Earl’s Palace, Birsay

The ruins of the Earl’s Palace in Birsay, are a mere shadow of a grand reformation residence that once stood oppressively over the local Orcadians.

Around 1565, Robert Stewart, the illegitimate son of James V, was granted rule of Orkney and Shetland by Mary, Queen of Scots. Built around 1574, he built his pretentious main residence in Birsay.

Earl's Palalce Birsay, facing North west from the central courtyard

Facing North west from the central courtyard

Various inventories and descriptions lay testament to the lavish interiors and sumptuous decor of the rooms that went hand in hand with the pain and suffering brought about the Orcadian people by their unjust and tyrannical ruler.

Dominating the village and shore of Birsay, the building was constructed around a central courtyard and well.  Being part fortress, part residence, three large towers flanked its walls with gun holes along the ground floor.

The first floor had large sumptuous rooms with a stunning gallery in the west wing.  The ceilings were elaborately painted with biblical scenes.

According to the inscription above the entrance, the work was started in 1574, with the great hall and beside it, Lord Robert’s private chamber.

Earls' Palace Birsay - West gallery

The West Gallery

It is thought that the second phase may have taken place after Lord Robert acquired the Earldom in 1581. A great hall and chamber were added on the north side of the courtyard.

After the death of Earl Robert, later Earls only paid scant attention to this dwelling and writings indicate that it was falling into ruin by 1701.


Walking around the ruins, it is hard to imagine how lavish and extravagant this place would have been. However, it’s presence is out of keeping with the rest of the landscape and it would have been a very imposing structure in it’s day.


In Birsay on the A966.
Grid reference – HY 248 277.
Access – Free of Charge

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More Information

Birsay Heritage Trust

Robert Stewart – First Earl of Orkney – Undiscovered Scotland

Historic Scotland – Places to visit