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  The Brough of Deerness

The chapel on the Brough

The chapel on the Brough of Deerness, and the enclosure, were excavated in 1975 and 1976, allowing the archaeologists to construct an outline history of the building.

The earliest structure on site was a timber chapel, thought to be pre-Norse and date from the 8th century.

The chapel sat in an enclosure marked by gullies, possibly also fenced off. Postholes and grooves inside the chapel were interpreted as being the location of a wooden altar.

The discovery of two infant graves outside the building provided the only evidence of use for this period.

The building then fell out of use until the 11th or 12th century, when it was replaced by a stone structure, surrounded by a low wall. The presence of a stone altar, and the fact that the enclosure was used for Christian burials, confirms this building had a religious purpose, built, presumably, after the Norse conversion to Christianity.

Use of the chapel continued well into the mediaeval period, with improvements added, such as a flagstone floor, the installation of stone benches and the mortaring of the floor and walls.

In the 16th century, however, the chapel began to fall into disrepair. The reason for its abandonment is not known.

But although it was no longer an “official” place of worship, the ruined chapel remained a place of veneration and pilgrimage as late as the 19 century - and perhaps beyond.

Writers from the 16th century onwards give accounts of pilgrims journeying to the site to give votive offerings.

One example, supposedly dating from 1529, is Jo Ben's Descriptio Insularum Orchadiarum. It recounts that after ascending to the top of the Brough:

"the people on bended knees and with clasped hands, without confidence in the God that is, supplicate the bairns of Brugh with many incantations, throwing stones and water behind them, and walking twice or thrice round the chapel.

Having finished their orations they return home, affirming that they have performed their vows. Here they do not worship God purely."

Although it is tempting to equate Jo Ben's name for the chapel, the Bairns of Brugh, with the infant graves found during excavations in the 1970s, it is more likely his attempt to anglicise the Norn term "baenhus", literally "prayer house".

These traditions are borne out by the archaeological evidence; 38 coins dating from 1642 to 1860 were recovered from the chapel site indicating its continued significance until the middle of the 19th century.

Not to mention a single penny dating from 1971, found in an area where an area of the chapel had been carefully reconstructed.