Birsay

Orkney, Scotland. Day 24 , 22nd July.

From the Brough of Deerness I headed to the Brough of Birsay on the other side of the island.

The Brough of Birsay is a tidal island that you access via a concrete causeway provided the tide is not too high.  It includes a remarkable array of ruins, often with one era building on top of the other.  There are traces of a Pictish settlement from the 7th and 8th centuries, remains of a Viking age settlement and the remains of a church and monastery from the twelfth century.

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Archaeology, Architecture, Birsay, Brough of Birsay, History, Landscape, Orkney, Photography, Scotland, Travel

This is the remains of Viking houses and barns of the ninth or tenth centuries.   The walls would originally have risen to around two metres, with wooden roof and supports, covered in turf and with no windows.

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Archaeology, Architecture, Birsay, Brough of Birsay, Earl's Palace Birsay, History, Landscape, Orkney, Photography, Scotland, Travel

The structure in the left distance was a twelfth-century Romanesque church and the round part is the Apse.  It was influenced by international styles in design notwithstanding its remoteness and antiquity.  In the foreground are the remains of later Norse houses, mainly of the tenth century though built on top of earlier houses.

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Archaeology, Architecture, Birsay, Brough of Birsay, Earl's Palace Birsay, History, Landscape, Orkney, Photography, Scotland, Travel

This is thought to be the remains of a Sauna and is a small stone building from the eleventh century.  The upright slabs inside the wall supported seats along the walls.  Stones may have been heated in a brazier, then doused with water to produce the steam.  Perhaps they timed its use with high tide so they could then plunge into the sea.

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Archaeology, Architecture, Birsay, Brough of Birsay, Earl's Palace Birsay, History, Landscape, Orkney, Photography, Scotland, Travel

Looking east at Mainland and the coast, past later Norse dwellings.  This may be the dwelling from the eleventh century with ducts for underground heating.

In the distance on the right, behind the Scottish flag, on Mainland, is the Village of Birsay.

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Archaeology, Architecture, Birsay, Earl's Palace Birsay, History, Landscape, Orkney, Photography, Scotland, Travel

Here are the remains of the Earl’s Palace from the sixteenth century, at the Village of Birsay.

The Orkeyinga Saga, written around 1200, tells of Earl Thorfinn having his permanent residence at Birsay.  This is more likely to be on Mainland near the village than on the Brough of Birsay.  Excavations near the Palace at the mouth of a burn have uncovered a tenth-century Norse hall, which may have been the home of the Norse Earls of Orkney.  Orkney was effectively an independent state at the time of Thorfinn and the language was the Viking tongue Norn, also spoken in Shetland.  It was widely spoken until the eighteenth century and survives today in many words in the local dialect.

The Earl’s Palace was therefore probably built here as a continuation of a tradition dating back to Viking times.

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Archaeology, Architecture, Birsay, Earl's Palace Birsay, History, Landscape, Orkney, Photography, Scotland, Travel

The Earl’s Palace of Birsay was built by Robert Stewart, Earl of Orkney, between 1569 and 1574.  Robert was an illegitimate son of James V and half brother of Mary Queen of Scots.  Mary had created a Dukedom of Orkney for her later husband Bothwell in 1567 but they were overthrown later the same year.  Her son James VI (later James I of England) recreated the Earldom and granted it to Robert in 1581.  Robert developed a reputation for brutality that was surpassed only by his son Patrick and died in 1593.  His son built his own Palace in Kirkwall and the Palace in Birsay fell into disrepair after 1700.

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Archaeology, Architecture, Birsay, Earl's Palace Birsay, History, Landscape, Orkney, Photography, Scotland, Travel

The palace was built around three sides of a courtyard, with a wall enclosing the north side.  There were towers on three or perhaps four of the corners and we are looking at one of those.  It was as much a fortress as a residence, with large windows only on the upper levels and small openings and gun holes on the ground level floors.  The grandeur of the Palace was a direct cause of the Earl’s unpopularity because to build it he raised taxes, confiscated land and manipulated the legal system to his own advantage.

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Archaeology, Architecture, Birsay, Earl's Palace Birsay, History, Landscape, Orkney, Photography, Scotland, Travel .

Archaeology, Architecture, Birsay, Earl's Palace Birsay, History, Landscape, Orkney, Photography, Scotland, Travel

From a noticeboard at the site, this is a representation of the West Gallery, a sparsely furnished long room that was a meeting place.  It became fashionable to hang paintings in such rooms, which is where our current term “gallery” derives from.

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Archaeology, Architecture, Birsay, Earl's Palace Birsay, History, Landscape, Orkney, Photography, Scotland, Travel

This is the West Gallery as it appears today.

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A short distance south of Birsay, at Marwick Head, is a memorial to Lord Kitchener, he of the famous handlebar moustache on the First World War recruiting poster, also known as Kitchener of Khartoum after winning the Battle of Omdurman and retaking the Sudan in 1898.  He was Secretary of State for War in 1916, enroute to a diplomatic mission in Russia, when his ship went down nearby here after it hit a mine.  Almost all on board drowned, including Kitchener.

4 comments on “Birsay

  1. Vicki says:

    What an amazing set of ruins.
    Thanks for sharing.

    Like

  2. […] encountered Earl Robert Stewart, bastard half-brother of Mary Queen of Scots in the post on Birsay and his son Earl Patrick Stewart in the post on Earl’s Palace, Kirkwall.  Scalloway Castle […]

    Like

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