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Cross and Burness, Orkney

Historical Description

CROSS and BURNESS, a parish, in the island of SANDA, county of ORKNEY; containing, exclusively of the isle and parliamentary parish of North Ronaldshay (which see), 983 inhabitants, of whom 515 are in Cross, and 468 in Burness. These two ancient parishes, now united, include about one-half of the island in which they are situated; the former occupying the south-west, and the latter the north-west, portion, together about nine miles and a half in length, and from half a mile to three miles in breadth. They are bounded on the north by the Firth of North Ronaldshay, which is about seven miles broad, and on the west by the Atlantic Ocean. Cross comprises about 4600 acres, of which one-fourth is moorland, and nearly an equal quantity sandy downs. Its surface is diversified with hills, rising in some parts to an elevation of more than 300 feet above the sea. One of these, called the Brae of Fen, terminates on the west in an abrupt precipice, washed by the sea, and fretted by the action of the waves into numerous fantastic caverns, it slopes gradually on the east to the margin of Ben-Loch, the declivity being richly covered with pasture, and enlivened with a pleasing variety of field flowers. The district of BURNESS, anciently St. Colmes, comprises about 2500 acres, of which a considerable portion is under profitable cultivation. Its surface is nearly an uninterrupted level, and being almost surrounded by the sea, it is abundantly supplied with seaweed for manure, and also for the manufacture of kelp. The lands of the district are generally fertile and in good cultivation, and its scenery is enlivened with fields of luxuriant pasture, except near the junction with the district of Cross, where there is an extensive tract of barren moor. It is bounded on the west by the Atlantic from the violent surges of which it is sheltered by the Holms of Ire; and on the east by the bay of Otterswick, formerly Odinswick, by which it is separated from the parish of Lady. There is a fresh-water lake of considerable extent and depth, which is a favourite resort of ducks and other aquatic fowl during the winter and spring; and both this loch and the more extensive one of flea, in the Cross district, are occasionally visited by flocks of wild swans, as they pass north or south in their vernal and autumnal migrations.

The substrata of the parish, in common with those of the whole island, are principally of the old red sandstone formation, with sandstone flag and a little limestone. In Burness is an isolated mass of gneiss, about fourteen tons in weight, resting upon the surface, and to which there is no rock of similar formation nearer than Stromness, about thirty miles distant. On the west shore of Cross is a singular rock of breecia, consisting of rounded nodules of sandstone, with a few specimens of quartz and calcareous nodules intermixed. The bays of Store and Otterswick abound with shell-fish of various kinds, particularly cockles and the razor-fish; and a large accumulation of shells reduced to powder, and heaped on the beach by the action of the waves, seems to have been blown inland over the parish at different periods. The system of agriculture is inferior to that of many of the other islands of Orkney, from the neglect it suffered during the almost general attention of the inhabitants to the more profitable pursuit of manufacturing kelp, vast quantities of sea-weed being thrown upon the shores. It has, however, been considerably improved under the auspices of Mr. Laing of Papdale, and Mr. Traill of Westove. The soil is well adapted for turnips, of which large quantities are raised; and the abundant use of sea-weed as manure has greatly benefited the lands, which now produce excellent oats and bear, potatoes, grass, and varions green crops. The cattle are of the common breed, to the improvement of which much attention is paid. The native breeds of sheep are similar to those of Shetland and the Hebrides; some Merinos, introduced by Mr. Laing, have been crossed with sheep of the Cheviot breed, and subsequently with sheep of the Orkneys.

The manufacture of kelp was formerly very extensive, about 480 tons of a very superior quality being produced annually, and readily obtaining a market at £9 per ton; but this source of profit has been almost annihilated. As a substitute, considerable attention has been paid to the improvement of the fisheries off the coast, which are now conducted with activity and success. The lobster-fishery affords employment to fourteen boats, and fifteen sloops and boats are engaged in the herring and cod fisheries; the average quantity of cod cured and dried here may be stated at fourteen tons annually. Otters are frequently seen in the caverns of the rocks on the western coast, and large shoals of what are called bottle-nosed whales are occasionally embayed here. These fish, which vary from five to twenty-five feet in length, and in numbers from fifty to five hundred, are on their appearance surrounded by the boats, and driven into the shallow water on the sandy shore, where they are easily taken. Ecclesiastically the parish is within the bounds of the presbytery of the North Isles, synod of Orkney. The minister's stipend, including an allowance for communion elements, is £210, with a manse situated in Cross, and a glebe in each of the districts, together valued at £19 per annum; patron, the Earl of Zetland. The churches are both old and inconvenient structures; that of Cross contains 248, and the church of Burness 262, sittings. Divine service is performed at each on alternate Sundays. There is a place of worship for members of the Free Church. The parochial school is well attended; the muster has a salary of £46. 14., with a house and garden, and the fees average £10. Several of those ancient buildings called Piers' homes are scattered along the shores; and in Cross was formerly a small but handsome structure of stone erected by James Fea, of Claistron, about the beginning of the last century, as a family chapel and burying-place. This was taken down when the property was in the possession of Mr. Malcolm Laing, the historian of Scotland.

Transcribed from A Topographical Dictionary of Scotland, 1851 by Samuel Lewis