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Help and advice for Birsay

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"Birsay and Harray, a united parish in the NW of the mainland of Orkney. It has two post offices, Birsay under Stromness, and Harray, a sub-office, the former 20 miles NW of Kirkwall, the latter 2 miles WNW. It is bounded W, NW, N, and NE by the Atlantic Ocean, E by Evie, Rendall, and Firth, S by Stenness, and SW by Sandwick. Its greatest length, from NNW to SSE, is 11 miles, and its greatest breadth is 6½ miles. Harray projects southward from the SE of Birsay, l wholly inland, and measures about 5 miles in length from N to S and about 2½ miles in extreme breadth. Of three headlands on the coast of Birsay, Marwick Head in the W, Brough Head in the NW and Costa head in the N, the first does not materially diversify the coastline, the second wavers between the character of an islet and that of a small peninsula, and the third presents to the sea a face of high precipitous rock. The entire sea coast is about 10 miles long, and has mostly a rocky shore. The surface of Birsay is hilly, but not mountainous; that of Harray is flat and rather swampy. Six considerable lakes, and some small ones are in Birsay, and abound with wild duck, swans, and other aquatic birds; and the great E limb of Loch Stenness lies along 4 miles of the western boundary of Harray. Several burns run through Birsay, and contain fine trout and sometimes salmon ; and numerous small burns traverse Harray. The entire district comprising both parishes was known to the Norsemen as Bergishcrad or the hunting territory, and it answered so well their beau-ideal of a hunting ground, that the Norwegian jarls were induced to fix their chief residence in Birsay. The rocks include limestone, an excellent flag claystone, and abundance of building materials, but no sandstone. The soil in what is called the barony of Birsay is a rich loam, perhaps the most fertile in Orkney, admitting comparison with much good land in the best agricultural districts of Scotland ; but it is said that in Birsay there still are from 10,000 to 12,000 acres lying waste, though highly susceptible of improvement. The bills are covered with coarse herbage locally called lubba, a mixture of carices and moor grasses, serviceable for the browsing of cattle in summer. Birsay Palace, the residence of the Earls of Orkney, stood on a romantic site, on the coast, at the NW extremity of Birsay; dates from remote times and successive periods; was rebuilt or greatly enlarged by Earl Robert Stewart, the natural brother of Queen Mary, and by his son, Earl Patrick; was then modelled after Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh; formed a hollow quadrangle 158 feet by 100; fell into a state of neglect and ruin; and, in February 1868, was struck by a terrific gale, throwing down about 30 feet of its strong western façade, and leaving only about 4 feet of that side of the wall standing. The Brough of Birsay, on Brough Head, 4 mile WNW of the palace, appears to have been a rock fortification, and shows vestiges of an ancient chapel. The coast scenery around the brough is the finest on the W side of Pomona. Ancient standing stones are in several parts of Birsay, and Picts' houses are numerous. Eleven skeletons, enclosed in rough flagstones, were discovered in 1862, in the Knowe of Saverough, where, too, a square-shaped iron bell was found, now in the Edinburgh Antiquarian Museum. Fairs for cattle and horses are held thrice a year in Birsay and thrice a year in Harray. The Earl of Zetland is chief proprietor, two others holding an annual value of between £100 and £500, 16 of from £20 to £50. The two parishes, both in the presbytery of Cairston and synod of Orkney, were disjoined quoad sacra in 1876; the living of Birsay is worth £120, of Harray £330. Birsay church, with 565 sittings, was built in 1664, enlarged in 1760, and renovated in 1867; Harray church was built in 1836, and contains 450 sittings. One Free church is in Harray and another in Birsay, which also has a United Original Secession church (1829, 470 sittings). Three public schools, Birsay, Hundland, and Harray with respective accommodation for 120, 60, and 108 children, had (1891) an average attendance of 110, 31, and 79, and grants of £129, 4s. 6d., £42, 3s. 6d., and £78. Pop. of united parish (1801) 2176, (1831) 2387, (1861) 2593, (1891) 2259, of whom 1233 were in Birsay and 1026 in Harray."

From Francis Groome's Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland, 1896



  • The Division of the Birsay Commonty: by David Scarth. Published in The Orkney View 1994 Feb pp26-27.
  • The Landscape of Medieval Birsay: by William P. L. Thomson. Published 1995 in Northern Isles Connections
    ed. B. Crawford pp47-75.
  • The Place-Names of Birsay: by Hugh Marwick, with Introduction by W. F. H. Nicolaisen. Published Aberdeen 1970. 147pp.
  • Birsay's Forgotten Palace: by Robert Rendall. Published: Orkney Herald 21 April 1959.
  • Birsay Church History: by Rev Alexander Goodfellow. Published 1903.


You can also perform a more selective search for churches in the Birsay area or see them printed on a map.


Church Records

  • Baptisms, 1645-1854. No entries Apr 1648-June 1654, Feb 1666-June 1669, and May 1673-July 1681. Incomplete 1742, 1756-58, and 1763-68.
  • Marriages, 1654-1854. No entries Jan 1666-Nov 1669, Dec 1669-Nov 1670, Jan 1673-Nov 1681, Dec 1699-Dec 1701, and only one entry from June 1763-Mar 1769. Incomplete 1755-58, inclusive. Record of contrarcts of marriage, 1654-1672. No entries 1664-69.
  • Burials. No entries.

Other church records (held at Orkney Archives in Kirkwall).

  • Ref: OCR/FC/3: Twatt Kirk baptisms 1876-1946.
  • Ref: OCR/FC/4: Original Secession Kirk Communion Roll 1898-1957.
  • Ref: OCR/KC/5: Birsay Kirk baptisms 1855-1867 and 1912-1956, marriages 1855-1868, and Communion Roll 1876-1969.

Civil Registration

The Registrar of births, deaths, and marriages for the parish of Birsay.
The Registrar's records extend back only as far as 1st January 1855 when registration became compulsory in Scotland.

Description and Travel

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