Scheduled Monument

St Nicholas' Church, settlement and mill, OrphirSM13379

Status: Designated


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The legal document available for download below constitutes the formal designation of the monument under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979. The additional details provided on this page are provided for information purposes only and do not form part of the designation. Historic Environment Scotland accepts no liability for any loss or damages arising from reliance on any inaccuracies within this additional information.


Date Added
Ecclesiastical: church, Secular: Viking settlement, Norse settlement; mill (domestic / small-scale)
Local Authority
Orkney Islands
HY 33487 4401
333487, 1004401


The monument is the remains of a high-status settlement dating mainly to the Norse period (about AD 800-1300). It includes the remains of a 12th-century round church, St Nicholas' Church, and a Norse horizontal mill. There is also evidence for earlier activity on the site. The monument is visible as the turf-covered footings of one or more buildings (known as the 'Earl's Bu'), a stone-lined horizontal mill lade and under-house, the upstanding remains of St Nicholas' Church, and a later burial ground. The monument lies on the northern shore of Orphir Bay at about 5m above sea level, overlooking the water of Scapa Flow. The monument was last scheduled in 1996, but the documentation did not meet modern standards: the present amendment rectifies this.

The excavated remains of the putative hall (or Bu) are visible as low turf-covered drystone walls forming what appears to be either a single long building, or two conjoined buildings, measuring 15m N-S by 6m E-W overall. St Nicholas' Church lies immediately E of the hall and is circular in plan, with an E-facing semi-circular barrel-vaulted apse. Only the apse and part of the nave survive as upstanding remains, with the 'missing' part of the circuit laid out on the ground in gravel. The nave appears to have had an internal diameter of about 5.8m within a wall 1.2m thick. The surviving wall of the nave stands to about 4.5m and a putlog is visible in the SE wall. The apse, from current ground level to vault, is 3.3m in height and measures about 2.2m in both width and depth. A small round-headed double-splayed window pierces the apse on the E side. The masonry is mostly freestone rubble bound in a lime mortar. The stones have been roughly squared and so fall into more or less regular courses, with pinnings used throughout. The remains of the horizontal mill lie N of the settlement and comprise a slab-lined under-house and mill lade, both surviving to a height of about 1.5m. Viking Age deposits were found beneath the mill, while the mill itself appears to date to the 11th century, confirming that Norse occupation of the site spans several centuries. The site has also produced two Pictish symbol stones (now lost) testifying to a pre-Norse presence. The earliest known activity on this multi-period site is a burnt mound of Bronze Age date.

The scheduled area is irregular on plan to include the remains described above and an area around them within which evidence relating to the monument's construction, use and abandonment is expected to survive, as shown in red on the accompanying map. The scheduling specifically excludes the above-ground elements of: all modern buildings; the Orkney Saga Centre; the display boat and plinth; all modern boundary walls, fences; interpretation boards; the top 30cm of all modern gravel paths, the gravel outline of the round church, and road surfaces. The scheduling also excludes any burial lairs where rights of burial still exist.

Statement of National Importance

The monument is of national importance because it can make a significant contribution to our understanding of settlement and society in Norse period Orkney, in particular, of Norse architectural expressions of wealth, status and religious belief. The church is highly significant as an unusual ecclesiastical building which illustrates the cosmopolitan nature of Norse society during the 12th and 13th centuries. Overall, the monument has the potential to provide important information about Norse secular and ecclesiastical organisation, material culture and burial practices. The monument retains some features unique in Scotland: for example, the stone-lined 11th-century horizontal mill is the earliest recorded example; and St Nicholas' Church is the only surviving circular church in Scotland. Although parts of the settlement have been disturbed, recent excavation of the mill has confirmed that archaeological deposits are well-preserved and have very high potential to support future archaeological research. The rarity and high archaeological potential of these remains make it an internationally important Norse site. Its significance is further enhanced by its association with the places, events and individuals described in Orkneyinga Saga. If this monument was to be lost or damaged, it would diminish our understanding of the variety, distribution and character of Norse settlement, the nature of Norse influence in Orkney, and the origins and development of high-status centres and ecclesiastical sites in the Norse period.



RCAHMS records the monument as HY30SW 1 (church) and HY30SW 2 (Earl's Bu, settlement, and mill).


Batey, C E and Morris, C D 1989, 'Excavations at the Earl's Bu, Orphir, Orkney, 1988', University of Durham and University of Newcastle upon Tyne: Archaeological Reports, Durham, 47-50.

Batey, C 1991, 'Earl's Bu. The excavation of a Norse horizontal mill', Curr Archaeol, 11, 7 December, 303-4.

Batey, C E, Harry, R C and Morris, C D 1993, Excavations at the Earl's Bu, Orphir, Orkney, 1993, GUARD unpubl report.

Fisher, I 1993, 'Orphir church in its south Scandinavian context', in Batey, C E, Jesch, J and Morris, C D, The Viking age in Caithness, Orkney and the North Atlantic Edinburgh, 375-80.

Johnson, P G and Batey, C E 2003, 'Survey at the Earl's Bu, Orphir, Orkney 1989-91: geophysical work on a late Norse estate complex', Scot Archaeol Internet Rep 4, [accessed 10 December 2013].

RCAHMS 1946, The Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland. Twelfth report with an inventory of the ancient monuments of Orkney and Shetland, 3v Edinburgh, 174-5, nos 483 and 485; Introduction, 43.

Historic Environment Scotland Properties

Earl's Bu, Orphir

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St. Nicholas Church, Orphir

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About Scheduled Monuments

Historic Environment Scotland is responsible for designating sites and places at the national level. These designations are Scheduled monuments, Listed buildings, Inventory of gardens and designed landscapes and Inventory of historic battlefields.

We make recommendations to the Scottish Government about historic marine protected areas, and the Scottish Ministers decide whether to designate.

Scheduling is the process that identifies, designates and provides statutory protection for monuments and archaeological sites of national importance as set out in the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979.

We schedule sites and monuments that are found to be of national importance using the selection guidance published in Designation Policy and Selection Guidance (2019)

Scheduled monument records provide an indication of the national importance of the scheduled monument which has been identified by the description and map. The description and map (see ‘legal documents’ above) showing the scheduled area is the designation of the monument under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979. The statement of national importance and additional information provided are supplementary and provided for general information purposes only. Historic Environment Scotland accepts no liability for any loss or damages arising from reliance on any inaccuracies within the statement of national importance or additional information. These records are not definitive historical or archaeological accounts or a complete description of the monument(s).

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Printed: 07/12/2023 20:24