Birsay Earl's Palace was built by Robert Stewart (half-brother of Mary Queen of Scots). The Stewart earls were notorious for their oppressive and tyrannical ways.
Work on the palace began sometime around 1570AD, with the first phase consisting of the south range, the great hall and Robert Stewart's private chamber. The second phase was begun in the 1580s following Robert Stewart becoming the Earl of Orkney in 1581AD, and consisted of a new range, a great hall, and a chamber.
Following the death of Robert Stewart in 1593AD, work was completed by his son, Patrick Stewart, sometime before 1614AD. The Stewart earls were overthrown in 1615AD when Patrick was charged with treason and executed in 1615AD. His son, Robert Stewart, had risen against the Crown and seized the palace. At this time, the palace was transferred to the Bishops of Orkney.
By 1653AD, an inventory drawn up by Oliver Cromwell’s troops when they were garrisoned at the palace suggests that it was already in decline. By 1700AD, it had fallen into terminal decay.
Today, the remains of Birsay Earl's Palace lie abandoned on the far north-west tip of Orkney. It feels strange to find them here, on an island that's so windswept and empty. It's hard to imagine what inclined the earls to build a palace here, or what life was like and what local industry sustained them.
Birsay is a long way from the heart of Britain, and sitting amongst these ruins on a peaceful sunny day, there's a sensation of being on the edge of the world and outside time. It might not be the most impressive destination on Orkney, but the palace has a unique appeal that makes it an essential place to visit.