The Brough of Birsay features the remains of a busy complex of Pictish, Norse and later settlements around Birsay Bay.
Among the highlights at the Brough of Birsay is an unusual Pictish symbol stone, while the Viking houses provide a unique insight into the life of the Vikings. A small visitor centre contains some early sculptures and interesting Viking artefacts.
You can visit the Brough of Birsay between mid-June and the end of September.
A settlement of Picts and Vikings
A tidal island off the north coast of the Orkney mainland, the Brough of Birsay was intensively settled from the 7th to the 13th centuries AD. The physical remains comprise a 9th-century Viking-Age settlement and 12th-century monastery, together with traces of an earlier Pictish settlement of the 7th and 8th centuries. The buildings and artefacts discovered make the brough one of the most important, and attractive, monuments in Scotland.
The words ‘brough’ and ‘birsay’ both derive from the Old Norse borg (‘fort’), but their meanings are slightly different. ‘Brough’ refers to the naturally defensive qualities of the island, whereas ‘birsay’ (byrgisey) means an island accessible only by a narrow neck of land.
A Pictish settlement
Excavations showed that the island was occupied in the late 7th century by Picts, Scotland’s oldest indigenous people. Today the most tangible sign of their presence is the symbol stone inside the graveyard. (The stone is a cast; the original is in the Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh.) The stone bears four typical Pictish symbols (‘mirror case’, ‘crescent and V-rod’, ‘swimming elephant’ and ‘eagle’) above an unusual scene featuring three armed men.
Traces of Pictish buildings were also discovered beneath the later Viking houses. However, the only feature visible today is a well on the east side of the churchyard. Evidence for metalworking was found nearby. The high-quality objects included brooches and rings, bone combs and dress pins.
A Viking settlement
Vikings from Norway settled on the brough in the early 9th century. The remains of their houses and barns can still be seen. The settlement developed over the next three centuries, and the process of building and rebuilding has left a complicated maze of walls, one on top of the other, in the area between the later churchyard and the sea. Individual rooms of 10th-century houses are recognisable, together with an 11th-century sauna and part of a house with under-floor heating. Nearby are remains of a smithy.
A Viking monastery
The final phase saw the building of a small monastery. This consisted of a church in Romanesque style, with stone benches down the side walls of the nave and alcoves for altars on either side of the entrance into the chancel. A small cloister housing the domestic buildings was built on its north side.
The monastery may have been established by Thorfinn ‘the Mighty’, Earl of Orkney, whom the Orkneyinga Saga relates ‘had his permanent residence at Birsay’ in the mid-11th century. (His residence was probably in Birsay, on Mainland Orkney.) The body of Thorfinn’s grandson, St Magnus, was held at Birsay following his murder in 1117. The island monastery was possibly short-lived, for Birsay was eclipsed later that same century when St Magnus’s relics were removed to Kirkwall and placed in the new St Magnus’s Cathedral.
Very occasionally the property has to close at short notice due to adverse weather conditions or other reasons out with our control. Please check the Historic Scotland closures page for any unexpected site closures www.historic-scotland.gov.uk/hsclosure. You can also follow closure tweets from @welovehistory using #hsclosure. Alternatively please call the site before setting off to check they are open.
ORKNEY EXPLORER PASS:
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Places to Visit:
Visit the 5,000 year old village of Skara Brae and see what life was like in the Stone Age.
This world famous Maeshowe was built before 2700BC. The large mound covers a stone built passage and a burial chamber with cells in the walls. Timed tours now operate, please call in advance to book on 01856 761 606
The Bishop’s Palace is a 12th-century hall-house in Kirkwall. The notorious Patrick Stewart, Earl of Orkney, built the adjacent Earl’s Palace between 1600 and 1607.
Surrounded by a warren of Iron Age buildings, the Broch of Gurness probably dates to the 1st century AD.
The Brough of Birsay is a Pictish and Norse powerbase with well, replica carvings, ruins of Norse homes and 12th century church.
Hackness Martello Tower & Battery is one of a pair of towers built between 1813 and 1815 to provide defence against French and American privateers for British convoys assembling in the sound of Longhope.
Due to the number of sites closed over the winter period it is not advisable to buy the Orkney Pass for use between October & March.