Kirkwall, from the Norse word Kirkjuvagr, meaning 'Church Bay', was probably founded in the early 11th century. The town contains many buildings of interest, and is the departure point for ferries to Shapinsay and the North Isles as well as bus services to the East and West Mainland.


Aerial view of Kirkwall
(C) Richard Welsby

The most striking building in the town is that of St Magnus Cathedral. Construction of this magnificent red sandstone building by master masons from Durham started in 1137, and took about 15 years to complete. The Cathedral is owned by the Orkney Islands Council and the people of Kirkwall, and although used by the Church of Scotland, it is available to all denominations. A number of interesting 17th century tombstones are on display inside the Cathedral, bearing the motif of skull and crossed bones, hourglass, and coffin. Most of the inscriptions are still legible, and with a little effort, may be read.

Close to St Magnus Cathedral are the remains of the Bishop's Palace, built by Bishop William the Old in the 12th century, and then repaired and refurbished in the middle of the 16th century. The Norwegian King Hakon died in the Bishop's Palace in 1263 after suffering defeat in the battle of Largs.

The Earls Palace was built shortly after 1600 by Earl Patrick Stewart with the use of forced labour. It was taken over by the Bishopric shortly after completion.

The Tankerness House museum was originally the residence of church officials, and contains a fascinating collection of Orcadian artefacts from neolithic to contemporary.

The Grain Earth House at Hatston is a souterrain similar to that at Rennibister. It was discovered around 1827 but filled in until it was re-excavated in 1857. The house consists of a chamber approximately 4 metres by 2 metres reached by a passage. It is slightly unusual in that a flight of steps lead from ground level to the end of the passage.


Photograph courtesy of Richard Welsby


Ayre Hotel - 4 star hotel in central Kirkwall
Polrudden - high quality guest house accommodation
Copyright Orknet 1996