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The Sea Battle Off Roudabjorg
In the footnote to the 1873 edition of the Orkneyinga Saga it is suggested that Raudabjorg may be Rattar Brough to the east of Dunnet Head. The footnote reads:
Raudabjorg , or Red Headland, must be looked for in the neighbourhood of Dunnet Head, where the red beds of the Old Red Sandstone form the distinctive feature of the coast. A little to the east of Dunnet Head there is an outlying crag named Brough of Rattar or Rattar Brough in all probability a corrupted form of the old name Raudabjorg. Still further to the eastward, where the burn of Rattar enters the Firth, are the ruins of an old "Pictish tower", or broch - in old Norse, borg. In the immediate vicinity is a little promontory called Kirk o’ Taing (Kirkiu Tunga, the Tongue or Ness of the Kirk), on which are the ruins of one of the small rudely-built chapels of the early Christian time. 0n the north side of the chapel the edges of a number of stone cists are visible through the turf, and from two of these, which were dug up in cutting a drain in the spring of 1872, eight silver armlets of the ancient penannular form were obtained….. As Earl Thorfinn and his men were Christians, it seems probable that, if the chapel was then in existence, the bodies of seventy slain in the fight off Raudabjorg, which were landed here, would be buried in the consecrated ground attached to this chapel.
Let us examine these statements carefully.
1, "Raudabjorg, or Red Headland, must be looked for in the neighbourhood of Dunnet Head where the red beds of the Old Red Sandstone form a distinctive feature of the coast".
The name "Old Red Sandstone" is applied to the continental Devonian as distinct from the marine Devonian in western Europe. It does not imply that all the rocks are red or that they are all sandstone. All the north coast from west of Reay to Duncansby Head belong to the Old Red Sandstone. The Dunnet Head Sandstones are separated from the Caithness Flagstone series by a reversed fault - the Brough Fault - and the red and yellow sandstones, are confined to this headland. If Raudabjorg is Dunnet Head then it cannot be Rattar Brough.
2. "A little to the east of Dunnet Head there is an outlying crag named…. Rattar Brough in all probability a corrupted form of the old name Raudabiorg.”
.The writer could not find this crag so named on the 1:25,000 O.S. map. If this refers to the cliffs to the east of Ham, these are in the dark grey flagstone series of the "Old Red". It is hardly likely that this is the "Red Headland" and a later,' non-Norse ' derivation, the Brough (cliff?) of Rattar seems more probable. This could have taken place when the Gaelic (?) speaking people became dominant and the meaning of the names "Rattar" and "Brough" had been forgotten.
3. "Still further to the eastward where the burn of Rattar enters the Firth, are the ruins of an old "Pictish tower", or broch...... “
The 1:25,000 O.S. map shows two brochs east of.the headland referred to above. Neither could be said to be "where the burn of Rattar enters the Firth" being approximately 500 metres east and west respectively of that position. The implication that the name might have been Raudabjorg seems valid. If so, and if old Norse had the same grammatical construction as modern Scandinavian, it would mean, unambiguously, Red Broch not Broch of Rauda.
4. "In its immediate vicinity is a little promontory called Kirk o’ Taing (Kirkiu Tunga ... ) on which are the ruins of one of the small ... chapels ... of the early Christian period".
The chapel referred to - Kirk o’ Banks - is immediately east of the point where the burn of Rattar enters the Firth. The promontory is in fact a long reef jutting out to the east of the ruins of the chapel. The chapel is orientated east-west and has a nave about 6 metres in length and a chancel of about 5 metres with a substantial wall, presumably pierced by a doorway, between the two. It was probably similar to the 12th century chapel at Crosskirk.
5. "On the north side of the chapel the edges of a number of stone cists are visible through the turf.....
On the north side of the chapel there is a grassy track which fills almost all the space between the north wall of the chapel and the shore. No cists are visible today. There is, however, an irregular enclosure to the south of the ruined chapel. This was probably the burying ground.
6. "From two of these (cists)...... eight silver armlets of the ancient penannular form were obtained" .
Three of these "armlets" are in Thurso Museum. These are similar to objects found in other hoards of the Viking period. They are, however too small to be worn by any but a very small person and may have been a convenient form of storing precious metal or, alternatively, they could have been a form of currency. These are unlikely to have been worn by any of Thorfinn’s warriors.
7. "As Earl Thorfinn and his men were Christians, it seems probable that, if the chapel was then in existence, the bodies of seventy slain in the fight off Raudabjorg, which were landed here, would be buried in the consecrated ground attached to this chapel" .
Comment on this statement hinges on "if the chapel was then in existence". We have no proof that it was. We have no date for the battle but it must have been fought during the reign of Magnus the Good (1035 to 1047), as the latter king supported Earl Rognvald’s claim to the earldom of Orkney and Caithness. Many of Thorfinn’s men would have been first generation Christians at best and a 12th century date for this chancelled chapel seems more likely. The second part of the statement assumes that the seventy slain were landed here and buried in the consecrated ground. Why should Earl Thorfinn risk the safety of his longship to land the people here on a rocky and inhospitable stretch of coast when he had three better havens to sail to at Brough, Ham and Harrow?
What, then, are the claims of Rattar to be Raudabjorg?
The sagas are notoriously unreliable as historical documents and their very name implies an oral tradition. Many of them were not written down until long after the event, and factual evidence was often lacking. The Orkneyinga Saga is referred to by a reliable source in 1241 and the latest datable event, ie burning of Bishop Adam at Halkirk, was in 1222. It must have been written in the intervening 19 year. The battle off Raudabjorg therefore took place about two centuries before it was written down.
There must in Caithness, be many headlands referrable to as the Red Headland. The name Rattar is, however, significant, but has nothing whatever to do with Dunnet Head. About 750 metres east of Ham a small north-south fault throws down red and yellow sandstones against the dark grey flagstones. These sandstones are typical of the upper part of the Mey Beds of Caithness Flagstone Series of the Middle Old Red Sandstone. The red and yellow colour presumably indicates the onset of climatic conditions culminating in the distinctive John 0’ Groats Sandstones. The low cliff which borders the reef known as Kirk o' Tang is of a striking brick-red colour. If a cliff of some two metres high can warrant the name of a headland, this is clearly a candidate for Raudabjorg. If the chapel was built later it would also be a more striking landmark than the low headland and the long reef would become Kirkiu Tunga, the older name, Raudabjorg, falling into disuse.
The saga does not say how the dead and injured were landed. There are two places immediately to the west of Rattar where a small boat might have been beached. The saga says however, a narrow inlet into the western part of the reef called Kirk o’ Tang. This provides water at all stages of the tide and a convenient landing place on the reef to the east without the need to beach the ship. It would however imply an intimate knowledge of the shore at Rattar.
The alternative reading Raudjaborg should not, however, be dismissed.
If the two brochs were built of beach stones they would both presumably, have been of a red colour. When they decayed and fell into ruins, the name would again fall into disuse when they wore no longer distinctive landmarks.
It might be argued that the burn of Rattar might have changed its course since 1872. This seems highly unlikely, especially as the chapel is called Kirk o’ Banks. This presumably refers to the fact that it is on the banks of the burn of Rattar.
The presumed burying ground to the south of the chapel seems too small to hold the seventy slain, but again we have only the oral tradition to go by and tales would tend to become exaggerated as time went on.
Cist burials are, of course, no proof of Viking age but they seem to have been not uncommon. Many such graves have been reported at Clardon Haven the traditional site of another battle between the rival earls Harald Maddadson and Harald Ungi, said to have taken place in 1176. There is, therefore, little doubt of the approximate age of the chapel and the burying ground. If the dedication of the chapel could be found this might reinforce the date. Mr. L. Myatt has made a search of material available to him. The notes below give added detail but throw no further light on the dedication:
RCAHMS (Caithness) 1911 - The outlines on the turf making the foundations of this chapel are clearly visible close beside the sea to the east of the burn of Rattar. It appears to have been a chancelled building measuring interiorly about 32'x 12'. What appears to be the wall of the chancel occurs at 17' from the west end. Close beside the kirk to seawards was found a small hoard of seven penannular armlets or bracelets of silver, of a form associated with the Viking times. Five of them are preserved in the National Museum of Antiquities, Edinburgh, and the rest in Thurso Museum. The circumstances of their discovery is fully recorded. (PSAS IX p424).
Beaton, 1909, Ecclesiastical History of Caithness ….Coming farther east, close to the sea-shore, directly north of Scarfskerry, is Kirk o’ Tang, situated on a narrow neck of land stretching out to the sea. It is also called Kirk o’ Banks. There is very little to be seen of the old ruins except a few stones here and there, but the lines of the foundation are quite easily traced. Around the building taking their last long sleep lie forgotten generations, their resting places in some cases being marked by rude flat stones.
'Hence the name Tang from the Norse signifying "a spit of land projecting into the sea". Tang is locally pronounced Ting.
Local lore may be found to be useful, field names might be revealing and objects dug up while working in the fields might throw some light on it.
The site of the battle of Raudabjorg must, for the present, remain an open question. Are there any other contenders for the honour in Caithness? We need a red headland, a place to land the dead and injured and a burying ground of the right period. Rattar must remain a serious contender with it's' (insignificant) red headland, it’s (not too obvious) landing place, it's chapel (a century too late), it’s graves of the Viking period, and it’s name.