‘United Parishes of Sandwick and Stromness’
(Synod and County of Orkney, Presbytery of Cairston.)
by the Rev. William Clouston
from ‘The Orkney Parishes. Containing the Statistical Account of Orkney, 1795-1798’
Edited by J. Storer Clouston
[Kirkwall: W.R.Mackintosh, 1927]

Hover over any highlighted text for enlightenment.

What follows is only an extract. In time I might put the whole chapter here.

It is somewhat curious that this, one of the largest and most fertile parishes in Orkney, whose total rent was actually higher than that of any other single parish in 1653, and whose western seaboard shows clear evidence of very early settlement by the Norsemen, should neither be mentioned itself in the Saga, nor include any place or family recorded there. No doubt the explanation, which applies to the whole inland part of the West Mainland, is that the Norsemen were a sea-faring race, whose captains and rulers lived on or near the coast; and such coast as Sandwick owns is a mere menace to mariners.

In the early rentals Sandwick appears as apparently two parishes. North and South Sandwick, each separately larger than a number of other Orkney parishes. But the absence of any other than the one parish kirk, standing on the border line of the two divisions, and of any hint of ecclesiastical division at any period, seem clear evidence that whatever these two divisions may have been, they were not separate parishes.

North Sandwick contained apparently 8 eyrislands of skatland and something over 6d. quoyland, a little over 150d land in all. Five of the eyrislands formed the two large towns of Northdyke and Scorwell, which together consisted of 10 closely contiguous small tuns, each containing exactly half an eyrisland, of extremely low value per penny land (and this despite the excellence of the soil). Since the eyrisland and half eyrisland were the earliest units of land value, and the pennylands merely a convenient means of expressing fractions; and since, moreover, the low pennyland value is strong presumptive evidence that the land was fully cultivated already where the skat was first laid on it, and so could not expand later, this district is evidently one of the earliest Norse settlements in the West Mainland.

Further proof of this is to be seen in the name Sutherquoy applied to the wide fertile district lying along the west and south sides of the Loch of Skaill. Originally this must have been a mere quoy - a new enclosure, to the south of the already settled and cultivated lands of Northdyke and Scorwell. Very, very venerable then is this Northdyke district. And its position close to the shore of Skaill Bay, the only landing place for miles along that iron coast, shows why it was so early settled.

Out of the whole total for North Sandwick, there was approximately 75d. land odal, 61d land earldom, (13½d land ‘auld earldom’, 22½d old kingsland, and 25d land conquest), and 14d land church (bishopric 2d, kirklands 12d.).

South Sandwick contained 169½d land, all skatland. This is 1½d land short of 9½ eyrislands, which suggests that 1½d land had somehow or other vanished from the rentals. The odal land came to 69¾d land, the earldom to 61¼d land (auld earldom 12½d, old kingsland 28¾d, and conquest 20d), and church to 38½d land (bishopric 8d, kirklands 30½d).

There was thus a considerable amount of odal land within the whole parish, and many apparently different families owned it; though it seems likely (here even more than in most parishes) that a number of them were really branches of greater families. Thus one of the Sandwick Brasses is actually found as alias Linklater, and the earlier title deeds of the Garsons are concerned solely with Kirknesses.

Three odal families were outstanding in North Sandwick, the Kirknesses of Kirkness, Linklaters of Linklater, and Hourstons of Hourston, the first two being early on record and their properties widespread. In South Sandwick the old representative odal families on record were the Sinclairs of Tension, Nories or Norns of Voy, and Louttits of Lyking, apart from the St. Andrews Irvings of Sabay who owned all Yesnabie; besides several large tacksmen, such as Richard Skaill (Scollay?), and Henry Sinclair of Clumlie.

The Uthel Book (which seems pretty accurate in North Sandwick, but cannot be checked in South Sandwick), has for the odal lands of North Sandwick, 80 parcels and approximately 72 names, and for South Sandwick, 63 parcels and approximately 55 names.

On the early 17th century suit rolls appear six proprietors of these odal lands: William Irving of Sabay for Yesnabie, Magnus Louttit of Lyking, Andrew Linklater of that Ilk, John Linklater of Scabra, John Kirkness of that Ilk, and Hugh Hourston of that Ilk; and also two feuars :- Margaret Craigie (widow of Henry Sinclair) for Clumlie, and Magnus Irving of Over Garson.

IIn 1653 the state of things was not unlike that in Stromness. The great estate of John Graham of Breckness overshadowed all others. Next in size was the substantial but comparatively modest property of Alexander Linklater of Linklater; and between them, various portioners of the families of Linklater, Kirkness and Hourston held a fair amount of land. And then, descending by steps and stairs in value, were a host of smaller odal properties.

In 1820 the large Breckness estate was owned by William G. Watt, and out of a long list of smaller owners, only William Graham (of Redland's) heirs, John Louttit of Banks, and William Hourston of Lyking had above £50 of rental.

In the matter of its districts, Sandwick seems to have been divided on different principles from any other parish of which definite information is available. In 1618 these districts are given as only four, two in North and two in South Sandwick.

In North Sandwick this is supported by traditional evidence; North Dyke, Scorwell, Housgarth, Tenston, probably North Unigarth and possibly Linklater, forming one, and the rest of North Sandwick the other. In the first was the parish kirk, and in the second the chapel of Kirkness, and probably another in Hourston at Kirkabreck.

In South Sandwick, however, tradition gives three large districts, but is a little uncertain as to one or two of the townships. Five chapels are known, but the traditional division would put the two chapels of Tenston and Lyking in one district, the three chapels of Voy, Yesnabie, and Skaill in a second, and none in the third; which seems improbable. So that it is impossible to be at all certain of the true arrangement, except that the districts were evidently large. They were not, it may be added, known as “urslands” here.

Sandwick is the other of the two parishes where a 1618 list of its lawrikmen is preserved. It is in this list that we find the four divisions, styled “quarters,” and the names run :- in the “north quarter,” Andrew Rolland, Andrew Linklater, Henry Linklater (of Housgarth, Andrew's brother), and John Kirkness; in the “next quarter,” Wm. Craigie (of Vetquoy), John Linklater, Magnus Garson, and Hugh Hourston; in the “south side,” Andrew Lyndie (i.e. Hackland), Hugh Spence, Edward Sinclair (of Clumlie), and James Louttit; in the “fourth quarter,” Magnus Sinclair, Robert Sinclair, and Jerome Beaton. (Names on the suit rolls are in italics, in this, and in the next list.)

Sixty years later, in the records of a circuit court held at Skaill in 1678 is preserved another list; though with no districts specified. The names are:- George Irving of Over Carson, Hugh Kirkness of Quoyloo, John Kirkness in Housgarth, John Garson in Scabra, James Brown (probably of East Voy), Alex. Hourston of Hourston, Thomas Hourston (his brother), Hugh Stockan of Headrig, David Brown of West Voy, and Hugh Brown in Hackland. In both these lists, even when the lawrikmen were not suitors, they were almost all landowners.

The names “bu” and “hall” are found nowhere in Sandwick as regular, permanent designations, though there are one or two early 17th century references to the “Bow of Skaill.” The “manor house” or “principal house” of Linklater appears, however, once or twice on record; and a deed of 1696 is dated at the “manor house of Kirkness.” Of actually existing old houses, Skaill House, once the seat of the Grahams and then of the Watts, still represents to-day better than any other house in Orkney, a complete specimen of the largest type of l7th century mansion. It has been partly rebuilt but apparently not enlarged since Bishop Graham's day, and he was living there soon after he came to Orkney in 1615.

The only other which once, a very long time ago, was evidently a house of some importance is Nether Benzieclett, the property of the Linklaters at the beginning of the l7th century and afterwards the residence of a branch of the Redlands of Redland. [I think this should be “the Richans of Redland.” See Peterkin's Rentals etc.] To all appearance this is one of the oldest existing private houses in Orkney; probably, in fact, the very oldest inhabited house in the islands. The old ecclesiastical state of Sandwick is noted under Stromness.

  • Clouston, J Storer: The Orkney Parishes. Containing The Statistical Account of Orkney 1795-1798... by Sir John Sinclair [Kirkwall 1927]
  • Schei, Liv Kjörsvik: The Orkney Story [Batsford, 1985]