Beach combing in Burray
Burray is an exciting place for beach combers: Along a wide, beautifully arched bay, the layers of history are as evident at the layers of sand.
At one end of the bay is the old parish church, a bit further on is a big old farm with a Georgian period farmhouse. It has clearly been prime farmland and a site of some importance since the Middle Ages at least, because Pictish and Norse artefacts have been found there, including an amazing little human figure depicted on bone.
Is it runes?
From the beach, I picked up a beautiful sandstone with parallel, vertical lines on it. It is of the same kind that people sometimes take in to show me, asking “Is it runes?”
However, it is not runes. While the parallel lines are visually similar to the upright staves of runic writing, these are caused by natural weathering. The way to tell is that when you turn the stone around, you see that the same lines go all the way through. They are therefore part of the stone, and not man-made.
However, I will have some news about real runes from here in due course, once my article on the find has been published. Leaving that here as a cliffhanger …
Lots of bruck!
All sorts of weird stuff washes up on Orkney beaches. I could listen for hours to our keenest beach comber, Martin Gray, who can identify lobster creel tags from Florida, tropical seeds carried from the Gulf of Mexico, and the thousands of other passengers of the Gulf Stream. (Here is something I wrote about that in 2016).
Today’s most exciting find, at least for our eight-year-old, was a modern arrow.
The most exciting find for us adults was a fragment of a Norse period steatite cooking vessel, with beautiful chip marks where the tools had cut and shaped it, and clear scorch marks on the outside surface.
The star find
The star find of the day, however, was hiding in the church ruin. In a little extension that still had the roof on it, Chris found a fascinating pair of “beir-trees”.
Beir-trees are two long poles, like a stretcher without a middle, used for carrying a coffin from the home to the churchyard. Chris picked them up and set them up under the roof rafters, to keep them off the damp earth of the floor. Hopefully this will keep them dry and preserve them for a good few years yet.
Beir-trees are a lovely reminder of a time when funeral processions walked through the Orkney landscape, instead of driving.
When the burden got too heavy, or it was time to change bearers, they would set the beir-trees and coffin down on a “wheelan stane” – a resting stone. These were dotted about the routes leading to parish churches all over Orkney, because it was bad luck to set the coffin down on bare soil: The Devil may reach up from underneath and snatch the soul!