Birsay is a small village on the north coast of Orkney Mainland. It's the site of the ruined Earl's Palace, and just offshore is the Brough of Birsay with medieval Norse remains. The surrounding farmland is dotted with ancient standing stones, some incorporated into fence-posts.
From Kirkwall, take the A965 towards Stromness. The direct route is to turn right at Stenness onto A986, which at Twatt becomes A967, keep following it north to the junction of A966. You're now at Birsay, with the palace just left.
A slow scenic route is to turn off A965 earlier at Finstown onto A966, and follow this round the north coast past Tingwall and Broch of Gurness to meet A967 at Birsay.
From Stromness, take the A965 out of town, and after a mile fork left onto A967. Branch left onto either B-road if you want to visit Skara Brae, otherwise continue north. A987 is joined by A986 around Twatt, continue north to Birsay.
Henry Hudson, Cook, Frobisher: so many ill-fated expeditions have passed through the Orkneys. And then there’s the bus service to Birsay and Skara Brae.
There’s nothing on Sunday. The options Monday-Saturday are:
Bus 6 from Kirkwall at 07:00 and 17:10 to Birsay, 45 min, back 07:50 and 18:00. This runs along the north coast via Tingwall (for Rousay ferry) and Evie (for Broch of Gurness) but doesn’t serve Skara Brae.
Bus 7 from Kirkwall at 13:40 and 17:30 to Birsay, with the earlier bus heading back to Kirkwall at 14:10 while the later bus continues at 18:10 to Stromness. It doesn’t pass Skara Brae, but you can get off at Sandwick 2 miles away. The reverse service from Stromness only runs at 06:30 and 07:30.
Bus 8S from Kirkwall at 09:15 via Stenness to Skara Brae (1 hr) then into Stromness, from there at 10:30 to Skara Brae, at 10:50 on to Birsay, and return to Kirkwall by noon. It also runs from Kirkwall at 13:15 and 16:45 via Stromness to Skara Brae (50 min), Birsay and back to Kirkwall.
A tour bus T11 is advertised but didn't run in 2021.
Birsay itself is small and easy to walk, but check the tide times before crossing to the Brough. You need wheels to reach outlying sites such as Broch of Gurness and Click Mill, cycling is ideal.
- Skara Brae: for this and related neolithic sites, see Stenness.
- 1 Earl's Palace, 1 Bridge, KW17 2LX. 24 hours. The masonry shell of the palace of Robert Stewart, Earl of Orkney, built in the late 16th century, and a ruin by the 18th. Robert was the first Earl; his son Patrick the second Earl built the palace at Kirkwall. Free.
- 2 Brough of Birsay. Mid-Jun to Sep: daily 09:30-17:30 depending on the tides; closed Oct-mid June. This tidal island, run by Historic Scotland, holds Norse ruins from the 9th to 13th century; a Pictish settlement was here from the 7th century. Original artefacts have been moved to the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, and replicas placed here, and the island has been reinforced to prevent sea erosion of the sites. There's also a 1925 lighthouse and sea-bird colonies. The causeway is passable for two hours either side of low tide: check times online from "Easytide", using Stromness or Tingwall as the reference port. Adult £5.
- Fishermen's Hut and Whalebone: from the Brough of Birsay carpark, walk east along the north shore. About 10 minutes down the path is a small fishermen's hut with adjacent boat rests. Down a nearby narrow stone stairway is a natural spring. A bit farther down the path is a whalebone erected in the late 19th century and a great view of the Brough.
- Barony Mills, KW17 2LY (Half-mile inland from Brough), ☏ +44 1856 721 439. May-Sep: daily 11:00-17:00. Tours and demonstrations of 19th century milling machinery. Tours start every 45 minutes from 11:00 to 16:15 and last about 30 minutes (and are the only way to see the mill). £5, children under 12 free.
- Kirbuster Farm Museum, Hundland Rd KW17 2LR (5 miles SE of Brough). Mar-Oct: M Tu F Sa 10:30-13:00 & 14:30-17:00; Th 14:00-17:00, Su 12:00-17:00. Illustrates a 19th-century way of life through its farmhouse with traditional stone bed and central hearth. Free.
- On the A966 east towards Evie and Tingwall, the high island seen just north is Rousay. The small island in the channel between is Eynhallow. There's the ruins of a Norse church here, and there may have been a monastery. But there's no ferry to the island, you'd need to hire a private boat.
- 3 Broch of Gurness, Evie KW17 2NH (from A966 follow lane north). Daily 09:30-17:30. Remains of a village settled from 500-200 BC, the Iron Age. Plus artefacts in the Visitor Centre. Adult £6.
- Click Mill is an 1820 horizontal water-mill, with all its original machinery in working order. It's on Hillside Road between Evie and Dounby. Free, always open.
- Barony Hotel (see "Sleep") rents boats for fishing on Boardhouse Loch.
- Linkshouse (Erlend Williamson Art Fellowship) (south end of main street), ☏ +44 1856 721 221. This is no longer a B&B, but runs residential courses for selected artists.
- Palace Stores next to the palace is the general store, open M-Sa 10:00-17:00, Su 12:00-17:00.
- Birsay Books has second hand and antiquarian books.
Eat and drink
- Birsay Bay Tearoom, KW17 2LX (south end of Birsay's main street). Th-M 10:30-17:00. Beautiful views of the ocean, snacks and light meals.
- 1 Birsay Outdoor Centre, KW17 2LY, ☏ +44 1856 873 535. Three-star hostel with five bedrooms (sleep 26) and 28 campsite pitches. Run by the Orkney local government. Adults £19, juniors £14.35.
- Barony Hotel, KW17 2LS (overlooking Boardhouse Loch), ☏ +44 1856 721327. 3-star, rooms mostly en suite, right by fishing loch. B&B from £40 ppn.
As of Oct 2021, Birsay has no mobile signal from any UK carrier.
Skara Brae and the Stones of Stenness are a few miles south. Beyond those you reach either Stromness (for ferry to Hoy) or Kirkwall.
Following the north coast, you pass Broch of Gurness and Tingwall (for the Rousay ferry) before circling back to the Kirkwall main road.