I am thoroughly sick of Sir Walter bloody Scott. His novels fall into my period of literary expertise, and I appreciate his significance from this perspective, but as I travel about Scotland, I do get incredibly irritated by his ubiquity. Everywhere you go, Scott has been and stamped his mark, and so many ‘Scottish’ things, people, and places are now entangled with his obfuscating legacy. You can’t even escape him in Shetland! Sometimes the meanings he managed to impose on our national landscape amount to crude acts of historical containment – and this certainly seems to be the case with ‘Jarlshof’ – the name Scott gave to the ruin of Black Patie’s Sumburgh residence when he visited Shetland in 1814, and which is now associated with the incredible remains which were first uncovered there in 1897. I have no idea what experts in Scottish prehistory and archeology think about this issue, but it seems to me that ‘Jarlshof’ – a nineteenth-century name which suggests the seat of a Norse earl – is a very misleading moniker for a site around which ordinary people lived and worked for thousands of years before the Vikings got there, let alone the Stewart lairds. ‘Jarlshof’ is such a complex and wondrous place, but its name suggests neither that wonder or complexity. Here endeth the Scott-associated rant.

If you are visiting, and are, like me, an archeological ignoramus, then I highly recommend the brilliant audio tour. However, please listen very carefully when instructed to pass ‘through a low doorway’. Mel and I clearly weren’t paying enough attention, and made our way into the wheelhouse through this, um, hole.

In my case this involved a drawn-out and undignified scramble on my hands and knees. (Post-stroke crawling around archeological remains may look amusing, but is not easy). Once we were actually inside the wheelhouse, we discovered another “low doorway” of perfectly ordinary human proportions. DOH!

Unorthodox crawling notwithstanding, it is fair to say that I was blown away by ‘Jarlshof’. Is there anywhere else that allows you to experience domestic environments from the Bronze Age to the Seventeenth Century in such a direct way? Layers of history are uncovered as you move through the oval-shaped domestic remains of the bronze age, to an iron age broch, spectacular wheelhouse, viking longhouse, medieval croft dwelling, and, finally, the seventeenth century remains left by the ruthless Stewarts. I became rather fixated on the trough querns which litter the early part of the site.

When one remembers that Scottish millers were legally enabled to break the quernstones of those defying thirlage agreements, the humble quern can seem quite a powerful symbol of domestic independence.

One thinks of the centuries-old labour of grinding grain . . .

. . . of hearths and fires and the basic acts of baking and breaking bread . . .

. . .of other hands, and other lives . . .

Mel thinks I have a quern problem . . .

. . . I couldn’t possibly comment.

After being at Vindolanda a couple of weekends ago, I was struck by how far technological ‘progress’ in the ancient world seems to be represented by lines and corners. The Romans were clearly all about right angles. Everything on the early parts of the site of Jarlshof is round, and when my untrained eye compared the remains of the Pictish and the Viking settlements, it seemed that the slow domestic transition from one to the other was simply accomplished through the introduction of straight lines.

Though one can sometimes miss the bigger picture of all these lines and corners when one’s photographic eye becomes distracted by the unruly pattern of daisies among the stones of the longhouse.

. . .or the crazy, hairy walls of the broch . . .

. . .or gold lichen on red sandstone . . .

. . .or querns.

37 thoughts on “querns and corners

  1. Your comments on the politics of quern-ownership are fascinating, and the images are lovely. I’ve been reading a bit lately about grinding grain as a domestic task, via Rachel Laudan’s blog – she’s an historian of food and food technology. She spells out exactly how gruelling this labour (almost always women’s work) is/was here: http://www.rachellaudan.com/2010/06/fueling-mexico-city-a-grain-revolution.html. She talks here about her research on corn-grinding in Mexico (with some notes that make it clear that any society where the diet relied on grain required similar amounts of labour):

    > Depending on how good you are, it takes somewhere between fifty minutes and an hour to do enough maize for tortillas for one person. That means for a family of five someone is going to be spending four or five hours a day doing nothing but grind. It’s very exhausting, grinding… It is a very, very time-consuming thing. It’s terrible for the individual: arthritis, bad knees, no time to spend with the children, and no opportunity to go to school. It’s also, obviously, not a great thing for the society if you’ve got one fifth of your adults doing nothing but grinding.


  2. Beautiful photos and writing… as always. I can see how it would be very easy indeed to develop a quern problem – they’re lovely!


  3. Not only do you educate us on geography, entice us with knitting designs, wow us with photography, you also give us great Scrabble words.

    The querns are fascinating! And gold lichen…! Who knew…?

    Lovely, lovely, lovely!


  4. Bah, give me circles over corners any time!

    Literally EVERY time I read your blog, I think ‘man, I have to go to Scotland.’ You are n excellent ambassador. They should reimburse you in yarn.


  5. What an interesting essay, with really wonderful photos. I particularly like the broch in its woolly jumper! I haven’t been to Jarlshof (yet) but am reminded of the Brough of Birsay in Orkney, another thought-provoking example of layer upon layer of settlement, culminating in, yes, the Stewart earls. As for Scott, I do take your point: he was the creator I suppose of the romantic, wrong-headed, Balmorality view of Scotland and his reinventions lie a little heavy on the land in places. On the whole, though, I think his heart was in the right place. And I loved ‘Waverley’.


  6. Ten years ago I went on holiday with my mother to Scotland, and managed to convince her (after an exceedingly large effort) to go to the Orkneys. No amount of effort could get her to go as far as Shetland and I knew I was missing out on something. Apparently it was querns, a word that I now cannot stop saying. Thank you for the wonderful photos which confirm I was indeed missing out. I will have to try again.


  7. Kate , your photography is perhaps your greatest talent, among very great talents. You project this fascinating quality of the simplest things. That is what I love most. Lichen, stones, wool, knit sweaters, dark sky and bald mountains, trails. It just doesn’t get any better than that when it comes from your lens.


  8. I’m so glad someone else has developed a Quern Problem… I was at Jarlshof recently and managed to sneak querns into almost every shot (but at least I have the excuse of being an archaeologist, well, having been one before I gave it up in search of a living wage). Even so my friends thought I was weird. No comment.

    Have you thought about the labour of using those querns, though? You have to grind a lot to get enough for a loaf. And the small particles of stone inevitably included would wear down your teeth quickly. Plus even worse RSI than you get from knitting too much.


  9. Wonderful photos! The light must be perfect. When we went to the iron age setlement on Orkney a few years ago, we had to look at it from a distance, no walking around it, so it seems you’re very fortunate to be able to actually walk in amongst the Shetland ruins, fabulous! Your jumper you’re modelling is beautiful, I’m so looking forward to the pattern being published. Vanessa x


  10. You say some very amusing/funny things Kate.
    I luv those little daisies in that landscape. and the very interesting history of the area. This came to mind when you spoke of those long ago people:
    “The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness” – quote from Vladimir.


  11. “When one remembers that Scottish millers were legally enabled to break the quernstones of those defying thirlage agreements, the humble quern can seem quite a powerful symbol of domestic independence”

    Can you give some background to this? While I know a fair bit about history for a non-scholar, this eluded me. And I know from your writing that you’ll do a clear job of making it significant to me.


  12. Hooray! A wonderful new word for the day: thirlage. An interesting concept as well….

    Another name for quern is metate (the bowl shaped stone that holds the grain). The handstone for a metate is called a mano. From what I can tell, these are New World names. Different places, different names, same basic need.


  13. Thanks for the beautiful posts on Shetland, I haven’t made it there (yet), but have got as far as Orkney with the wonderful Skara Brae and Maes Howe (where the door and passageway are exactly that low). I think I would have a quern (and isn’t it a great word?) “problem”, too! Early domestic life is fascinating.


  14. Wonderful photographs, thank you. They remind me so strongly of the afternoon I spent at Jarlshof 15 years ago. I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere else that had such a magical feel to it, nor to an historic site that was so quite and peacful (if you ignore the planes and helicopters landing at the nearby airport!) It’s a truly amazing place.


  15. Is that sweater Mel is wearing a Warriston? I’m looking forward to the pattern – I have lots of pale grey Welsh yarn to be made into something just like this.


  16. Now I don’t mind admitting that I have never read any of his books (having grown up watching the BBC versions!). Fabulous photos …… so what if you have a quern problem – I go into rhapsodies over pillar and post boxes!!


  17. I am obsessed with bricks, bread and wool, so I totally get the Quern obsession. I love their roundy shapes, work-worn and softened by years of labour and weather. Thanks for sharing them with us!


  18. the daisies on the old stones which hold so many secrets of life and death are very very touching.
    here are the sore eye poppies at ground zero:
    Sore Eye Poppies at Ground Zero: Trinity Site


  19. I am so enjoying your visit to Shetland – great photos and fascinating history. I have been around similar sites in North Wales and the connection to our very ancient past is almost palpable. Thank you for letting us all join in.


  20. I am REALLY enjoying your photos and comments from Shetland. Jarlshof stuck in my mind because on the day we visited it was windy and wet. Yet in the dwellings with thier querns it was dry and snug and the sound of the wind and waves completely disappeared. It made me realise how sophisticated and comfort loving the people were who had constructed them. Technology has changed but not human nature!


  21. Ancient history is fascinating! Particularly when you come from a non-history place like NZ. I’m struck by how those querns have just sat there for hundreds of years, unmoved. Thank you for sharing your adventures.


  22. Well, I LIKE “Jarlshof” because it makes me feel all gooey and Scandinavian whenever I see it on a map or in a newspaper. You can take the Scandinavian out of Scandinavia, but that misplaced Viking pride stays strong.


  23. Holala wonderful!! Makes me want to buy a plane ticket right now!! Hoho thank you so much for the little “escape”!!! Really interesting, really beautiful… as you usually do!


  24. I’m reading “Waverley” at the moment and not particularly loving it. I don’t think I’m going to get through it, actually – Sir Walter is in no hurry to get to his point, is he? I was spoiled by “Ivanhoe”, a favourite…”Waverley” is a disappointment so far (which is quite far – I’m well into the 200s, page-wise).

    I love querns too. It’s a bit like a drop spindle – representing the ritual and relentlessness of domestic tasks through the ages.


  25. If I bother to look up words I don’t understand, I can increase my English vocabulary by reading your blog :-)
    Today’s word is “obfuscating”. And quern – which I could understand without looking it up, it’s the same in Norwegian, only we spell it “kvern”.


  26. So very interesting. I am struck by how much these photos resemble the ruins of the American Southwest – down to the grinding stones. Actually, I think it was that tiny “doorway” that particularly reminded me. In any case, I think it says a lot about the universal need for food and shelter that the solutions are so similar. Your photos and words are beautiful.


  27. Wow, your photography is incredible! I’d come back to your blog to look again at your beautiful flowers, and I am thoroughly spoilt by another post! Marvellous!
    Mel looks lovely in her Warriston, and I’m hazarding a guess that it was you that took the fabulous pictures of it which I ‘favourited’ earlier on Ravelry :-)

    Thank you for the beautiful pictures. The grass looks so verdant and velvety that I want to stroke it.


  28. What wonderful photography! Thank you for sharing your Shetland visit – I’m loving every post! Can’t wait to go there someday…


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