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Firth and Stenness, Orkney

Historical Description

FIRTH and STENNESS, a parish, in the county of Orkney, the former district 6 miles (W. by N.) and the latter 8 miles (W.) from Kirkwall; containing 1167 inhabitants, of whom 584 are in Firth. These ancient parishes, which appear to have been united soon after the abolition of episcopacy in Scotland, are situated on the Mainland of the Orkney Islands, and are bounded on the north by the parishes of Harray and Kendall, on the east by the parish of Kirkwall, on the south by that of Orphir, and on the west by the parishes of Sandwick and Stromness. The coast, including the small island of Damsay and the holm of Grimbister, detached portions of Firth, lying in the bay of that name, is about ten miles in length, and the shores low and flat, with few or no headlands of importance. Firth bay abounds with fish of various kinds; and oysters of large size, and of excellent quality, are found in considerable numbers. The island of Damsay, more than a mile in circumference, is extremely beautiful; its surface is covered with verdure, and affords luxuriant pasture for sheep, of which a few hundreds of superior breed are kept upon it. On this island was anciently a castle, which was regarded as a place of much strength; and there was subsequently a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary, of which, however, little more than the site remains.

The parish is about nine miles in extreme length, and varies greatly in breadth: the number of acres it contains has not been ascertained, owing to its great irregularity of form. Its surface is broken by numerous ridges of hilly moorland, covered with heath and moss to the very summit. The soil near the shore is a deep mossy loam, and in other parts shallow. There are some portions of arable land in good cultivation, yielding pretty fair crops, and some fields of rich pasture near the borders of the loch of Stenness, and in parts of Firth; but in general little improvement has been made in agriculture. Stenness loch, to the north-west, is a noble sheet of water nearly five miles in length, and divided almost into two separate lakes by the projection of a strip of land from the north-west to the bridge of Broigar. In that portion of the lake which is bounded by the parish of Harray on the east, are numerous small holms, frequented by great numbers of aquatic fowl of various kinds. The shores of the loch are embellished with fields of natural grass, alternated with others of highly-cultivated land, and are studded with neat houses belonging to the proprietors of small farms that acknowledge no superior landlord. On the peninsula dividing the lake are the celebrated stones of Stenness, one of the most extensive and complete Druidical relics in the county, consisting of a circle, nearly entire, of massive and lofty columns, beyond which are a semicircle, with several single stones irregularly placed, and numerous cairns. Burness, a seat in the parish, is a handsome mansion finely situated on the shore of the bay of Firth. There is but one village, that of Phinstown, seated at the western extremity of the bay. The platting of straw affords employment to part of the females, who work at their own homes for the manufacturers of Kirkwall and Stromness.

For ECCLESIASTICAL purposes the parish is within the bounds of the presbytery of Cairston, synod of Orkney. The minister's stipend is £158. 6. 8., of which part is paid from the exchequer; with a manse, and two glebes valued together at £27 per annum: patron, the Earl of Zetland. There are two churches, that of Firth, built in 1813, and the church of Stenness, built in 1793, and repaired and reseated in 1816; they are both neat structures, and contain each about 700 sittings. Divine service is performed in each every Sunday. The whole of the services were until recently performed by the incumbent alone; but he is now assisted by a missionary, for whose support the General Assembly give the annual sum of £30, and one of the proprietors contributes £20. There are also places of worship for members of the Free Church and the United Presbyterian Synod. The parochial school is well attended: the master has a salary of £26, and the interest of £90 laid out on heritable security, together with a house and garden; his fees are very inconsiderable. In each of the districts is a school supported by the Society for Propagating Christian Knowledge, who pay each of the teachers a salary of £15 per annum. In the neighbourhood of Garmiston, in Stenness, is an extensive plain between two hills, on which are numerous tumuli, supposed to cover the graves of the slain in the battle of Summersdale, or Bigswell. This battle took place in the reign of James V., between the inhabitants under Sir James Sinclair, son of Robert, Earl of Orkney, and a body of men under John, Earl of Caithness, who, pretending to have some claim to the earldom of Orkney, landed at Howton in order to take forcible possession of it.

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