Location: Birsay, Orkney, Scotland
directed from Spence Family History
Birsay, The West Mainland
BIRSAY The Vikings called the whole area of Birsay and Harray “Byrgisherad” from ON Byrgisey - island of the enclosure or rampart and Herad - district. Birsay was important in Viking times and was a favourite residence of the Earls as well as the first seat of the Bishop, who only moved to Kirkwall during the building of St. Magnus Cathedral. Earl Thorfinn the Mighty (Earl 1014-1064) lived here and in the latter part of his colourful time as Earl, he built Orkney’s first cathedral, Christchurch, at Birsay for his new Bishop. The Brough of Birsay is a very attractive grassy island off the north-west corner of the Mainland. This tidal island has a lighthouse, which was built in 1925, above low cliffs on the seaward side. Puffins breed in rabbit burrows along the top of these cliffs. This is one of the very few places on the Mainland where Puffins can be seen. The Brough is also a good place for sea watching for migrating seabirds and cetaceans. Killer, Minke and Pilot whales may be seen from here. The island is only accessible when the tide is out. The concrete path that leads across the rocks can be very slippery. The island was an important settlement long before the Vikings arrived with the earliest settlement being in the late 6th century by Celtic people who may have been Christians. A broken symbol stone with the figures of three warriors and other Pictish symbols was found here, as well as a smaller stone with a small cross. A replica of the symbol stone is on the site and it seems that the Brough was the home of an important Pictish leader in the 7th or 8th century. The only Pictish structure visible is the small well east of the church wall. However, excavations have revealed many Pictish artifacts. Bronze casting was an important activity and many moulds, crucibles, pieces of bronze and fragments of class were found around the well. On some moulds the design of the piece to be cast could be seen, confirming that the designs were Pictish. Bone pins and combs of Pictish type were found, as well as a possibly 5th century penannular broch and lead disc with an inscribed trumpet pattern spiral. Together with the impressive symbol stone, the artifacts suggest that skilled Pictish craftsmen were at work on the Brough for several centuries before the Vikings arrived. Most of the structures visible on the Brough today are Viking and date from the 9th to the 13th centuries when this was the site of an important Norse settlement. Considerable coastal erosion has taken place and thus many structures may have been destroyed. In addition several excavations have been done over the years and not published, further confusing interpretation of the site. The small Romanesque church dates from the early 12th century and is surrounded by the remains of other buildings. Foundations and walling beneath this church may be of Pictish origin. Farther up the slope are the foundations of several Norse longhouses which are up to 20m long as well as smaller outhouses and various other walls. Some of these may well have been byres, but presumably most cattle would have been kept on the Mainland. On the east side of the church lie extensive domestic buildings, which may be “Earl Thorfinn’s Palace”, complete with bath-house and central heating system. Again it seems more likely that this was on the Mainland, perhaps under the side of the present Palace. The earlier Norse level contained both Norse and Pictish artifacts and lies beneath the later Norse structures now seen. The earlier Norse buildings seem to be better built than the later ones, but since no detailed report exists, it is hard to understand the sequence of the site. To the north of the church are ruins which are very similar to the ruins of the Bishop’s Palace at Gardar in Greenland. By analogy they may thus be the Bishop’s residence in Birsay. The top part of what may be a Viking slipway for hauling boats lies at the edge of the cliff and this clearly shows how much erosion has occurred over the years. This has also been interpreted as the entrance to the monastic site. Point of Buckquoy. On the Mainland side, several Pictish and Norse houses have been excavated at the Point of Buckquoy. Dating from the 7th century onwards, both Pictish and Norse artifacts were found there, more evidence that the Norse take-over was a continuum rather than a sudden event. The Pictish finds include a spindle-whorl with an Ogam inscription, a white stone with brown spots, which may originally have been red (a magic stone?), pins and combs. The houses were revealed in the face of the banks by a storm and the earlier ones resembled the Pictish house at Gurness, while the later, more rectangular ones were early Norse. Excavations at Beachview, Saevar Howe and near St Magnus Church have revealed more Norse building, Pictish and Norse burials as well as evidence of Neolithic habitation, further emphasizing the importance of the area over a long period. The Earl’s Palace, built by the notorious Earl Robert Stewart in the late 16th century, though now a gaunt ruin, was described in 1633 as “a sumptuous and stately dwelling”. Consisting of four wings around a courtyard, with three towers, the building was two-storeys, except for one lower tower. Many gun-loops are evident and there is a well in the courtyard. A 17th century drawing shows an armorial panel with the date 1574 and REO for Robert Earl of Orkney. Controversy exists over the site of Earl Thorfinn's Christchurch. While it may be the small church on the Brough, which is dedicated to St Peter, local tradition suggests that it was in Birsay Village, possibly on the same site as today’s church, St Magnus. This church was built in 1760, but replaced a cruciform church built in 1664. In turn the latter most probably was a replacement or refurbishment of an earlier church. During recent repairs, evidence of a previous structure was found in the foundations and the suggestion is that the 11th century church may have been in this area. A stone built into the wall of a house adjoining the graveyard fits with one of the lintels of the church to read “Mons Bellus” - the name of the Bishop’s residence - a tantalizing piece of evidence. Walks, cliffs and beaches. The shore around Birsay is very interesting. The rock pools at low tide are full of marine life, with many invertebrates and species of seaweed. “Groatie Buckies” (Cowrie shells, so-called because they are common at John O’Groats) may be found by the sharp-sighted in the rough shell sand, along with many other types of shell deposited by the rough seas of winter. Those interested in fossil plants should examine some of the large boulders on the Brough side. Apart from the Brough itself, there are several very pleasant walks in the same area. These include the path from the Point of Buckquoy, to the whalebone at Skipi Geo (restored fisherman’s hut enroute) from where there is a panoramic view to the Brough, Westray and Rousay. Skipi Geo is dramatic on a rough day. Continuing along the shore to Whitealoo Point, there is the narrow Langalebe Geo. There are many caves in this piece of exposed coast. Also from Buckquoy, the walk south past The Palace and along the links past Point of Snusan and Saevar Howe is very pleasant. There is a good view of the Brough and Birsay Bay from Garson. The walk can continue along the cliffs all the way to Marwick Head and beyond. The walk from Birsay to Stromness is a marvelous experience, and much recommended for the fit. Also for the more energetic are the dramatic cliffs at Costa Head and the odd-shaped rock stack nearby, The Standard, where Puffins may be seen in the breeding season. From the top of Costa Hill (151m) there is an excellent view to the North Isles. Agricultural past. Birsay is often described as the “Garden of Orkney”, and has long been famous for its oats and barley. Boardhouse Mill is the only large watermill still in working order in Orkney. The last in a long series of mills on this site, the power source is the outflow of Boardhouse Loch. Beremeal was made here from the traditional four-rowed barley, which is still grown in Orkney and was also previously used to make Highland Park whisky. The old farm at Kirbuster is part of the Orkney Museum Service, and is well worth a visit to see the last surviving Orkney version of a “black-house”, lived in until the early 1960s. This type of house had no chimney. Instead there was a “fire-back” in the middle of the room, and a hole in the roof, or liora (from ON ljos - light), to let the smoke out, and the light in, while a skylin board (from ON skyla to shelter) helped to remove the smoke. There is an interesting collection of farm machinery, domestic artifacts, a restored Victorian garden, sheep and poultry. Marwick Head is one of three bird-cliffs which are RSPB reserves. A visit here in early summer is unforgettable. Many thousands of Guillemots, Razorbills, Kittiwakes and Fulmars, as well as a few Rock Doves, Puffins, and if you are lucky, a Peregrine, rear their young on the ledges. The sense of smell and hearing will be well stimulated! The cliff-tops are carpeted with Thrift and other flowers.
The cliffs are topped by the imposing Kitchener Memorial, erected after the First World War to commemorate Lord Kitchener and the crew of H.M.S. Hampshire (11,000tn.), which was sunk off here on June 5,1916 with the loss of all but 12 of her company. Kitchener, the Minister of War, was on his way to Russia to confer with the Czar’s government. A few years ago a salvage ship lifted some artifacts from H.M.S. Hampshire. After some dispute most have ended up at the Lyness Museum, while a small gun is mounted below Marwick Head. The divers confirmed that the ship was most likely sunk by mines, laid by the German submarine, U75. The Hampshire took the unusual westerly route due to the weather, which had also prevented minesweeping operations for several days. She left Scapa Flow at 17:00 on the fateful day, during unseasonable bad weather and headed straight into a mountainous sea, only to meet her doom shortly afterwards. Minesweeping had also been interrupted by the Battle of Jutland. The Hampshire Lounge at the Barony Hotel commemorates the event and has a panoramic view over the Brough and the Loch of Boardhouse. Extensive use of local produce is made by the excellent menu. The hotel also has boats which can be hired to fish on the Loch. Marwick Bay has a large tidal lagoon, or choin, at low tide. There are restored fishermen's huts at Sand Geo and the walk south to the Bay of Skaill along low grassy cliffs is easy going. This is another good place for Puffins, while in summer the wild flowers and lichens form a carpet of colour. The major RSPB Birsay Moors Reserve covers large parts of the Birsay and Evie Hill. There is good pedestrian access by peat-roads and keen bird-watchers will, in particular, be likely to see Hen Harriers and other moorland species. Great care should be taken to avoid disturbance of nests during the breeding season. A good viewing point is from the layby near the farm of Howally. Another RSPB Reserve is at the Loons, where a hide provides an excellent opportunity to see a variety of species. The Loons is a large expanse of marsh with areas of water and much cover for breeding and visiting wildfowl and waders. Access is not allowed, but excellent views can be had from the hide and other vantage points on the public road. This is one of the few places where the rare Pintail is regularly seen close-up. Breeding waterfowl and waders may be seen on all three lochs, as well as migrants and wintering species. Boardhouse is host to many Pochard in winter, while Goldeneye seem to prefer Swannay. There are several good car viewpoints, perhaps the best during the breeding season being at the south-west end of the Loch of Hundland, where Pintail can sometimes be seen. Crafts. Kevin and Elizabeth Allen of Orkneyinga Silversmiths at Holland Cottage, Marwick handcraft their original designs.
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