Settlements in North Ronaldshay, Orkney, Scotland

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North Ronaldshay, Orkney, Scotland

The island of North Ronaldshay in Orkney, Scotland, has contained in its history over 100 discrete recorded settlements, divided across six "townships". The population peaked in 1881 at 547, declining to only 72 in 2011.

Under the Norse system of inheritance that was used in Orkney, the main house passed to the eldest son but the property was divided among all their children, with sons receiving an equal share and daughters a half share. This led over time to an increasing number of farms that were smaller and smaller in size. [1]

Until the 15th century, the land was held under "udal" tenure, which meant that the landowners were relatively free and were secure in their landholding. The Earl of Orkney granted a feudal holding of the island to Margaret Bonar, wife of William Henryson, treasurer of Orkney and minister of Stronsay. In the 1595 Rentalls, the value of the island was listed as 72 pennies, of which only 6 pennies remained as odal land. These remaining udal rights were quickly removed; over the next nearly 300 years the tenants had little security of tenure, with many instances of tenants being "warned out" or removed from their land by the proprietor or his resident "baillie", often to increase the size of their own farms. This was finally ended with the Crofters Holdings Act 1886 which gave North Ronaldsay farmers security of tenure and reduced their rents.

Agriculture was based on the "run-rig" system, where strips of land were farmed in rotation by several families in the township. In 1832 the Baillie forced through the "squaring" of the land - dividing into self-contained farms that were wholly the responsibility of the tenant. [2]


The "Rentals of the ancient earldom and bishoprick of Orkney" by Peterkin recorded three main settlements in 1595: p76

  1. Nesbusta, in the south, valued at 30d, with 1d of odal land and two surrounding farms ("towmale") - Noust and Holland.
  2. Linklet, in the centre, valued at 18d
  3. Sailness, in the north, valued at 24d, including 5d of odal land and one surrounding farm

A "Notarial Instrument" refered to a charter dated 16 Feb 1594 as follows:

1594, Feb 21: Notarial Instrument narrating that Master Robert Hendersoun appeared, having Charter containing precept of sasine, dated 16 February 1594, granted to him by Margaret Bonar of Holland, his mother, of the Island of Northronnoldsay comprising lands as follows: 18½ penny land in Sailnes and Sand with one towmaill there called Lynie, 29¾ penny land in Nes, Busta and Sand with 2 towmales of the same called Noust and Holland and 18 penny land in Linklet with the skerrie called Selchskerrie, all lying in the Island of Northronnoldsay with the 18 penny land of Holland lying in the parish of St. Nicolas in the Island of Stronsay, the 4½ penny land of Musbester lying in the parish of St. Peter in said Island, 1½ penny land of Brassaggart with maillingis and lands of Calzeagart and Colzenes lying in parish of St. Marie [Lady] in Island of Sanday, all in sheriffdom of Orknay, with the pertinents, reserving to said Margaret Bonar her liferent therefrom. At Holand in Stronsay. [1]

The next reference is 30 years later:

1630, Nov 17: Charter containing precept of sasine by said Master Robert Henrysoun, with consent of Barbara Colvill, his spouse, to William Henrysoun, his son, and heirs to be procreat between him and Margaret Grahame, daughter of George, Bishop of Orknay and Zetland, his future spouse, of aforesaid lands and said Master Robert his udal lands afterspecified viz: his 3 penny udal land in the Island of Northronnoldsay, 2 penny udal land in the town of Clett, in Island of Sanday and [. . . .] udal land in Burnes in said Island, all in sheriffdom of Orkney; and said Master Robert his 2 tenements of land back and fore lying in town of Kirkwall, in that part called Midtoun. At Kirkwall. [2]

A "wadset" (lease) dated 19 Nov 1641 described the land included in the lease as follows:

Contract of Wadset between William Henrysone of Holland, heritable proprietor of lands aftermentioned, on the one part, and David MccLellane, chamberlain of Orkney as factor for William Dick of Braid, sheriff principal and tacksman of Orkney and Zetland, on the other part whereby said William Henrysone binds himself to infeft said William Dick in lands and Ile of Northe Ronoldsay, comprising:

  • 18½ penny land in Sailnes and Sand with a towmale there called Lyme
  • 29¾ penny land in Nes, Bousta and Sand with two towmales called Nowst and Holland
  • 18 penny land in Linklett called an vrisland and the skerrie called Selcheskerrie
  • 3 penny udal land in Howar and Haiga and the teinds thereof

under reversion for £5557 11s. 3d. Scots, the sum of rents and duties due by said William Henrysone to said William Dick; reserving to Mr. Robert Henrysone, father of said William, his liferent of said lands, to Barbara Colvill, spouse to said Robert, her liferent of 500 merks furth of said lands and to Margaret Grahame, spouse to said William Henrysone, of her liferent of 16 penny land called the Bull of Ness. Said David Mcclellane sets back in tack to said William Henrysone the aforesaid lands for as long as said debt remains unpaid, Kirkwall. Registered in Books of Council and Session 1 Apr 1642; [3]

By the time of the 1851 census the island was clearly divided into six townships: Nesbusta was two townships of Nesstoun and Bustatoun, with Hollandstoun also recognised as separate townships; Linklet continued as a separate township in the centre; and Sailness was part of "East North Yard" township, with Ancumtoun in the north west.


Map naming the six townships in blue and the various crofts in red (click here for larger view)
Map naming the six townships in blue and the various crofts in red (click here for larger view)
1654 map of the island
1654 map of the island

Bustatoun was listed in the 1595 Rentall Book as "Nesbusta":

"NES, BUSTA and SAND [i.e. the neighbouring shoreline] 30d ob terra and 1 farg [farding, 1/4d] terra Inde 1d terra uthell [odal] in butter scat 14 lisp in scat silver 40s 6 d in scat of 1d terrae udal 1 mei setting bear et in scat and land mail of 29d ob 1 fdg terra p Rege 4 lasts 5 meils 6 mks bear 2 lasts 11 m 5 s 6 mks flesh Ibidem Twa [two] tumalis ane callit NOUST 1 m beer, anether callit HOLLAND 2 meils bear 59 1/4 poultry"


The name is derived form the Old Norse kirkju-bólstaðr (church farm) [3] and this appears to have been the settlement that gave the name to the township, "Busta". Marwick lists the bólstaðr as part of the "skatted" lands, which date back to the 800s when Harold Fairhair imposed the first of the traditional taxes (skats). [4] A cluster of Iron Age round-houses are nearby at the Brae of Howmae, possibly dating from the 8th century BC. [4] Some ancient quern-stones for grinding cereal have been found at Kirbest.

Kirbester was said to have been the home in the 1100s of Ragna the Wise and her son Thorstein the Strong. [5]. It was held by John Tulloch and his son Thomas Tulloch in 1693. By 1841 it was in the hands of William Kelday and was one of the largest farms on the island, with 16 acres of arable land and 42 acres of pasture. After his death in 1882 it passed to his daughter, Sarah Kelday, who emigrated to the United States with her family. John Tulloch of nearby West Newbigging obtained the farm sometime before 1891. On his death in 1922 it passed to his son, William Tulloch.



Listed as "How", the property was held by Andrew Mairtaine in 1693.



The first reference was in the 1682 will of Janet Tulloch, wife of Magnus Swanney, who lived there. It was called "Girnavald", from Old Norse groenivollr (green field). [5]

Greanwall was held by Magnus Swannie in 1693.

There are forty people on WeRelate linked to Greenwall. The earliest person included is Thomas Tulloch who was born there in 1798 and died there in 1881. His family are all listed there, the last person being his great-grandson, Richard, who died there in 1978.


A previous settlement near Kirbest. [6]


Cruesbreck was held by Magnus Turfisone in 1693. The Turfus family was expelled from their home in the nineteenth century according to stories when Mrs Turfus rejected the unwelcome advances of the island's baillie. At first the baillie moved them to a poorer house at North Gravity. When he tried again, Mr Turfus is said to have hit the baillie, then gathered up his family and sailed to Sanday where they settled.

There are thirty three people on WeRelate linked to Cruesbreck.




Howar was held by William Swannie in 1693.

In the nineteenth century the farm of Howar was extended by the factor who lived at the farm by evicting the tenants of the neighbouring farms of Husmire, Disher, Flett, Fishoose and Boustay and consolidating their land into Howar. [7]


From Old Norse dysjar. [8] Disher was held by Andrew Cutt in 1693. The Cutt family were infamously warned out of Disher in the 1850s by the Baillie's wife, so they could extend the Howar farm.


Stromnesse was held by David Swannie in 1693. By 1851 it had been absorbed into Howar.






A house by this name was listed in the 1733 rentals.[9]


Upper Trebb

Traib was held by John Thomson in 1693.


From Old Norse hohaland (high land) [10] Mentioned in the 1595 Rentall book as a "towmale" of Bustatoun - i.e. a field outside the main settlement. In 1615 it was recorded as the estate of the island's main landowner, Robert Henryson of Holland, North Ronaldsay (nephew of Margaret Bonar, the first feudal landowner). [11] Holland was one of the nine settlements included in the 1654 Bleau map.

Holland was held by John Thomson in 1693.


The property was held by Magnus Muir in 1693. By 1851 it had been absorbed into Holland farm.


As "Ourland", this property was held by John Swannie in 1693.


Included in the 1654 Bleau map as "Turngness"


From Old Norse naustar (landing place for boats) [12] Nouster was held by John Tullach in 1693.


As "Ness", one of nine settlements included in the 1654 Bleau map, although the location seems to be slightly confused. Ness means a promontory, and it presumably refers to Brides Ness and originally constituted the lands north of the Muckle Gersty between Hooking Loch and Brides Ness.


Listed as Gerback in the 1733 rentals, from Old Norse garth-bolkr (dividing wall). [13] Marwick lists the "garth" as part of the "skatted" lands, which date back to the 800s when Harold Fairhair imposed the first of the traditional taxes (skats). [14] This would have Gerbow the oldest settlements in Nesstoun. The property was held by Robert Scott in 1693.




Ness was held by Magnus Tullach in 1693. Nesse, which might also refer to this property, was held by John Cutt in 1693.


From Old Norse stein-brekka (stony slope). [15] In the 1850s the Cutt family were evicted from Disher and the eldest brother, Jamie was given half of Stenabreck's land and told to build a house on it. They built "Bridesness", but the tenant of Stenabreck was said to have been so heartbroken to lose half his land that he died of a broken heart. [16]



The property was held by William Thomson in 1693.



Newbigging was held by John Wall in 1693.



From Old Norse, arkvern. [17]. The property was held by John Tullach in 1693.



Included in the 1595 Rentall Book as follows:

LINKLET ane uris terrae ley payis in scat butter 6 lispunds in scat silver 16s and in land mail quia leyland Item the SKERRIE payit of auld half barrel olie and now payis ane barrel of olie.

As "Linclet", it was one of nine settlements included in the 1654 Bleau map.



Recorded as Saggarhous in 1653, from Old Norse suthr-grth-hus (south garth house) [18]


The property was held by Andrew Cutt in 1693.

North Manse


North Gravity

From Old Norse grafar (hollow) [19]


Previously Dubhall. [20]




Old Norse vinjar-hus; former settlement north of Waterhouse. [21]




Part of this farm, Sketherus, may have previously been a house. [22]

South Gravity

From Old Norse grafar (hollow) [23]



The property was held by John Burwick in 1693.



East North Yard


Written as Sailness in 1595 rentals, when it was the main settlement in the north of the island:

SAILNESS and SAND 24d terre inde 5d ob terre uthell in butter scat 12 lisp in scat silver 30s 8d ob in scat of 5d ob terre uthell 5 m 5 set 4 set bier et in scat and land maile of 18d 1/2 fdg terre pro Rege 2 last 15 m 5 set 18 mk beir 1 last 17 m 18 mk flesche Ibidem ane towmale payis 1 m bier 36 pultrie

As "Sanes", it was one of nine settlements included in the 1654 Bleau map. Senness is the site of an ancient chapel and burial site with at least three old gravestones with no visible markings.

Midle ("Great") Senis [[Poll_Tax_returns_of_1693_for_North_Ronaldshay,_Orkney,_Scotland#Full_results|was held by Thomas Tullach] in 1693.

The first person listed on WeRelate at Senness is John Tulloch, born ca. 1750. The croft was the largest in East North Yard at 12 acres. It was passed on to his son, William and then to his eldest daughter Mary and her husband, Robert Cutt, who had been "warned out" of his croft at Disher. Robert and Mary passed it on to their only daughter, Mary Cutt and her husband, John Tulloch, formerly of Scottisgar. It passed to their daughter, Jane, and her husband William Tulloch (formerly of Sandback). William died in 1962 and Jane in 1969. In 1979, the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS) noted the farmstead was "deserted". [6]


Previously Shallkiscow (1682) & Sholtisskoo, from Old Norse shal-kvi-skja (enclosure for drying) [24]. Sholtisquoy is part of the Senness "Biggin" (group of houses) and located about 50m northeast of Senness. The earliest mention is the 1682 will and testament of Andrew Tulloch. He died with a total of 14 meilles of sown crops - roughly 28 acres, which is half the arable acreable of the whole of East North Yard in 1851. The property was held by Steaven Tullach, son of Andrew Tulloch, in 1693. Steaven's eldest son, John Tulloch, is also listed as living in the property.

The next mention is the birth, in 1735, of Andrew Tulloch. Given the patterns of farming in the area it is likely that he is a descendent (possibly grandson) of this John Tulloch.

The croft is next recorded in the Muir family, William Muir (b. 1803), his son Peter Muir (1832-1908) and his grandson Hugh Muir (1874-1958).

In "The Northern Isles: Orkney and Shetland" it was noted that the farm was empty in 1965. [7]. In 2009 it was listed by the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland as vacant, with the roof "mostly collapsed". [25]


Derived from Old Norse Garths-haugr (garth mount), Garso is located 250m west of Senness. [26]. This is possibly the location of "Little Senis", which was held by Thomas Tullach in 1693. The earliest reference to Garso is in 1809 to Thomas Tulloch from Garso. The croft appears to have been inherited by his brother Peter Tulloch. In 1855, the property was split in two with his eldest son, Robert, taking "Garso No 1" and 4 of the 10 acres. The property stayed in this family, the last mention being the death of Elizabeth Tulloch, Robert's granddaughter, in 1986.




The property was held by Thomas Burwick in 1693.




Samback was held by Andrew Swannie in 1693.


From Old Norse vin (green pasture) [27]



From Old Norse, kongla-bostathr [28] As "Conglabuster", one of nine settlements included in the 1654 Bleau map. The property was held by John Muir in 1693.


Listed as West Senness in 1733 Rental [29]. Westness was held by William Tullach in 1693.

Nether Breck


Old Norse Vestness (west headland) [30] One of nine settlements included in the 1654 Bleau map.


Once a storehouse kept for shipwrecked sailors. [31]


Upper Linnay

Linnay is the oldest settlement recorded in Ancumtoun. A sasine dated 16 Feb 1594 referred to a towmaill outside Sailness "called Lynie". Bleau's map of 1654 has this as "Leny". Leine was held by Stephen Foderingham in 1693.

Nether Linnay

A testament records Magnus Tulloch holding "Nether Lunay" in 1682. Nether Linnay was held by Magnus' son Alexander Tulloch in 1693.


One of the nine settlements listed in Bleau's map of 1654. Ancum was held by John Muir and his son Hendrie in 1693.


Langer was held by John Muir in 1693.

Upper Cott

Cott was held by Magnus in 1693.

Nether Cott


Bura was held by William Tullach in 1693.




  1. Island Saga, The Story of North Ronaldsay, Mary Scott p35
  2. A Window on North Ronaldsay, Peter Tulloch
  3. A window
  4. p41
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  9. A Window on North Ronaldsay, App 2
  10. A window
  11. Fasti ecclesiae scoticanae
  12. A window
  13. A window
  14. p41
  15. A window
  16. Island Saga
  17. A window
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  22. A window
  23. A window
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  25. Buildings at Risk - Sholtisquoy, North Ronaldsay
  26. A window
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