Birsay, Orkney – St Magnus

Monday 10 July. We drove along the A966 to Birsay, past the Earl’s Palace, and found a very nice café, Birsay Bay Tearoom – website. It has wifi – so I spent a happy half hour booking seats to Cumbria in the Virgin Trains mega sale. All done in a café off the north coast of Scotland, and with electronic tickets. The first time I came to Orkney, in 1983, I had a free British Rail pass from Cambridge to Thurso. The line from Inverness to Thurso and Wick divides at Georgemas Junction, so I planned to go north to Thurso, and return from Wick. Therefore I needed a single from Wick to Georgemas Junction. My friend Adele worked in Lunn Poly Travel Agents on King’s Parade in Cambridge. They were British Rail agents, so I got her to sell me a ticket. They didn’t sell many Wick to Georgemas Junction tickets in Cambridge.

After tea, we parked by the sea, and I went for a walk.

Birsay is on the top north west corner of the Orkney mainland. The Brough of Birsay is a tidal island. The plan was to have a walk there, but tide times and Julie’s times never coincided. This was an important centre of Norse Christianity, and may have been important to the Picts who preceded them. There is, according to Caroline Wickham-Jones, Orkney, a historical guide, Birlinn, 2015, “much evidence of metalworking, in particular fine pieces of jewellery: brooches, pins, and finger rings. Elsewhere in Pictland, this sort of specialised activity seems to have been confined to power centres where leaders not only had the resources to acquire the raw materials and pay the skilled craftsmen necessary to do the work, but also the status to use such high-class goods and affirm their authority” (page 100).

Before the Bishopric of Orkney was moved to Kirkwall, it was located at Birsay. The Sagas relate that Earl Thorfinn built a minster, the Christchurch, here after his return from Rome in the mid C11. It is thought that, although there are the remains of a Norse settlement and church on the Brough, that Earl Thorfinn’s minister was on the mainland, where the village is now.

The Earl’s Palace was built about 1574 by Earl Robert Stewart, illegitimate son of James V, father of Earl Patrick and half-brother to Mary, Queen of Scots. The display board says “The tyrannical way in which Lord Robert administered his estates made many an Orcadian’s life a misery. But the blackness of Lord Robert’s reputation pales into a lighter shade of grey beside that of his son, Patrick, who succeeded him officially as earl in 1600.”  It was a fine Renaissance building, standing around a central courtyard with gardens, and greens for bowling and archery. Wickham-Jones’ book contains pictures and plans (pages 161-3). The palace was derelict by 1700, and it is a bit of a struggle to picture it now in all its glory.

Opposite the Palace is St Magnus church – HY 247277. It is now maintained by the St Magnus Church Birsay Trust, and there is a page about it on this website. We are welcome.

1064 for the original church, rebuilt in 1664, rebuilt again in 1760, restored in 1867, restored in the 1980s. The different stages can be seen if you spend time looking – the red sandstone of the original church, and this rather nice window. This is C13 and the broken lintel at the base has the inscription (S) BELLUS. The first part of the inscriptions MON(S) is built into the window surround of the farm on the north side of the church. This must have come from the residence of the bishop’s, “Mons Bellus” (the beautiful mountain) being the name given to the bishop’s residence in the Benedictine Order throughout France.

This sculptured stone (now by the pulpit) has the coat of arms of the Craigie family, important in Orkney since the C15, and the font is a copy of a baptismal bowl, thought to date from the C15.

I don’t know what date this stone is. The one inside is dated 1645 and the initials NN are probably those of Nicol Nisbet. The Nisbets had come to Birsay as gardeners to the Stewart earls, and acquired some land in the Swannay district of Birsay. (I feel a PhD in Orkney gardeners coming on).

The stained glass window was designed by Loveday McPherson, the artist wife of the Reverend Joseph McPherson, minister from 1900 to 1906. It was made in 1904 by Alex Strachan. The left hand scene depicts Magnus at the Battle of Anglesey in 1098.

The church is made so colourful by a selection of wonderful banners installed for the 900th anniversary of the martyrdom of Magnus. These seven waves are by Erlend Brown and Dave Jackson. The image is a response to “Tryst on Egilsay”, a cycle of seven poems by George Mackay Brown, re-interpreting the great story of the peace talks with his cousin, Hakon Paulson, ending in the martyrdom of Magnus. Today’s artists see the waves rolling the same direction as the rolling waves in Birsay Bay, 900 years ago.

The foyer also has some lovely children’s art work based on the same poem. I do love George Mackay Brown’s work. There is some information about him here and here. On youtube there are also various videos of his poems being read.

The vestibule window was designed and made by the Orcadian stained glass artist Shona McInnes, who lives and works in Yorkshire. Her website is here. It was installed in 2013. The design was inspired by the legend of the bright aura of light said to glow around the church, which is the original burial place of St Magnus. The votive candle is a universal symbol of prayer, and the words “Bright Magnus, pray for us” are from a poem about Magnus written by Gilbert Markus. We have the church, surrounded by the Earl’s Palace, the whalebone, sea pinks, stalks of barley and a sack of bere meal. The Brough of Birsay, beach and axe representing the martyrdom of Magnus. “The hands supporting the church represent the Trust’s role in maintaining the church and welcoming visitors from all over the world … People are gathered together in praise and fellowship, participating both in worship and the musical and literary events held within the church, symbolised by the sheet music and book.” I had enjoyed my visit and, like most of my church visits, felt enlightened.

The other place we visited in Birsay (on Sunday 16 July) was Barony Mills (HY 255274). I had an excellent guided tour and was invited to pull the lever which starts the water flowing to the wheel. When turning 110,000 gallons of water per hour comes from the Boardhouse Loch to turn the wheel – it was fascinating to see how the water flow could be controlled. This (1873) is probably the fourth mill on the site, and two of the earlier ones still remain – and their wheels are intact, which surprised me. On the top floor there are three sets of stones (two of French burr, one of Yesnaby stone) – shilling stones (separating the grain from the husk), oatmeal stones, and beremeal stones – so to get the finest meal the grain would be thrice ground. Bere is a type of barley which is ideal for the Orkney climate, damp with a short summer. There is also a fan which allowed the separate husks to be removed. The bere digestive biscuits are tasty too. It was a good welcome – and has prompted me to make the effort to re-visit the mills of the East Midlands.


In December 2022 I added “A small parcel arrived just after Christmas and I was chuffed to find a copy of “St Magnus Way” by David Mazza. It is a guide to the walk, produced by Rucksack Readers – They have used three of my photos (including one from this post) – and used them very well – and the whole book is a delight. It’s not published until March 2023, but is highly recommended for anyone going to Orkney.”

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