Rousay is the most distinctive of Orkney's north isles. It differs from the rest in its topography, which is distinctly hilly, rising to a maximum of 250m at Blotchnie Fold overlooking the island's south coast. It also differs in being, with its smaller neighbours Egilsay and Wyre, accessed by ferry from Tingwall on West Mainland rather than from Kirkwall.
Rousay measures roughly five miles by five and much of the interior is hilly moorland, with farming confined to the coastal margin. One road, single track in places, takes a circular route of about 13 miles around the island.
The ferry from Tingwall lands at Trumland Pier, Rousay's only settlement of any significance. Here you find the excellent Trumland Visitor Centre, which also doubles as the ferry waiting room. Overlooking the pier is the Pier Restaurant and Bar, offering good food to keep you going during your exploration of the island.
A little inland from the pier is Trumland House, completed in 1873 for the laird of the day, Lt General Sir Frederick William Traill Burroughs, a man who made his name and fortune soldiering in India before retiring to become a notorious landlord on Orkney.
His efforts to continue the clearance of the island started by his uncle in the early 1800s attracted the attention of the national newspapers and ended with direct government intervention on behalf of the crofters.
The story of Trumland House since 1873 has largely driven the story of the island over the period. It was in part the cost of the house, which ended up as £10,374 instead of the £3,000 promised by the architect, which caused Burroughs to try to increase his earnings from his estates. And it was the construction of a viewing platform on a nearby hillock which led to the discovery of the Taversoe Tuick Cairn.
It was a more enlightened later resident of Trumland House, Walter Grant, who funded a great deal of archeological work across Rousay in the 1930s. This helped reveal the many ancient tombs that have led to Rousay being christened "the Egypt of the north".
Many of Rousay's other attractions are associated with the ancient legacy that Walter Grant helped uncover, and most are found close to the encircling road as it runs along the south side of the island. The Blackhammer, Knowe of Yarso and Taversoe Tuick Cairns are well worth visiting.
A little further west, on the stretch of coast looking south-west to the sacred and deserted island of Eynhallow, is the Westness Walk, which has been described as the most important archaeological mile in Scotland. This includes the spectacular Midhowe Broch, probably the best in Scotland south of Shetland; while nearby is the stone hangar-like building protecting the vast Midhowe Stalled Cairn. Traces of two other brochs lie nearby, while a little to the south-east are the remains of St Mary's Church; of farmsteads; of a major Norse settlement; and of Pictish and Viking graves.
It should be noted that the parking for the Midhowe Tomb and Broch is next to the road at a height of about 100m, and that the walk between attractions (except for those at Midhowe itself) is over rough coastal grassland. Good footwear is recommended, and you need to remember the 100m climb back to the car when working out how much to see.
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