Kirkwall is the major commercial, service and administrative centre as well as the capital of the Orkney Isles. It is located on the eastern side of the island called the Mainland, which is the largest, and main island of the group. It is a busy harbour town and retains its old world charm amongst the narrow twisted streets and houses that cling to the bulk of St Magnus’ Cathedral, which dominates Kirkwall and is the island’s notable historic stone church. Considered to be one of Scotland’s most attractive and well preserved small towns, Kirkwall is a popular tourist destination due to its unique and appealing island position and its proximity to attractions such as the superbly preserved prehistoric village of Skara Brae (Europe’s most complete Neolithic village), the Stones of Stenness, the Ring of Brogar, the third largest henge in the British Isles, and the chambered tomb of Maes Howe. In addition Kirkwall offers easy access to Scotland’s distilleries of Highland Park, which is Scotland’s most northerly distillery, and Scapa, plus the huge harbour of Scapa Flow.
The St. Magnus Cathedral, was founded in 1137 by Earl Rognvald, the Norse ruler of the islands at the time, it was dedicated to his Uncle Magnus, who had been murdered by a rival Earl on the 16th April 1117. Both Magnus and Rognvald have been given Sainthood and their bodies have been sealed in stonework of the cathedral. One of the finest examples of Norman architecture in Scotland, the building, which is built of local red and yellow sandstone, is still in regular use as the Parish Church.
Other notable buildings in the town are the Bishop’s and Earl’s Palaces. The Bishop’s Palace was built for Bishop William the Old in the 1150’s, and is known as the Palace of the Yards. Standing across the road from the Bishop’s Palace is the Earl’s Palace, built in 1607 for the 2nd Earl of Orkney, Patrick Stewart. It stands behind a thick screen of trees and is generally considered to be the finest Renaissance building in Scotland. The Earl was tried in 1610 and imprisoned later to be hanged in Edinburgh in 1614 following a reign of terror. This attractive palace has no roof although the walls are intact and it is therefore easy to see its former glory. The Museum and Art Gallery is housed in Tankerness House. A town house built in 1574, it specializes in Orkney history.
Today Kirkwall is easy to access being serviced via sea and air. Kirkwall airport stands only 5 kilometres east of the town and the town has two ferry terminals. The main ferry terminal is just 3 kilometres away, while Orkney Ferries provide an inter-island service which connects to the other islands from Kirkwall Harbour. If you need any tourist information pay a visit to the friendly and helpful staff of the Tourist Information Centre. Please note if you wish to thoroughly explore the islands it is best to take your own car or hire one, as although the Public transport is surprisingly good access to some attractions can be difficult.
Other places of interest, within 30 kilometres –
Widford Hill, 2 kilometres west of the town, gives views of the south, to the mountains of Sutherland on the mainland of Scotland, and north to Fair Isle, 95 kilometres away.
The Old Man of Hoy, on Hoy Island west of Kirkwall, has the finest cliff scenery. Ward Hill, also on Hoy Island is the highest point of the Orkneys at 480 metres.
Scapa Flow, the huge harbour which lies between the Mainland and the Island of Hoy, sheltered the British Fleet in both World War I and II and is where the German Navy scuttled its fleet in 1919.
In West Mainland can be found the prehistoric village of Skara Brae, which stands on the west coast of the island. It is a remarkable prehistoric village which was inhabited 4000 years ago. Also in West Mainland are the Standing Stones of Stenness, the Stone Circle called the Ring of Brodgar and the burial mound of Maes Howe all prehistoric monuments which today have been protected and declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site..
Did you know that – the oldest public lending library in Scotland, dating from 1683, is said to be in Kirkwall?