Around the Ness: Howastedgarth

By Sigurd Towrie

The Ring of Brodgar. (Sigurd Towrie)

The Ring of Brodgar. (Sigurd Towrie)

We finished last week with George Marwick’s claimed “old name” for the Ring of Brodgar – Howastedgarth.

I first stumbled across it in 2012, in a transcription of a talk given by Marwick in Quoyloo, in Orkney’s West Mainland. Addressing members of the Young Men’s Mutual Improvement Association in 1890[1], he declared:

“I suppose this wonderful circle of stones is known to most of you […] its old name [is] Howastedgarth.”

Brodgar megalith. (Sigurd Towrie)

Brodgar megalith. (Sigurd Towrie)

Intrigued, I read on — but with every sentence the excitement waned. Although Marwick appeared to be recounting elements of genuine Orcadian tradition, these were hard to identify, given the volume of utter nonsense swamping them.

I soon learned that Marwick’s flights of fancy had earned him a poor reputation among scholars. To the editor of Ernest Marwick’s An Orkney Anthology, George Marwick’s unpublished folklore[1] was “generally regarded as suspect.” Ernest Marwick himself highlighted “the absurdity of much of [the Howastedgarth talk’s] philology and [the] speculation characteristic of its period.”

After trawling through mangled etymologies and some highly dubious interpretations, I concurred with his critics and filed the article away. At best George Marwick was mistaken. At worst, he had made it up.

Fast forward to 2019. I had all but given up on Howastedgarth when an unrelated search through the 13/14th century Saga of Olaf Trygvesson seemed to vindicate Marwick’s claim. Referring to a 10th century conflict between Earl Havard hinn arsæli and his nephew Einar klining, the saga states:

 “Havard was then at Steinsnessi [Stenness], in Hrossey [the Mainland]. There Havard and the other [Einar] met and fought and in a short time the Earl fell, which [place] is now called Hávar∂steigar.[2]

Roughly translating as Havard’s rig (where a rig is a strip of cultivatable field), Havardsteigar was clearly behind Marwick’s Howastedgarth. Unfortunately, other than saying it was in Stenness the saga gave no clue as to its exact location.

The Ring of Brodgar from the north-west. (Sigurd Towrie)

Approaching the Ring of Brodgar from the high ground to the north-west. (Sigurd Towrie)

Lieutenant Thomas, who surveyed the Ness of Brodgar monuments in 1849-50, was in no doubt that the mounds surrounding the Ring of Brodgar were “the tombs of the early Scandinavians”[3]. Citing the saga account of Havard’s demise, he said it was “very probable that Earl Havard was buried beneath one of the Stenness tumuli.”

This was repeated by contemporary writers until, in 1854, the discovery of cremated human remains in the so-called “Plumcake mound” — a short distance to the north-east of the ring — was taken as confirmation of a viking presence. We now know, however, that these were Bronze Age remains and that no evidence of Norse burials has been found in the vicinity of the stone circle.

So where does that leave us?

Written centuries after the events it portrays, Olaf’s saga is as much a piece of literature as a historical document. While it cannot be relied on to be an accurate account of genuine events, whether the AD970 Stenness battle actually took place is not important. What the saga shows is that a Havardsteigar placename existed by the 14th century and that the writer(s) associated it with Earl Havard.

Ring of Brodgar. (Sigurd Towrie)

Ring of Brodgar. (Sigurd Towrie)

Returning to the antiquarian accounts, we see that although this name (or a version of it) survived until the 19th century, it was falling out of use. In 1849, the Norwegian historian Professor P. A. Munch was “gratified … that the name … [was] still applied, among the peasantry, to the promontory of Stennis.” In 1851, the Orcadian antiquarian George Petrie confirmed it was still occasionally used, but again to refer to “the promontory” — presumably the entire Ness of Brodgar[4].

Neither account gave the surviving form of the name but Gorrie’s Summers and Winters in the Orkneys (1868) did: “Old people still can remember when the plain round the standing stones was called Howardsty or Howardstey, in which we can easily recognise the name Haavardsteig”. This version of the name is also given in Collingwood’s Scandinavian Britain (1908), where we are told Earl Havard perished at “Howardsty, near the famous stones of Stennis”.

View to the Harray loch. (Sigurd Towrie)

View to the Harray loch. (Sigurd Towrie)

Havardsteigar undoubtedly lies behind Howardsty (teigr is found as –ty or –tie in place names and tie in dialect) and George Marwick’s Howastedgar[th], but the question of what the placename actually referred to remains unclear — was it the entire Ness? The stone circle? The land around the ring? I suspect the answer is much the same as today, where Brodgar is a blanket term for the Ness, including the stone circle: “I’m going to Brodgar.”

To George Marwick it was definitely the ring that was “formerly called the Howastedgarth”. I would suggest the name was actually Howastedgar, given that he repeatedly referred to Brodgar as Brodgarth in the same talk.

He clearly interpreted the final element as the very common placename gar∂ [-garth]. This is typical of his tendency to “clean up” placename pronunciations — often to suit his more outlandish etymologies. In this case, he concluded that Howastedgarth meant “the standing enclosed circle of the sun”[1]. I’m afraid not George.

Notes

  • [1] Marwick, G. (1892) Howastedgarth, The Standing Stones, Stennis. In Muir, T. and Irvine, J. (eds) 2014. George Marwick: Yesnaby’s Master Storyteller. The Orcadian: Kirkwall.
  • [2] Now available in print: George Marwick: Yesnaby’s Master Storyteller. Edited by Tom Muir and James M. Irvine (2014). The Orcadian: Kirkwall.
  • [3] Havardsteigar or Havardsteigr, depending on the saga version.
  • [4] Thomas, F.W.L. (1851) Account of some of the Celtic Antiquities of Orkney, including the Stones of Stenness, Tumuli, Picts-houses, &c., with Plans, by FWL Thomas, RN, Corr. Mem. SA Scot., Lieutenant Commanding HM Surveying Vessel Woodlark. Archaeologia, 34(1).
  • [5] Wilson, D. (1851) The Archaeology and Prehistoric Annals of Scotland.

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