Scottish Islands: Brough of Birsay, Orkney

Scottish Islands: Brough of Birsay, Orkney

Walking down the steps from the car park the causeway is visible.  The remains of the tide washing over the concrete pathway that now provides a route from Point of Buckquoy to the Brough of Birsay. The 240m Sound of Birsay swirls with the last of the water, the receding tide revealing the sandy foreshore and the deep rock pools.

The flow of water over the causeway to the Brough of Birsay as the tide retreats

Oystercatchers chatter away as they pick through the seaweed, uncovering treats left in the freshly washed seaweed.  The myriad  of colours from periwinkles, iridescent top shells and broken sea urchins reflect and sparkle through the shallow water. Distracting the eye as the perilous journey over the slippery, seaweed encrusted causeway continues.


A steep pathway from the boulder strewn beach leads up to the remains of the village.  Inhabited by the Picts and later Norsemen, the remains are now protected from the ravages of the exposed Atlantic coast.

Outlines of the settlement remain, a stone slab with intricate Pictish carvings and the remains of the Norse church of St Peter are all visible.  This small ruinous village lies as testament to the importance of this small tidal island as the seat of the rulers of Orkney before the 12th century.  

Passing through the gate, away from the mainland the path divides. Ahead lies the lighthouse.  To the left is a path heading along the cliff top to a small geo, tucked away.


 A small path leads down to the pebbled shore line.  Waves funnel through, throwing up flotsam and jetsam, echoing off the cliffs of this narrow inlet.  Fulmars reside on the cliffs, shouting to each other above the roar of the ocean.  This pebble beach is distinctive and unique at any time of the year, but with a storm beyond the tiny inlet the ocean roars.  

Continuing around the island, hares darting into their forms as they sense our imminent arrival, the cliffs climb.  Covered in a beautiful machair in spring and early summer the cliffs are magical.  Accompanied by skylarks singing their hearts out it feels as if the winter storms that engulf the cliffs are a distant fiction.


As the path curves around the cliff tops the lighthouse comes into view.  A guiding light along this rugged coastline.  Built in 1925 and powered by solar panels, in summer it is an enticing roost for starlings.  Lined up on the crenallated balcony the busy thugs squabble amongst themselves.

 Beyond the lighthouse the cliffs are sheer.  Home to puffins in summer. Remote and wave beaten in the winter.  They are washed by deep turquoise waves continually.  This is a perfect spot to contemplate life and watch time pass.


The walk back to the causeway is downhill whichever path is chosen.  Either following the path straight down the centre of the island or meandering gently around the cliff top. In the summer flowers and butterflies are everywhere. The views across to Westray in the distance and the cliffs towards Evie are vast, the sky seeming to go on forever.

Photography at Brough of Birsay

This is a year round gem.  However when the weather is rough caution and common sense is needed. The sun sets behind the Brough of Birsay so stopping on the shore line between Birsay village and Point of Buckquoy provides lovely views of the island with the sun setting behind.

  1. The causeway and surrounding rocks are interesting. Geometric patterns run through the rocks .  Rock pools are full of life and the shells are colourful and varied.
  2. In winter the waves around the Brough of Birsay are immense. Just remember to stay safe on the cliffs. 
  3. Birsay settlement provides the ruins of buildings and carved slabs.  Heading away from the village the views to Evie and Westray beyond provide a stunning background. 
  4. The geo is small and perfectly formed but hard to photograph.  The cliffs are steep but photographing from above on the cliffs is the easiest option. 
  5. The lighthouse is very small and does not present the usual perspective problems encountered with taller lighthouses. Although it is locked up there is safe access for a full 360º viewing unlike many lighthouses perched on rocky cliffs.
  6. The cliffs are full of birdlife.  Fulmars are around for most of the year and are joined by puffins between April and August.  They are mainly found on the cliffs beyond the lighthouse. 
  7. Wildflowers, birds and hares are everywhere.  Butterflies flit around in the machair in the summer.  A slow wander will provide beautiful opportunities.
  8. From the Point of Buckquoy there are stunning views across Birsay Bay to Marwick Head and the poignant Kitchener Memorial.
  9. The car park at the Point of Buckquoy is perfect for northern lights.  It can get busy when the lights are dancing but  it is possible to have the Brough of Birsay coated in light.

Visiting Brough of Birsay


From the small village of Birsay, follow the main road past the ruins of the Earl's Palace on the left and then an almost immediate sharp righthand bend. Follow the road along the cliff top.  It is narrow with passing places.  Keep an eye out for seals hauled out on the rocks below.  Continue until the road runs out.  Planning is needed to get to this island.   The causeway is clear 2 hours either side of low tide. Remember that you only have four hours of exploring.

Free parking is available all year round at the end of the road but in the summer it can get very busy.  In the summer months there is sometimes a snack van in the car park. 

There is a small visitors centre which is open in the summer months. There is a small charge. In the winter, the centre is closed but you can still visit the remains of the village and the island. 

Parking grid reference HY 2455 2828

Parking Lat/Long 59.1347,-3.3200

Parking postcode KW17 2LX (a rough guide!)

Map OS Explorer Map 463 (1:25000) Orkney - West Mainland


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