Brough of Birsay, Orkney – Lighthouse and Palaces

The Brough of Birsay is a tidal island located in the north-west corner of Orkney Mainland. Reached over a tidal causeway for a few hours each day it has a long history and is now home to puffins and fulmars. The area can be explored in a beautiful circular walk which has just one gentle hill to the lighthouse but is otherwise on flat but undulating terrain.

brough of birsay across bay

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Exploring the Brough of Birsay

Walking down the steps from the car park the causeway is visible below the surface of the clear turquoise shallows.  The remains of the tide washes 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.

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. Looking to the south from the causeway the wide sweep of Birsay Bay and the steep cliffs of Markwick Head and the Kitchener Monument can be seen, dramatic in stormy weather as the Atlantic waves crash up the cliff face.

rough seas with storm clouds

Pictish and Norse Settlements

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.

Birsay Geo

 A small path leads down to the pebbled shore line.  Waves funnel through the narrow opening in the cliffs, 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 cliffs the ocean roars through the gap.  

Continuing around the island, hares darting into their forms as they sense our imminent arrival and 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.

Birsay Lighthouse

sunset over an island

As the path curves around the cliff tops the lighthouse comes into view.  A guiding light along this rugged coastline it was built in 1925 and is powered by solar panels and in the summer it is an enticing roost for starlings.  Lined up on the crenellated 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.

Location: Brough of Birsay, Orkney Mainland
Nearest Town: Stromness
Road: A966 / A967
GPS: 59.13676°N 3.33912°W
Map: OS Explorer 463: Orkney – West Mainland
Engineer: David A and Charles Stevenson
Established: 18925
Automated: 1995
Admiralty Number: A3700
Character: Flashing 3 white every 25 seconds
Height: 11m
Status: Operational
Operator: Northern Lighthouse Board
Access: The tower is not open but the surrounding area is accessible

Back to the Mainland across the Causeway

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. In the winter months storms bring huge waves that break over the causeway and the rocks on the shoreline.

Skipi Geo / Skiba Geo And the Whale bone

A short walk along the coast from the Point of Buckquoy car park will bring you the small beach called Skipi Geo or Skiba Geo. There is a small 19th century fisherman’s hut and steps dug out to house the fishing boats when they were hauled out of the water at the top of the path down onto the beach. The geo is narrow with fulmars nesting on the ledges of the cliffs and seals watching from the surf line.

A little further along the cliff from Skipi Geo is the rugged Point of Nether Queena. The rocks here are exposed and huge waves break over them during winter storms. Cormorants and shags can be found on the salt drenched rocks and seals mooch around in the surf. On the cliff top is a lichen covered whale bone, a strange sight that appeared after a baleen whale washed ashore in about 1876. It is thought that the whale remained on the shore for at least 25 years before the sculpture appeared although the reasons behind its placement aren’t really known. Ideas range from a marker for fishermen coming in to Skiba Geo to superstition behind the whale stranding but it is believed that the whale bone arch at Kirbuster Farm Museum is from the same whale.

Earl’s Palace

From the whale bone a short walk along the road towards Birsay takes you to the ruins of the Earl’s Palace. Built between 1569 and 1574 this small palace was home to the harsh Earl of Orkney, Robert Stewart who was one of the illegitimate sons of James V. By 1615 the Stewarts had been overthrown and the palace was left to decay. In 1700 it had no roof and was already crumbling, a sad end for a large two storey building that was never really used.

Zanzibar Cottage – The Little cottage in the Top Gear Race

In 2009 Messrs Hammond and May from the Top Gear series raced a letter from the Isles of Scilly in Cornwall to Zanzibar bungalow on Orkney Mainland.  I am sure there are better ways to demonstrate the Porsche Panamera, but the Top Gear trio never did things the easy way.  A race of 804 miles; a letter with a Royal Mail stamp and nothing more, versus the British motorway system and a ferry for good measure.
Zanzibar Cottage stands on the shoreline within sight of the Earl’s Palace.

wodden building with sea behind

READ MORE: EXPLORING ORKNEY

Photography Notes

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 as well as the road towards Marwick around the cemetery provides lovely views of the island with the setting sun behind. The sun moves around the island so the best location will depend on the season.
  • 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.
  • In winter the waves around the Brough of Birsay are immense. Just remember to stay safe on the cliffs.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Wildflowers, birds and hares are everywhere. Butterflies flit around in the machair in the summer. A slow wander will provide beautiful opportunities.
  • From the Point of Buckquoy there are stunning views across Birsay Bay to Marwick Head and the poignant Kitchener Memorial.
  • The car park at the Point of Buckquoy and the Whale Bone are 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.

READ MORE: TIPS FOR PHOTOGRAPHING THE NORTHERN LIGHTS

Essential tips

  • Drive slowly on the road out to the car park. It is narrow with passing places on the edge of the cliff
  • Check the tide times before attempting to cross the causeway. It is clear two hours either side of low tide at Birsay and should only be crossed in daylight. Using Kirkwall tide times the causeway is clear from 3hours and 10minutes before low water in Kirkwall until 1hour and 10minutes after low water in Kirkwall.
  • Take care on the cliffs as there are no barriers and in windy conditions it can be extremely blustery
  • Do not walk along the cliff top path in storm conditions or when there is a large swell
  • Use the facilities in Birsay village by the Palace Stores before heading out to the Brough of Birsay

Brough of Birsay Hike Details

Distance: 6km depending on the paths you take
Minimum time: 2 hours
Ascent: 30m
Suggested Map: OS Explorer 463: Orkney – West Mainland
Start and Finish: Point of Buckquoy
Road: Small cliff top road off A966/ A967
Parking: 59.13537°N, 3.32485°W
Nearest Town: Stromness

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 right hand bend. Follow the road along the cliff top until it runs out.
Remember that you only have four hours of exploring.

Click Here to check Brough of Birsay tide times

Free parking is available all year round at the end of the road but in the summer it can get very busy.  There are no facilities unless you return to Birsay village where there is the lovely Birsay Bay Tearoom.

Places to Visit Near Brough of Birsay

  • Marwick – On the cliff top is the Kitchener Monument and the beach below has a lagoon and nearby fishermen’s huts
  • Kirbuster Farm Museum – A lovely little museum with recreated farmhouse showing how life was for Orkney crofters
  • Skara Brae – An almost intact Neolithic village in sand dunes
  • Broch of Gurness – The remains of an Iron Age complex
  • Yesnaby Cliffs – High sea cliffs with sea stacks