The gaunt remains of the residence of Robert Stewart, Earl of Orkney, was constructed in the late 16th-century round a courtyard.Palace of the earls of Orkney
This fine courtyard castle was built between 1569 and 1574 by Robert Stewart, half-brother to Mary Queen of Scots. When Mary’s son, James VI, created him Earl of Orkney, Lord of Shetland and Knight of Birsay in 1581, the castle became his principal country residence in Orkney.
After his death in 1593, his son Earl Patrick succeeded. Patrick added a new range along the north side of the courtyard and rearranged the layout of the accommodation.
The overthrow of the Stewart earls in 1615 effectively ended the story of the Earl’s Palace, Birsay. An inventory drawn up in 1653 by Cromwell’s troops, then stationed here, suggests neglect had already set in. By 1700 the palace was roofless and decaying.
A tale of two tyrants
Robert Stewart was the illegitimate son of James V by his mistress Euphemia Elphinstone. In 1564, he was granted the royal and earldom estates of Orkney and Shetland. He moved north and built a new residence at Birsay, the Earl’s Palace.
Over the front door he placed an inscription (now lost): ‘ROBERTUS STEUARDUS FILIUS JACOBI 5ti REX SCOTORUM HOC AEDIFICIUM INSTRUXIT’ (‘Robert Stewart, son of James V, King of Scotland, commissioned this building’). The use of ‘rex’ rather than ‘regis’ made it appear that the king was Robert himself, not his father, and was technically treason. It may have been intentional, for Robert ruled his new domain as if he were its king.
The islanders complained bitterly about the harshness of Robert’s regime. He was imprisoned for a time, but he returned in 1578 and continued where he left off.
In 1593, he was succeeded by his son, Patrick, who proved even more tyrannical. The islanders knew him as ‘Black Patie’. His reign of terror ended with his arrest in 1609, but his son, Robert, attempted to cling on to power.
In 1614, the younger Robert recaptured his father’s palace and beat off an attempt by the sheriff of Kirkwall to retake it. He then marched on Kirkwall itself, seizing his father’s erstwhile haunt there, the <Earl’s Palace>. He too was eventually captured. Robert and Patrick were executed within a month of each other in early 1615.
A residence fit for an earl
The Earl’s Palace was a fine residence in its day. The complex was entered via an elaborate entrance at the south. Ranged around the central rectangular courtyard were four ranges of buildings, each of two storeys, while three-storey towers projected from the corners.
The ground-floor rooms were service rooms (kitchen, stores, etc) while the upper floors were reserved for the earl. These comprised two halls, numerous chambers and a long gallery
The building cannot have been completely dilapidated by 1701, when the Rev John Brand described the rooms as, ‘prettily decored, the Ceiling being all Painted … with schemes holding forth Scripture-Histories, as Noah’s Floud, Christ’s riding to Jerusalem, &c’.
However, doubt is cast on Earl Patrick’s piety by the story that his execution had to be delayed while he learned to recite the Lord’s Prayer!
- Its location – dominating the small village of Birsay.
- Its completeness – minus its roofs but still largely intact.
- Its gunholes – in every wall at ground level. Clearly the earls were anticipating trouble.
Region – Orkney
In Birsay on the A966.
Grid reference - HY 248 277.
Tel: 01856 721205 or 01856 841815 (Skara Brae).