Puffins at the Brough of Birsay

It's been beautifully sunny this last week, Orkney's looking green and cheerful again after a long, wet winter and even better the puffins are now back at the Brough of Birsay. They're nesting around the cliffs above the site, so after you've visited the archaeology on a bonny day you can take a walk up the hill to see the puffins, alongside the coulter nebs (razor bills) auks and gannets.

Everyone loves puffins and they're back at the Brough of Birsay

The Brough of Birsay itself is a Pictish/Viking/Norse settlement and monastic site, which is reached by crossing the causeway at low tide. We always prefer to visit when the tide is falling, as then you know with certainty that you're not going to be stranded out there. Tides are a tricky thing - it comes in at the Brough faster than it goes out, and the time you have also depends on whether it's a spring or neap tide, and also on the weather. If there's a big swell on the sea the causeway might not clear at all.

Looking across to the Brough of Birsay from the landward side

The site on the Brough is now protected by a sea wall, although some of the site has already gone to coastal erosion. This is a big problem in Orkney with many sites suffering from it, such as the ongoing excavation at the Knowe of Swandro in Rousay. The Pictish monastic site was eventually reestablished as a monastery in the Norse period, and has associations with the great Earl Thorfinn the Mighty, who ruled his earldoms from the nearby palace on the Mainland side. It's definitely one of Orkney's more picturesque and romantic sites, although it must have been a hard life for the monks in the winter, with the raging Atlantic storms breaking over the cliffs.

The early 12th century Norse church on the Brough of Birsay

One of the best finds is the 7th/8th century Pictish symbol stone found in pieces by the graveyard, and now in the National Museum in Edinburgh.

The Pictish symbol stone as found at the Brough of Birsay

The really unusual feature is the three men in long robes with the square shields and spears - this isn't found anywhere else than at the Brough. The other symbols on the stone are quite common - the crescent and V rod, the wee Pictish beastie, the eagle and the mirror case - all turn up elsewhere in Scotland quite frequently.