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Brough Of Birsay

Site featuring Pictish and Norse power-base with Pictish well

Brough Of Birsay

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.

Events at Brough Of Birsay

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2 October 2014

John Lowrie Morrison: Westlight - Northeastlight

Duff House

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The Honours of Scotland

Edinburgh Castle

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Ring of Brodgar Guided Walk

Ring Of Brodgar Stone Circle and Henge

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