Birsay

Tuesday, December 16, 2014



The Brough of Birsay, a tidal island, is one of the bestknown archaeological sites in Orkney, projecting out into the Atlantic at the northwest corner of Birsay Bay and separated by the 238-m-wide Brough Sound from the Point of Buckquoy. Its name derives from Old Norse borg (fortress or stronghold), which can refer to either a broch (a fortified dwelling), or, as is more likely in this case, the natural defensive qualities of an island difficult of access.

The earliest archaeological work on this site appears to have been by Sir Henry Dryden in 1870, who cleared out the chapel. The site came into the care of the secretary of state for Scotland in 1934, and considerable clearance and excavation took place to prepare the site for the general public. This work was curtailed with the outbreak of World War II, but the finds from the excavations have been published by C. L. Curle, along with the finds from the later campaigns of C. A. R. Radford and S. H. Cruden in the 1950s and 1960s. Interim accounts of aspects of the later work have been published. Earlier structural elements uncovered below the chapel have generally been associated with the pre-Norse church. However, these earlier structural elements no longer need to be associated with the so-called Celtic church but, by analogy with the Brough of Deerness and Brattahlid in Greenland, may be dated to the Norse period. 

Work was resumed on a small scale in 1973; in the area to the east of the chapel, Room 5 was excavated. Essentially, four major periods were distinguished. From analysis of the associated finds, together with some radiocarbon C-14 (ninth century or later) dating, the first may be assigned to the pre-Norse (Pictish) phase (pre-800) and the later three to the Norse. Only the last phase relates to the laid-out, standing building. Following this work, a renewed large-scale series of excavations was begun by J. R. Hunter and C. D. Morris in 1974 and continued until 1982. There is now clear evidence from the Brough of Birsay for many buildings (far more, across a wider area, than originally envisaged) dating to the Norse and Pictish periods. There is also clear evidence here for multiphase activity, with the replacement of buildings and often their complete reorientation in relation to the local topography. 

There has been much discussion of the significance of the entries in the Orkneyinga Saga concerning the "minster dedicated to Christ" at Birsay established by Earl Thorfinn the Mighty. Both Radford and Cruden take the view that the buildings mentioned in the Saga can be identified with structures excavated on the brough. Others (e. g., the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland; R. G. Lamb) see these structures as twelfth century (rather than eleventh) and monastic in character and favor a location for the "minster" in the village area. In 1982, excavations took place under the direction of Barber in advance of restoration of the parish church of St. Magnus. Structural elements uncovered below the present church have been accorded a probable twelfth-century date, and it is suggested that the present building was preceded by a pre- Reformation church of some sophistication. However, the dating accorded to the remains does not enable firm associations with the historical data, and so it cannot yet be claimed that the "minster" was originally located in the village. 

Norse Christianity clearly focused upon Birsay, but once the cathedral was built in Kirkwall, the focus of secular and ecclesiastical power shifted away. Little is known of events here between the twelfth and the sixteenth centuries. However, by the sixteenth century, much of Birsay had been transferred from the hands of the earl of Orkney to the bishops of Orkney, and in that century it is clear that the bishops used a palace hereabouts. In the sixteenth century, an otherwise unknown writer, "Jo Ben," described Birsay as having "an excellent palace"; according to local tradition, the presence of walls and other features in the area to the south of the parish church may relate to this palace. 

The significance of Birsay in the sixteenth century is reinforced by the building of an imposing Earl's Palace to the north of the Burn of Boardhouse. This was constructed with ranges of buildings around a courtyard with projecting rectangular towers at three corners, perhaps dated to 1574. It is probable that, in the construction of the Earl's Palace, stones from the older Bishop's Palace were reused. However, the regained significance of Birsay was short lived, and P. D. Anderson (1983) has suggested that deterioration of the Earl's Palace is recorded from as early as 1653. The gaunt ruins of the palace are perhaps visible reminders of what has been described as the "dark period" of Orkney's history under the Stewart earls. 

There are clear indications that buildings from the Viking and late Norse periods remain to be discovered in the area to the south of the village. The place-name Tuftaback, bank or slope of house sites, might well be equated with the area to the south of the Burn of Boardhouse. Here, buildings and middens of some complexity have been uncovered on top of a mound site composed of archaeological deposits presumably going back into prehistory. A second such mound site almost certainly exists below an adjacent modern building and extends down to the riverbank. 

Beyond the village to the south are the Links, at the southern end of which is Saevar Howe, another multiperiod mound site, which was examined in the nineteenth century by Farrer and more recently by J. W. Hedges. Pictish buildings here were apparently built on top of a prehistoric site and were themselves superseded by Viking Age dwellings. On top of these were the remains of a Christian Norse cemetery-although not recognized as such in the nineteenth century. 

Cemeteries from both the Roman Iron Age/Pictish and the Viking periods have also been recognized from the area between the village and the brough to the north. The earlier burials are marked by cist graves below mounds of sand and stone cairns, without accompanying grave goods. The later burials were either in cists or simply dug into the contemporary ground surface, but they were accompanied by grave goods recognizably Viking in form and date. 

Radiocarbon determinations have confirmed these chronological attributions. Even earlier, the area was clearly of significance in the earlier Iron Age (structural evidence) and the Bronze Age (midden deposits). Fragmentary traces of settlement remains of the Viking period have also been excavated in this area, with accompanying rich midden deposits, and a characteristic figure-eight-shaped dwelling from the late Pictish period. This series of excavations directed by Morris between the village and the brough has received full publication. Of particular interest and significance was the nearby site at Buckquoy excavated by A. Ritchie. Here, a Pictish farmstead was uncovered, of two major periods, succeeded by a Norse farmstead. It has also been suggested that the evidence points to some degree of coexistence by the two groups. 

Extensive archaeological research supports the conclusion, derived from written sources, that Birsay was a center of political and ecclesiastical power during the Viking and late Norse periods. In addition, there is also evidence to support Birsay's importance in the preceding Pictish period, together with its imperfectly understood role in prehistoric Orkney.

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