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Brough of Birsay Aerial view
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The Brough of Birsay is an island lying off the north-west of Orkney Mainland and connected to it by a tidal causeway, producing a naturally fortified site. Indeed, the Old Norse name for the island was Byrgisey – the fort island

Excavations in the 1930’s and rescue excavations carried out between 1974 to 1982 have revealed a sequence of habitation beginning with a Pictish settlement, which was possible a Christian site, dating to c. 600-700AD.

Little is now visible of the Pictish settlement, with only a well and a fragment of wall remaining. In the excavations of a later Christian cemetery in1935, fragments of a Pictish symbol stone were discovered. The original stone is now in the museum in Edinburgh and a replica is displayed on site.

During the ninth century, the site was settled by the Norse. The earliest houses are on the the western slope overlooking the site. These structures, which were built directly over Pictish houses, were constructed from stone and turf, and are typical of Norse dwellings of the period 800-1000 AD.

According to the Orkneyinga Saga, Birsay was the seat of Thorfinn the Mighty (1014-1065), a powerful lord who became Earl of Orkney and controlled all of Shetland, Orkney, Caithness, Sutherland and the Hebrides.

Tradition has it that the high quality buildings running up from the south-eastern shore of the Brough relate to Thorfinn. They appear to date from the 10th and 11th centuries, but increasingly the evidence suggests that Thorfinn’s hall was at Birsay on the mainland (see: Wickham-Jones, Caroline (2012). Monuments of Orkney. Historic Scotland).

Around 1100 a church was built on the island. It consists of a rectangular nave, chancel and apse, with a stone bench around the walls of the nave.

The church is set within a rectangular churchyard, and immediately to the north of the church several buildings are grouped around what appears to be a cloister.

Although there is no documentary evidence to support it, this appears to be a small monastic establishment, probably either Benedictine, or Augustine.

Brough of Birsay: The Church
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Brough of Birsay: The possible cloister
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Brough of Birsay: The Island
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Brough of Birsay under excavation
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Brough of Birsay: Earlier Viking Age Houses
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