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Sacred geography – Picts – Citadels 03 – Orkney and the Brough of Birsay



Type of Spiritual Experience


A description of the experience


The Brough of Birsay is a site situated on part of a small tidal island off the NW corner of Mainland Orkney.  At the time it was built, the likelihood is that the island would have been much larger and may even have been connected to the mainland, the name Birsay derives from an Old Norse term for an island or promontory accessible by only a narrow neck of land.  It is thus an example of a sacred geography isthmus site.  The visitor’s approach to the site is enhanced by ‘the unusual experience’ of walking across a tidal causeway, as such access is now limited by the tides. 


The remains now nestle on the lower, landward-facing slope of the Brough. The island itself and the surrounding Mainland has some dramatic cliffs and often wild seas. At the crest of the island is a small lighthouse.  Many cliff-edge features have been subject to coastal erosion.  The conclusion we can come to is that much has disappeared under the waves.  In 1934, The Ministry of Works constructed a seawall to protect the site and stop the erosion, it didn’t work.  In 1993, storms exposed archaeological deposits in the E cliff-face, and these were cleaned and recorded prior to the consolidation of the cliff-face.  But the sea keeps on rising and the site continues to disappear.

There are two parts to the site reflecting its history.  An area that is Pictish in origin and another which is Viking [Norway].

The Pictish settlement

In search of the Picts – Elizabeth Sutherland
In Orkney the Brough of Birsay may have been the seat of the ruler who was mentioned as a subject king to Brude mac Maelcon in the late 6th century.  A stone carved with what would seem to be the symbols of kingship was found at Birsay. 

We do know that this site had been in use by the Picts right from prehistoric times.  A Late ‘Neolithic’ macehead ‘may provide evidence of prehistoric settlement’ A mace is a symbolic object of some significance.  Furthermore, with the exception of the well, although almost none of the visible remains are Pictish, archaeological evidence suggests this was a significant settlement and that further remains survive beneath the visible later features.


Pictish settlement remains have been found to the W, N and S of the churchyard. On the basis of the Pictish slab, its iconography of leadership, and the evidence for fine metalworking in bronze, it has been established that the Brough of Birsay was a significant Pictish power centre of some sort.

But there is no obvious sign of struggle when the Norse took over.  The Norse may have simply established their main centre where the Pictish power base had been; in other words, the centre might have been abandoned by the Picts before the Vikings ever came.  This may have been due to the change to Kingships allied with the Christian Church, that took place in the 5th and 6th centuries.  Alternatively, the rise in sea levels and the erosion forced the population to abandon the site.


Brough of Birsay lies at the NW corner of Birsay Bay. Evidence for extensive settlement has also been found on the Mainland side of this bay, including, to the S, Birsay village where the 16th- and 17th-century palace of the Stewart Earls of Orkney and parish church are still to be found. 

It may have been a combination of the two.  A Pictish king took over the site and it changed function.  Evidence for an earlier church has been found beneath the upstanding 12th-century one, but it looks as though the king with his new religion wasn’t wanted by everyone.   All those Picts associated with its former function, gradually drifted away.  And as the site continued to disappear under the waves, the king moved to the mainland and abandoned the old site.  There are no signs of a struggle because no one was left to struggle with.


Part of the name derives from Old Norse borg, fortress or stronghold and Birsay is mentioned in the Orkneyinga Saga. But was it a fort before the Vikings settled there or was it something else?  In 1934 one of the stones filling the church was found to carry a possible ogham inscription; ‘recent attempts to locate this stone have not been successful’.

Most of the visible remains belong to the period when Orkney was under the control of Norway. Birsay was the centre of the Earldom of Orkney in the late 9th and 10th centuries, and later developed into a settlement associated with a church and monastery.


At the core of the site is the present 12th-century church, with its nave, chancel, and apse at the E end. The 12th-century church of St Peter and its associated monastic buildings preserves in its plan and surviving lower levels the clear layout of a small, but sophisticated Romanesque church. Arguably this is the most sophisticated church plan in Orkney, other than St Magnus’ Cathedral, Kirkwall.  The Romanesque style is based on the cosmic egg.  The original church was thus being built with at least some attempt to preserve the idea of a citadel, a centre of religion, as the cross and egg are key markers of a citadel site.

There was an associated monastery, which was short lived.  A W porch or tower was planned, but not completed.  The Norse earldom’s power-base was moved to Kirkwall in the 12th century.  A report of 1627 suggests that the church and the churchyard were no longer in use by that time.  Presumably the sea kept on rising and the people kept on leaving.

A drawing published in 1773 shows the church as still largely complete, though, the Statistical Account of 1795 says the church was “now much neglected”. The Account also noted a series of foundations in the area of the churchyard.

A source of 1805 notes the tradition of pilgrimage here “till of late”.

The Pictish stone


The Pictish cross-slab recovered from excavations in 1935 was sold to the National Museums of Scotland, where it is now on display. This fragmentary but highly important sculpture has been recreated on site in the form of cast, erected in the approximate area in which the broken, buried fragments were discovered.

The Pictish slab has been incised with four Pictish symbols and a figural scene. The figural scene is particularly interesting from an iconographic point of view because of the manner in which the relative authority of the three men is distinguished through differences in their appearance, clothing and weaponry.  The three males have long robes, sword, spears and square shields and are processing to the right. The clothing, weaponry and hair of the man at the front is more ornate.

Despite the fragmentary condition of the original, the Pictish slab from Brough of Birsay is very important. The stone bears four designs (the ‘mirror-case, ‘crescent and v-rod’, ‘hare’ and eagle). The original stone was very thin and it is unclear if this was intended to be mounted into a structure; if it was self-supporting it seems that the other face may have been lost. For this reason archaeologists cannot be sure whether this was originally a symbol-bearing cross-slab.

Brough of Birsay in context

The first indications of humans on Orkney occur … after the ice retreated in the 11th millennium BC ….. Initially, sea levels were lower than at present due to the large volume of ice that remained. This meant that the Orkney islands may have been attached to the mainland, as was the present-day island of Great Britain to Continental Europe. Much of the North Sea basin was also dry land.  About 6000 BC the Storegga Slides of the coast of Norway created a tsunami that reached 25 metres (82 ft) above normal high tides in places. Evidence of widespread coastal inundations from a wave 8 metres (26 ft) high has been found as far south as Fife and the impact on shore-dwelling mesolithic societies in Orkney would have been considerable.


By looking at the Brough of Birsay in isolation, one disregards the overall importance of Orkney as a sacred site.  All of Orkney, rising high above the waves at one time, was a sacred site of immense importance.  Several thousand years ago it was surrounded by a wide plain and rose up like a beacon to the pilgrims who came to this as a site of the Mysteries.  The tsunami created an island and started the slow decline of the site.   But despite the destruction of many of the routes to the island, people still came – this time by boat.  And despite the disappearance of much of the low lying areas under water, what remains of Orkney as a whole still has nearly 3,000 identified Neolithic sites all told.  Birsay just happens to be one.  The climate deteriorated in around 2,000 BC, resulting in yet more decline.  But Orkney was not always a rain lashed, wind battered, peat covered island, one has to think of a far more benign and productive place to present the correct picture.


There is even evidence of an Orcadian connection with Rome prior to AD 60 from pottery found at the Broch of Gurness and 1st and 2nd century Roman coins have been found at Lingro broch.  Historians appear to assume that the connection was military, but pilgrimages to the Mystery sites was quite well established at this time.  Pytheas, a Greek, visited Britain sometime between 322 and 285 BC, for example.  At one time Roman initiates visited the great centres of initiation and the Mysteries in Orkney.

T C Lethbridge – Painted Men
The Pictones were ancient friends of Rome at the time of Julius Caesar (100BC - 44BC)


Property in Care (PIC) ID: Designations: PIC278 Scheduled Monument (SM90034)


The documentary sources, monuments and artefacts from this site testify to active connections between Orkney and the rest of the British Isles and Europe. In general, the perceived remoteness of this settlement on the NW coast of Orkney is misleading, not least in a time when maritime connections between Ireland, the west of Scotland and the Norwegian homeland was so important, and east coast trading connections around the North Sea were also very active.

The great Orcadian Neolithic monuments were constructed almost a millennium before the sarsen stones of Stonehenge were erected.  Orkney was the starting place for much of the culture, that developed much later in the southern British Isles.  As the sea levels rose, the Picts moved south – and they have been doing this for several thousand years.

Other monuments

We have described the other monuments on Orkney under the heading of the Ancestors, thus to get more detail you need to follow this link.  What follows is a brief description.

The group of Neolithic monuments on Orkney consists of a large chambered tomb (Maes Howe), two ceremonial stone circles (the Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar) and a settlement (Skara Brae), together with a number of unexcavated burial, ceremonial and settlement sites.  It is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The monuments are in two areas, some 6.6 km apart on the island of Mainland, the largest in the archipelago, but how many lie beneath the sea?  How many lie – like those in Lewis at Callanish, beneath several feet of peat?

The four monuments that make up the Heart of Neolithic Orkney are ‘unquestionably among the most important Neolithic sites in Western Europe’.  But the Ring of Brodgar, Stones of Stenness, Maeshowe and Skara Brae are simply those we can see.  The brough of Birsay is simply part of this group.  “They provide exceptional evidence of the material and spiritual standards as well as the beliefs and social structures of this dynamic period of prehistory”.

As UNESCO says "The four main monuments, consisting of the four substantial surviving standing stones of the elliptical [egg shaped] Stones of Stenness and the surrounding ditch and bank of the henge, the thirty-six surviving stones of the circular Ring of Brodgar with the thirteen Neolithic and Bronze Age mounds that are found around it and the stone setting known as the Comet Stone, the large stone chambered tomb of Maeshowe, whose passage points close to midwinter sunset, and the sophisticated settlement of Skara Brae with its stone built houses connected by narrow roofed passages, together with the Barnhouse Stone and the Watch Stone, serve as a paradigm of the megalithic culture of north-western Europe that is  unparalleled."


The source of the experience


Concepts, symbols and science items



Science Items

Sacred geography
Sacred geography - barrows
Sacred geography - beacons
Sacred geography - bridges
Sacred geography - castle
Sacred geography - citadel
Sacred geography - cliffs
Sacred geography - crack or crevice
Sacred geography - cross
Sacred geography - crossroads
Sacred geography - cursus
Sacred geography - enclosures and camps
Sacred geography - henges
Sacred geography - hollow roads
Sacred geography - islands
Sacred geography - isthmus
Sacred geography - ley lines
Sacred geography - lighthouses
Sacred geography - mapping the spiritual onto the physical
Sacred geography - mark stones
Sacred geography - mountain
Sacred geography - natural hills
Sacred geography - palace
Sacred geography - physical caves
Sacred geography - rivers and streams
Sacred geography - sacred grove
Sacred geography - water sites

Activities and commonsteps