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Castles

The Earl’s Proud Palace in Birsay

The massive ruins seem strangely out of place but still dominate Birsay. One can only imagine what Earl’s Palace was like in its full glory. It stood by the shore of Birsay Bay, a proud edifice whose cruel owner oppressed the people of Orkney as long as he ruled them.

Earl Robert Stewart was the illegitimate son of King James V of Scotland and he built the Earl’s Palace in Birsay by the between 1569 and 1579 to flaunt his royal birth and authority on the island. As the sheriff of Orkney and later the Earl, he acquired additional property in 1568 by taking over the properties previously controlled by the Bishop of Orkney. Using forced labor he started building this grand palace in 1569and made sure it was completed by 1579.

It was an exceptionally fine structure built from the local grey flagstone, dominating the village. The two-storey palace was a group of grand buildings built around a central courtyard and well. One three of the four corners stood large stone towers that rose to three storeys. The remains of one of the towers still stand today.

The palace was built over two phases, the first in the 1570s and the second in the 1580s. The great hall located in the south range and above the main door was built in the first stage. Lord Robert’s private chamber in the south-eastern corner tower was also built then and an inscription above the entrance, dated 1574, marked this phase.

The palace was further enhanced when Robert Stewart acquired the Orkney Earldom in 1581. A new range was added at that time containing a great hall and chamber, built on the north side of the courtyard.

The palatial residence had ceilings elaborately decorated with painting of Biblical scenes, but the structure served as a fortress as much as a home. The ground floors had small openings for windows with a range of gun-holes through which the palace was protected. Musketeers could cover every side of the structure. The upper residential floors had large windows.

The Stewarts‘ successors the Earls of Morton took possession of the palace but by 1650 it was decaying, when it was requisitioned by Cromwell’s forces. By 1700 the roof had collapsed and the building was no longer habitable.