I often find myself attracted by place-names. The “Castle of Weems” – Is it a castle? ‘Castle’ can mean so many things, from a natural sea stack to a broch mound to the remains of a medieval fortified structure. And “Weems” is a Gaelic place-name, which is unusual in Orkney, meaning an underground built structure or cellar. Canmore has it down as a broch site. On Christmas day, of all days, we came down to Sandwick in South Ronaldsay to investigate.
Sanwick is a tranquil sandy bay overlooking the Pentland Firth and the abandoned island of Swona. Above the sand there are the most beautiful boulders in red sandstone, showing up the most spectacular swirls and patterns. The boys had fun stacking stones on top of one another, finding the perfect point of balance.
A lone standing-stone stands guard over the bay. There it has stood, most likely since the Neolithic period. It has seen how the bay has changed. How, possibly in the Bronze Age, a gravelly spit of land formed – what we with a Norse word still call an ‘ayre’ – and in the Iron Age a broch was built at the end of it. Then, it saw a chapel dedicated to The Holy Rood … And perhaps, just maybe, a castle built on top of earlier structures on the promontory at one end of the bay.
We don’t know that it was a castle. The local name is the “Castle of Weems”. It stands proudly overlooking the Pentland Firth, which was the main waterway, the ‘motorway’ of its time in the medieval period. My head was conjuring up all these images of the Norse people who may have lived here. Keeping a lookout: Whose ship is that, passing Dunnet Head? It is dragon-headed. Where is it going?
Now it’s a green mound, clearly visible on the horizon. It got even more exciting as we went up closer. It turned out to be surrounded by deep ditches and banks, controlling the entrance. The boys’ little hands were gripped tight. Up on top, Christopher discovered some exposed stone work with mortar intact. While we can’t date the mortar without the help of an expert, the presence of mortar at least tells us that the topmost structure is younger than a broch. The possibility is open that it is indeed Medieval, although it is not described in any contemporary written sources that we know of and therefore not included in Dr Sarah Jane Gibbon’s inventory of Orkney Medieval castles.
Some years ago, Christopher made a study of a promontory fort sites in South Ronaldsay. One is known as the Castle of Windwick, situated near the Castle of Weems along the South Ronaldsay coast. There, he found similar ditch and bank structures. These are also known from nearby Borwick, where the place-name also suggests a “borg” – the Norse word for a fortified castle or tower of some sort. At Borwick, Christopher observed two phases of activity, the earlier of which is likely to be Iron Age, with later, possibly medieval, remains of square earth works on the surface. On the same coast there is also a site called Harabro, where there is a local story of steps going up to what could have been a similar structure.
Now, Christopher vividly described to me and the boys how the South Ronaldsay coast looks across the Pentland Firth with all its comings and goings of sailing ships and how two lines of medieval castles could have faced one another: These in Orkney, staring down onto the precariously positioned Castle Sinclair Girnigoe in Caithness, the equally heart-stopping Old Wick Castle, and Bucholie Castle in Caithness, thought to be Sveinn Asleifarson’s castle Lambaborg (c. 1140) of Orkneyinga Saga fame. From the Castle of Weems they would have controlled the comings and goings through their spectacular view of the sea ‘highway’ and had control over one of the very few good landing places on the island.
After having had a look, it seems like the Castle of Weems and the whole bay that it sits in has seen activity in many periods of history and pre-history, and that our little visit took place during a quiet period in its long, long life.