CELT document T800009-001

Description of the Orkney Islands

Joseph Ben

English translation


Description of the Orkney Islands, written in Latin by Joseph Ben, a native, in the year 1529.


The first island is North Ronaldsay. To the north it is on a level with the sea, and occasions frequent shipwrecks to the English and other navigators: it is about four miles in circumference, and about sixty from Kirkwall. The people are wholly ignorant of the divine truths, because they are seldom instructed. There is great plenty of grain here, particularly barley and oats. In winter the inhabitants live on barley bread, and in summer, on small fish and milk. In the northern part of the island, very large animals, called in the native language selchis, are caught in hempen nets; there is also a large rock called Selchskerry, about half a mile from land, where seafowl haunt, and build their nests.

In this rock the sea monsters just now mentioned mount to the top when the sea is high, but when it falls they sink into a pit, from whence they can by no means escape, for there is no passage; the peasants finding them entrapped, collect about the rock; the monsters on seeing this rush, upon them open mouthed, attack them by main force, and as it were provoke them to the combat. If the first of these monsters be unhurt, all the rest fall upon the men with their teeth; but if the first be killed, the others take to flight, and are easily caught. I have seen fifty of them taken together.

They have no fuel but dried sea weeds and turf, which sends out very little light in the fire; the light which they use in winter is made of fishes' entrails; they sometimes make, however, an excellent fire of the dung of  p.267 their cattle, dried in the sun. Neither frogs, dormice, or toads exist here; if a ship chances to bring dormice, they immediately perish as if they were poisoned.

2. Sanday, 2.

So called as if the sandy isle, because it abounds with sand, it is about two miles distant from the former: this island is about twelve miles in length, and two in breadth. The English and Germans are very frequently shipwrecked here, in a part towards the east, called the Star of Lopeness.

As I was once passing through the island, and fatigued, I betook myself to a church called Holy-cross, where I saw in a cemetery a number of human heads, above a thousand, greater than any three heads of people now living, and I drew some teeth out of the gums, which were larger than filberts. I was very much surprized, and being desirous of gratifying my curiosity, I had recourse to an old man, from whom I enquired what bones these were, and why they remained unburied? he replied, my son, this island was formerly subject to the people of Stronsay, to whom we paid an annual tribute, that we might live unmolested, as we were an unwarlike nation; at length we were nearly exhausted by the payment; and began to consider how we could free ourselves from it. Then one more prudent than the rest said; “the day of payment is at hand; let us all conceal ourselves in the church, and fall upon our enemies unawares, when they come, so that not one of them escape”— to this all assented. On the appointed day, the people of Stronsay, with their wives, sons, daughters, servants, friends, and many others, having weighed anchor and set sail with a favourable breeze, came unarmed to our shores, where, after having disembarked, they spent the greater part of the day in dancing and festivity. In the mean time the people of Sanday, we who live in this island, rushed out, and being provided with suitable weapons, we attacked them, with loud shouts and a dreadful noise, and put them all to death. Thus were we liberated, and we never paid tribute since.

Both old and young, in these two islands are so much afflicted with vermin, that they can never be cured. Rabbits are plenty here in summer, and in winter become so tame as to be caught in the houses. The common people wear shoes made of hides, fastened with a leather strap, called in the language of the country, Rifflings.

3. Stronsay, 3.

Stronsay, or Sdronsay, is so called, as if the Streams' isle. This island is six miles in length and four in breadth. One half of it is barren. Some of the inhabitants worship a god called Tuidas, others do not. They have great belief in fairies, and say that men dying suddenly, spend their life with them afterwards, but this I do not believe.

4. Papa Stronsay, 4.

This is but a small island at a short distance from the last mentioned, its name signifies the little Stronsay. There is but one inhabitant here. In the middle of the Island is a lake.

5. Auskerray, 5.

Another uncultivated island, where there is a breed of very wild horses.

6. Shapinshay, 6.

Shapinshay, the shipping Isle. The people living here are very impious: they worship the fairies, and other wicked beings; it is about six miles in length and two in breadth. Thither flow the seas by which sailors enter Kirkwall.

7. Eloerholme, 7.

This island is now uninhabited, but the ruins of houses and marks of tillage are still visible, and also a chapel. The following is the cause of its ruin and desolation. Two brothers dwelt here, the one a believer, the other an infidel; on a dispute which arose between them, the latter accused his brother before the bishop, of cohabiting with his kinswoman; the bishop, when he had examined the cause, being greatly enraged, banished them both. Their wives, on quitting the Island, knelt down and cursed it, wherefore no one has tilled it to the present day.

8. Westray, 8.

Westray, or the Western isle, is the most fertile of all the Orcades: some noble families dwell here. It has also an excellent fort or castle, but it is not yet completely finished. The people of this Island having had an engagement with the Lewismen, were routed  p.268 and killed to a man. One, however, remarkable for his strength and courage, fought for a long time after his comrades were slain; but at length his legs being cut off, he was forced to take to his knees while the battle lasted. In this island there is a very high mountain.

9. Papa Westray, 9.

Papa Westray signifies the little Western isle; it is subject to the former isle; and equally fertile with the rest. There is a lake in the very centre of this island, and in the lake an island in which is one little kid.

10. Faray, 10.

Faray, the pleasant isle. This island is very suitable for cattle, particularly cows; which feed through the pastures with great melody; the boys here sing along with the cattle. The whole island abounds with grain and fishes.

11. Eday, 11.

Eday was formerly the richest of all the northern islands, about thirty farmers lived in it, but were so completely extirpated by some invaders, that scarcely one is left. There is a great abundance of all things, particularly cattle. The men very often have battles with great sea monsters. The island is about ten miles in circumference.

12. Egilschay, 12.

Egilschay, the Kirk-isle, is one mile in length and about half a mile in breadth; in it is a church dedicated to St. Magnus. This Saint was born and educated during his infancy here, and gave a house and a lot of ground to his nurse, where she has built a chapel, in which she made a chamber in the ground, with a bed, table and seat, and other things necessary for a house, all of stone; the house is now destroyed, and corn grows over the place where it was, but the furniture still remains.

13. Rousay, 13.

Rousay, or the island of Rauland, is a large island, but the greatest part of it is uncultivated. It is about eight miles in circumference, and has some lofty mountains, where fires are seen very often lighted up at night in a very wonderful manner; without the assistance of men.

14. Weir,14.

Weir is a small island, dedicated to the apostle Peter. It is so skreened by the other islands, that it can scarcely be seen. A huge giant formerly dwelt here, the remains of whose house are yet in existence. Some say that this island was made of St. Magnus's boat, when he was escaping to the island of Egilshay.

15. Enhallow, 15.

Enhallow, the holy island, is very small; the antients pretended that if the corn was reaped after sunset, drops of blood would immediately flow from the stalks; others say that if a horse be tyed up here at sunset, it will be seen walking at liberty all night. But you may easily see that these are fictitious and fabulous stories.

16. Garsay,16.

A small mount rises in the middle of this island. The husbandmen inhabit a small part near the sea-shore.

17. Damsay,17.

In this island there is no hill; it is the, most temperate of all, and is by some called Tempe. There is a church in this island, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, much frequented by women. The women here are barren, and if at any time they become pregnant, they never survive the parturition. It is said that their eyebrows sometimes drop off in the course of an hour, but are afterwards restored. This island is two miles distant from Kirkwall.

18. Pomonia,18.

Pomonia, so named, as if the middle of the apple, because it lies between the north and south isles, is also called Mainland. It contains many parishes, of which the following is a description:
Dierness, or the ness of diers. This parish was formerly woody, and infested by many wild animals; but the trees were torn up by the roots by a flood, and overwhelmed. In the northern part of this parish is a natural rock in the sea, to the top of which people climb on their hands and knees with great difficulty; there is on it a chapel called the Bairns of Brugh. Men, both old and young, boys, and servants without number, flock together here from all the islands, and when they have arrived, they ascend the rock, as I have just said, bare-footed, and praying, where but one at a time can come to the chapel. In it there is a pure and clear fountain, which indeed is truly wonderful. There  p.269 the men, with bent knees and uplifted hands, doubting the powers of God, pray to the Bairns of Brugh, with many incantations, throwing stones and water behind their backs, and going twice or three times round the chapel: when their prayers are done they return home, satisfied that their desires will be granted. They do not worship God here in purity.

In the year 1506, John Stewart landed in the Orkneys, and discovered a gold mine in this parish; when he had loaded two ships, and was preparing cargoes for others, and was in the mine with the workmen, a raven cried out three times with a loud voice. The leader, and some others, immediately came out, but five were left behind, upon whom the rock fell with a great crash, destroying those within, while the rest were saved.

St. Andrew. This is a large parish, abounding in grain; there is nothing remarkable recorded concerning it, except what befel a very celebrated man, called James Sinclare, who lived here, and engaged in a war with the people of Caithness, as will be mentioned hereafter. This noble general being taken, ran mad, and throwing himself into the sea, ended his life in this melancholy manner.

Holm and Paplay. These two parishes are united, and the same church serves both. Travellers going to the southern parts are ferried across from hence.

St. Olaus. This is a very flourishing and beautiful parish; in the middle of which stands a town named Kirkwall, in which is a church dedicated to St. Magnus. Here also is a castle formerly built by the Sinclares; also another church, which was burned to the ground by the English, called St. Olaus's Church, where malefactors are now buried.

The women here are much addicted to pleasure, which I attribute to the abundance of fish. In this parish is a very lofty mountain, called Wisford, whence all Pomonia and the other islands are visible. It is a sign of war among the Orcades, when the fountain in its summit begins to burst forth.

Frith is another parish, where oysters are caught in abundance.

Stenhouse. In this parish is a large lake, twenty-four miles in circuit. In a sepulchre in a hillock near the lake, were found the bones of a man, joined together, fourteen feet long, as my author says, and money was found there under his head. I myself saw the sepulchre. In the same place, near a lake, are lofty and broad stones, about a spear's length in height, enclosing a circuit of about half a mile.

In the year 1527, a war arose between the people of Caithness and the Orkneys: the former invaded the island with all their forces, with spears, darts, arrows, and the sound of trumpets. But, while these things were doing, the people of Pomonia marched out to meet them, and the armies joined on a mountain of this parish near Bexwell. The invaders were all overthrown and slaughtered, so that not one escaped. The Earl's sepulchre is still to be seen in that place; he was grandfather to the present count. The people of Orkney returned in triumph to the city, under the command of James Sinclare, of whom we have already spoken. The place where this battle was fought is called Symmerdan.

Orpher is another parish, affording a good harbour for fishermen.

Stromness has an excellent harbour, and an excellent outlet for a fleet. The French and Spaniards often escape tempests here, as no winds can injure vessels in this harbour. This port is called Cairstane, because it is fortified with stone. Healthy winds, called etesian, blow here. Here also is a most dangerous bridge to travellers, called the bridge of Vaith, where many are lost.

Sandwich abounds with rabbits; it is the largest of all the parishes, and entirely cultivated.

Bersa is called a barony; in it is a noble palace, where the king of the Orkneys formerly lived; but when Julius Caesar governed the whole world, he was carried by force to Rome, and his kingdom was afterwards subject to the Romans, as the inscription on one stone proves. The king's name was Gavus.

Haray is another parish, where there are a set of most worthless drones, who are therefore called the sheep of Haray. Here is a great church, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, called by the common People the Lady of Grace;  p.270 concerning which many fables are told. Many flock hither from the other islands.

Evie, another parish where whales enter freely. It enjoys great abundance of corn.

Rendal. This parish was subject to the lord of Tulliallon, and he was lord of it, as his house still testifies. The length of Pomonia, from the Bairns of Brugh to the Brugh of Birsay, contains sixteen miles. There are about five thousand men capable of bearing arms in Pomonia, and as many in the islands. It has abundance of barley and oats; the men are very much addicted to drink and luxury, and often quarrel with one another. For example, when one neighbour invites another, if the guest be not sick before he departs, he quarrels with his host until he is sent home drunk. This is also the custom in the islands. They are very crafty and cunning, and use a dialect peculiar to themselves.

19. Copinshaw,19.

Copinshaw is a small island, the first which is seen by those sailing to the Orkneys. One farmer resides on it. It has a lofty rock towards the east, on the sides of which wild fowl are taken, by letting down boys with ropes from the summit.

20. South Ronaldsay, 20.

South Ronaldsay, another island, where the men are very strong. It has a temple near the sea shore, in which is a very hard stone, commonly called a Grey Whin, six feet long and four broad, in which is the mark of two naked feet, that no workman could have carved. The old people say, that a Frenchman having been banished from his country, embarked on board a ship as an asylum; but a violent storm arising, the vessel was wrecked; he however, leaping on the back of a sea-monster, stood there humbly praying to God, and vowing that if he was carried safe to land he would build a church in memory of his preservation, dedicated to the Virgin Mary. His prayer was heard, and he came safe to shore. The monster by whose assistance he was preserved, was afterwards changed into a stone, and placed by the Frenchman in the church, where it still remains, as I have already said.

21. Lambholme, 21.

This is a very small, barren and uncultivated isle, in which great numbers of rabbits are killed by the men of the neighbouring islands.

22. Flotay, 22.

This island is level with the sea, and very beautiful. In it are the ruins of an old house, which some call a church, others a presbytery, of great length, where annual assemblies of the clergy were held. Three monuments are erected here, which we call crosses.

23. Cavay, 23.

Cavay, or the cheese island, noted for its excellent cheese. It is small, but very convenient for cattle and trees, on account of it being sheltered from the winds. There is on it one house with two cottages.

24. Faray, 24.

Faray, or the fair island. There are two of this name, the other is near Shetland. The island is barren and uncultivated, but celebrated for its fishery.

25. Sownay, 25.

Sownay affords a safe shelter for foreign ships and fishermen. Oats and barley grow here, though the soil is very sandy. Not far from Kirkness is Braga, well known to mariners.

26. Ryssay, 26.

A sandy, barren and uncultivated island. Here formerly was the best land in all the Orkneys.

27. Burray, 27.

Burray, or the Burge island, is small but abounding in barley.

28. Wais, 28.

The Pomonians call the inhabitants of this island the Lyars of Wais; the island is not large. There is no division between Hoy and Wais, it is one island at the ebbing of the tide.

29. Hoy, 29.

Here is a very lofty mountain, three miles in height, to the top of which there is no means of ascending, also another not so lofty. Between these is a stone worthy of notice; it is very large and high, and is said to have been shaped by a giant and his wife. One stone is a chamber, in which is a bed, very ingeniously made in the stone, by the man and woman; during the time of their sleeping here the woman was pregnant, as the stone testifies, for  p.271 that part of the bed where she lay, retains the shape of a pregnant woman. If it may be credited, birch grows in in this island, but not in the others; for they are all without trees. Here are white hares, which are hunted with dogs. In it is also abundance of birds called Leris, also of fish and other kinds of fowl.

It contains likewise mines of gold, lead and iron, and many other valuable things.

30. Gransay, 30.

A small island, but well-cultivated; very dangerous for ships.

31. Southay, 31.

Southay, or the southern island, is now uncultivated, but formerly abounded with cattle. All the natives ended their lives on the same day. This is no fable, but a real fact worthy of the notice of christians. On the festival of our Saviour, Jesus Christ, as they had no church of their own, they were obliged to go to a neighbouring island; and having embarked in a boat, both old and young, a sudden storm arose, and the vessel sunk through the violence of the waves. Upon which all the cattle in the island, oxen, sheep, calves, swine, dogs, whelps, and every other living creature, plunged themselves with the greatest fury into the sea, and were drowned, since which time no one has inhabited the island.

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Title (uniform): Description of the Orkney Islands

Title (supplementary): English translation

Author: Joseph Ben

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translated by: [unknown]

Electronic edition compiled by: Beatrix Färber

Funded by: University College Cork, School of History

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1. First draft.

Extent: 5150 words

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Publisher: CELT: Corpus of Electronic Texts: a project of University College, Cork

Address: College Road, Cork, Ireland—http://www.ucc.ie/celt

Date: 2009

Distributor: CELT online at University College, Cork, Ireland.

CELT document ID: T800009-001

Availability: Available with prior consent of the CELT programme for purposes of academic research and teaching only.

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Manuscript source

  • [The editor makes reference to a Latin manuscript written by Joseph Ben in 1529. The whereabouts of said MS are unknown to me.]

Further reading about the Orkneys (all accounts are later than Joseph Ben's)

  1. Robert Monteith of Eglisha and Gairsa, Description of the islands of Orkney and Zetland (...) 1633.
  2. [Timothy Pont], Orcadum et Schetlandiae Insularum accuratissima descriptio, Amstelodami: H. Hondius, [1638]. (Contains a map).
  3. John Smith, The trade & fishing of Great-Britain displayed: with a description of the islands of Orkney and Shotland. (London: printed by William Godbid, to be sold by Nathaniel Webb, 1661).
  4. James Wallace, A description of the isles of Orkney, by Master James Wallace, late minister of Kirkwall, published after his death by his son; To which is added, An essay concerning the Thule of the ancients. (Edinburgh: Printed by John Reid, 1693. Reprinted, with the additions made by the author's son, in the edition of 1700; edited by John Small. Edinburgh: William Brown, 1883).
  5. John Brand, A brief description of Orkney: Zetland, Pightland-Firth & Caithness, wherein, after a short Journal of the Author's Voyage thither, these Northern Places are first more generally Described; then a particular View is given of the several Isles thereto belonging; together with an Account of what is most rare and remarkable therein: with the Author's Observes thereupon (...) (Edinburgh 1701).
  6. Martin Martin, A description of the Western Islands of Scotland: (...) to which is added a brief description of the isles of Orkney and Schetland (London: A. Bell, 1703).
  7. Sir Robert Sibbald, M.D, A collection of several treatises in folio: concerning Scotland, as it was of old, and also in later times: viz. I. Historical inquiries concerning the Roman monuments and antiquities in the north part of Britain called Scotland; with copper plates: II. The history, ancient and modern, of the sheriffdoms of Fife and Kinross, with the descriptions of both; and of the Friths [sic] of Forth and Tay, and the islands in them: III. Conjectures concerning the Roman ports, colonies and forts upon the friths, taken from their vestiges, and the antiquities found near them; with several Copper-plates: IV. The history and description of the sheriffdoms of Linlithgow and Stirling, ancient and modern: V. The description of the Isles of Orknay and Zetland, with the maps of them, done from the accurate observation of the most learned who lived in the isles: VI. An account of the writers ancient and modern, printed, and manuscripts not printed, which treat of the description of North-Britain called Scotland, as it was of old, and is now at present: with a catalogue of the map, prospects and figures, of the ancient monuments thereof, such as have come to my hands, in several languages (...) (Edinburgh 1739).
  8. Murdoch Mackenzie, Orcades: or, a geographic and hydrographic survey of the Orkney and Lewis Islands, in eight maps: Exhibiting the rocks, shoals, soundings, quality of the bottom, diversities of the coast, flowings, setting of the tides, and distant views of the land. Also an account of the Orknney [sic] Islands; the manner of taking the survey; the state of the tides; and a particular description of the rocks, shoals, channels, harbours, anchoring-places, the directions, irregularities, and velocities of the several streams of tide round each island. Interspersed with suitable directions for sailors (London: Printed for the Author, 1750).
  9. Anon., An authentick narration of all the occurrences, in a voyage to Greenland, in the year 1772. In the Volunteer, of Whitby, Mr. W. Coulson, master. Containing a particular account of all that happened (...) Also a description of the Islands of Orkney and Scotland, with several others (...) With a description of Greenland (... ), By a Gentleman, surgeon of the said ship. (Durham: printed by G. Sowler, in New-Elvet, [1773?]).
  10. Henry Edward Leigh Dryden, Description of the church dedicated to Saint Magnus, at Kirkwall in Orkney. (Daventry, 1871).
  11. Samuel Kneeland, An American in Iceland. An account of its scenery (...) With a description of its Millennial Celebration in August, 1874; with notes on the Orkney, Shetland and Faroe Islands, etc. (Boston, Cambridge [Mass.], 1876.)
  12. Mountford John Byrde Baddeley, The northern highlands and islands: containing a full description of Inverness, Loch Maree, and Gairloch, and of the whole mainland north of those places in the counties of Inverness, Ross, Cromarty, Sutherland and Caithness: also of the Orkney and Shetland islands, and the district of Forres, Elgin, Nairn, and Spey-side, together with the approaches from Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Aberdeen. Maps by Bartholomew. 2nd ed. (London: Dulau, 1884).
  13. Elizabeth Leveson-Gower, Duchess of Sutherland, Views in Orkney and on the north eastern coast of Scotland, taken in 1804 and etched 1807 (s.l.; s.n. 1807) [Text 'extracted from Dr. Barry's History and Wallace's and Brand's Descriptions of Orkney'.]
  14. George Anderson, Anderson's guide to Orkney with a description of the ruined churches in Orkney and the bells of St. Magnus, by (...) Henry Dryden. New ed. (Kirkwell: W. R. Mackintosh, [18--]).
  15. George Low, A history of the Orkneys: A description of the islands and their inhabitants; edited by Olaf D. Cuthbert. [Kirkwall]: Orkney Heritage Society, 2001.
  16. Richard James, Description of Shetland, Orkney and the highlands of Scotland; ed., with introduction and notes by E. MacGillivray. (9 pages. Offprint Original appeared in Orkney miscellany, vol. 1, 1953.)
  17. Richard Pococke, Journey round Scotland to the Orkneys, and through parts of England and Ireland, by R. Pococke, Bp. of Ossory, in 1760. Notes of other tours by Pococke in England and from Ireland to Oxford, in 1736. Manuscript. London, British Museum, Add. Mss. 14,256–59.

The edition used in the digital edition

‘Description of the Orkney Islands, written in Latin by Joseph Ben, a native, in the year 1529’ (1809). In: Belfast Monthly Magazine‍ 2, no. 9. Ed. by William Drennan, pp. 266–271.

You can add this reference to your bibliographic database by copying or downloading the following:

  editor 	 = {anon.},
  title 	 = {Description of the Orkney Islands, written in Latin by Joseph Ben, a native, in the year 1529},
  journal 	 = {Belfast Monthly Magazine},
  editor 	 = {William Drennan},
  address 	 = {Belfast},
  publisher 	 = {Smyth \& Lyons},
  date 	 = {1809},
  volume 	 = {2, no. 9},
  pages 	 = {266–271}


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Creation: The translation is from 1809.

Date: 1809

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  • The translation is in English. Some dialectal words appear in the appended text, which is not by Joseph Ben, and for which an author is not given. (en)

Keywords: description; Orkney Islands; Geography; Manners and Customs; 16c; prose; translation

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(Most recent first)

  1. 2013-08-29: TEI header created; place-names encoded; file parsed. (ed. Beatrix Färber)
  2. 2013-08-08: File proofed (2); bibliographical detail compiled. (ed. Beatrix Färber)
  3. 2013-07-23: File proofed (1). (ed. Helena Klimka)
  4. 2013-07-22: Text captured by scanning. (data capture Beatrix Färber)

Of the Husbandry of the Orkneys,
Taken from another manuscript annexed to the preceding.

They till not till the spring of the year, and as they till so they sow their oats. Their plough is drawn by four beasts going side by side. The caller, or driver, goes before the beasts backwards with a whip. The holder of the plough lies on with his side on the plough; the coulter and the sock be not two pound in weight; the oxen be yoked with chealts, and haims and breachems, which they cail weassis, albeit they have horns. They sow in a creel made of straw, they call ane cassie, and of ane handful they make four casts.

Their horses live on bear-chaff, and grow exceeding fat on the same. They are very little, but quick and fiery. The men here keep the observations of the moon in so far, that they stall their marts at the waxing of the moon affirming they grow in the barrel.

Their calves never suck their mothers. Their corns are very good, to wit, bere and oats. They are handled only by the men; the women neither shake the straw, nor yet winnow the corn. They good their land with seaware, and lightly midden muck.

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