Vestrafiold – the enclosure

The Vestrafiold enclosure on the 1882 25-inch OS map. (Courtesy of National Library of Scotland)
The Vestrafiold enclosure on the 1882 25-inch OS map. (Courtesy of National Library of Scotland)

By Sigurd Towrie

Sandwick parish map.

On the lower slopes of Vestrafiold, south-west of the megalithic quarry, are the remains of a large, possibly prehistoric, enclosure.

Covering an area of around seven acres (2.8 hectares), the oval feature was defined by a “wall” of upright flagstones running around its perimeter.

Little is known about the site, which, in terms of construction, “is completely unlike any other enclosure in Orkney”. [1]

It was first recorded by the parish minister, Rev Charles Clouston, in 1845:

“…about 200 yards north-east of North Dike (sic), and about 500 east of the summit of VestrafioJd, are the remains of an enclosure, 800 yards in circumference, and, I believe, of great antiquity, many of the stones being large, and set upon edge, particularly five or six on the north side.” [1b]

A few years later, in 1851, Lieutenant F.W.L. Thomas visited Orkney and wrote:

“A very interesting, but obscure, remnant of antiquity exists upon the south foot of Vestrafiold, which, I believe, must be classed with Celtic remains; it is a large, irregular inclosure (sic), approaching to a square in outline, and fenced by large flags where they have not been carried away.
“It is stated to be 800 yards in circumference. A watercourse runs through the area, and there are indications of interior sub-division by ranges of flags.

“No reason can be detected for choosing such a site; the greater part of the area, I should imagine, has always been very swampy; on the north-west side the line of demarcation runs up and along a rather steep brae (perhaps twenty feet higher than the average level).
“The great size of the inclosing flags, uselessness for keeping out cattle, &c., and the barren piece of land, which has never been of any agricultural value, are the proofs of its antiquity, and I commend this inclosure (sic) to the notice of practical antiquaries.” [2]

Thomas’ antiquaries were presumably busy with more promising sites and it remained uninvestigated.

On saying that, I found one reference relating to the Orkney antiquarian J. W. Cursiter, who had “made a careful examination of the area” around 1910 and declared that a “circle three times the diameter of the Brodgar Circle in Stenness may be plainly traced.”

The writer of a letter to The Scotsman newspaper in September 1910, concluded:

“If it be proved that we have on Vestrafiold the remains of a stone circle that completely dwarfs in dimensions that of Brodgar, the discovery will be one of exceptional importance.”

Having not seen the results of Cursiter’s survey, nor his conclusions, in print, I can’t comment much on his claims, other than to say that it is unlikely.

I suspect he was mistaking the surviving boundary stones as megaliths – a conclusion perhaps bolstered by the presence of a known standing stone quarry further up the hill.


By 1924, although it was still visible, the enclosure had begun to deteriorate:

“The lower section … has been encroached on by cultivation, and possibly some of the stones have been removed for building purposes. In form it has been egg-shaped, with the narrowest point towards the west, the longer diameter being about 300 yards and the shorter about 250.
“The enclosing stones are set on edge, and now are closer and larger on the north side than elsewhere – some being about 2ft. in height by 4ft. in breadth. In winter, the enclosed ground is to some extent swampy, and a watercourse runs through it. There are traces of sub-divisions inside, and some very small tumuli.
“On the west side, the line of enclosure runs up a rather steep slope. If intended for a fortified camp, the site has been ill-chosen, as the defenders could have been easily assailed and driven out by a Stone Age attacking party from the hill above. There is no evidence of ancient cultivation inside the enclosure.” [3]

Having no defensive value, Fraser pondered whether the enclosure was to contain livestock, but the low, c0.6-metre-high “walls” makes this unlikely:

“Had the stones forming the enclosure been higher and closer together, the enclosure might have been of use as a sheep fold, but nothing lower than a 4ft fence would have been sufficient to confine the agile old Orkney sheep; indeed a fence of this sort would have been unable to keep in the wiry little Orkney pigs that in olden times were kept all summer outside the township dykes.” [3]

Unless the flagstones were once supplemented by timber posts or “fencing”, they clearly served no practical purpose. Instead, they may have had a more symbolic role, perhaps demarcating an area considered significant or taboo for other reasons.

A notable fact about the enclosed area, mentioned by neither Thomas nor Fraser, is that it was the site of huge quantities of the glassy, burnt material known locally as cramp.

Cramp is an Orcadian dialect word, defined as “small heaps of vitrified glass and stones found in ancient tumuli.” [4]

It is a vitreous, lightweight material that is “vesicular in texture and generally of a light grey colour”[5]. Because cramp it is often found stuck to burnt bone it has generally become associated with Bronze Age cremations.

In 1936, describing two Sandwick sites where cramp was abundant, Callander wrote:

“At the second place there were great quantities lying on the surface, some of the masses being used as copestones on a garden wall. This was at Vestrafiold, near the large enclosure which adjoins the [megalith] quarry that is pointed out locally as the place where the tall pillar-stones in the circles at Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar came from…” [5]

This ties in with a brief comment by George Marwick from 1892:

“A great deal of fire had been used in the vicinity of the [Vestrafiold] quarry, the ground being in some places covered with ashes and vitrified bones.” [5b]

The existence of such quantities of cramp suggests the enclosure is Bronze Age and perhaps the site of cremation on an incredible scale. A Bronze Age date is also supported by the presence of a barrow cemetery on the summit of Vestrafiold.

However, cramp is also found in the Neolithic, with large chunks found in the central hearth at the Stones of Stenness and the roughly contemporary, open-air fireplace about 150 metres to the south-west of the Barnhouse settlement. These were interpreted as the residue of large-scale feasting events around the two sites. [6]

Sections of the enclose remain visible today as this aerial image shows. (Courtesy of Bing Maps)
Sections of the enclose remain visible today as this aerial image shows. (📷 Bing Maps)

Cramp deposited at two quarried megaliths on Vestrafiold may well relate to the same, although the fieldwork found no evidence of in situ burning in the vicinity. This led to the suggestion that the large piece of cramp between the two prone megaliths was deliberately placed after their abandonment. [7]

In 2019, a large spread of cramp was encountered in Trench X at the Ness of Brodgar. Associated with this deposit were pottery sherds with incised decoration and a macehead.

Three fragments of cramp from a huge deposit found in Trench X at the Ness of Brodgar in 2019. (Sigurd Towrie)
Three fragments of cramp from a huge deposit found in Trench X at the Ness of Brodgar in 2019. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

Returning to the Vestrafiold enclosure, the lack of information means its date and purpose remain open to debate.

While the quantity of cramp recorded from the area is suggestive of large-scale Bronze Age cremation, its association with a known megalithic quarry – which may have been the source for the stone used in its construction – could indicate the enclosure is much earlier.

The presence of at least one mound within could also hint at a Neolithic origin but, unfortunately, this four-metre-diameter tumulus was long gone by 1967.

Professor Colin Richards has pointed out the similarities to the enclosure recorded at the Stones of Via and which surrounded a possible chambered cairn [6]. The Stones of Via, however, is also undated so it will require further investigation to establish what, if anything, linked the two, not to mention what they represent.


  • [1] Richards, C. (2003) Report of the field survey at the quarry site of Vestrafiold, Sandwick, Mainland, Orkney.
  • [1b] Clouston, C. (1845) New Statistical Account Vol 15.
  • [2] 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), pp.88-136.
  • [3] Fraser, J. (1924) Some antiquities in Sandwick Parish. Proceedings of the Orkney Antiquarian Society. Volume 2, 22-29.
  • [4] Edmonston, T. (1866) An Etymological Glossary of the Shetland and Orkney Dialect with some derivations of names of places in Shetland. Edinburgh.
  • [5] Callander, J.G. (1936) Bronze Age urns of clay from Orkney and Shetland, with a note on vitreous material called ‘cramp’. In Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (Vol. 70, pp. 441-452).
  • [5b] Marwick, G. (1892) The Standing Stones of Stenness – Traces of the Ancient Road from the Quarries. In Muir, T. and Irvine, J. (eds) 2014. George Marwick: Yesnaby’s Master Storyteller. The Orcadian: Kirkwall.
  • [6] Challands, A., Edmonds, M. and Richards, C. (2005) Beyond the Village: Barnhouse Odin and the Stones of Stenness. In Richards, C. (ed) Dwelling among the monuments: the Neolithic village of Barnhouse, Maeshowe passage grave and surrounding monuments at Stenness. Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, pp. 205–227.
  • [7] Richards, C., Brown, J., Jones, S., Hall, A. and Muir, T. (2013) Monumental Risk: megalithic quarrying at Staneyhill and Vestrafiold, Mainland, Orkney. In Richards, C. (ed) Building the Great Stone Circles of the North.

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