Rousay is one of the Orkney Islands, separated by a mile-wide strait from Orkney Mainland. It's small and hilly, only 5 by 3 miles, with a population of 219 in 2011: its terrain and land-use are in some ways more Hebridean than Orcadian, including a sad history of Clearances. The reason to visit is for its remarkable collection of prehistoric sites. It's also a Site of Special Scientific Interest because of its geology, wildflowers and bird life.
You also come via Rousay to reach the islands of Wyre (population 5) and Egilsay (population 14) which are green, low-lying and look more typically Orcadian.
Orkney Ferries sail from Tingwall on Mainland, taking 30 min. There are six M-Sa and four on Sunday. The ferry is a small ro-ro for vehicles and foot passengers, landing at 1 Trumland Pier. It continues to Egilsay and Wyre, usually in that order, then returns to Rousay, before going back to Tingwall. Until May 2023, the return fare is adult £5.64, conc £4.24, child £2.82, car £17.86. If taking your car on the ferry, note that you reverse onto it, so should park up in the marshalling area facing away from the slipway.
Bus 6 runs every couple of hours from Kirkwall via Finstown to meet the ferries at Tingwall, 20 min. In summer the first and last buses of the day continue round the Mainland coast to Birsay and Stromness.
A single narrow lane, B9064, makes a 13-mile (20-km) circuit of the island. The best of the prehistoric sites, Midhowe Cairn and Broch, are a 5-mile hike along the lane west from the ferry pier. Cycling is a good way to get around and bikes can be hired from the Rousay Hostel, see Sleep. They're conveyed free on the ferry.
Rousay Tours is Patrick Macguire in his spare time, using an 8-seater Renault Trafic to give guided tours of the island. ☏ +44 1856 821234.
- Trumland House is a baronial mansion overlooking the pier. It was badly damaged in a fire in 1985 and only part-restored. The museum there and gardens are closed "until further notice" as of May 2023.
- Taversoe Tuick (half a mile west of ferry pier). An unusual two-storey neolithic cairn. The upper level is covered by a concrete dome and you climb down to the lower level.
- 1 Blackhammer Chambered Cairn. A long stalled neolithic chambered cairn with seven compartments, spoiled slightly by the concrete roof.
- Knowe of Yarso (on hill above Taversoe Hotel). Another long 4-stalled cairn with a less intrusive roof. free.
- Knowe of Lairo a quarter mile west has been badly damaged.
- 2 Midhowe Cairn (5 miles west of pier). This is a huge stalled tomb, lying parallel to the shore on the west coast. Known by archaeologists as The Great Ship of Death it is perhaps one of the most significant prehistoric sites in Orkney. The cairn's outer wall-face was carefully arranged in a herringbone pattern. The tomb is now protected under a shed and its sophisticated structure can be viewed also from an overhead walkway. The rectangular burial chamber, 23.4 m long, is divided by pairs of upright slabs into 12 compartments. Along the eastern wall of the compartments the remains of 25 people were found. Some of them had been exposed prior to burial to remove the flesh. Several compartments are provided with stone benches. Pottery recovered from the chamber is of the "Unstan" type. Access is "restricted" meaning you can walk on the overhead walkway but not round the perimeter; however it is still worth a visit! free.
- 3 Midhowe Broch (by Midhowe Cairn, same parking). The best example of a broch in Orkney. It was excavated in the early 1930s; its remains are over 4 metres high and it might have been 13 metres high when it was built. The broch was built in close association with a small village, the remains of which can still be seen outside the walls of the defensive structure. It differs from most brochs in having two large "rooms" protected within its large fortified walls, each with their own hearth, beds and other signs of domesticity. There is a communal well beneath the floor of the more westerly room. free.
- Sea cliffs and rugged inlets are reached by a short walk west from Midhowe: Quern of Wisber, Knoe of Scabra and Hole of the Horses.
- 4 Yetnasteen Stone is a 2-m-tall slab. In Old Norse Jotunna-steinn indicated "giant stone"; he was turned to stone when exposed to daylight, but at the stroke of midnight at New Year (never mind which calendar) he's released for just long enough to take a drink from the nearby freshwater loch. Actually the stone looks more like something that came out of Finn McCool's pop-up toaster.
- 5 Wyre is the small inhabited island just south of Rousay, and served by the same ferry. Here are the remains of Cubbie Roo's Castle, built around 1150 AD, and of St Mary's Chapel of similar date. The poet Edwin Muir (1887-1959) spent much of his childhood on Wyre.
- 6 Egilsay is the island a mile east of Rousay. It's inhabited and served by the same ferry. It's the site of the murder of St Magnus; the church dedicated to him is ruined but retains a prominent round bell-tower.
- Kili Holm is a tidal islet connected to the north of Egilsay. Its name suggests an early Christian hermitage but there's no trace of that, just a cairn.
- Holm of Scockness is an islet between Egilsay and Rousay. Nothing here but sheep.
- 7 Eynhallow is the uninhabited islet west of Rousay. It has the ruins of a 12th-century church: no ferries call here, but there are occasional sight-seeing trips.
- 8 Gairsay south of Wyre is a sheep farm, with no ferry.
- Birdlife: RSPB Trumland Reserve is by the ferry pier.
- Rousay Stores, House Bay, Essaquoy KW17 2PR (east side of island), ☏ +44 1856 821365. M W-F 11:00-17:30, Sa 11:00-14:00, closed Su & Tu. Well-stocked convenience store with fresh, frozen, dry and tinned goods.
Eat and drink
The Taversoe has a public bar and restaurant, see "Sleep".
- Rousay Hostel, Trumland Organic Farm KW17 2PU (just west of ferry pier), ☏ +44 1856 821 252. Three-star hostel with 11 beds and camping facilities. Open all year. Dorm £14 ppn, room £15, camping £6.
- Cedarlee, Brinian KW17 2PU (next to ferry pier), ☏ +44 1856 821243. Self-catering lodge, sleeps 4-6, normally let Saturday to Saturday, but may be available for stays of 4 nights or more. No pets. High season £400/week.
- The Taversoe, Gripps KW17 2PT (just west of ferry pier), ☏ +44 1856 821325. Small hotel with one twin, two doubles, one twin-double. All en suite with views over the Eynhallow Sound towards Mainland. With lounge, public bar and restaurant.
As of Oct 2021, there is no mobile signal on Rousay, Wyre or Egilsay, nor at the Mainland ferry pier.
Back to Orkney Mainland it must be.