Scheduled Monument

Earl's Palace, BirsaySM90033

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
Secular: hall; palace; well
Local Authority
Orkney Islands
Birsay And Harray
HY 24815 27759
324815, 1027759


The monument is a ruined palace. It was probably begun in 1569 and was largely complete by 1574, the date on an inscription formerly set over the main door; this also recorded the builder as Robert Stewart, Earl of Orkney. The palace was being used by the Earls of Morton in the 1650s, but by the early 1700s had lost its roof and fallen into decay. Today it is badly ruined, and the E and S ranges barely survive above first-floor level.

The palace buildings were originally laid out about 3 sides of a rectangular courtyard, with a wall enclosing the N side. The ranges were two-storeyed, and at 3 of the corners (and possibly the fourth, NW, corner) stood a projecting rectangular tower, that on the NE being 3-storeyed. There were large windows only on the upper floors, while the basement was provided with small rectangular openings, immediately below which are a multiplicity of gun-ports.

The main entrance, on the S, led through a pend, with a guard chamber on the right, into a central courtyard. The main hall seems to have been in the S range, above the entrance, but in a secondary phase a N range was built, containing a great hall and chamber on the first floor and a kitchen and storage cellars on the ground floor; this was served by a new turnpike stair in the NE corner of the courtyard. The date of this addition is uncertain, though it seems more likely that the responsibility for it lies with Robert Stewart than with his son, Patrick. A date in the 1580s therefore appears likely.

The W range contained a series of 5 private chambers on the ground floor, and a long gallery on the first floor. The E range contained on the ground floor, from N to S, a chamber, a brewhouse (formerly a kitchen), followed by 3 more chambers; and on the first floor (now almost completely gone) a little hall, and 3 chambers known in 1653 as the King's, the Cabinet, and the Lord's. In the centre of the courtyard is a well.

The area to be scheduled includes the remains of the palace contained within an area of ground defined by the edge of the public road on the N, W and S, and by a wall and fence line on the E, measuring overall 70m N-S by 40m E-W, as shown in red on the accompanying map.

Statement of National Importance

The monument is of national importance as the palatial residence of a powerful noble of royal blood, Robert Stewart, the illegitimate son of James V. The planning of the building, considered in relation to surviving 16th-18th documentation, offers insights into the layout and functioning of such a palace. The buried archaeological remains have the potential to contribute further details, besides adding to our knowledge of the material culture of the period. The historical importance of the building is enhanced by its role in the rebellion of the younger Robert Stewart (son of Patrick) in May 1614, when it was successfully held by the rebels against the sheriff's men.



RCAHMS records the monument as HY 22 NW 6.


Anderson, P. D. and Stewart, R. (1982) Earl of Orkney, Lord of Shetland, 1533-1593, Edinburgh, 73-77, 133-136.

MacGibbon, D. and Ross, T. (1887-92) The castellated and domestic architecture of Scotland from the twelfth to the eighteenth centuries, 5v, Edinburgh, Vol. 2, 337-47.

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, 142-5, No. 401.

Ritchie, A. (1985) Exploring Scotland's heritage: Orkney and Shetland, Exploring Scotland's heritage series Edinburgh, 77, No. 36.

Historic Environment Scotland Properties

Earl's Palace, Birsay

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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).

The format of scheduled monument records has changed over time. Earlier records will usually be brief. Some information will not have been recorded and the map will not be to current standards. Even if what is described and what is mapped has changed, the monument is still scheduled.

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Printed: 26/05/2024 23:16