Scheduled Monument

Earl's Palace, BirsaySM90033

Status: Designated


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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 the designation of buildings, monuments, gardens and designed landscapes and historic battlefields. We also advise Scottish Ministers on the designation of historic marine protected areas.

Scheduling is the way that a monument or archaeological site of national importance is recognised by law through the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979.

We schedule sites and monuments of national importance using the criteria published in the Historic Environment Scotland Policy Statement.

The description and map showing the scheduled area is the legal part of the scheduling. The additional information in the scheduled monument record gives an indication of the national importance of the monument(s). It is not a definitive account or a complete description of the monument(s). The format of scheduled monument records has changed over time. Earlier records will usually be brief and some information will not have been recorded. Scheduled monument consent is required to carry out certain work, including repairs, to scheduled monuments. Applications for scheduled monument consent are made to us. We are happy to discuss your proposals with you before you apply and we do not charge for advice or consent. More information about consent and how to apply for it can be found on our website at

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Printed: 22/03/2019 05:25