Geophysical survey at The Wirk reveals buried walls of the hall

Project leads, Drs Sarah Jane Gibbon and Dan Lee reveal the results of the geophysical survey part of their project on The Wirk funded by the Castle Studies Trust.

Thanks to a grant from the Castle Studies Trust, ateam from the Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology undertook geophysical survey at The Wirk, Westside, on the island of Rousay, Orkney in September, despite the challenges. Long grass was cleared from the site and a grid was established to the north, east and west of the stone-built tower. Two techniques were used: magnetometer survey (good for identifying magnetically enhanced material from burning and settlement activity) and earth resistance (good for locating walls and structures).

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The aim is to better understand the nature and date of the 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 east, although phasing of the buildings remains unclear. The tower was left exposed but the area to the east 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 east of the tower. This suggests that wall footings are likely to survive just below the ground surface. Other high resistance anomalies to the south 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 south. A curvilinear positive anomaly to the north-west 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 east of the tower, accompanied by newly discovered enclosures with possible structural elements to the south and north-west. The extent of the site appears to extend beyond the visible remains with anomalies continuing into the kirkyard.

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ORCA have had to postpone the evaluation excavation until next year, but the prospects are looking good to expose some of the hall.

Is the The Wirk a Castle? Archaeological investigations in Rousay, Orkney

With HES giving the provisional sign off for the excavation at The Wirk to take place in the week commencing 21 September, and the geophys survey to take place the previous week, project leads Drs Dan Lee and Sarah Jane Gibbon outline the background to the project and what they hope to find.

Located on the south-western coast of Rousay, The Wirk is located in one of the most archaeologically rich parts of Orkney. The Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA) is undertaking geophysical survey, archaeological excavations and 3D modelling at this enigmatic castle site (pending approval from HES).

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The Wirk, meaning stronghold in Old Norse, and with the alternative name Westness Castle, is a small stone tower located close to the coast. It has variously been interpreted as a 12th century Norse Castle, a detached fortified bell-tower, a 13th century defensive tower for an incomplete church, a hall-house garderobe tower and most recently a 16th century tower and attached range.

The Wirk located on the side of  St Mary’s Church graveyard, looking south. credit: Bobby Friel @TakeTheHighView

Minor clearance and excavation in the 1920s identified similarities in construction between The Wirk and the 12th century Cubbie Roo’s Castle, on the nearby island of Wyre, considered to be one of the earliest stone keeps in Scotland. The Wirk is located in Westness which has been a large estate since at least the 12th century when it was the home of the Norse chieftain Sigurd of Westness (Orkneyinga saga). It is adjacent to Rousay parish church, likely to date from the 12th century, with standing remains of 16th century date on earlier footings.

Recently, the 12th/13th century date attribution of The Wirk has been rejected in favour of a 16th century date. This new interpretation is based on the built remains and 16th century architectural fragments which were found in the 1920s. However, architectural fragments of 12th/13th century date were also present and nearby archaeology, particularly the discovery earlier this year of a Norse hall at Skaill by the UHI Archaeology Institute would suggest this was a high-status place in the saga period. This is not to dispute that The Wirk may also have been in use in the 16th century when the estate was owned by a prominent Orkney family. One of the objectives of this project is to excavate trial trenches over Clouston’s excavation and at the eastern end of the site to identify the earliest phases of the tower and adjacent building. Upper parts of the tower were substantially rebuilt in the 19th century and so excavation will allow us to record parts of the site that have not been knowingly rebuilt.

Inside The Wirk tower, looking southeast, showing the entrance to an underground well or passage (Image: Dan Lee)

Along with the excavations, targeted geophysical survey around The Wirk aims to better understand any relationships between the tower and the buildings/features which surround it. 3D modelling of The Wirk and Cubbie Roo’s Castle will enhance our understanding of these comparable sites and allow the public to explore the remains online.

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References and further reading:

Clouston, JS 1931 Early Norse Castles. The Orcadian. Kirkwall

Gibbon SJ 2017 A Survey of Norse Castles in Orkney, in P Martin (ed) Castles and Galleys: A reassessment of the historic galley-castles of the Norse-Gaelic seaways. Islands Book Trust. Laxay. 226-248.

HES 2017. Skaill farm survey, The Wirk http://canmore.org.uk/event/1040199

HES 2020. The Wirk http://canmore.org.uk/site/2282

HES 2020. Skaill farm, Rousay http://canmore.org.uk/site/351514

Tabraham, C 1997 Scotland’s Castles. BT Batsford. London.

UHI 2019: https://archaeologyorkney.com/2019/08/06/norse-hall-discovered-at-skaill-rousay-orkney/

Featured image: View of The Wirk, located on the righthand corner of St Mary’s Church yard in the foreground, looking northwest to Midhowe and the Atlantic Ocean (Image: Bobby Friel @TakeTheHighView).

Our five projects for 2020

The results are in, we’ve decided which projects we will be funding for 2020.

But before we get to the announcement, we want to thank all the applicants who proposed projects. It was a difficult decision, with exciting and innovative approaches to a group of fascinating castles. This year marks a milestone for us: we are award £30,000 across the successful projects which is the most we’ve given in a single year.

So without further ado, here are the five projects we will be funding in 2020. We hope you are looking forward to discovering more about them.

Lincoln Castle

Photo by Gustavo Faraon, licensed CC-BY-NC 2.0

The project will develop a reconstruction drawing of the castle, as it would have been in the latter part of the 12th century, founded by William the Conqueror, in the second half of the 11th century.

Shrewsbury Castle

We will be funding a second year of excavation, following on from 2019, this time to understand the rampart of the inner bailey.

Sowing the Seeds

Castlecarra is one of the sites to be investigated. Photo by Karen Dempsey.

The aim of the project is to try and understand better everyday life in castles by seeing if there are any surviving plants at four Irish castles that were planted, grown, and cared for by medieval people.

The Wirk

Could the Wirk be a Norse castle? Based on the island of Rousay, this stone tower is situated close to the old parish church and recently discovered Norse Hall. However, no one knows what this tower was used for or even when it was built.

Warkworth

 Photo by Karl Davison, licensed CC-BY-NC 2.0

Using various forms of geophysical survey to try and understand the subsurface features for the former caput of the Earls of Northumberland.

Donate regularly for invitation to exclusive site visits

Regular donors will be invited to all exclusive visits to the projects we fund.

Those who are able to donate £500 a year or more (excluding Gift Aid) will also have the opportunity to attend our annual special castle visit to major/privately owned castles. In 2020 this will be at Edinburgh Castle on Saturday 6 June where we will visit parts of the castle not open to the public.

Any new donations by standing order or payroll giving will be matched by a generous supporter for the next two years up to a maximum of £2,000 a year in total.

You can donate regularly via payroll giving or by setting up a standing order. Please return the form to the address on the forms, with the gift aid form if applicable.

A Large and Eclectic Crop of Fascinating Applications for the Castle Studies Trust to Consider

The deadline for grant applications passed on 30th November. We’re going through the various projects now. Altogether the 13 projects, coming from England, Ireland, and Scotland are asking for over £88,000. They cover not only a wide period of history but also a wide range of topics. In a little more detail, here are the applications we’ve received:

Bamburgh, Northumberland

Photo by Thomas Quine, licensed CC BY 2.0.

The main aim is to recover evidence for the base natural topography around the approach to the main gate of the once royal castle, from the area of the medieval village, and explore how this was altered, presented and exploited to create a sense of theatre for visitors to the site.

Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire

Photo by Sean Wallis, licensed CC BY NC 2.0.

A geoarchaeological auger survey of the moats that surround this former royal castle and palace of Thomas Becket. The survey aims to answer such questions as what were the moats original profiles, when were the moats filled and how do the two moats compare with each other.

Dunollie, Argyll

Photo by Paul Lloyd, licensed CC BY NC SA 2.0.

To try and understand the date of the construction of the castle owned by the MacDougall clan through various through buildings and materials analysis including radiocarbon dating and mortar analysis.

Fraoch Eilean, Loch Awe

Photo by Andrea Hope, licensed CC BY SA 2.0.

To try and understand the date of the construction of the former royal castle through various through buildings and materials analysis including radiocarbon dating and mortar analysis.

Hoghton, Lancashire

The aim of the project to continue the work the CST funded in 2019 with excavations and building survey. Further excavations will try and understand the purpose of the structures found in the 2019 excavation season and if they were related to the original great tower.

Holme Pierpont, Nottinghamshire

To build up an understanding of this late medieval great house, never previously researched. The work will include a mixture of desk research, building survey and geophysical survey of the parkland surrounding it. The house is the most complete of the three late medieval brick-built houses in Nottinghamshire.

Lincoln, Lincolnshire

Photo by Ben Keating, licensed CCY BY NC SA 2.0.

To develop a reconstruction drawing of the castle as it would have appeared in the second half of the 12th century. Lincoln Castle was founded by William the Conqueror in the late 11th century.

Shrewsbury, Shropshire

To fund a second year of excavation, this time to understand the rampart of the inner bailey. The geophysical survey carried out in the 2019 suggested there could be remains of buildings there, possibly even a late Saxon church. Shrewsbury was a very important border castle up until the 13th century and frequently used as a base for English raids into Wales.

Sowing the Seeds

Hortus conclusus depicted by Meister des Frankfurter Paradiesgärtleins

The aim of the project is to try and understand better everyday life in castles by seeing if there are any surviving plants at four Irish castles that were planted, grown and cared for by medieval people. The research will involve ecological surveys at each location.

Strongholds of Wessex

Photo of Silbury Hill by Greg O’Beirne, licensed CC BY SA 3.0.

The aim of the project is to understand the military organisation of the northern part of Wessex (Wiltshire and West Oxfordshire) from the transition from Saxon to Norman rule between the 9th and 12th centuries. The work will involve documentary research, landscape and place name surveys. Sites examined will include Castle Combe, Cricklade and Silbury Hill.

The Wirk, Orkney

Rousay - The Wirk

Could the Wirk be a Norse castle? Based on the island of Rousay, this stone tower is situated close to the old parish church and recently discovered Norse Hall. However, no one knows what this tower was used for or even when it was built. The work would involve a geophysical survey of the surrounding area as well as two trial trenches to try and find dating evidence.

Thermal Imaging of Castles

A thermogram of Cirencester Roman amphitheatre by Dr John Wells, licensed CC BY SA 4.0.

To test how useful thermal imaging could be in understanding castles. The thermal survey using a FLIR camera of two castle facades in different climates. within the UK—Caisteal Uisdein, on the coast of Loch Snizort, and a castle farther south and slightly inland, Castle Rising.

Warkworth, Northumberland

Photo by Barry Marsh, in the public domain

Using various forms of geophysical survey to try and understand the subsurface features for the former caput of the Dukes of Northumberland. The survey will focus on the bailey inside the 12th-century curtain wall as well as the strip of land outside but on the early earthwork castle, the motte and field near the entrance to the castle.


The applications have been sent to our expert assessors who will go over them. And if you want to know more about how the assessment process works, we have a brief summary.