Didn’t we have a loverly time, the day we went to Birsay…….

By Bernie Bell

Birsay used to be a bit of a stopping-off place, now, it’s definitely a day out, and is accumulating places of interest.

You could park up, with care, in the village, and walk to most of these. Or park in the small car park at the approach to the Brough.

Working our way through time, let’s start with the Brough, which has been there for millennia.  Before setting off to cross to the Brough, it’s worth checking the tide times which are posted on a noticeboard at the top of the steps down to the beach.  This little beach, at the bottom of the steps, is a good place to mooch about a bit. There is a concrete causeway ( slippy at times!) by which you can walk out to the Brough.  The causeway itself, is an experience – looking over the edge into the rock pools at the stones, and the life there.

The stony beach at the other end has much of interest, and deserves more attention than just stomping across it, to get to the Brough. Having reached the Brough, give yourself plenty of time to wander – to see the Viking structures, walk up to the lighthouse ( not open to the public), and look about you generally.  The site is in the care of Historic Environment Scotland, so you do have to pay to visit, in the season – outside of the season – just walk over the causeway – remembering the tides!  Folk have been cut off there and had to be rescued, and, no doubt, felt very silly for wasting the time of the rescue services.

The Brough has many links with St Magnus, as he spent his early life there, and a good description of this can be found in ‘Magnus’ by George MacKay Brown – which is a good read, anyway.

Brough of Birsay B Bell

On the Brough –  ‘Ever onward, ever upward’

Back at the car park, it’s possible to take long walks heading off to the right, but, if you have limited time, maybe go as far as Skipi Geo and back, or to the whale bone, and back


or….just………….ramble on!

The Earl’s Palace has been there for hundreds of years.  I would prefer to draw a discrete veil across the Earl’s Palace, and move straight onto lunch, but….some folk might want to visit it  – so…….The Stewart Earl’s were a set of wrong ‘uns. I visited the Earl’s Palace in Kirkwall, once – it gave me the creeps. I have never actually set foot in the Earl’s Palace at Birsay, as I should imagine something similar would happen, and, I don’t like them, so why should I visit their houses?  To say they behaved badly, doesn’t cover it. I would rather they didn’t even get the reflected glory of their palaces being seen as places of interest now, but that’s just my opinion. So – there is an Earl’s Palace in  Birsay –  it’s there, if you like that sorta thing!

This could, in fact be the point at which to head up toward the  Birsay Tea Room for lunch. On the way, just by the bridge, there is a delightful little shop selling jewellery, crystals and fine stones. There’s also the Palace Stores selling general provisions, local crafts, and is an off-licence, too!  This part of Birsay has been inhabited for hundreds of years, and some of it really hasn’t changed much, which will be apparent if you look hard at the buildings around you.

Last year there was a major project to uncover/discover as much archaeology, though the ages, in this area, as possible.

And so, on to The Birsay Bay Tearoom, which is delightful. It’s peaceful – has lovely views and lovely food. It’s perfect for when you’ve had a walk – either on the beach, along to the whalebone, or over to the Brough. The ‘High Tea’ is exceptionally good value, and delicious!  A haven.

Depending on how agile you are, it might be worth getting back into your car, to head for the Barony Mill.  For about ten years, Mike and I  had never visited The Barony Mill. I didn’t really have much interest, but Mike did. It was raining one morning, the mill is indoors, so we went along to have a look. It’s brilliant! The building itself, and it’s workings, are fascinating, and the man giving us the guided tour told us how so many sayings link with milling – the most striking it the root of the saying “Show us your metal”. It conjures up a strong, strange image. You’ll have to go there and ask to find out why!

Barony Mill 3

It’s so good to see something working these days. Really working, not at the press of a button, and every part of it depends on every other part working properly, including the Miller – much depends on the Miller’s senses – touch, smell, hearing. Today we are losing our senses as the modern world doesn’t require us to use them. Here, we step back to a time when, if you didn’t use your senses, either you lost some part to your anatomy, or what you produced simply wasn’t right. It’s a different world, and a fascinating one.
The Mill is run by the Birsay Heritage Trust, and they don’t charge for admission, but donations are very welcome and all contributions are gratefully accepted!

Then to the Birsay Antiques Centre near the big standing stone, known as the Stane O’ Quoybune or Wheelin Stane

Birsay antigues centre stone The Stane O’ Quoybune. no 7

In a way, this echoed the visit to the mill, as there’s a everything from lovely old furniture to quite gnarly old tools and implements – some of which I have no idea what they are for!  The Antiques Centre is in what was the old Birsay Village Hall. Another little bit of local history.

You can see what I mean  – folk used to just go to the Brough, and the Palace, but now there is a lot more to visit in Birsay.  In fact, it’s a day out, and a Grand day Out, too!

Marwick Head B Bell

Marwick Head from Birsay Brough car park, B Bell

Related stories: Success of Palace Village Excavations

Has the Birsay Dig Found the Bishop’s Palace?

Digging into Birsay’s Past

Coastal Survey at Birsay

Birsay old map

Buckquoy_Earls_Palace_Brough_of_Birsay_Ordinance_survey_one_inch_1912 By OS [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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10 replies »

  1. Many thanks for this evocative description of Birsay, Bernie. I stayed on the Comloquoy farm beside the palace (never went in) two consecutive summers in 1971/2. We bought eggs from old Annie in her flag-floor cottage in the village and collected mushrooms on the track beyond the village. It’s still a favourite place. The Barony Mill keeps going, the new Tea Room is friendly and delicious, and the causeway tidal pools as enchanting as ever, as are the birds. We’ll be back in my 80th year!
    Rosie from the Crook of Devon

  2. Thank you, Rosie – and what a lovely picture, you paint, too!
    Aren’t happy memories wonderful things to have? Photos help, but it’s the feel and the smell that really brings it all back.

  3. seems you had good day in Birsay , i was there last August when my mother was up to visit me in August and we went to the Brough, and it was that very stormy weekend got as far as the light house and turned and came straight back , was by that point starting to be blown off my feet by the wind. Turned out that it was not the wisest place to visit that day. Cafe was well received by my mother though.

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