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Rousay, Westside, The Wirk

Hall (Period Unassigned), Tower House (Medieval)

Site Name Rousay, Westside, The Wirk

Classification Hall (Period Unassigned), Tower House (Medieval)

Alternative Name(s) Westness Castle

Canmore ID 2282

Site Number HY33SE 17

NGR HY 37385 30192

Datum OSGB36 - NGR


Ordnance Survey licence number 100057073. All rights reserved.
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Administrative Areas

  • Council Orkney Islands
  • Parish Rousay And Egilsay
  • Former Region Orkney Islands Area
  • Former District Orkney
  • Former County Orkney

Archaeology Notes (1972)

HY33SE 17.00 37385 30192

HY33SE 17.01 3738 3019 Architectural Fragments

(HY 3738 3019). The Wirk: A small stone tower with a stone-built hall on one side, suggestive of a multi-period dwelling of the 11th to 13th centuries and perhaps earlier. In the mid-12th century the land was held by Sigurd of Westness, who was probably the builder of The Wirk. (See also HY33SE 17.01)

Sources: D M Wilson and D G Hurst 1965; RCAHMS 1946. Visited 1929.

The Wirk: The remains of a small but strong stone tower with traces of other buildings and walls, as described by the RCAHMS.

Resurveyed at 1:2500.

Visited by OS (AA) 10 October 1972.


Publication Account (1982)

(HY 3738 3019) Tower (NR) (remains of)

OS 25"map, 1976.

The Wirk: Situated at the NE corner of St Mary's churchyard (HY33SE 16), there is the debris-choked shell of a well-constructed stone tower with the footings of a large hall-like building adjoining it to the E. The resemblance of the tower to that of Cubbie Row's Castle (HY42NW 5) suggest a 12th century date, presumably the work of an heir or successor of Sigurd of Westness. It is referred to as a 'fortalice' in a document of 1556. The massive hall-like building which adjoins it was thought to be a church by Clouston (J S Clouston 1931) who excavated the site; it is seemingly not earlier than the 16th century. The position of The Wirk at a corner of the churchyard leads Dietrichson (L Dietrichson 1906) to the intelligent suggestion of a parallel with the detached fortified bell-towers of some Scandinavian churches.

RCAHMS 1982.

Field Visit (June 2017)

The remains of a small tower and attached range known as the Wirk stand outside the NE corner of the burial ground at Swandro. The buildings were exposed by excavation in the early 20th century and the results were described and illustrated in some detail in 1931 (Storer Clouston 1931, 27-33) and again by RCAHMS who provided a clear architectural description (1946, 191-2, visited 1929). The site and associated architectural fragments were the subject of a detailed discussion by Raymond Lamb in 1982 (RCAHMS 1982, 9-12) and Chris Lowe in 1984 (1984c). The present project included a new survey of the surviving remains in plan and section and a photographic survey.

The date of the building is open to question but a combination of historical sources and architectural fragments found in the vicinity (HY33SE 17.01) seem to indicate a 16th century foundation (RCAHMS 1946, 192).

Visited by HES Survey and Recording (GFG, PJD), June 2017.

Geophysical Survey (September 2020)

HY 37407 30184 Geophysical survey was undertaken to the N, E and W of The Wirk (Canmore ID: 2282) in September 2020. The aim is to better understand the nature and date of this tower which has variously been interpreted as a 12th-century Norse Castle, a hall-house tower, a defensive church tower and a 16th-century tower and range. Previous excavations by J Storer Clouston in the 1920s cleared the stone tower and exposed a large range to the E, although phasing of the buildings remains unclear. The tower was left exposed but the area to the E was backfilled. A scale plan was made but recording and description of the built remains was minimal.

High-resolution magnetometer survey and targeted high-resolution earth resistance survey was undertaken across the site in order to characterise the buried structures, put the tower and hall in context and inform trench location. Clear anomalies were identified in both surveys at the site of the hall, with potential wall lines (high resistance) matching the main part of the building in Clouston’s plan to the E of the tower. This suggests that wall footings are likely to survive just below the ground surface. Other high resistance anomalies to the S of the hall could indicate the presence of additional structures. Results from the magnetometer survey showed strong positive and negative anomalies within the footprint of the hall and confirmed the presence of a possible enclosure to the S. A curvilinear positive anomaly to the NW of the tower, beyond the apron, could indicate the presence of another small enclosure.

Overall, the geophysical survey has demonstrated that the footings of the hall survive to the E of the tower, accompanied by newly discovered enclosures with possible structural elements to the S and NW of the hall tower. The extent of the site appears to extend beyond the extant remains with anomalies continuing into the kirkyard. Evaluation excavation will target the eastern hall in the next planned phase of work.

Archive: NRHE (intended)

Funder: Castle Studies Trust

Sarah Jane Gibbon, Daniel Lee and Amanda Brend – Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA)

(Source: DES Volume 21)


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