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  The Earl's Palace, Birsay

Picture Sigurd TowrieEarl Robert Stewart built the Earl's Palace, in Birsay, between 1569 and 1579.

An illegitimate son of King James V of Scotland, the palace stands monument to Robert's royal pretensions and his oppression of the people of Orkney.

Standing by the shore of Birsay Bay, and dominating the village, the two-storey palace was constructed around a central courtyard and well, with large stone towers at three of the four corners.

These days, the condition of the ruins makes it difficult to imagine how the palace would have appeared in its heyday, but it was an exceptionally fine residence.

But it was as much a fortress as a residence. Only the palace's upper floors had large windows; the accessible ground floors equipped with small openings and an array of gun-holes, from which musketeers could cover every side of the building.

The palace was built in two distinct phases, the first in the 1570s and the second in the 1580s.

The first phase of work saw the construction of the great hall, the principal room of the palace, located initially in the south range and above the main door.

Beside this was Lord Robert's private chamber, in the south-eastern corner tower. An inscription above the entrance, dated 1574, marked this phase.

The second phase probably followed Robert's acquisition of the Orkney Earldom in 1581. This saw the addition of a new range, containing a great hall and chamber, built on the north side of the courtyard.

Few records of the palace remain to give a clear impression of its contents and layout. However, a 1633 account described it as a "sumptuous and stately building", thus confirming it was a luxurious abode.

The Reverend John Brand, who published a description of Orkney in 1701, highlighted the palace's décor, in particular the ceilings, which were elaborated decorated with painting of biblical scenes.

He wrote:

"[The upper floor] hath been prettily decorated, the ceiling being all painted, and that for the most part with schems holding forth scripture histories of Noah's flood, Christ's riding to Jerusalem etc."

After the death of Robert Stewart, the palace was used only occasionally by later earls of Orkney. John Brand's account confirms that by 1701 the palace had begun to deteriorate badly.