An Orcardian Burial Ground

This week I’m very happy to be posting a guest entry from Paul Browning, who writes one of my favourite blogs – Running Past. Paul usually delves into local history and rivers in and around Lewisham. Here, Paul takes us to Scotland – Stromness, to be precise! 

The landscape of the Orkeys is stunning, although more variable than perhaps might be expected. Most of the landscape is cultivated for rearing what must be some of the hardier sheep and beef cattle in the British Isles.  There are walled enclosures too for the burial of the local dead. They are often some distance from the settlements they serve.

One of these is outside the second biggest settlement of Stromness, overlooked by the massive bulk of Ward Hill on the island of Hoy, three miles away across the westerly exit of Scapa Flow. There are few more stunning locations for a burial ground in Orkney or elsewhere for that matter.

Victorian Orcardian traditions with burials are oddly similar to those 700 miles to the south in London. The ‘Magnificent Seven’ cemeteries were generally of the edge of the mid-19th century city. The Stromness kirkyard, sometimes referred to as Warebeth, is just over a kilometre from Orkney’s second centre as the fulmar flies, or around a mile by the current slightly more circuitous road route.

Tradition suggests that the site was a monastery in the past, certainly Victorian Ordnance Survey cartographers believed this to the the case. However, while archaeologists and grave diggers have found evidence of residential rubbish pits and dry stone walling there have been a marked lack of religious remains.

Stromness Map1

There are the above ground remains of later religious buildings towards the centre of the cemetery, Ordnance Survey notes suggest that it my have been a Catholic Chapel from before the Reformation which was probably part of a former small settlement, probably a forerunner of Stromness itself.

The kirkyard was certainly being used for burials from the mid-19th century, perhaps a little earlier, a few of the decipherable dates of death in the kirkyard were from the late 1840s. It was well established when the Ordnance Survey cartographers visited in 1880, surveying for the beautifully coloured Scottish first series of 25″ maps.

Stromness Map2

The churches and chapels where the funerals were conducted would have been back in Stomness (mapped above), the settlement is on a hillside, with narrow Victorian streets and no space for burials. The main church has been redeveloped as a community centre and the almost adjacent Free Church, which still dominates the skyline is now an entertainment venue.


Oddly, it is a cemetery with a link back to Running Past‘s normal territory of south-east London; Stromness was where one of the major builders of Catford, James Watt, grew up. While several Watt graves were found, including one of Alexander (pictured), none were obviously direct family members of James.


So who else is buried there? George Inkster had been a farmer about a mile away around the coast at Breck Ness – he had a small farm, little more than the size of half a dozen football pitches – in a beautiful, bleak location. There are still farm buildings there, although the house that George and Catherine lived in is probably the ruins to the left. Whether it was a family farm that he had grown up in is unclear – the first mention of them is the 1841 census. By 1861 though they were living in the Main Street of Stromness, George was working as a boat carpenter. He was to die just before the next time the census enumerators visited; Catherine remained in Stromness initially working as a hose knitter and in her latter years supported by a son.


Below the parents names, the story of many young deaths becomes apparent – it is a tale told on many other gravestones in the kirkyard.

The most famous inhabitant of the kirkyard is the poet George Mackay Brown, he was interred in an extension to the original kirkyard. Mackay Brown was born in Stromness in the autumn of 1921 and died there 75 springs later. He ‘found his inspiration in the eternal cycle of life, and the “ceremonies of fishing and agriculture” on Orkney’ and regularly walked along the coastal path past the kirkyard.

His grave proved rather tricky to find, I never did, but fortunately it is available on a Creative Commons courtesy of the beautifully named summonedbyfells on Flickr.

The grave, unlike most of the more recent additions, which are of marble, is of the rock type that predominates in the Orkneys, a relatively dark, red sandstone. His neighbours to the right are his parents. An excerpt from his poem, ‘Beachcomber’, seems an apt finish for a post on a graveyard only a few metres from the brine and will not doubt be sea-sprayed in wilder conditions. The current Orcadian mudlarker outside the kirkyard will find small, rusty remnants of a wrecked Norwegian fishing boat, the Norholmen, but for George Mackay Brown on

Monday I found a boot –
Rust and salt leather.
I gave it back to the sea, to dance in.

Tuesday a spar of timber worth thirty bob.
Next winter
It will be a chair, a coffin, a bed…..

Friday I held a seaman’s skull,
Sand spilling from it
The way time is told on kirkyard stones….


  • The image of George Mackay Brown’s grave is on a Creative Commons via summonedbyfells
  • The map images of the kirkyard and Victorian Stromness are from the National Library of Scotland on a Creative Commons
  • All the other images are © Running Past blog, but can be used, credited, for non commercial purposes
  • The census and related information for this post comes via Find My Past  

If you have enjoyed this post – do go and ‘visit’ Running Past!

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