Here on a tidal island, about 800, the Vikings took over a rich settlement from the Picts, the then indigenous Orkney people. One of the few remaining Pictish pieces on the Brough is a (replica) carved stone with three warriors and a range of Pictish symbols carved on it. They were clearly armed and dressed to impress. Yet this became the heart of Viking Orkney.
The Vikings laid out houses built of turf and stone, in the style imported from their Scandinavian homeland, round-cornered, bow-sided, in a group or row. Each house was orientated up and down the slope, having a single living room with a long hearth and platforms to each side for seats and beds. Some were partitioned to include a cow-byre at the lower end, and in some, subsequently, extensions were constructed. These remains are curated as low turf walls.
A boathouse was built at the top of what is now the entrance to the island, on top of Pictish buildings. Coastal erosion has recently been gnawing away at the island, so it is difficult to know how full a picture we have, but it seems likely that the boathouse would mark the outer edge of the Brough in Viking times.
There are remains of a 12th-century Norwegian-styled church and monastery that was laid out on part of the site. Nearby, a complex of dwellings and farm buildings, including a sauna or bath-house, were also found. These may have belonged to the Earl of Orkney.
Earl Thorfinn, whose home was in Birsay visited Rome about 1050 and thereafter the Pope consecrated a Birsay-based bishop for Orkney. It is not known whether the bishopric church was on the Brough or near the church of St Magnus in the village, though the latter is most likely.
Nowadays, this site is in the care of Historic Environment Scotland and is open all year round. In summer the site is staffed and a small museum, and guidebooks etc are available.
Important: Visitors should be aware that this site is a tidal island and access is only possible for a couple of hours each side of low tide. Access is from a nearby carpark, across a beautiful beach of sand and stones, plus causeway.