Farming and Fishing on Medieval Westray
Some time around the beginning of the 10th century AD a group of second generation Vikings founded an entirely new settlement at Quoygrew, on the island of Westray. Excavations here reveal a story of farming and fishing from the Viking Age until the end of the Middle Ages around 1500. Although artefacts suggest continuity throughout this time, there is evidence to show that important economic changes took place. Could these changes reflect more general developments in northern Europe in the medieval period? James Barrett believes that they do.
The Quoygrew settlement lies on a low cliff now being eroded by the sea overlooking Rack Wick bay near the northern tip of Westray. Its focus is a mound some two metres high and fifty metres across. The mound consists of debris accumulated from abandoned buildings and farmstead rubbish. Such ‘farm mounds’ are a common feature of Orkney archaeology, but with the great monuments of Neolithic Orkney centre-stage, they have rarely had the attention they deserve.
At Quoygrew there was no evidence of the typical pre-Viking figure-of-eight Pictish houses, nor was there any pottery or other artefacts of Pictish date. Occupation started with the Vikings in the 10th century, and continued until the 1930s. The most recent buildings still stand as ruins, and their last occupants visited our team while we were digging.
We have been excavating houses, barns, byres, workshops, courtyards, middens (rubbish dumps), gardens and fields dating
Quoygrew from the air at sunset, from the northwest. A dump of fish bones is being eroded at the cliff face. Medieval buildings can be seen in the main trench, and the remains of buildings occupied until the 1930s are farther inland on a farm mound. Beyond these are Viking and more early medieval remains.
archaeologycurrent 336 199