Birsay Travel Guide

Explore the cultural and natural attractions, hiking and biking routes, food and drink scene, and local customs of Birsay in Scotland with our comprehensive travel guide.

Discovering Birsay: A Comprehensive Travel Guide

Birsay, located on the northern coast of mainland Orkney in Scotland, is a picturesque seaside village that is rich in history, culture, and natural beauty. From stunning coastline walks to ancient historical ruins, Birsay has something for everyone. If you’re planning a trip to Birsay, here’s everything you need to know to make the most of your visit.

Introduction to Birsay

Birsay is a small village located on the northern coast of the Orkney Mainland, in Scotland. It lies 15 miles north of the town of Stromness and 18 miles northwest of Kirkwall, the capital of Orkney. The village is situated on a peninsula, with the Brough of Birsay, a tidal island, accessible on foot at low tide. Birsay has a rich cultural heritage and is known for its natural beauty, making it a popular destination for tourists.

List of Places to Visit in Birsay

Culturally Important Attractions: Museums and Historical Places

  • The Brough of Birsay: A tidal island that can be accessed on foot at low tide, featuring a lighthouse and the ruins of a Norse chapel and Earl’s Palace.
  • Barony Mill: A working watermill that produces traditional Orcadian beremeal and oatmeal, dating back to 1873.
  • Earl’s Palace: The ruins of a palace and stronghold built by Robert Stewart, Earl of Orkney in the 16th century, featuring stunning architecture and beautiful gardens.
  • The Orkneyinga Saga Centre: An interactive museum exploring the history and culture of the Orkney Islands, and the tales of the Norse sagas.

Natural Attractions of Birsay: Outdoor Adventures and Scenic Views

  • Marwick Head: A cliff top that offers breath-taking views of the ocean, a lighthouse, and puffin colonies during breeding season.
  • The Kitchener Memorial: A war memorial located on the cliffs of Marwick Head, built in memory of Lord Kitchener and the men who lost their lives in the HMS Hampshire sinking.
  • Yesnaby Cliffs: A dramatic coastline formation featuring sea stacks and arches, and impressive views of the open sea.
  • Birsay Bay: A wide and sandy beach, perfect for a relaxing walk or a picnic.

Hiking/Biking Routes of Birsay

Birsay is a perfect place for outdoor enthusiasts, with its stunning coastal walks and picturesque countryside. Some of the popular routes include:

  • The Brough of Birsay Walk: A 1-mile coastal walk from the village to the Brough of Birsay, offering stunning views of the sea and the cliffs.
  • Marwick Head Walk: A 2-mile walk along the cliffs of Marwick Head, featuring the Kitchener Memorial and the Yesnaby Cliffs.
  • The Mull Head Nature Reserve Walk: A 3-mile walk featuring abundant flora and fauna, and a variety of bird species.

Best Things to Do in Birsay: Activities and Tours

  • Take a guided tour of the Brough of Birsay and the Earl’s Palace to learn about the history and culture of the area.
  • Visit the Barony Mill to see the traditional Orcadian beremeal and oatmeal being made, and purchase some to take home.
  • Take a boat trip to one of the nearby islands, such as Foula, to explore the unique landscape and wildlife of the Outer Hebrides.

Week-Long Itinerary for Birsay

Day 1: Arrival and settling in. Day 2: Visit the Orkneyinga Saga Centre and the Birsay Bay. Day 3: Take a guided tour of the Brough of Birsay and the Earl’s Palace, followed by a walk on the Marwick Head cliffs. Day 4: Visit the Barony Mill and take a walk on the Mull Head Nature Reserve. Day 5: Take a boat trip to one of the nearby islands. Day 6: Visit Yesnaby Cliffs and the Kitchener Memorial. Day 7: Depart Birsay.

Food and Drink Scene of Birsay

Must-Try Dishes

  • Beremeal oatcakes: A traditional Orcadian snack, made with beremeal flour from the Barony Mill.
  • Orcadian lamb: A local speciality, raised on the island and known for its excellent flavour.
  • Cullen Skink: A creamy soup made with smoked haddock and potatoes.

Local Beverages

  • Orkney beer: A popular local beer, brewed with seawater and local barley.
  • Highland Park whisky: A single malt whisky produced on the Orkney Islands, known for its distinct flavour.

Where to Stay in Birsay: Hotels, Hostels, and Guesthouses

  • The Smithy Guest House: A traditional B&B located in the heart of Birsay village.
  • Barony Hotel: A small, family-run hotel located in Birsay village.
  • The Ayre Hotel: A modern hotel located in the nearby town of Kirkwall.

What to Buy in Birsay: Souvenirs and Local Products to Bring Home

  • Orcadian jewellery: Silver jewellery, often featuring locally-sourced gemstones.
  • Orkney beer and whisky: Take home a bottle of the locally-produced beer or whisky as a souvenir.
  • Beremeal flour and oatmeal: Purchase some of the traditional Orcadian flour and oatmeal produced at the Barony Mill.

Local Culture and Customs of Birsay

Birsay is known for its rich cultural heritage, which is reflected in the local traditions and customs. Orcadians place a strong emphasis on community and storytelling, and visitors can learn about the history and culture of the area through museums, tours, and events.

Best Time to Visit Birsay

Birsay can be visited year-round, but the best time to visit is from April to September, when the temperatures are milder and the days are longer. This is also the best time to see the puffin colonies on the cliffs and to take a boat trip to one of the nearby islands.

Do’s and Don’ts of Birsay


  • Respect the local customs and traditions.
  • Follow the designated walking paths and trails, and take care when visiting the coastal areas.


  • Remove or damage any of the natural or historical features of Birsay.
  • Leave any litter or waste behind.

Safety and Health

Safety in Birsay

Birsay is a relatively safe place to visit, but visitors should take care when walking near the cliffs or the tidal areas. It is also important to follow the guidance of local authorities and tour guides when walking on the Brough of Birsay.

Health in Birsay

Birsay has a small medical centre that can attend to minor medical issues. For major medical emergencies, visitors should travel to the nearest hospital in Kirkwall.

Getting to Birsay: Transportation Options and Logistics

Airports Near Birsay

The closest airport to Birsay is Kirkwall Airport, which is located 18 miles to the southeast.

Bus Stations Near Birsay

Birsay is serviced by the Orkney Bus, which provides regular bus service to and from the surrounding areas.

Other Options

Visitors can also travel to Birsay by car, or by bike.

How to Get Around in Birsay

The best way to get around Birsay is on foot. The village is compact, and the coastal areas can be easily explored on foot. Visitors can also hire a bike to explore the surrounding areas.

Where to Go Next from Birsay: Nearby Destinations and Excursions

  • Kirkwall: The capital of Orkney, home to the St. Magnus Cathedral and the Orkney Museum.
  • Skara Brae: A prehistoric village located on the western coast of Orkney Mainland, featuring well-preserved stone houses.
  • The Outer Hebrides: A group of islands located off the western coast of Scotland, famous for their stunning scenery and unique wildlife.


Birsay is a truly unique destination, offering visitors a fascinating blend of natural beauty, cultural heritage, and outdoor adventure. From exploring the ancient ruins of the Earl’s Palace to walking along the dramatic coastline of Marwick Head, there is something for everyone in Birsay. Use our comprehensive travel guide to help you make the most of your trip to this stunning corner of Scotland.