Orkney was largely untouched by the Highland Clearances, but Rousay saw the clearance of two townships by George William Traill in the mid-19th century. Dr Keir Strickland looks back on a guided summer walk on Rousay, part of the Being Human event, ‘Landscapes of change, the Rousay Clearances: oral histories’ , taking place on 14 November. 

The shallow valley of Quandale lies on Rousay’s northwest coast – facing out onto the wide open space of the North Atlantic, this is a landscape that has been almost untouched by the 20th and 21st centuries, left to sheep, sea birds and westerly storms since it was cleared in 1845.

The Quandale clearances, instigated by George William Traill, were the only example of the classic Highland-style Clearances to take place in the Orkney Islands and saw the valley transformed. Writing just a dozen years after the clearances, Alexander Marwick described how Quandale’s forty families kept 70 horses, 220 cattle, and up to 700 sheep – the valley ‘swarmed with horses, cattle, sheep, pigs and geese’ – while another contemporary account described the hill above Quandale as being black with people on Sunday mornings as the parishioners walked to church.

Today, the valley is quiet, empty but for grazing sheep and soaring fulmars. But on a Saturday morning in late August, it was transformed by a group of nearly 30 eager participants – gathered at the top Quandale and waiting to take part in a guided interactive walk around Quandale organised by Dr Keir Strickland and Dan Lee of the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute – and to kick-off the 2015 Being Human festival of the humanities.

A few months earlier, Strickland and Lee had completed the pilot season of the Landscapes of Change: Archaeologies of the Rousay Clearances project – completing a season of mapping and keyhole excavations of farmsteads on Quandale’s south-facing slope. This fieldwork, aiming to investigate existing narratives of the Clearances, and to generate new archaeological narratives, had involved students from the University of the Highlands and Islands along with volunteers from the Rousay community. Today, people from all over Orkney had come to be guided around Quandale and to take part in their own mappings and recordings of this clearance landscape. The youngest participants were still in school – the oldest comfortably retired – the majority had come out locally, from Rousay (despite the island wedding taking place that day), but other participants had come from as far away as Somerset, and the weather had rewarded such dedication with gloriously sunny day.

The walk started with a brief history of the clearances of 1845, before descending down into the Bronze Age barrows that sit side-by-side with croft-houses and sheep-folds. Turning north, the walk looped around Tafts – a late mediaeval two-story dwelling – and ascending the hillside to the farmstead of Breck. Here, the archaeologists had completed keyhole excavations and survey that had revealed a fascinating narrative of late expansion of the township, breaking out beyond the head-dyke.

However, despite the marginal location and the clearance narratives of desperate poverty the excavations had revealed a well-built house and kiln-barn. Fragments of window glass lay below a long-vanished sky-light in the flagstone roof, a smashed glazed jug in the byre-drain appeared to date to the final abandonment of the croft. More intriguingly, Lee had found a ‘witch’s mark’ on the hearth-back, while undergraduate student Chandler Swoverland-McLlelan had recovered the heel of a leather shoe deliberately buried below the neuk-bed (a small outshoot that functioned as the main bedroom). These glimpses into the beliefs and ritual practices of the crofters fascinated the participants – and rather tickled the archaeologists too.

After the guided walk, the participants were shown how archaeologists map or record landscapes – before being released upon the landscape armed with handheld GPS units, tape-measures, cameras, paper and pens, pencils and perma-trace and a very different perspective to the archaeologists who had recorded this farmstead back in May. The results of this mapping were wonderful – from pencil sketches of the view from every aspect of Breck to GPS mappings of the dyke running around the township expansion; rubbings of the flagstone roof using soils from the wall-cores to detailed photographs of dykes, boundary markers and a beautiful range of wild-flowers.

Finally, as the shadows began to lengthen, the final participants headed back up the hill to the road – the valley’s quiet returned, and the organisers packed up for the year. Later, during the main festival in November, an indoors workshop on the oral histories of the Rousay Clearances will further develop the study of, engagement with, and remembrance of, Quandale’s clearance.

However, in November Quandale is often exposed to westerly gales, driving rain, freezing salt-burn and is entirely unsuitable for guided walks, let alone mapping workshops. Consequently, the 30 or so participants, on a sunny summer’s day at the northwest tip of Great Britain not only had a wonderful day out – learning about the Rousay Clearances, recording their own maps and impressions of Quandale, and engaging with the island’s past – but also kicked-off this year’s Being Human festival.

Dr Keir Strickland lectures in archaeology at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute. He spent several years working in the British commercial archaeological sector – working on sites of every possible period across the UK and Ireland. However, after bailing out yet another near frozen trench he returned to academia. After a fellowship at the Library of Congress, several field seasons spent crawling through dense jungle, and one unfortunate incident with a dugout canoe in a crocodile infested lake, he received his PhD from Durham University in 2011 for an examination of the Early Mediaeval collapse of Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka. He has also excavated in Nepal, Iran, Belize, and Shetland. 

Originally published on the Being Human festival website