St Peter

Today, the Brough of Birsay is a small tidal island off the Orkney mainland. Between the 600s and 1200s AD, the area was settled by the Picts and Norse.

About this church

Objects found here show that this was a high status settlement for all of its life. Birsay was probably a Pictish power centre, and the village itself is likely the site of the first Orcadian bishopric (diocese) and seat of the earldom of Orkney.

Excavations show that Picts lived here in the late 7th century. Today, the most tangible sign of their presence is the symbol stone inside the graveyard. It bears four Pictish symbols; mirror case, crescent and V-rod, Pictish beast, and eagle and an an unusual scene featuring three armed men. There is also a small well from Pictish times on the east side of the churchyard. E

Norse people settled on the brough in the early 9th century, and the remains of their houses and barns can still be seen. The settlement developed over the next 300 years. The building and rebuilding has left a complex maze of walls between the later churchyard and the sea.

A small church and what appears to be a monastery were built in the 11th century. Apart from St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, this is one of the most sophisticated medieval ecclesiastical buildings to survive in the Northern Isles.

The Romanesque style church has stone benches along the side walls of the nave, alcoves for altars on either side of the chancel entrance and a small cloister, housing the domestic buildings, to the north. Birsay’s importance as an ecclesiastical centre declined from the 1100s. The monastery was probably short lived and may never have been completed.

Key Features

  • Captivating architecture
  • Social heritage stories

Visitors information

  • Level access to the main areas
  • On street parking at church
  • Parking within 250m
  • Accessible toilets nearby
  • Dog friendly
  • Walkers & cyclists welcome
  • Space to secure your bike

Other nearby churches


St Magnus Cathedral

St Magnus Cathedral known as the Light in the North and founded in 1137 by the Viking, Earl Rognvald, in honour of his uncle St Magnus, dominates Kirkwall on Orkney.


Italian Chapel

Today the chapel stands after seventy years, as a reminder of a faith that flourished in adversity, and as a memorial to the genius of its Italian prisoner of war builders.

Help support ExploreChurches by becoming a Friend of the National Churches Trust