Parish of Hoy and Graemsay

A historical perspective, drawn from the Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland: A Survey of Scottish Topography, Statistical, Biographical and Historical, edited by Francis H. Groome and originally published in parts by Thomas C. Jack, Grange Publishing Works, Edinburgh between 1882 and 1885.

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1791-99: Hoy and Graemsay
1834-45: Hoy and Graemsay

Graemsay, an island of Hoy parish, Orkney, in Hoy Sound, ½ mile S of Stromness, and ½ mile E of Bowkirk in Hoy island. Measuring 1½ mile in length from NW to SE, and 1 in breadth, it is all low and level; lies, almost throughout, on a bed of schistose rock; and is mainly covered with excellent soil, much of it being arable. Two lighthouses, guiding the navigation of Hoy Sound, were erected on the island in 1851 at a cost of £15,880. They bear from each other SE ¼E and NW¼ W; and they show lights visible at the distance of 11 and 15 nautical miles. The higher light, towards the western entrance of Hoy Sound, is a fixed red light, illuminating an arc from SE by E to SE ½ S towards SE; and also shows, towards Stromness, a bright fixed light from SSE¼ E to WSW; and towards Cava, an arc from NNW ½ W to N ½ W southerly. The lower light is a fixed bright light from E ½ S to W ½ N, facing northward. The island was anciently a vicarage united to Hoy rectory, and served every third Sunday by the minister of Hoy; but it neither pays stipend nor has any glebe; and it is now under the pastoral care of the minister of Stromness. Pop. (1831) 225, (1861) 230, (1871) 250, (1881) 236.

Hoy, the largest, except Pomona, of the Orkney islands, lying at the SW of the group. It is separated from the Stromness district of Pomona by Hoy Sound, which, with a varying width of 1¼ and 5¼ miles, contains midway the island of Graemsay ; from Burray and South Ronaldshay islands by Scapa Flow, 5½ to 11 miles broad ; and from Caithness by the Pentland Firth, which here has a minimum width of 6¾ miles. Its utmost length, from NNW to SSE, is 13½ miles ; its breadth varies between 3 furlongs and 6# miles ; and its area, inclusive of Graemsay, Flotta, and Pharay islands, is 61¾ square miles or 39, 510 acres, of which 15, 183 acres belong to Hoy and Graemsay parish and 24,337 to Walls and Flotta parish. Near its S end it is all but dissevered by an arm of the sea, the Long Hope, which, striking 5½ miles west-south-westward, and varying in width between ½ and 12/3 mile, forms one of the finest natural harbours in the world. During the French war it was no uncommon thing for a fleet of upwards of a hundred large vessels to be lying wind-bound in this harbour ; and a fine sight it was to see them spread their canvas to the breeze, and move majestically along the shores of the island. The district around the Long Hope is principally a fine plain, in a state of good cultivation ; but the parts to the N, constituting the main body of the island, are almost wholly occupied by three large hills, ranged in the form of a triangle, of which that to the NE, called the Wardhill of Hoy, is the largest, rising from a plain, with a broad base, to the height of 1555 feet above the level of the sea. Except along the N shores, which are bordered with a loamy soil and a rich verdure, the soil is composed of peat and clay, the former commonly predominating. The ground destined for the production of grain, and that appropriated for feeding cattle, bear but a very small proportion to what is covered with health and allotted for sheep-walks. The township of Rackwick, 3¼ miles from the N end of the island, is beautifully situated in the extremity of a valley to which it gives name, being closed in on two sides by very lofty precipices of sandstone, but opening with a fine bay towards the western entrance of the Pentland Firth, so that every vessel which passes must necessarily come into view. All the extent of coast which faces the Atlantic, from the south-western extremity of the island, but especially from Melsetter in the vicinity of the head of the Long Hope, all the way N, past Rackwick, on to the very entrance of Hoy Sound, is a series of stupendous rock-scenery, occasionally exceeding 1160 feet in height, -.sometimes perpendicular and smooth, other places rent, shivered, and broken down in huge fragments, -. occasionally overhanging the deep, and frowning on the stormy surges of the Atlantic. And, at one place, a vast insulated rock, called the Old Man of Hoy, and shaped like an immense pillar, with arches beneath, stands so well apart from the adjacent cliffs as to be a conspicuous object even from points of view in Caithness, and has obtained its name from being fancied to present a rough outline of similitude to the human form. This ' gigantic column, rising 600 feet above the sea, gives evidence of the sculpturing force of the northern waves ; and its materials record three episodes in a far-off past, for the column itself is a mass of yellow and red sandstone belonging to the upper part of the Old Red series, whilst the plinth is a fragment of a lava stream, and rests on a foundation of Caithness flag. Once a portion of the solid cliff, the Old Man has been hewn out from it during the interval that has elapsed since the last lingering glacier melted away from the upland valleys of Hoy.' The island generally is the most interesting district of Orkney to the geologist, the botanist, or the ornithologist ; and well deserves the attention of any naturalist who may have an opportunity of leisurely examining it at different seasons of the year. It is the Highlands of Orkney, scarcely second to many parts of the Highlands of the mainland in various attractions, and combining g these with interesting features of vale and sea-beach. Some of its cliffs are of sandstone, intersected by amygdaloid and other kinds of trap ; while the parts inland consist of sandstone, clay slate, and calcareous strata. Grouse are abundant, and hawks common ; a beautiful, bold, large kind of falcon may now and then be seen ; and several kinds of eagles build their eyries on the cliffs. The soil of the arable lands is mostly light, wet, and spongy, better for grass than grain. ' Walls is the best part of the island, and extensive improvements were carried out some years ago at Melsetter by a former proprietor, and a large flock of Cheviot sheep was introduced which succeeded well ; but little or nothing has been done for the other parts of Hoy. If surface-drained, the mountain range in the island would suit black-faced sheep ' ( Trans. Highl. and Ag. Soc., 1874, p. 59). .A chief antiquity, the Dwarfie Stone, and the lighthouses of Candick and Graemsay, are noticed separately. There is a post office of Longhope, under Stromness, with money order, savings' bank, and telegraph departments. Near it is Melsetter, one of two mansions in this island-.the other being Hoy Lodge-.belonging to John George Moodie Heddle, Esq. (b. 1844 ; suc. 1869), who holds 50, 410 acres, valued at £3527 per annum. In the presbytery of Cairston and synod of Orkney, the island is divided politically and ecclesiastically between the parishes of Hoy and Graemsay and Walls and Flotta, the former a living worth £170, the latter £200. Hoy church, built about 1780, contains 182 sittings ; Walls church, built in 1832, contains 500. Other places of worship are North Walls Established mission church and Walls Free church (1877). The five public schools of Hoy, Rackwick, Brims, South Walls, and Flotta, and North Walls General Assembly school, with total accommodation for 374 children, had (1881) an average attendance of 215, and grants amounting to £253, 15s. 1d. Valuation (1881) of Hoy and Graemsay, £868 ; of Walls and Flotta, £2486. Pop. of Hoy and Graemsay (1801) 244, (1831) 546, (1861) 556, (1871) 581, (1881) 603 ; of Walls and Flotta (1801) 993, (1831) 1436, (1861) 1674, (1871) 1530, (1881) 1506 ; of Hoy island (1841) 1486, (1851) 1565, (1861) 1535, (1871) 1385, (1881) 1380. See Hugh Miller's Cruise of the Betsy (1858), and Arch. Geikie's Geological Sketches at Home and Abroad (1882).

An accompanying 19th C. Ordnance Survey map is available, or use the map tab to the right of this page.

Note: This text has been made available using a process of scanning and optical character recognition. Despite manual checking, some typographical errors may remain. Please remember this description dates from the 1880s; names may have changed, administrative divisions will certainly be different and there are known to be occasional errors of fact in the original text, which we have not corrected because we wish to maintain its integrity. This information is provided subject to our standard disclaimer

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