About the island of Rousay

Rousay is one of the Orkney Islands which lie a few miles to the north of the mainland of Scotland. Orkney lay under Norse rule from the ninth century until 1486 when it was ceded to Scotland in lieu of a wedding dowry. Consequently, most of the placenames in the islands are of Norse origin. In his book, The Placenames of Rousay, Dr. Hugh Marwick traces the Rousay name back through its various forms to Hrolfsey, Hrolf (Rolf) being a common personal name among the ancient Norsemen. Later forms of the name were Rollesay in the late 14th century, Rolsay in the 15th, Rowsay in the early 16th, with Rousay first appearing in 1549.         

After Hoy, Rousay is the hilliest of the Orkney islands. Its highest hill is Blotchnifiold which reaches a height of 816 feet, and two others, Keirfea and Knitchen, rise to over 750 feet.  To those with the energy to climb their gentle slopes they afford splendid views over neighbouring  islands lying to the north and east as well as over parts of the mainland of Orkney.

  The road that runs around the island is 14 miles long and throughout its length is never more than a few hundred yards from the coast. Most of the arable land lies between the road and the shore.

In the past most of the people in Rousay made their living from farming and fishing. The island also supported a few tradesmen such as blacksmiths, joiners, shoemakers, and tailors. Some women were engaged in dressmaking and straw plaiting. A number of small shops sold groceries, household hardware,  and small farm necessities such as shovels, forks, and rope.

150 years ago Rousay had a population of over 900 but emigration had reduced that number to 627 by 1900. In the next 50 years the number fell to 342. Depopulation then speeded up and the number fell to an all-time low of 181 in the next 20 years. The tide then turned in the 1970s when families from the south, mainly from England, began settling in the island. The population has increased to its present level of about 250, two-thirds of whom are new Orcadians. Agriculture, fish farming, and fishing are the main sources of employment.

Rousay abounds in archaeological sites with over 100 having been identified. Only a small fraction of them have been excavated and researched. The best known are Midhowe Broch and the nearby Stalled Burial Cairn. near the shore on the west side of the island.

 Orkney Ferries operates a car ferry between Rousay and Tingwall on the Mainland of Orkney making six return trips each day. The crossing takes 30 minutes.

Orkney Tourist Board has discovered that almost 25% of those who visit the county are prompted to do so by a desire to trace their Orkney ancestry. Many visitors to Rousay are following the genealogical trail back to where their ancestors lived. Those who have done some family history research (e.g. by a careful perusal of this website!) in advance of their arrival will gain most from their visit as the genealogy research facilities on Rousay are very limited.