Brough of Birsay

The Brough of Birsay is a tidal isalnd off the north-west coast of mainland Orkeny, which is only accessible by foot at low tide. The defensibility of the island and the open access to the ocean made the area very attractive to settle.

The earliest settlement on the island dates back to the 5th century and was possibly built by Christian missionaries. By the 7th century however, it had become a Pictish stronghold. The 9th century saw the arrival of Vikings settlers, and in the 12th century a monastery was founded. The remains of the walls of the monastery have survived, as have several interesting architectural features, the central part of the church, the space around the altar and the apse. Most of the remains that can still be seen today on the Brough of Birsay date from the Viking period.

Fact: According to The Orkneyinga Saga, Earl Thorfinn (Earl from 1014-1065) 'had his permanent residence at Birsay, where he built and dedicated to Christ a fine minster, the seat of the first bishop of Orkney' (chapter 31). It is not clear whether or not his residence or the minster were on the mainland or the island.

Viking settlements

The remains on the island show how the settlement developed during the time of the Viking occupation, although coastal erosion has caused loss of part of the area. The settlements were concentrated of the lower slope of the Island, away from the cliffs and the Atlantic waves. The earliest houses were on the western slope of the island, with the later structures down by the cliff edges on the eastern side.

The Viking hall-houses were made from stone and turf. These houses were often 20m or more in length. They consisted of a living area and kitchen separated by a wooden screen. Later additions would have been built onto the sides of the main house. The smaller buildings would have been outhouses. On the east of the island, remains have been found of a very large hall-house with a sauna or bath-house attached. It has a central hearth, benches and evidence of a drain.

The house had no byre in the end like the traditionel longhouses from the Viking Age. The Vikings here didn't need a byre because the island had had very limited grazing for animals. Cattle and sheep bones have been recovered during archaeological excavations, but the particular bones found suggest that they were from joints of meat rather than complete carcasses. This implies that that the animals were not slaughtered on the island. The islands was not a self-sufficient island and therefore dependent on the mainland for supplies

Evidence of iron working has also been found on the island. This would have been essential for the maintenance and replacement of tools and weapons. Steatite or soapstone moulds have also been found which suggest that more precious metals were melted down and cast on the site.

Monica Callaghan, Hunterian Museum & Art Gallery, University of Glasgow & Sofie Jensen, The Viking Ship Museum