The peninsula of Deerness just clings on as the eastern end of East Mainland, prevented from becoming a separate island by the dunes and sand bar of Sandi Sands. At the north eastern tip of Deerness is Mull Head, and just to the south of Mull Head is the site of a remarkable clifftop settlement at the Brough of Deerness.
Access is from a parking area a mile or so north of Skaill, at the eastern end of the B9050. From here you follow a good path the few hundred yards east to the top of the cliffs overlooking the sea. Close by and not to be missed is The Gloup. This deep cleft is linked to the sea: it was once a sea cave but much of the roof collapsed. The viewing platform at the landward end gives an especially striking view along The Gloup and through the remaining part of the cave to the sea.
The cliff path north from The Gloup is enchanting, over short rabbit-cropped turf and giving extensive views to the east. As you approach the Brough of Deerness, it takes a little working out what exactly you are looking at. The remains of settlement now lie on the top of a large rock stack standing detached from the nearby cliffs, beyond the low remnants of the narrow neck of land that once connected it to the cliffs.
Today's visitors reach the stack by descending a path leading down into the bay to its west. The direct route of descent is badly eroded, but a good by-pass has been established. From here you walk through the narrow gap between the base of the cliffs and the southern tip of the stack, then follow the path up to the top of the Brough of Deerness itself.
The first few steps of the ascent are cut from the rock and require slight scrambling, but the chain "handrail" all the way up the path makes the climb pretty straightforward.
So what exactly is the Brough of Deerness? That's a very good question that no one has yet fully answered. Some feel it started life as an iron age clifftop fortification. Some feel the focus was as a pre-Norse Christian settlement and point as evidence to a number of circular features found in the 1930s: others suspect these date back only to the use of Mull Head as a naval gunnery range in the First World War!
Excavations in the 1970s unearthed the one structure visible on the stack today, the remains of a chapel. This dates back to the pre-Norse period, but later fell into disuse. It was re-established on the same site in the Viking era, in the years around 1100, and continued in use until the 1500s and still later as a place of pilgrimage. Reasons for its abandonment are unclear. Perhaps the collapse of the neck of land providing the direct connection with the clifftop made access too difficult.
Although only the chapel can be seen today, the rest of the top of the stack is a mass of humps and bumps, all overlaid with a thick layer of tussocky grass. Trying to work out the overall patterns is fascinating: but don't get too carried way, there are places where the grass disguises the edge of the cliffs and care is necessary.
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Grid Ref: HY 596 088