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AN ORKNEY LEY - Derek Banks

The idea of leyhunting in Orkney occurred to me as being one place in which a large number of alignments could be found and substantiated within a strictly limited area. The limitations of the area might make it possible to produce and exhaustive and near complete picture of the leys. Such a full picture could be useful in at least two respects: 1) to eliminate the statistical objections if, as is possible, no ancient sites are left outside of the pattern of leys, 2) to provide corroborating and complimentary evidence to John Michell's work at Land's End, by demonstrating extensive ley systems at both ends of the British Isles.

The treeless landscape of Orkney is perfect for uninterrupted distant views of mounds and stones. One can only suppose that the megalithic sages equally appreciated this point. The western Mainland is like a miniature of Ireland, a low swampy bowl cut off from the sea by the encircling low hills which are pierced at several points by passes. It is at these passes, where there is flat arable land near the principle beaches and with fresh water from the interior, that the largest settlements, ancient and modern are to be found. One of these passes to the south, near Stromness, admits the sea into the interior to fill the large sea lochs of Stenness and Harray. On the narrow strip of land separating these two lochs is the Ring of Brogar, ideally placed within the ring of hills which provide numerous skyline notches as foresight's for astronomical observations.

There is considerable potential for leylines radiating from around Brogar, so great a potential that its complexity is misleading and almost inextricable. A much more satisfying clue to its pattern was obtained by moving to a hill with an overall view of the circle and its surrounding mounds and stones. From a large standing stone (8foot high) near the crest of Staney Hill (NY 319157) there is a magnificent panorama of almost the entire inland bowl of the western Mainland. The Ring of Brogar stands out clearly with the large conical Salt Knowe to the right shown up clearly against the water of Lock Stenness. Beyond and directly above this cone rise the cliffs of Helia on Hoy from behind the low Mainland hill.

In all I have been able to confirm 6 points on this ley and my researches have indicated that there may be 6 or 7 more over a total distance (if you include the cliff of Helia) of 19 miles. Because of the nature of the landscape many alignments are visual but good eyesight or binoculars are needed for most of them. The line is closely related to Thom's work at Brogar in which he claims the cliffs at Helia are a lunar foresight for the major standstill (ED. See TLH 74). More will be said of this in the description which follows.

1. Cliffs of Helia - Hoy (NY 198047) I was unable to visit the actual cliffs (a force 8 gale blew up for my entire stay on Hoy) but a view of the entire alignment could almost certainly be had from there. Binoculars or long sightedness would be essential.

2. Kirk Rocks (NY 233079) lie on the Hoy Sound less than half a mile from the mainland. The OSI: 50,000 map indicates that their south-east edge lies on the ley but I have not looked for this in the field.

3. Stromness Cemetery (NY 237082) is a most intriguing site on the coast of the mainland, just above the rocky flagstones foreshore. I was unable to pinpoint on the ground precisely where the line crossed this site as the visual alignment was obscured by Brinkies Brae, However the area of interest is large enough to accommodate some variation.

The Royal Commission of Ancient Monuments - Scotland (1923) reports a chapel of uncertain date on this site (still marked as such on the current OS map), and another drystone building some 20 yards to the north. The site of the chapel appears to have been occupied previously by a broch. The 6" OS (1903) marks the site as a "Monastery" and it was known locally as "Monker House".

In the Royal Commission report Dr. Samuel Laing and Mr. Petrie are quoted saying that the chapel and cemetery "have been placed on the green mound formed by the ruins of the burg". They add that they "traced a portion of the circular wall, as section of which is shown in the low cliff a few yards west of the present cemetery. About half of it had been carried away by the wasting of the coast line. The mound referred to no longer exists, but the grave-digger states that, when digging graves, he has frequently come upon carefully built passages, and that he has himself penetrated into some of them for a considerable distance. "On the outside of the kitchen midden were occasionally found large flagstones which proved to be the roofing stones of kists containing extended skeletons".

4. Brinkies Brae (NY 253096) The actual alignment runs a few yards east of the peak of Brinkies Brae (which is marked by a trig point). The hillside falls steeply here towards Stromness, but views of the inland hills and the sea lochs can be seen just over the low rise of Bruna Fea. The ground is rocky but a careful search might discover an identifiable mark stone here. If a large standing stone had been set up here it is likely that it would have been toppled fairly quickly by the rapid erosion on such a steep slope.

5. Section of A965 (NY 258102) the main road out of Stromness bends so as to come into the line with the ley for a few hundred yards, only 1/2 mile from the town centre. Whether this is a coincidence or lies upon some older route is unknown to me. It is shown on the 1903 6" OS as the line of the road then.

6. The Salt Knowe (NY 292133) was described by Thomas in 1848 as "A large conoid tumulus 20ft in height and 59ft in diameter stands 150 yards to the westward of Brogar" It is thought that nine "fibulae" of silver of "the shape of a horse-shoe, but round" were found in this mound .

This mound is Thom's cairn N in his survey published in 1973 (Thom 7 Thom J. Hist. Astron (1973) pp.111-123). Thom makes use of a notch in the skyline above the cliffs of Helia, as a lunar setting foresight from several of the cairns around the Ring of Brogar. But he does not make use of the Salt Knowe with this foresight. Instead he uses this mound as the backsight for the Kame of Corrigal the NE. for the rising lunar major standstill. In his second survey published in 1975 (Thom & Thom JEA. (1975)pp. 110-114) he lists a line with declination - (E-I+s+A) from ground level at the Salt Know to the foresight at Helia.

There would seem to be good grounds for a survey which pays particular attention to the actual cliff face on which this ley is aligned, to establish the astronomical significance or otherwise of both the ley and the foresight. A better appreciation of the connection between Thom's astronomical alignments and leys may be the result.

7. The Ring of Brogar (NY 293133) From the Salt Knowe the line proceeds directly to the Plumcake Mound a few hundred yards away on the opposite side of the road. As it does so it just touches the outside edge of the ditch surrounding the stone circle of Brogar, at a point where the ditch is crossed by a causeway.

8. The Plumcake Mound (NY 295135) stands about 80 yards NE of the Ring of Brogar but on the opposite side of the road. In 1851 Thomas described it as "circular" and as rising nearly perpendicular for 5 feet when it becomes almost flat on top, or rather is surmounted by a very depressed cone. Its diameter is 62 feet height 9 feet. Today it is not more than 5 or 6 feet high.

Excavations in 1854 by Petrie and Farrer revealed two cists and beakers. In Thom's survey this is cairn A which has a lunar rising minor standstill alignment with Mid-Hill to the SE, and lunar rising major standstill alignments with Kame of Corrigal to the NE. Both of these are well away from the alignment of the ley.

9. Queenafinieth Farm (NY 310148) The 1903 6" OS map shows the line from the two mounds extending through a well (3 12" W 59 O'50"N) at Queenafinieth Farm 400 yards north of the modern Biggings (NY 310148). This has not been explored.

10. Tumuli (NY 317155) The 1903 6" OS map again confirms that the line passes through the northern tumulus of a pair at this location just NW of the road. A modern house is built across the line of sight from this position to the next mark so it has not been possible to check this line visually.

11. Standing Stone (NY 319157) on Staney Hill, provides the unparalleled view of the ley described at the beginning of this report. An exact survey of the horizon at Helia from this position could be quite revealing.

Beyond Staney Hill the line is completely unexplored but an examination of the 1903 6" OS indicated two promising localities worth exploring.

12. A well or pond marked (NY 326163) just east of the A986 near where a farm now stands. A few yards SE of this well a standing stone is marked.

13. Knowes of Trotty and Netherhouse (NY 342178) These mounds would be visible from Staney Hill to anyone with good eyesight or binoculars. The map indicates that the line passes to one side of the mounds and toward the farm "Netherhouse". No doubt a name to toy with.


Cliffs_of_Helia 319849.999 1004750.012

 100.804 Newlyn

Kirk_Rocks 323350.003 1007949.991
 -52.113 Newlyn

Stromness_Cemetery 323749.996
 -46.107 Newlyn

Brinkies_Brae 325350.001
 22.919 Newlyn

Section_of_A965 325885.76 1010210.003
 -28.073 Newlyn

The_Salt_Knowe 329300.545

 -43.009 Newlyn

The_Ring_of_Brogar 329405.826 1013401.085
 -42.007 Newlyn

The_Plumcake_Mound 329500.573
 -47.006 Newlyn

Queenafinieth_Farm 331050.001 1014850.005  

 -13.976 Newlyn

 331787.44 1015512.758
 -12.963 Newlyn

Staney_Stone 331951.586 1015673.807
 -3.96 Newlyn


 332665.833 1016212.795
 -8.946 Newlyn

Knowes_of_Trotty 334104.641
 -1.922 Newlyn

19km 47°/227°

It is surprising that this description hadn’t been questioned. To be in the Orkneys the Ordnace Survey map square has to be HY. See ref. In plotting the line many of the sites were not found at the stated positions. Those co-ordinates have been obtained from other sources. They’re as given below.