colour image of the stone built circular sheep fort, Rusk Holm, off Westray. This aerial photograph shows seven sheep in the fort safe above the frothing waves.

Sea safe

image Gunnie Moberg: colour slide of Rusk Holm sheep fort, date unknown. This image is in Gunnie Moberg’s 2006 publication Orkney.

Gunnie Moberg’s image of the sheep fort on Rusk Holm, south east of Westray, has been intriguing people visiting the exhibition downstairs at Orkney Library and Archive, Kirkwall.

Stewart Bain, who works here at the library and archive, was transported when he saw the photograph. He has a particular connection to the sheep fort, it was one of his childhood playgrounds. The fort belonged to a handful of Westray farmers who kept sheep on Rusk Holm.

 A group of sheep turn in a stone built raised enclosure while the sea lashes the base of the structure, black and white aerial photograph

image Gunnie Moberg: Sheep fort, Rusk Holm 1978

Stewart had the sad news that the sheep fort has been washed away, finally succumbing to the waves somewhere between the late eighties and early nineties. What we find in this Gunnie Moberg photograph is now lost, existing now in historical record, oral history and of course in these photographs. 

We invited Stewart to tell us more of what the photograph brought back.

‘When I was young one of the highlights of the summer was the trip to Rusk Holm to clip sheep. Needless to say us bairns managed to avoid being involved in any of the real work, instead we’d always spend part of the day navigating the treacherous stretch of rocks and seaweed that led to the sheep fort. Sometimes we found ourselves getting caught out by the incoming tide, like the sheep the fort was designed to give refuge to. A collection of socks and boots were often steaming beside the peat fire in the house on the holm.

I was always fascinated by this structure because (a) anything called ‘the fort’ is always going to appeal to young boys, and (b) the fact people had built something on a rock, out of stones, with a spiral staircase for sheep to stand on when the tide came in seemed incredible. Actually, it still does. Especially as I have just discovered that it stood for well over 100 years, as it is marked on the Ordinance Survey maps published in 1882. It remains a mystery when it was actually built but it saddens me to think it is no longer there. Although, it probably saddens the sheep more’.

An aerial image of the sheep fort taken from another angle to the one in the exhibition appears in the 1985 book The Natural History of Orkney by RJ Berry. This shows the staircase that Stewart recalls.

page from RJ Berry's book The Nartural History of Orkney with a photograph of the sheep fort by Gunnie Moberg.

page from RJ Berry’s The Natural History of Orkney

Looking for further information on the sheep fort on the internet turned up an interesting link. This photograph, dated 1978, is held in the Art Institute in Chicago gifted by Anthony Jones in 1987. Now, as well as discovering more about the structure,  we will have to find out more about how this Gunnie Moberg photograph found its way across the Atlantic to be held safe, like the sheep, in the fort of the Art Institute of Chicago.

For the farmers to create a refuge for ebb tide foragers, it is clear that seaweed was an important part of the Rusk Holm sheep diet. Seaweed-eating sheep feature in Gunnie Moberg’s photographs of North Ronaldsay, home to the most famous seaweed eaters.  More about them in the next mini exhibition at Orkney Library and Archive.

3 thoughts on “Sea safe

  1. I’ve often seen Gunnie’s B&W photos of ‘The Fort’ on Rusk Holm but not this colour one. Like Stewart Bain I vividly remember crossing to climb up it on a ‘Holm day’ in my youth and feeling very far from safe ground. Holm days were a high point of a summer holiday in Westray.

  2. Leslie that’s really great to hear the photograph is stimulating happy memories. Do you know anything more about the sheep fort construction? Have you, with your interest in vernacular architecture, come across similar structures?

  3. Pingback: New Research-Finding Ancient Harbours on Papa Westray, Orkney – Archaeology Orkney

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