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  Jo Ben's 1529 "Descriptions of Orkney"


Sanday, so called as it were, the Sandy Island, because there is sand in plenty.

It is distant from the former island two long miles. This island is in length twelve miles and in breadth two. English and German vessels often meet with destruction in one part of this island towards the east, called the Star of Lopenesse.

I myself, passing through this island, being fatigued, rested myself at a church called the Holy Cross, and in the churchyard saw innumerable skulls of men, about a thousand, larger than the heads of any living tribe (or larger than three heads now living), and I extracted teeth from the gums of the size of a hazelnut. I was much surprised at the heads, and, desirous of novelties [eager for news], I made inquiry of an old man as to whose they were and from whence the half-buried bones came.

"Son," he replied, "formerly this island was subject to the men of Stronsay, and we submitted to pay to them an annual tribute that we might be free, as we were not fitted out for war. When, therefore, we became more numerous, being tired of paying tribute, we considered in what manner we could get our freedom.

"Then one, more wise than the others, declared, 'Behold the day of freedom has arrived; we will hide ourselves from them at the church in holes, and will slaughter them one and all so that none escape'; to this all nodded assent.

When the day was come, the Stronsay men, along with all their wives, sons, daughters, servants, and many other friends, loosening from anchor, with sails spread and fair wind, unarmed and elated with gladness, landed on our shore, where they spent the greater part of day dancing and singing.

In the meantime the Sanday men and we living here, aroused and equipped with proper arms, both with sudden clamour and terrifying sounds, attacked and butchered every one of them to death, and indeed none here ever after paid tribute, and in this manner we were liberated."

These two islands are of all the most gloomy [infested with lice and are the dirtiest of all the islands]

The old and young in these two islands are so ensnared [infested] that no art can cure.

Rabbits are abundant here in summer, and in the winter are so tame that they are taken into individual houses. The people, the laymen, have their shoes made out of the skins of animals, drawn together with a latchet, in the vernacular called Rifflings.

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