- ORPHIR, a parish, in the county of Orkney, 8 miles (S. W.) from Kirkwall; containing, with the island of Cava, 1064 inhabitants. This place derives its name, in the Norwegian language Orfer, from the mossy nature of its soil: towards the close of the 11th century it appears to have been distinguished as the residence of Paul, second earl of Orkney, of whose palace there are still some remains. The parish is bounded on the south and east by the bay of Scalpa, and extends for almost fourteen miles along the coast, which is deeply indented by numerous smaller bays; the average length is more than six and a half miles, and the average breadth two and a half miles comprising an area of 12,000 acres, of which about 1570 are arable, 2500 in pasture, and nearly 8000 peat-moss and waste. The surface is boldly diversified, rising from Houton Head, a promontory at the south-western extremity 300 feet above the level of the sea, in a continuation of hills, intersected with valleys, and gradually increasing in height throughout the whole parish, towards the north-east, to the hill of Wart, which has an elevation of 700 feet. From the summit of this hill is obtained an extensive and interesting view over the greater part of the Orkney Isles, the western coast of Caithness from Duncansbay Head to Cape Wrath, the Pentland Frith, and the loftier hills in the interior of Caithness and Sutherland. The coast from Houton Head westward is nearly level; and towards the east the banks are scarcely more than ten or twelve feet high, except the headlands of some of the bays, which have an elevation of thirty or forty feet. In the bay of Houton is a small island called the Holm, about 400 yards in length and nearly of equal breadth: the channel which separates it from the Mainland becomes dry for nearly two hours at low water. The island was cultivated for one season; but the crop not proving favourable, it has not since been tilled, and now produces only rough pasture. To the east is an inlet, which even at low water is navigable for sloops; and it has been for some time in contemplation to make it a medium for conveying the mail from Thurso to the bay of Houton, whence letters might be speedily forwarded to Kirkwall and Stromness by land. About a mile and a half to the south-east of Houton is the island of Cava, of which about twenty-five acres are in cultivation, the soil, a rich black loam, producing excellent crops of oats, and the remainder covered with peat-moss; the island is nearly three and a quarter miles in circumference, and contains about 20 inhabitants. The bay of Swanbister, the most extensive of those which indent the coast, is nearly two miles broad; the shore is sandy, and at stream tides cockles are found in abundance.The rocks along the shore of the parish are generally sandstone, alternated with slate and ridges of the schistose formation. Freestone is also found, on the shores of Swanbister; and on the hill of Midland, near Houton, is a quarry of grey slate at an elevation of 400 feet, the property of Hector Moncrieff, Esq., and from which, in 1841, about 12,000 slates were sent to Kirkwall and South Ronaldshay. The soil in the valleys between the ranges of hills is a black loam, producing good crops of grain of various kinds; in other parts, of inferior quality; and in some, a cold clay. Crops of clover and rye-grass are also obtained, with potatoes, turnips, and other green crops; considerable improvement has been made in agriculture, and the rotation system of husbandry is every day growing more into use. There is little timber; and the trees, which are found only in the gardens, become stunted in their growth after they have risen above the height of the walls. The cattle are principally of the black breed, and are small, though hardy; a few of the Dunrobin breed have been introduced, and thrive well upon the pastures. The breed of horses is also small, with the exception of some upon the larger farms; and the sheep, except a few of the Cheviot breed, also on the larger farms, are of very diminutive size.There is no village. The manufacture of kelp, formerly a lucrative employment, has greatly diminished; not more than twenty tons have been for some years annually produced, and the price has been reduced from £12 to £5 per ton. The fisheries, however, are still carried on with success. Eight boats are employed in the herring-fishery, each of which has four men; they pursue their occupation for about a fortnight at the island of Stronsay towards the end of July, and afterwards at South Ronaldshay for about a month, or till the herrings leave this part of the coast. The fish, as soon as they are barrelled, are sent to Rothesay and Ireland, in vessels which attend here for their conveyance. The lobster-fishery is also carried on, upon a limited scale, employing one boat and two men; the lobsters are kept in a floating chest in the bay of Houton, and are sent weekly to Stromness to be forwarded for the London market. Cod, haddock, skate, and ling are taken at no great distance from the shore; dog-fish are also taken, for their oil; and the coal-fish, when one or two years old, form wholesome and nutritious food. About forty-three boats are employed in the white-fishery, and in conveying agricultural produce to Stromness. The only manufacture pursued here is that of straw-plat, in which 100 of the population, principally females, are engaged. The nearest post-office is at Huna, in Caithness, whence the mail crosses the Pentland Frith to South Ronaldshay, where a branch is established from which letters are conveyed by a carrier to Kirkwall and Stromness. In the bay of Houton is a small harbour accessible to sloops and larger vessels, which are sheltered from the south and south-east gales by the island of Holm.The ecclesiastical affairs are under the superintendence of the presbytery of Cairston and synod of Orkney: the minister's stipend is £158. 6. 7., of which £34. 3. 6. are paid from the exchequer; with a manse, and a glebe worth £12 per annum: patron, the Earl of Zetland. The church is beautifully situated on rising ground on the eastern shore; it was erected in 1829, and contains 574 sittings. The members of the Free Church have a place of worship. The parochial school is well conducted; the master has a salary of £26, with a house and garden, and the fees average about £6 per annum. A school was founded by Magnus Twatt, who bequeathed to the heritors and Kirk Session £700 for that object; and a similar school is supported by a bequest of £100 by James Tait, who also left £100 to the parish of Stromness for a similar purpose. The poor receive the proceeds of £50 accumulation of funds, and of a donation of £10 by Lieut. James Robertson, a native of the place. The late Sir William Honyman, Lord Armadale, an eminent judge in the court of session, was also a native, and the principal landed proprietor, of the parish.
A Topographical dictionary of Scotland. Samuel Lewis. 1856.
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