Rousay (Old Norse: Hrólfsey meaning Rolf's Island) is a small, hilly island about 3 km (1.9 mi) north of Mainland, the largest island in the Orkney Islands of Scotland, and has been nicknamed "the Egypt of the north", due to its archaeological diversity and importance.

Norse nameHrólfsey[1]
Meaning of nameOld Norse for "Hrolf's island"

Trumland House on Rousay, designed by David Bryce who also designed Balfour Castle on Shapinsay.
Rousay shown within Orkney
OS grid referenceHY407309
Coordinates59.17°N 3.03°W / 59.17; -3.03
Physical geography
Island groupOrkney
Area4,860 hectares (18.8 sq mi)
Area rank23[2]
Highest elevationBlotchnie Fiold 249 metres (817 ft)
Sovereign stateUnited Kingdom
Council areaOrkney Islands
Population rank30[2]
Population density4.4 people/km2[3][4]
Largest settlementBanks

It is separated from mainland Orkney by the Eynhallow Sound, and, like its neighbours Egilsay and Wyre, can be reached by ro-ro ferry MV Eynhallow from Tingwall, on the mainland of Orkney, which takes 20–25 minutes. This service is operated by Orkney Ferries, and can take up to 95 passengers (reduced to 50 in winter), and 10 cars. The ferry links the islands of Rousay, Egilsay, and Wyre with each other, and with the mainland of Orkney.[8]

Geography and natural history

In the 2001 census, Rousay had a population of 212 people. Most employment opportunities are in farming, fishing or fish-farming; there are also craft businesses and some seasonal tourism-related work. There is one circular road round the island, about 14 miles (23 kilometres) long, and most arable land lies in the few hundred yards between this and the coastline. With an area of 4,860 hectares (18.8 square miles), it is the fifth largest of the Orkney Islands.

There are several freshwater lochs[9] on the island, the biggest of which is Muckle Water.

Rousay is a 'Site of Special Scientific Interest' with notable cliff formations and wildflower colonies, and has an RSPB bird reserve. The hilliest Orkney island after Hoy, it offers good views of neighbouring islands from Blotchnifiold 249 metres (817 ft), and Keirfea or Knitchen (both over 229 metres (750 ft)).

In the Summer there is an increase in visitors drawn by its natural environment and wildlife, including Rousay's seals and otters, and by its archaeological remains, especially the cluster of sites connected by a footpath near the western shore.


The island has evidence from every stage in the history of Orkney, with a Neolithic settlement at Rinyo, Bronze Age burnt mounds, Iron Age crannogs and brochs (the highest density anywhere in Scotland: three within 500 metres (547 yd) of coastline), Viking boat burials, remains of a medieval church and the stately home at Trumland.

Over 100 archaeological sites have been identified, but only a small fraction of them have been excavated and researched. The best known and most spectacular of the island's archaeological sites is the complex of Midhowe Broch and Midhowe Chambered Cairn. Blackhammer Chambered Cairn, Taversoe Tuick, and Yarso are also important tombs on the island.

Rousay placenames reflect its Norse heritage. 'Hrólfs-øy' or 'Hrolfsey' was based on the male name 'Hrolf' (Rolf). Hugh Marwick's work has shown the name developing from 'Rollesay' in the 14th century, through 'Rolsay' in the 15th, and 'Rowsay' in the early 16th, with the spelling 'Rousay' first recorded in 1549.[10]

Most Rousay people have always earned their living from farming and/or fishing. In the 19th century, records show there were also tradespeople supplying the needs of a rural community: blacksmiths and joiners, shoemakers and shopkeepers, with women doing dressmaking and straw plaiting. Throughout the century, Rousay's landlords demanded high rents from crofters, many of whom were made homeless in a series of clearances along the western coast, ordered by landowner George William Traill in the 1820s and 1830s.

Traill's nephew General Sir Frederick Traill-Burroughs inherited much of the island and bought more. Traill-Burroughs built a large house at Trumland, designed by David Bryce of Edinburgh.[11] From 1870-1883, there were a large number of improvements; the building of Trumland pier, island schools, a public market, the first steamship service, a post office, and the first resident doctor. He was known locally as "the little general" as he was a man of short stature and the poet Edwin Muir recalled in a memoir of his childhood seeing the little general walking around his estates.[11]

Rousay's population in the mid-19th century was over 900, but emigration following land clearances reduced that to 627 by 1900, and half a century later it had fallen to 342. Depopulation accelerated, and in the next twenty years the number fell to 181, its lowest ever. From the 1970s onward new families started to settle on Rousay: most came from the south, especially from England. The population is now over 200.

The Yetnasteen stone is said to have once been a giant who revives every New Year at midnight and goes down to the Loch of Scockness to drink.[12]

Local education

There is a primary school,[13] which provides education for boys and girls aged 3 to 12, and has a school roll of 24. Once a child completes his/her primary education, they must then move up to secondary school. Kirkwall Grammar School, Kirkwall, is the usual school, however, in recent years, Stromness Academy, Stromness, has been the secondary school of choice for many of the pupils.

Many of the pupils, both primary and secondary, are entitled to free school transport on the island.


The poet Pauline Stainer spent several years on the island, and in 1999 published a collection of her poems about Rousay, Parable Island.

Robert C. Marwick (1922-2013) was a school teacher, headmaster and author born on the farm of Innister, in the Wasbister district of Rousay. His publications about Rousay include From My Rousay Schoolbag (1995) ISBN 1899851038; Rousay Roots (1995); In Dreams We Moor (2000) ISBN 1-899851-04-6.

The astronomer,[14] musician and writer, John Vetterlein first came to Rousay in 1970[15] and has lived on the island full-time since 1995. He established the small publishing house Spring Ast LIX in 1997, whose publications include: Braes Woodland Diary - the First Ten Years by Ann Chapman.[16]

The actor Graham Fellows owns a disused church on the Orkney island, which he intends to turn into an "artists refuge".[17]

The late artist Margaret Gardiner spent a large part of her life on Rousay and founded, in 1979 the Pier Art Gallery in Stromness.

Rousay Sound

Rousay is separated from the neighbouring island of Egilsay by the Rousay Sound. The sound experiences strong tides, which creates the perfect conditions for maerl beds to form. The maerl beds in turn provide a sheltered habitat for species as peacock worms and various sponges, as well as small fish, shrimps, gobies and crabs.[18] Since 2014 the sound, along with the neighbouring Wyre Sound (which separates Rousay from Wyre), has been designated as a Nature Conservation Marine Protected Area (NCMPA).[19] Fishing activities are controlled within the MPA, and no dredging, beam trawling, demersal trawling or Seine fishing is permitted.[20]

See also


  1. Orkney Placenames. Orkneyjar. Retrieved 24 August 2013.
  2. Area and population ranks: there are c.300 islands over 20ha in extent and 93 permanently inhabited islands were listed in the 2011 census.
  3. National Records of Scotland (15 August 2013) (pdf) Statistical Bulletin: 2011 Census: First Results on Population and Household Estimates for Scotland - Release 1C (Part Two). "Appendix 2: Population and households on Scotland’s inhabited islands". Retrieved 17 August 2013.
  4. Haswell-Smith (2004) pp. 383-86
  5. Ordnance Survey: Landranger map sheet 5 Orkney (Northern Isles) (Map). Ordnance Survey. 2008. ISBN 9780319228111.
  6. Anderson, Joseph (Ed.) (1893) Orkneyinga Saga. Translated by Jón A. Hjaltalin & Gilbert Goudie. Edinburgh. James Thin and Mercat Press (1990 reprint). ISBN 0-901824-25-9
  7. Pedersen, Roy (January 1992) Orkneyjar ok Katanes (map, Inverness, Nevis Print)
  8. "M.V. Eynhallow" (PDF). Retrieved 2007-07-27.
  9. "Orkney". Retrieved 2013-10-05.
  10. Marwick, Hugh (1947) The Place-names of Rousay.
  12. "History and Archaeology". Discover Rousay. Retrieved 29 July 2014.
  13. "Rousay Primary School". Retrieved 2007-06-05.
  14. John Vetterlein. "Sky Notes: Mercury/Saturn Conjunction October 08 2009". Retrieved 2009-09-09.
  15. John Vetterlein. Cobbett’s Field. ISBN 978-1-4343-5286-6.
  16. Chapman, Ann (2004) Braes Woodland Diary – The First Ten Years. Charting the progress and involvement of an island’s community in growing trees. Orkney. Spring Ast LIX. ISBN 1-902582-50-0
  17. "Graham Fellows: My icy, windswept island paradise". The Independent. Retrieved 21 June 2011.
  18. "Wyre and Rousay Sounds Marine Protected Area summary leaflet". Scottish Natural Heritage. Retrieved 29 November 2019.
  19. "Sitelink: Wyre and Rousay Sounds Marine Protected Area". Scottish Natural Heritage. Retrieved 29 November 2019.
  20. "The Inshore Fishing (Prohibition of Fishing and Fishing Methods) (Scotland) Order 2015". Queen's Printer for Scotland. Retrieved 29 November 2019.


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