Walk: Brough of Birsay, Orkney

July is a great time of year to spot puffins on UK shores, particularly on the islands of Orkney where these charming birds once shared the cliffs with Picts and Vikings

Causeway and tidal island
Published: July 5th, 2022 at 6:04 am

Facing the full onslaught of wild North Sea winds, the Brough of Birsay is a tiny causewayed island off the north-west of Orkney’s mainland. Its windswept shores are home to rare plants and colonies of nesting seabirds, including curlews, skuas and characterful puffins.


It seems an unlikely place for people, but there have been settlers here since at least Pictish times in the 7th century. A Pictish well and stone markings can be found, but it was the Vikings who really made their mark; the remains of their village and kirk, or church, dominate the island.

To avoid being stranded on the causewayed island, time your walk to begin around two hours before the low tide. Historic Environment Scotland charges a small fee to visit.

Puffin on a cliff
The Brough of Birsay on the Isles of Orkney is a good place to spot puffins/Alamy

Birsay puffins

Puffins arrive at the Brough of Birsay during spring, raising their chicks on its rugged coast before flying back out to sea throughout August. The best way to spot these captivating ‘sea parrots’ is on foot, on the north-west coast, carefully peering over the cliffs as you get close to the unmanned lighthouse.

Brough of Birsay walk

5 miles/8km | 3 hours | moderate

1. Palace by the sea

Facing north from St Magnus Church, with its nearby car park and bus stop, walk up the road to the magnificent ruins of Earl’s Palace. The palace was built under the instruction of Robert Stewart, the Earl of Orkney and half-brother of Mary, Queen of Scots. It was said that Stewart’s rule was tyrannical and most building work he commissioned, including the palace, was nothing less than slave labour.

Take a left at the T-junction towards the coast then bear right, following this track to the causeway.

2. On to the island

Cross the causeway and explore the island’s church and village ruins. Go through the gate in the top corner of the complex and follow the path to the left, along the coast. Along this stretch you’ll see vertigo-inducing sea stacks with nesting seabirds. Keep to the path and follow it as best you can around the coast – winds may well blow you inland here.

3. Puffin patrol

Keep to the path until you reach the lighthouse; the cliffs here are the best place to spot puffins. Continue along the coast path, rounding the north of the island before heading inland through the settlement and back over the causeway.

4. North shore

Follow the mainland coast path east, hugging the shoreline to pass the whalebone monument, until you get to Whitaloo Point/Longaglebe Geo, at which point head inland to Northside Road.

5. Inland amble

Follow Northside Road west past the houses, turn left following the long straight road to the A966, then take a right to return to the starting point.


Brough of Birsay map

Brough of Birsay walking route and map

Brough of Birsay walking route and map


Dave Hamilton is an author, freelance writer, tutor, photographer, forager and explorer of historic sites and natural places.


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