Newest Review: ... century Viking settlement and a 12th century monastery. The walk across the causeway is quite fun, the water is shallow and quite still,... more
A Causeway to Picts and Vikings
Brough of Birsay (Orkney)
Member Name: eilidhcatriona
Brough of Birsay (Orkney)
Advantages: The unusual access is fun, interesting ruins
Disadvantages: Not enough to justify paying entry
The Brough of Birsay is an Historic Scotland site located right on the north-west tip of the Orkney Mainland. Access is dependent on the tide, as you have to walk across a narrow causeway and can only do so for two hours either side of low tide. Tide times can be obtained from the visitor centre at Skara Brae. Entry costs are adult £3.20, child £1.90, and concession £2.70. My dad and I visited on our Orkney Explorer passes. Historic Scotland say the site is open mid-June to September, but you can access all year round. You just have to pay entry during these months.
The Brough of Birsay is a small tidal island. On the north side there is a lighthouse, but the Historic Scotland site is on the south, closest to the mainland and the end of the access causeway. The site comprises of a mixture of settlement remains, 7th and 8th century Pictish settlements, 9th century Viking settlement and a 12th century monastery.
The walk across the causeway is quite fun, the water is shallow and quite still, but we were there on a ridiculously windy day, and my mum, watching from the car back on the mainland, was convinced I was going to get blown into the sea! She chose not to come due to both the wind and accessibility: it would have been too hard a walk for her due to the slopes and rocky beach at either end of the causeway. Wheelchairs would not be able to access the Brough of Birsay.
The building remains themselves are what I would describe as low. The walls are easily definable but what remains is, on the whole, very low, only a few stones high. The most prominent building is the monastery, which still has slightly higher walls and it altar. It is surrounded by courtyard.
Closer to the sea is the remains of a Viking settlement. The walls are easy to see but the layout is harder to figure out, as of course the dwellings were all built close together against the elements. Beside this is a Pictish well, one of the few visible signs of the settlements which are now hidden under the later Viking settlements.
Further up the slope are remains of Viking buildings, which are easiest to see from the mainland. They are really just outlines in the grass, where it covers over what low walls remain.
The most prominent and recognizable object on the Brough of Birsay is the Pictish symbol stone which stands just inside the wall enclosing the monastery and what would have been the graveyard. The stone standing there now is a replica, as the original is in the Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh - I suppose it was too precious to risk the elements (or tourists) spoiling it. However, despite being a replica the stone is impressive and quite powerful, and makes you think about the people, all those centuries ago, who took the time to create it.
There is a small hut on the site which in summer is presumably where you buy tickets, and no doubt where you can purchase a guidebook or the like. This was closed on our visit.
The Brough of Birsay is interesting, but not somewhere we would have paid to go had we not had our passes. In fact, we had decided against visiting it the day before, when we had seen the island from nearby Marwick Head and thought that was enough. We only visited because we were in the area and decided to drive down and look at the island from closer, and then realised we were there shortly before the tide would allow us to cross - we thought we may as well. We only spent about 15 minutes on the island. You could walk over the hill to the lighthouse side, but it was cold and windy and we didn't want to.
If you have the Orkney Explorer pass I would suggest you aim to be in the area around low tide, because it is worth taking a wander across.
Summary: Worth a visit if you're nearby
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