Region / Country: Orkney, Scotland
Contact: Christine Horne

The study was originally started to discover details for the people who are listed in the 1861 census of South Ronaldsay and Burray, where were they from, where were they in subsequent records and whether they were all (even remotely) related to each other.

The study now covers from 1696 to 2020, the majority of evidence currently contained in the study is for the period 1821 to 1911.

The study is ongoing, transcription of Old Parish Records and Statutory Records is still in progress, hopefully summer 2023 will see the transcription of Poor Law Records for the Parish.


The Parish of South Ronaldsay & Burray, includes the Islands of South Ronaldsay, Burray, Hunda, Swona, Pentland Skerries and Glimsholm.

Only South Ronaldsay and Burray are now populated.

Situated in the South of the Orkney Islands, the Parish is the first glimpse travellers from John O’Groats or Scrabster, on the Scottish mainland will see of the Island group.

South Ronaldsay, and Burray have been physically connected to the Orkney Mainland by the Churchill Barriers since 1944.


The Population of the Parish of South Ronaldsay & Burray in 2011 was 1318, considerably lower than the peak in 1881 of 3305
1821 = 2231
1841 = 3174
1851 = 3086
1861 = 3282
1871 = 3228
1881 = 3305
1891 = 3051
1901 = 2707
1911 = 2382
1921 = 2101

The largest settlements, in the Parish are:

Both currently and historically, St Margaret’s Hope (known locally as The Hope) on the Island of South Ronaldsay.

Burray Village, on the Island of Burray.

Historically on the Island of South Ronaldsay, there was a “Village” at Herston and concentrations of houses at Grimness, Widewall and Hoxa.


On 12 January 1918, HMS Opal and HMS Narborough ran into the cliffs at Hesta Head, of the 189 people in board the two ships, only 1 survived.

During World War 2, there were Batteries at Hoxa Head on the Island of South Ronaldsay.


Farming has been the primary activity in the Parish for several hundred years, a situation which continues to date.
Fishing, especially herring fishing was of great importance to the economy of the Parish in the 1800’s.

Tourism, has become more important industry through the latter part of the 20th century and into the 21st century.


Churches, across the Island Group:

St Lawrence in Burray, dates from 1621 it has been a ruin without a roof for many years, the graveyard is still in use,
St Peter’s in Eastside, South Ronaldsay, constructed in the 17th Century, renovated in 1801 and again in 1967.
St Mary’s at the South End of South Ronaldsay, rebuilt in about 1790.
St Margaret’s, located Church Road, St Margaret’s Hope, built in 1856 and enlarged in 1870.
In 1826 a United Presbyterian Church was built.
The Old Parish records indicate the presence of an active Free Presbyterian Congregation in the 1800’s.
There is a suggestion that at least 4 other Churches were located in the Parish, I have currently been unable to pursue this suggestion.

Community Life

Festival of the Horse, includes ploughing match for young people on the “sands” and a parade of horse costumes, annual event since the 1800’s.

South Ronaldsay and Burray Agricultural Show, in August each year.

Cromarty Hall, Cromarty Square, St Margaret’s Hope, donated to the community in 1878 by William Cromarty, it continues to serve as a meeting and entertainment location for the local community.


Tomison’s Academy, initially created as a result of a legacy by William Tomison, it provided free education to children of the Island of South Ronaldsay, until its closure in 1960’s.

In 1884 there were 5 schools in the Parish, Burray, Grimness, Hope, Widewall and Tomison’s Academy.

In 2022 there are 2 schools, Burray and Hope, both are primary schools, Senior school education takes place in Kirkwall.

Travel and Migration

Before 1944 the Parish was dependant on boats for travel beyond the individual islands. Since 1944 the Islands have been connected by the Churchill Barriers.

Direct connection to the Scottish Mainland is as it has been historically by boat.

A number of those born in the Parish, emigrated to the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada in the 1800’s, often as family groups. It is noticeable that many of those who married after they emigrated married others who had emigrated from South Ronaldsay or from other parishes in Orkney.

Families & Notable People

William Tomison, 1739 to 1829, Hudson’s Bay Company.
Enduring Surnames: Cromarty, Dearness, Hourston, Rosie, Thomson,

Further Reading

Place Names of South Ronaldsay and Burray, Gregor Lamb, published 2006, ISBN 0955058627 (1821 Census of South Ronaldsay & Burray)

Orkney Family History Society:

For Freedom and Honour, G L Esson, (details of individuals included on the War Memorial in South Ronaldsay)

Orkney Archives:

Hudsons Bay Company Archives:


Census of South Ronaldsay & Burray, 1821, 1841, 1851, 1861, 1871, 1881, 1891, 1901, 1911, (Scotland’s People Website)

Census from various Parishes across Scotland, including Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Wick, Thurso, 1841 to 1901

Book: For Freedom and Honour, Place Names of South Ronaldsay & Burray, Kirkwall in the Orkney’s

Book: Place Names of South Ronaldsay & Burray

Kirk Session Records for South Ronaldsay & Burray, (Scotland’s People Website)

Kirk Financial Records for South Ronaldsay & Burray, (Scotland’s People Website)

Annal of the Annal, website

Commonwealth War Graves Commission (Website)

United States Census Records, various States 1870 to 1950

Statutory Birth, marriage and Death Records, (Scotland’s People website) and Scotland’s People Hub

Old Parish Records, South Ronaldsay & Burray along with various other parishes in Scotland (Scotland’s People website)

Poor Law Applications for South Ronaldsay & Burray Parish

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