The Brough of Birsay is a tidal island off the north east tip of West Mainland. What makes it special is that for over five hundred years it was an important settlement for two different cultures, the Picts and the Norse, before being abandoned for more easily accessible sites. As it was never redeveloped, large parts of those settlements are visible on the ground.
The first thing you need to know about the Brough of Birsay is when you can visit. This has little to do with opening hours in the normal sense, though the times when the visitor centre is open are set out on the right. The Brough is tidal, and access is only possible for a couple of hours either side of low tide. The Tourist Information Centre in Kirkwall, on 01856 872856, publishes a list of tide times for the Brough for a month in advance. Or you can look online at tide predictions for Tingwall, further around the coast to the east.
The car park for the Brough of Birsay is at the Point of Buckquoy. From here a set of steps descends to the shore past an information board about the Brough. A concrete causeway, wide enough for a couple of pedestrians, zigzags out across the seaweed and rocks, before depositing you near the foot of the low rocks of the Brough itself. Make sure you have left yourself plenty time to explore the settlement and make the return journey before the tide turns the Brough into an island once more.
You approach the Brough up a steep slope that once formed a grand entrance-way into the Norse settlement at its top, as well as providing the residents with a way of dragging their boats clear of the shore in times of storm.
At the top of the entrance-way you can pause to take stock of the site. To your left is the Historic Scotland visitor centre. Higher up the hill behind the settlement are the elongated remains of early Norse houses, while to your right is a confusing jumble of paved areas and walls that represent successive waves of Norse building over the top of earlier Pictish structures.
The best place to start your exploration of the site is in the remains of the church that lie directly ahead of you. This dates back to about 1100 and was dedicated to St Peter. There is great confusion about whether Viking saga references to Birsay meant the Brough, or the nearby village of that name on the Mainland. It is tempting, though probably wrong, to think that this was the church at Birsay in which Earl Magnus, later Saint Magnus, was buried after he was killed by his cousin Håkon on the island of Egilsay on 16 April 1117. The story is told on our St Magnus Cathedral feature page.
The church is the only really identifiable building remaining on the site: the only one you can stand in rather than on. The church is also interesting for its shape. Though very small it is of Romanesque design. It probably had a square tower at one end, and a semi-circular apse at the other, very reminiscent of that at the Church at Orphir. Enough of the church is standing to reveal a wall cupboard on one side, and parts of two windows complete with evidence that they may have been glazed.
It is debatable whether there is evidence of an even earlier church on almost the same spot, but the remains of a cloister to the north of the church do suggest there was probably a monastery here, most likely built in the later 1100s. However, with the completion of St Magnus Cathedral this may only have been in use for a short time. Although little of St Peter's Church remains today, it was still a place of pilgrimage in the middle ages.
The Brough of Birsay's original residents were the Picts, who lived here in the 600s and 700s. Today the most obvious evidence of them is in the (cast replacement) symbol stone in the graveyard. Much of the rest of their settlement was overbuilt by the Vikings. Nothing is known about whether the Norse displaced the Picts slowly and by assimilation, or quickly and by the sword. Either way, much of what is on view today on the Brough dates back to the Norse settlement from the early 800s to the 1200s. Development over time makes for further confusion, and the picture is not helped by coastal erosion, which probably means that a large part of the original settlement has been lost to the sea.
But there are still surprises in store. One building has been identified as a possible sauna and bathhouse, probably associated with what might be an Earl's house next door to it. Another area of slabbed flooring shows clear signs of the drain running underneath. And if time and tide permit and the weather is good, you could do worse than finishing your trip to the Brough of Birsay with a walk up to the unmanned lighthouse built in 1925. The views from its eyrie, 150ft above the Atlantic, are superb.