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Birsay and Harray, Orkney

Historical Description

BIRSAY-AND-HARRAY, a parish, in the county of Orkney; containing 2406 inhabitants, of whom 1634 are in Birsay, and 772 in Harray. These two ancient parishes, which were united under the Earls of Orkney, originally constituted a province or district called "Bergisherard", signifying in the Norwegian language lands appropriated to the diversion of hunting; and previously to the rise of Kirkwall, here was the residence of the Earls, and the Bishops of Orkney. There are still considerable remains of the episcopal palace, occupying a beautiful site near the sea. By whom it was originally built, is not distinctly known; but numerous additions were made to it from time to time by the Sinclairs, who were styled indifferently Princes and Counts of Orkney. It was subsequently enlarged and improved by Robert Stuart, brother of Mary, Queen of Scots; and above the principal entrance was a stone bearing an inscription to that effect, with armorial bearings, and the motto Sic Fuit, Est, et Erit; which stone passed into the possession of the Earl of Morton, to whom the lands were sold, and from whom they were afterwards purchased by Sir Lawrence Dundas, ancestor of the Earl of Zetland, the present proprietor.

The parish is about eleven miles in extreme length, and eight miles in extreme breadth. It is bounded on the north and west by the sea; on the north and east, by the parishes of Evie, Rendal, and Firth; and on the south and west, by the parish of Sandwick, and Loch Stenness. Towards the west the surface is for some distance level, but towards the east more elevated, rising into hills of considerable height. It is diversified with several lakes of great beauty, abounding with trout and other fresh-water fish, and frequented by numerous kinds of aquatic fowl; and the lands are intersected by various rivulets and smaller burns, which, for want of bridges, interrupt the communication. The soil is generally fertile, though varying in different parts of the district: that of the lands called the barony of Birsay is a mixture of clay and sand, producing luxuriant crops of oats and barley; in other parts a deep black loam prevails, producing grain of good quality, and also potatoes and turnips. Sea-weed, of which abundance is found on the coast, is used for manure; and the system of agriculture, though well adapted to the present state of the farms, might, under a different tenure, be very greatly improved. The substrata are principally limestone and clay-slate, the latter of which is quarried for pavements and roofing; building-stone is also found here, and in some parts of the district marble and alabaster have been discovered. The manufacture of strawplat is carried on extensively, affording employment to nearly 450 of the females; the males are employed in agriculture and in the fisheries. There are twenty boats belonging to Birsay, which during the season are engaged in the cod and lobster fishery; and five are employed in the herring-fisheries at Stronsay and Wick, whence they generally return with remunerating success. The coast is rocky and precipitous, and the want of a convenient harbour is unfavourable to the extension of the fisheries of the place. Fairs for cattle and horses are held annually.

For ecclesiastical purposes the parish is within the bounds of the presbytery of Cairston, synod of Orkney. The minister's stipend is £218. 6. 8., including an allowance of £8. 6. 8. for communion elements; with a manse situated at Birsay, and two glebes valued together at £21 per annum: patron, the Earl of Zetland. Birsay church is an ancient building, enlarged in 1760, and containing 565 sittings; the church of Harray, a neat plain building erected in 1836, contains 400 sittings. There are places of worship for members of the Free Church, United Original Seceders, and Independents. The parochial school of Birsay is well attended; the master has a salary of £26, with a dwelling-house and garden. A school at Harray is supported by the General Assembly, who pay the teacher a salary of £25, with a house and garden, and other perquisites. There is a parochial library, containing nearly 180 volumes, chiefly on religious subjects. About half a mile from the site of the episcopal palace is the brough of Birsay, a portion of high land at the north-western extremity of the parish, formed into an island by the action of the sea, and to which access by land is obtained only at low water. From some remains of walls, there appears to have been an ancient fortress on the spot, though when or by whom erected is not known; a chapel dedicated to St. Peter was subsequently erected on the site, of which the only remains are part of a wall and one of the windows. There are also remains of ancient Picts' houses, and upright stones, in various parts of the parish.

Transcribed from A Topographical Dictionary of Scotland, 1851 by Samuel Lewis