Boat People of Orkney - pre-Neolithic migrants


sealevel.gif The distances mentioned above are predicated by today's sea-levels, but around 6,000 BC sea-levels were certainly much lower, and remained low till as recently as about 2000 BC. With sea levels estimated to be 30 metres lower than today, the first settlers approaching Orkney from the south would have experienced an almost unrecognisable landscape compared to what we see today. [Orkneyjar] If the sea-level map at right is anything to go by, today's archipelago of separate islands coloured red would have formed basically one large island as coloured green. It also means distances to be covered by water would have been shorter than today and might even have permitted north-bound migrants to walk as far as Stroma. Against that, the tides may have run with even geater ferocity than today; having no outlet between islands to dissipate some of the energy, the whole mass of water would have been forced between ‘greater Orkney’ and Caithness. Since the construction of the Churchill barrier, the southward tidal flow through Hoxa Sound has increased by 2 knots. [Miller 1994] There is increasing archaeological evidence of early human occupation of land exposed by these earlier, lower sea-levels, as well as from core-sampling from the bottom of the Lochs of Stenness and Harray and Echna Loch [Wickham-Jones and Dawson]. Around Orkney relative sea levels would have been lower for much of the Neolithic, raising the possibility of submerged Neolithic sites and landscapes in the shallow seas between the islands. [Wickham-Jones] Sea-levels were previously thought to have stabilized at current levels around 5,000 BC whereas work by Wickham-Jones and Dawson at Echna Loch give a much later date of 2340-2570 BC, and at Voy, in Stenness, a date between 1440-1270 BC.

On the navigation chart above, and reiterated by Berry, conservative figures of 8 or 9 knots are given for the rate of tidal streams in the Pentland Firth between Stroma and the Pentland Skerries, where tidal streams are at their severest. Elsewhere around Orkney 4 to 5 knot steams are common. On the chart are several alerts in red saying “Tidal Streams (see notes)”. The Notes read as follows. PENTLAND FIRTH TIDAL STREAMS. The Pentland Firth has extremely strong and rapidly varying tidal streams, eddies and races which cannot be adequately shown on this chart. Spring rates of 12 knots occur and extreme rates of 16 knots have been reported. For details refer to Admiralty Tidal Stream Atlas NP 209. This should be used in conjunction with detailed pilotage information. 16 knots is incredibly fast! but then so is even 4 to 5 knots. The average competent human swimmer swims at less than ½ a knot. A good swimmer could achieve perhaps 2 knots for a very short time; an Olympian maybe 4 knots. The fastest speed ever recorded was just under 5 m.p.h. (about 4 knots) by Michael Phelps at the 2008 Olympics. Unless planing, a boat's speed is limited by the waterline length of its hull; the longer the hull, the greater the boat's potential speed. The maximum speed of a modern, hydro-dynamically efficient boat with a conventional hull of say 40 foot would be around 8½ to 9 knots regardless of how powerful the engine or wind. All swimmers and most boats would thus go backwards when encountering the average tide head on in the Pentland Firth, let alone at its strongest 12-16 knot rate.

Neolithic man did not have the luxury of consulting the Admiralty Tidal Stream Atlas or detailed pilotage information and the fact that Orkney and other northern isles were populated so successfully by several different populations attests to the high degree of Neolithic skill in boat building, seamanship, and navigation. It also suggests they either had a very pressing need to leave the Scottish mainland or were incredibly fool-hardy or courageous or all three. The journey could not have been undertaken light-heartedly or on a whim. Materials would have had to be assembled, craft constructed, watering and victualling seen to, breeding stock, animal and human, laid in and later on.

Neolithic boatmen must have had to deduce the timing and direction of their crossing from careful observation of the water separating them from Orkney. The Merry Men of Mey is an area of very rough and confused water stretching today more or less from St John's Point and the Men of Mey Rock on the mainland to Tor Ness on the southern tip of Hoy. It is clearly visible to anyone standing on the southern side of the Pentland Firth gazing wistfully north and dreaming of better times to come. Less obvious is The Swilkie, hidden from the same observer just to the north of Stroma. A swilkie is a whirlpool. The name originally meant a swallower. There's a reason for that! Here's what the ‘Historia Norwegiae’, written ca 1266, had to say about it.
The greatest of all whirlpools is to be found there, [i.e. Orkney] which engulfs the strongest ships, sucking them in at ebb tide and spewing out their fragments with a belch at flood tide.
Much later, the Elder Edda described The Swilkie as a magic quern, or grindstone, called Grotti which was stolen from King Frodi by a sea-king called Mysing who wanted it to grind salt. He ground so much that his ship sank in the Pentland Firth beneath its load. Undeterred, Grotti continued to grind till all the sea was salt and continues to grind to this day; “and as the sea rushes through the eye of the quern the roar of its movement can still be heard.” [Linklater 1965] Stroma itself derives its name from strom meaning stream, as in current, and ey an island. The names say it all; Stroma is in the eye of the maelstrom.

Anyone who made it to Orkney must have been ingenious, courageous, and lucky, an excellent basis for a gene pool. There were doubtless plenty who were ingenious, courageous but unlucky, who made no contribution to the gene pool. Luck would have been a pre-requisite six thousand years ago because all that could be relied upon to make the crossing would have been your own powers of deduction and calculation given that the collected benefit of human hindsight as now set out in Admiralty publications was several millennia ahead with a long trail of drint bodies in its wake. “The sea is the largest of all cemeteries, and its slumberers sleep without monuments.” [Mantell] Even with all the advantages of tide tables, and technological aids such as GPS and accurate weather forecasts, a trip across the Pentland Firth is always potentially hazardous. On the relatively small area covered by the navigation chart above there are several symbols with the word WRECK alongside. A crossing approximating that undertaken by Neolithic settlers but in a modern sea kayak is not something for the faint-hearted. The Pentland Firth journey has to be one of the most exposed and exciting open water crossings described within this book, [‘The Northern Isles’ by Tom Smith and Chris Jex] if not within the UK. The short distance covered during this journey is potentially one of the most exhilarating rollercoaster rides any paddler will experience - if their tidal predictions are incorrect! and A committing paddle for experienced paddlers who have a good working knowledge of tidal streams and their effect! and Tidal planning and a careful watch on the time during the journey are essential in order to benefit from any tidal movement and avoid the wrath of this unforgiving stretch of water. It is prudent to plan to complete the journey as close to the weaker neap tides a possible. A light wind and settled weather window is best chosen for the journey. The sea surrounding the Pentland Skerries is exposed to all wind directions. Rough water, standing white waves and difficult eddy lines may be present, even during good weather conditions.

How many made it to Orkney is not entirely a matter of speculation. It has been estimated that the Stones of Stennesss required 12,500 man-hours to construct whereas the Ring of Brodgar required 80,000 man-hours. These staggering amounts of labour cannot have been the effort of one or two individuals or even families but suggest great labour by many people however organized or coerced into participating in a common enterprise. What remains speculation is the number of those who perished in the attempt. An interesting comparison can be made with today's boat-people such as the migrants who continue to push northwards out of Africa as they have done ever since Homo sapiens first got the itch to travel a couple of hundred-thousand years ago. In spite of having clothes, access to relatively modern boats with engines, the use of mobile phones, GPS, flares and such like, and embarking in what at almost any time of year must be more favourable climatic conditions than those that can routinely be expected in the Pentland Firth, today's African migrants still perish in considerable numbers in the Mediterranean, just as their Neolithic counterparts must have done in the Pentland Firth. (The distances are greater; the shortest between Africa and Sicilly is that from the tip of the headland east of the Gulf of Tunis to say Marsala - about 90 miles, roughly Caithness to Fair Isle; from Mahdia to Lampedusa is around 80 miles.)

Even today, after crossing in comparative luxury and safety aboard a passenger ferry, there are people who swear “never again!” The same was true for many of those posted north to “bloody Orkney” in the two World Wars for whom, after enduring several days on the ‘The Jellicoe’, the nickname for troop trains from Euston to Thurso in both wars, the straw that broke the camel's back was often the short trip across the Pentland Firth. Neolithic boatmen were made of sterner stuff - which is just as well because crossing the Pentland Firth, an achievement in itself, was the start rather than the end of their difficulties.

hideboat2.jpg Landfall on Orkney is no pushover, especially if the craft you are in is at the un-manoeuvrable end of the flotsam spectrum. Orkney has plenty of weather, but if you had to pick a single characteristic feature it would be the wind. (There are over 60 words from Shetland describing wind, but not one of them for a warm wind!) In the north use of sail was not added to oars on clinker boats until the seventh century. Some hide boats may have had sails to help propel the craft in the desired direction, although the lack of a keel would have meant stability was a major issue as well as leeway. From Stroma or Swona the desired direction would logically have been northwards towards the centre of the landmass clearly visible only two or three miles away. Were such a course maintained, craft might have been able to enter Scapa Flow and gain some protection from prevailing west or south-westerly winds and where today there are plenty of small inlets and beaches on which to land. The immediate problem aiming northwards from Stroma or Swona is having to cross the savage alternating east- and west-flowing tidal stream which, to put it mildly, would be tricky in a hide boat.

Data based on High Water ABERDEEN for tide diamond ‘L’
58° 43’.6 N 3° 28’.3 W - see navigation chart above left.
  -6 -5 -4 -3 -3 -1 HW +1 +2 +3 +4 +5 +6
  094.gif 079.gif 090.gif 100.gif 133.gif 260.gif 265.gif 264.gif 255.gif 316.gif 347.gif 060.gif 106.gif
True°   094 079 090 100 133 260 265 264 255 316 347 060 106
Rate Springs 4.2 4.6 4.3 2.4 0.6 2.7 4.0 5.1 4.9 2.0 1.7 1.3 4.0
in knots Neaps 2.1 2.3 2.2 1.2 0.3 1.4 2.0 2.6 2.5 1.0 0.9 0.7 2.0

There is little margin for error. A slight miscalculation might easily result in craft being swept clear out to sea east or west of Orkney. Miss Orkney (a braw lass! but this ‘miss’ is a verb) and you're heading for the great blue yonder and would be lucky even to sight Shetland or the Faroes. Using Stroma and Swona as stepping stones would reduce time afloat, but getting ashore on either would not have been easy. Both are low-lying and rocky with few landing places and girt about by rost frequently spelt roost: the part of a tide-race where the main force of the current begins to slacken, and where (especially if there be contrary wind) very rough, steep, irregular and dangerous billows arise - like boiling water in a pot on a huge scale. [Marwick 1929]

Vegvisir Geographically Orkney does not welcome visitors from the west. In good weather this is the route taken by the Stromness ferry and gives a fine introduction to Orkney's almost unbroken, sheer, Atlantic face, with cliffs towering over a thousand feet high at St John's Head on the north-west of Hoy. The coast here is as dangerous as the open sea, providing a perfect example of what it is to be caught between a rock and a hard place. In the absence of a 100 hross-power outboard motor, being tatooed with the Vegvisir symbol [at right] might, as claimed, guarantee the bearer would never lose their way in storm or bad weather, even when the way was not known. Today, the unmistakable land-mark of the Old Man of Hoy gives notice that the journey is almost over, but he would not even have been a babe in arms when the first settlers of Orkney were scanning the coast, anxious for a place to land. [The Old Man's d.o.b. is uncertain; he is unmentioned in the Orkneyinga Saga; does not feature on Blaeu's 1600 or McKenzie's 1750 maps; but appears, two-legged, in a painting by William Daniell ca. 1817. He lost a leg later in the same century.] Even Hoy Sound, the western entrance to Scapa Flow, may not have existed or only been navigable at certain states of the tide - see sea-level diagram above. But from the west there is one chink in Orkney's armour; the Bay of Skaill or, as it was originally known, Sandvík - ‘Sandy bay’. For more about Sandwick, see Sandwick. For Survey Data see Sandwick 1795 and Sandwick 1842.

URLs were active at the time of writing in January 2014.

  • Berry, J.J.: The Natural History of Orkney [Collins, New Naturalist 1985]
  • Dennison, S: New Neolithic Settlements found on Orkney [British Archaeology, July 2003]
  • Linklater, Eric: Orkney and Shetland [Robert Hale, 1965]
  • Miller, James: A Wild and Open Sea. The story of the Pentland Firth. [The Orkney Press, Kirkwall 1994]
  • Wickham-Jones: [Internet 2007]
  • Wickham-Jones: [Internet 2004]
  • Orkneyjar:
  • Orkneyjar:
  • ‘Historia Norwegiae’ trans. by Devra Kunin (2008)
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© 2018 Duncan Linklater Custos Rotulorum.