Rev. Charles CLOUSTON on Sandwick in 1842


‘Parish of Sandwick’ (Synod and County of Orkney, Presbytery of Cairston)
by the Rev. Charles Clouston, Minister. (Part i)
From ‘The Statistical Account of the Orkney Islands by the Ministers of the Respective Parishes...’
[William Blackwood and Sons, Edinburgh 1842]


Name. The name Sandwick is no doubt derived from the sandy bay, which is the principal one on the west coast between Stromness and Birsay, wick signifying a bay.

Extent and Boundaries. The extreme length of the parish is fully 6 miles but various calculations and measurements convince me that its mean length is about 4½ miles, and its mean breadth about 3¾. It is bounded by Birsay on the north ; by Harray and the loch of Stenness on the east ; by the same loch and Stromness on the south ; and by the Atlantic on the west.

Hills etc. This parish cannot be denominated mountainous, nor even hilly, when compared with the neighbouring ones, being more flat and cultivated than any of them ; but a range of hills forms its west boundary except at the bay; and from these the hills of Gyran and Lingafiold [fiold means hill] stretch eastward near its south side, and those of Vestrafiold and Yonbell at its north boundary. These, as well as the lower lands and valleys remote from the sea, slope gently eastward towards the loch of Stenness, forming part of that extensive amphitheatre in the centre of the west mainland, the area of which is little elevated above the loch. Vestrafiold, or the west hill, is the highest, and may be about 300 or 400 feet above the level of the sea. A little east of the Sandy bay are eminences or low sandy hills, called Sandfiold and Kierfiold, which seem to be formed in a great measure of the sand blown from the bay by the west wind, which is prevalent and violent. The latter of these hills was formerly considered beautiful for its verdure, as it was covered with grass to the summit, but for some years it has been forced to submit to the plough, and I suppose it is more profitable, though less pleasing to the eye than formerly.

Coast, Caves, etc. The west coast extends about four miles and a half, and is precipitous at all places except the bay, the highest part being between 200 and 300 feet perpendicular. There are many caves on the coast that form the favourite retreat of pigeons. The softer portions of rock being washed away much more quickly than the harder, there are many deep indentations, or geoes, as they are called, where the soft parts have given way, and in some cases the hard portions still remain as insulated pillars, within a stone throw of the precipice, forming very picturesque objects ; but the most remarkable thing produced in this manner is the Hole of Row, which is a high natural arch through the peninsular crag forming the south side of the bay, caused by two whin dikes, occurring so near each other, that the intervening strata have been pulverised and washed out by the sea, as high as its waves had power to do so, Immediately south of the arch, the stones on the top of the precipice are arranged like those on a beach by the force of the waves, and, on the top of one of these crags, I once picked up a lump of India-rubber covered with barnacles. Not far from ROW' on the nearest part of the coast, is an immense rock, which is well known to have been carried a considerable distance by the sea; it is 16 feet long, 6 broad, and 3 thick, and weighs, according to my calculation, about 24 tons.

Meteorology. I have kept a register of the weather for the last twelve years ; the latter half only in this parish, and the former in the manse of Stromness, where there is no great difference in the climate. As the temperature and pressure of the atmosphere, the direction and force of the wind, with the state of the weather, were noted twice a-day, at ten A. M. and ten P. M. during all that period ; it would occupy too much space to insert the whole of that register here ; but the following tables, showing the mean state of the barometer and thermometer for each month and year, may be interesting, as applicable to Orkney in general, and must be pretty accurate, being formed from extensive data.

[TABLE showing the mean monthly and annual height of the barometer, from 1827 until 1838, inclusive...omitted here.]

[TABLE showing the mean monthly and annual temperature, from 1827 until 1838, inclusive...omitted here.]

Of meteors, the polar lights are the most remarkable here, being often extremely brilliant and beautiful.

The west or south-west wind is understood to be the strongest and the stone and lime on that side of a house most exposed to it, are generally the first to give way. A gale from that quarter is frequently prognosticated by the great swell of the sea, which rages even during a perfect calm. On this subject, I take the liberty of repeating an observation, which I have made elsewhere. [Guide to the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, p.629 ] This great swell, or ‘sea’ as it is here called, generally indicates a storm in a distant part of the ocean, which may reach Orkney a day or two afterwards ; hence, on the west coast, this great swell is considered a prognostic of west wind. From this we infer, 1st, that the agitation caused by the wind on the surface of the ocean travels faster than the wind itself; and 2nd, that the breeze begins to windward, and takes some time to reach the point towards which it proceeds to leeward, which tends to overturn the usually received theory as to the cause of winds. Sometimes, however the distant storm which causes this agitation does not reach these islands at all." In proof of this, I may mention, that, in August 1831, from the 9th to the 13th inclusive, the great swell of the sea is remarked in my register, every day being also marked calm, with the barometer high and steady. Afterwards, however, I learnt that on the 7th and 8th of that month, there was a gale in latitude 57° 21’ north, longitude 13° 15’ west, which damaged a vessel that put back to Stromness to repair; and on the 11th it began at Barbadoes, and devastated that and other West India islands; but the gale never reached Orkney, though its effects on the sea were so conspicuous.

Climate. Our insular situation prevents the extremes of temperature that are felt in continents of such a high latitude, the surrounding ocean tempering the heat of summer, and the cold of winter ; so that for more than twelve years, the thermometer has only once fallen so low as 18° of Fahrenheit, and the snow does not lie so long here, as in the more inland parts of the south of Scotland, or, I believe, the north of England. Indeed, the mean temperature of every month was above the freezing point, except that of February 1838. Our mean annual temperature is 46° 25’, and the mean height of the barometer 29.640, as will be seen from the annexed tables; but the nature of our climate will be more correctly understood by comparing the mean temperature of each month, as there stated, with that of other places. The highest hill commands an extensive view, not only of the west mainland, but of part of the north and south isles, and from it, and other elevated grounds, may be seen the hills of Hoy, terminating in stupendous precipices ; and, in calm and clear weather, those of Sutherland in the distance, stretching out towards Cape Wrath, add much to the beauty of the scene; but during a storm from the west it is awfully grand. The huge accumulations of water that then roll after each other, foaming with terrible violence to the shore, impress the mind with their irresistible power, and might well give a stranger a feeling of insecurity ; and, when they dash themselves against the precipice, it seems half sunk, for a time, like a wrecked vessel amid the waves ; sheets of spray are thrown far up into the air, and carried over all the country, making springs a mile from the coast brackish, for some days, and encrusting every thing with salt, even fifteen or twenty miles off. I am told by those living a few hundred yards from the spot, that the floors of their cottages are shaken by the violence with which the waves strike the crags; and I have seen innumerable sea insects alive on their summits, and even a limpet adhering to them after such a storm ; also numerous fragments of the slaty stone, some of them a foot long, which had been whirled into the air, and had penetrated six inches into the soil in falling.

Our climate, in short, is more remarkable for dampness and storms, than for cold; the atmosphere being often loaded with sea spray in winter, and moistened with the constant evaporation in summer. Pulmonary and rheumatic complaints seem to be prevalent, owing to this peculiarity of the climate, and our sudden and frequent changes of weather. Some cases of cramp may also be ascribed to the dampness; and a neighbouring clergyman, who is afflicted with loss of voice, has, more than once, been immediately cured by the air of Edinburgh. Dyspeptic complaints are very common among the peasantry, but they are probably caused by poor diet.

Hydrography. The Atlantic flows up into the bay on the west side, for about half a mile, and the Loch of Stenness, about a mile on the east, leaving little more than two miles at one place, between these two great waters. The Loch of Skaill or Aith, which is nearly a mile long, and half that breadth, lies nearly in this space; and the Loch of Clumly, which is more than half of these dimensions, is a little south of that line. These lochs are of no great depth or importance, and contain no fish except eels; but the two latter turn mills, on their passage to the' sea and Loch of Stenness, and they relieve the tameness of the scenery, their surface, when smooth as a mirror, forming a striking contrast to the troubled ocean hard by; and the sunset in fine summer evenings is most splendid, as seen from the manse, when the rays are reflected from the sea, and also from one of the lochs.

Geology and Mineralogy. Having been requested by neighbouring clergymen to include their parishes in the description of the natural history of my own, some branches of it will be found more general in their application to other parishes, than would otherwise have been necessary or proper. This is particularly the case with the following remarks on geology, The rocks of this parish and the adjoining district, I shall describe under the four following heads, viz. I. Granite; II. Slates or flagstones ; III. Sandstone; IV. Trap rocks. [Professor Jameson, in his 'Mineralogy of the Scottish Isles', gave the first sketch of the geology of the Orkney Islands.]

I. Granite. The district where this rock occurs has been lately ascertained to be much more extensive than it was formerly thought to be; for I have traced it, in company with the Messrs Anderson of Inverness, from Graemsay to this parish. The town of Stromness occupies the southern end of this tract, which is about one mile broad, and extends from the Island Of Graemsay, which is the southern boundary, in a northerly direction' for about six miles, till it passes out at a precipice in this parish' on the west coast, where the Atlantic washes its base, and veils it from the eye of the geologist. The sound which separates Graemsay from the mainland, and is less than a mile broad, interrupts the examination of this rock ; but there can be no doubt of its being continued under water. In some places, it has no appearance of a slaty structure; in others, it has so distinctly, though not regularly stratified, and is properly gneiss; and at one place, discovered by Professor Jameson, it passes into mica slate, containing garnets. Hornblende rock is also found in this tract, but there is no extensive exposure of it. In general, it consists of a grey granite or gneiss, which is traversed by veins of quartz or felspar, but more frequently the latter, and exhibits the usual phenomena of such a district, in the interruption and shifting of the veins. A few years ago, £ 300 were laid out in quarrying some of this gneiss, and cutting it into paving-stones for the London market, but it did not succeed. In one place, the workmen came in contact with a rock containing a little galena and pyrites, but, with this trifling exception, it contains no ores nor useful minerals. Between this rock and the schist, there is a belt of conglomerate, at such places as are exposed, of 50 or 100 yards broad, containing pieces of gneiss, quartz, and felspar, imbedded, from a microscopic size to that of a turnip. This belt contains nothing worth remarking, except small veins of galena at one place, which are of no value. It gradually loses the conglomerated structure; and the succeeding strata, though they sometimes al ternate, generally assume more of the character of those that rest on them, till at last they pass into

II. Sandstone Flag, or Secondary Slate or Schist. This rests upon the conglomerate, and dips from it wherever I have been able to find it in contact. The best exposures on the west side of the granite are on the north shore of Graemsay, point of Ness, in Stromness, and south-west coast of this parish, where the strata slope west. On the east side of the granite, it is only the strata in immediate contact with it that dip east; for, in the course of 100 yards, they gradually dip more in conformity with the general dip of the country; but they may be seen dipping east on the shore of Graemsay, and at the point of Garson, in Stromness; and again they dip north-east, at the Burn of Cairston, and at the north-east boundary of the granite in this parish.

Of this slate, almost all the Orkney Islands are composed, or at least most of the low land and shelving shores, while many of the surrounding hills and precipices are formed of the superimposed sandstone. It forms a great part of Stromness, and almost all Sandwick and Birsay It can hardly be described as one rock, as it is in fact a succession of argillaceous, siliceous and calcareous slates or schists of different thickness, hardness colour and composition ; but the most common, and that which is most esteemed for building, is when recently quarried, of a dark blue colour, like a hard slate clay, and breaks at determinate angles, diamond-shaped, thus giving the builders easy work ; and some quarries afford excellent paving stones of four or five feet square, perfectly smooth. [The resemblance of these and the Caithness slates to some of the so-called greywacke slates of the south of England was remarked many years ago by professor Jameson. He was in the practice, in his lectures, of pointing out the close resemblance or identity of these slates and red sandstones with the slates and sandstones in the Pentland range at Edinburgh, which lie immediately below the coal formation, and which he held to be members of the old red sandstone, - a formation belonging either to the undermost group of the secondary class or the uppermost of the transition class.] By exposure however, they acquire a rusty reddish or yellowish colour, from the decomposition of the iron with which most of these rocks are impregnated. These strata may be found at all inclinations, from horizontal to perpendicular, but in general they dip to the west, at an angle about 20°. They are generally in thin strata, and in one place are quarried pretty extensively for roofing slate, which is not good enough to export. In part of this quarry the slates are . In part of this quarry the slates are beautifully marked by dendritic iron pyrites. The texture is apparently homogeneous, but when exposed long to the action of the weather the softer parts are worn away, and the harder portions project much, thus demonstrating its compound nature. This is particularly the case along several of the precipices that bound the west coast, where the effect of the weather is increased by the exposed situation, sea-spray etc, and forms the figured stones which have been considered so curious by many ; and indeed the forms that they assume are sometimes exceedingly fantastic, being in the shape of concentric circles, ovals, squares, or triangles, according to the original mixture of the stones in the different strata, but most frequently the figures are spread irregularly on the surface like hieroglyphics. In some places they alternate with strata of a hard, dark limestone, which is nearly the colour of the strata between which it lies, and is burnt for lime, but not extensively, as the distance we have to bring our coals renders it expensive.

In other places, the strata have a bituminous appearance on the surface, or little cavities which are filled up with a soft bitumen or petroleum' occasionally glance coal? This has excited some hope of discovering coal in this county, which would be an incalculable benefit to all the north of Scotland; but the whole county is so intersected by the sea, and there are such plain and beautiful exposures of all the strata along our shores, that it is hardly possible for coal to be present in any quantity, without its croppings or outgoings being perceived somewhere. Fossil fish and vegetables occur in several places, even among the strata within half a-mile of the granite. All the species of these ichthyolites are far from being completely collected and known yet ; but it is believed that they prove these strata to be identical with the slates of Caithness, and of the southern shores of the Moray Frith. Flinty slate and chert, passing into lydian stone, abound in these slates. Sandstone, some hundred yards thick, lies in immediate contact with the conglomerate on the north end of the primitive district on the west coast of the parish. It has that diagonal arrangement of the layers called false stratification. It is much more hard and crystalline than the new red sandstone, of a dark grey or brown colour, and is the only good quarry for millstones in this county.

Veins of galena are not uncommon, and one near the manse of Stromness has been worked for about 100 yards, but long since forsaken, as a speculation which would not pay. It is here associated with common heavy spar, and a mineral is found in small quantity along side of it, composed of carbonate of strontia, and sulphate of barytes, which has been described by Professor Traill as an entirely new mineral, and named Stromnite, or Barystrontianite. The other minerals that this part of the formation contains are of no consequence, viz. quartz or rock crystal in veins, calcarious spar in veins. Iron and copper pyrites, the former, most commonly in veins or nodules and heavy spar, occur sometimes of considerable thickness.

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