son, the Editor ; who made several additions to an Edition printed in 1700, at London ; to which he affixed his own name, omitting all mention of his Father as the author.

                                                                                                                                    T .S. T.

T[homas] S[tewart] T[raill]

Ane Account
off the
Ancient & Present State

by Mr Ja: Wallace
Minister of Kirkwall
Anno 1684

Ane Account
off the Ancient and
Present State off

Anno 1684 [1]

Chapter 1

The nature off the Countrey & Chief Products yroff

This Countrey in our english Language is called Orkney.  By the Latines both ancient & modern, itt is called Orcades: and so itt is called by

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by the Dutch, but they pronounce the penult long.  Mola wreits itt with ane aspiration Orchades.  The Irish call itt Arku.  What is the reason off the name is not condesended upon, but its like yt the Latine name is either from Orcas which Ptolomee makes to be a promontorie of Caithnes overanout  this Countrey or from some sept of the Pights who first planted itt, & who from some similitude with the name qrby they called themselves might beso called by the Romanes.  As for the English name (Orkney) itt may be derived from some Pictish prince as Erick or, Orkenwald or some other that hes been famous in the first Plantation: ot itt might have gotne the name from some remarkeable Title which the first planters the Pights took to themselves for [Pights properlie signifies (in the Teutonick tongue) fighters: and [Orkney] may come from [ear] qch signifies [honor] and [kyn] qch signifies [ane ofspring] as iff the name wer intended to shew, yt they wer ane ofspring or generation of honor.

Itt Lyes in the Northern temperat Zone and threttenth climate.  The Longitude being twentie tuo degrees & eleven minutes: And Latitude fiftie nine degrees, the Compass varrating eight degrees so yt the

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the Length of the Longest day will be 18 hours & some odd minutes.

Yet not withstanding yt this Countrey is so farr removed to the north the air is temperate & wholsom, agreeing with these constitutions yt can comport with a little cold.  Itt is true that for a great pairt of June, itt will be so clear att midnight yt wee may read a letter in our Chamber ; yet it cannot be true what Bleaw reports, yt from the Hill of Hoy a man may see the sun att mignight for itt cannot be the true bodie of the sun yt is seen ; but onlie the Image of itt refracted thoro the sea, or some thin waterie cloud about the Horizon seeing itt must be as farr depressed under our horizon in June as it is elevated above itt in december, which will be manie degrees  for fro that hill the sune will be seen in the shortest day of december above five hours and a half.

The air & clouds heer by the operation of the Sun, doe sometyme generate severall thingse.g. about eight or nine years agoe, some fisher men fishing half a league from land, over anent Copinsha, in a fair day there fell doun from the air a ston about the bigness off a football, which fell in the middle of the Boat & sprung a laike in itt, to the great hazard off the lives of the men yt wer in itt which could be no other but some substance generated in ye Clouds.  The ston wes like condensed or petrified clay and

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and wes a long tyme in the keeping of Captain Andrew Dick, att yt tyme Stewart off ye Countrey.

Heer our winters are generallie more subject to Rains then snows nor does the frost & snow continou so long heer as in other pairts of Scotland; but the winds in the mean tyme will often blow verie boisterouslie.  Some tyme the Rain descends not by drops, but by spouts of water as ift whole coulds fell down att once.  About four year a goe after a Great thunder in the moneth of June, there fell great flaiks of Ice more than a foot thick.

This countrey is whollie surrounded with the sea heaveing pightland firth on the south, the Deucaldonian ocean on the west the sea yt divides itt from Zetland on the north & the German sea on the east.

Zetland stands noreast & be east from orkney from the Start in Sanda, to Swinburgh  head the most southerlie poynt in Zetland will be about eighteen leagues qr there is nothing but sea all the way Save Fair ile which lyes within eight leagues of Swinburgh head.

Pightland firth which divides this Countrey from Caithnes, is in breadth from Dungsby to the nearest poynt of Southronalsha in Orkney about twelve miles.  In itt are manie tydes (to the number of which run with such ane impetoues current that a ship under saile is no more able to make anie way against the tyde then iff itt wer hindred by a Remora which

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which I conceive is the cause why some have said they have found the Remora in these seas.

In this firth about tuo miles from the coast of Caithnes lyes Stroma, a litle ile, but pleasant & fruitfull.  And because of itts vicinitie to Caithnes & its being still under the Jurisdiction of the Lords of that Countrey itt is not Counted as one of the iles of Orkney.  On the north of this Ile is a part of the firth called the Swelches Stroma ; And att the west and off itt, betuixt itt & mey in Caithnes there is a nother pairt off itt called the Mirrie men of Mey, both which are verie dangerous.

The sea ebbs & flows heer as in other places, yet there are some Phenomena, the reason off which cannot easelie be found out.  As in the Ile of Sanda itt flows two hours sooner on the west syde then itt does on the east.  And in North Faira (which lyes betuixt Eda & Westra) the sea ebbs nine hours & flows but three.  And att Hamoness in Sanda, both ebb & flood run on way except att the beginning off a quick stream, when for tuo or three hours the flood runs south.

The sea heer is verie turbulent in a strom and as pleasant in calme.  The tides are verie swift & violent by reason off the multitude off the Iles & narrownes of the passage for when the rest off the sea will be smooth, yet these Tides will have such a forme as I have heer sett down.  These

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These tides rune with such ane impetus, that they cause a contrair motion in the sea adjoyning to the land, which they call Easter Birth or Wester Birth, according to its course yet notwithstanding of all these rapiditie off these Tides and Births, the inhabitants will be dailie almost travelling from Ile to Ile about there severall Business in their litle Yoales & Boats.

Whatever the Ancients have writne of the number of the Iles of Orkney, its certain there are but tuentie six at present inhabited, Viz.Southronalsha, Suinna, Hoy, Burra, Lambholme, Flotta, Faira, Cava, Gramsay, Mainland, Copinsha, Shapinsha, Damsey, Inhallo, Stronsa, Papastronsa, Sanda, Northronalsha, Eda, Rousa, Wyre, Gaira, Eglesha, Northfaira, Westra, Papawestra.  The rest of the iles are called Holms & are onlie used for pasturage: all of yme being separated from one another by some narrow Streights where you may remark yt the most of these names yt end in a, or ey qch in the Teutonick tongue signifieth water ; to shew yt these iles are peeces off land surrounded wt water.  They are different natures.  Some sandie some marish, some abounding in moss & some yt have non ; some Mountainouse & some plain.  Off these some are called the South Iles and others ye North iles, and yt as they stand to the south or north off the greatest Ile called the Mainland.

Southronalsha is the souther most off these iles five mile long, fertile in cornes & abounding wt people.  To the south east lye the pightland skerries dangerous to seamen.  But to the north is St Margarets Hope a


a verie saife harber for ships, which have no difficultie in coming to itt save a rock in the midst off the Sound betuixt this ile & Burra called Lippa.  From Burwick in this Ile is the usuall ferrie to Dungsbie in Caithnes.

A litle separated from this to the southwest lyes Swinna, a small ile & onlie considdrable for a pairt of pightland firth lying a litle to west off itt, called the Wells off Swinna which are tuo whirlpools in the sea (occasioned as is thought thoro some hiatus yt is in the earth below) yt turne about with such a vehemencie, yt iff anie Boat or ship come within there reach they will whirle itt about & about till itt be swallowed up and drowned.  But it is more remarkable yt anie thing yt comes into itt, itt is never seen again.  They are onlie Dangerous in a dead calme for iff there be anie wind & the Boat under saile, there is no danger to goe over them.  Iff a Boat happen to come neer them in a calme thoro the force off the tide, the Boatmen take this way for their preservation, they throw a Barrell or oar or stone, or anie thing that comes nixt to hand into ye wells & when itt is swallowed up, the sea remains smooth for a tyme for anie Boat to pass over.

Beyond this & to the west of Southronalsha lyes Waes & Hoy (conceived to be the Dumna of plinie) which are but on Ile of about twelve mile long full, of High Mountains & but thinlie inhabited unless it be in Waes from Snelseter there is the other ferrie from this Countrey to ham in Caithnes.  Heer are severall good harbors Kirkhope Northhope Orehope & others but not much frequented.

To the north of Southronalsha about a mile lyes Burra, a pleasant litle ile fruitfull off corns & Rabbets.  Be

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Betuixt itt & the Mainland is Lambholme And to the west toward Hoymouth lyes Flotta, Faira, Cava, Gramsey all of them fruitfull & pleasant iles, tho they be not Bigg.

Nixt to these is the Mainland, called be the Ancients Pomona or Pomonia, about tuentie four mile long and well inhabited.  About the midle of this ile, looking to the north stands Kirkwall, the onlie toun in all this Countrey.  There are in itt especiallie four excellent harbors for ships one at Kirkwall both lairge & saife withour anie daanger by shoals or blind rocks as they come to itt, Unless they come from the west by Inhallo and Gairsa.  Another is at Deirsound which is a Great Bay & a verie saife Road for ships, haveing a good ancher ground and capable to give shelter to the greatest navie.  The third is att Graimshall toward the east end of this ile qr  is a convenient Road.  But the ship that sailes to itt from the east wold doe well to keep betuixt Lambholm & the Mainland for the other way, betuixt Lambholm & Burra (which appears to them to be the onlie open) is verie shold and dangerous even for small ships.  The fourth is att Kairston, a small village att the west end end of the Mainland, qris a verie saife and comodious harbor, well fenced against all winds & weathers by tuo small Holms that stands in the entrance.

To the east of the Mainland lyes Copinsha, a litle ile but verie Conspicues to seamen in which and severall other places of this Countrey are to be found in great plentie excellent stons for Curling.  To the noreast of this ile is a holme called the Horse of Copinsha.

To the north of the Mainland lye the north iles ye first of

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of which is Shapinsha betuixt five or six mile long & heth a saife harbor for ships at Elwick.

Off ane equall bignes to yt, toward the South east lyes Stronsa, which heth tuo convenient harbors for small ships one att Lingasound fenced with Lingaholme the other att Strynie, fenced with a litle pleasant ile to the north off itt called Papa Stronsa.

Beyond these toward the north, att a prettie distance lyes Sanda, off about eleven or tuelve miles in length ; but verie narrow, wwell stored with corne & cuningars.  It heth tuo Roads for ships on at Ketletoft, guarded by a Litle Holm & called the holm of Elsnes the other att Otterswick guarded be the most northern ile in all this Countrey called Northronalsha which is a litle fruitfull ile, but both itt and Sanda are destitute of moss ground & are forced to bring their peits a great way of from the adjacent ile Eda

This Eda lyeth to the southwest of Sanda conceived to be ye Ocetis of Ptolomee neer five miles in length full of moss and hills and but thinlie inhabited, unless itt be about the skirts of itt.  Itt heth a saife road to the north called Calf Sound, guarded be a lairge holme called the Calf of Eda in which is a salt pan which will cast.

Three mile to the west of Kirkwaall, at the bottom of a Lairge Bay lies a litle ay called Damsey with a Holme beside itt as bigg as itt self.

To the nor norwest Lyes Rousa, a bigg ile about six mile long full of hethrie hills, weel stored with plover & muirfoul, itt is but thinlie Inhabited.


Betuixt itt & the Mainland lyes Inhallo. And toward and toward Kirkwall lyes Wyre & Gairsa small but profitable iles.

Due north from Kirkwall att eight miles distance stands Eglesha, some thing more then tuo mile long, but pleasant & fertile haveing a convenient Road for ships betuixt itt and Wyre.  There is in itt a handsome Litle Church qr itt is said yt St Magnus the patron of this Countrey lyes buried.

Be north Eflesha is Westra, seven mile long, pleasant fertile and well inhabited:  itt heth a convenient harbor for ships att Piriwa.  att the east end of itt Lyes Faira, called for distinction Faira  be north.  And to the north & be east is Papawestra, a pleasant ile three mile in length fanous for St Tredwells Chappell and Loch, off which manie strange things are reported be the Vulgar.

All these Iles are in differenentlie fruitfull weel stored wt fields of corne & herds of Cattell & rich Cuningars, but destitute off wheat, rye, pise etc.

The cheeff Products off this Countrey and which are exported be the merchant yearlie are Bear, meal, fish, tallow, hydesm stockens, Butter, Selchskins, otter skins, rabbetskins, Lambskins, White Salt, Stuffs wreiting pens, downs, feathers hams wool etc.    Chap 2

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[1] Inscriptions on this page: Gifted by Mr Thomas Baikie 1698 ; R. Baikie ; Gifted to Thos Stewart Traill Esqr of tirlot MD by his Affectionate Friend Ja: Baikie 15th October 1833


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