Visit and the surrounding villages and stay in bed & breakfast accommodation:
Kirkwall, Orkney, is the capital town of Orkney Islands. This fine and ancient town — or city, for it contains a venerable cathedral — is, and always has been, the capital of Orkney. Even in prehistoric days, this site, in so well protected a bay of the main island of this group, must have been used by early inhabitants — and there is evidence of this. It was, in the days of the Norse occupation of Orkney and Shetland before 1462, their prime seat in these Northern islands, and it was the Norsemen who, nearly nine centuries ago, built its cathedral, which still stands as a reminder of how they spread civilization as well as ruthlessness in their conquests.
The great Norman cathedrals that strode up the length of England and as far as Durham remind us of the abiding power of Norman rule after the conquest of Saxon England in 1066. They built to last. At the same era, their remoter northern cousins were doing the same in St Magnus's Cathedral in Kirkwall.
When the Norsemen left, and Scotland took over in the reign of James III, Kirkwall kept its position, but felt the heavy hand of foreigners much more disliked than any Norsemen had been. The cruel Earl Patrick Stewart, of odious memory, built a palace near the cathedral, and the remains still stand to recall to us “the finest relic of domestic Renaissance architecture in Scotland”.
After the Stewart earls had lost their hold on Orkney, Kirkwall inevitably continued to flourish as the county capital and royal burgh. Its position as a port, as the centre of a growingly agricultural entity, and as trading centre to the Baltic ensured that. Kirkwall, however, withdrew from Scottish politics, being untouched by the domestic upheavals of the 17th and 18th centuries. When the British Navy grew to its once pre-eminent position, Kirkwall re-entered the southern consciousness because of the nearness of the splendid harbour of Scapa Flow. Sailors of both world wars were very familiar with Kirkwall.
Today it is a lively town unrivalled in this respect amongst Scotland's island communities, save by Stornoway in Lewis. It is as much of an island centre as Stornoway, but at the height of summer it attracts more tourists and foreign visitors.
The old town of Kirkwall clusters round the cathedral, and is notable for its solid stone, picturesque rather than beautiful, Scandinavian-type building. Some of the streets have no pavements, but contain massive paving-stones to form one comprehensive thoroughfare between facing houses. It is this, combined with occasional Dutch crow-stepped building, that most strongly helps to give to visitors from the south the feeling of a foreign air about Kirkwall.
Outside the old town, Kirkwall has spread in the modern manner, and there is every facility for the visitor who wishes to go sailing, to explore the island by bus, or to go sea fishing, or angling in the splendid brown-trout lochs of Orkney. There are good hotels and guesthouses. Kirkwall is and looks a flourishing little modern town, self-sufficient, yet in touch with the outer world and welcoming to visitors.
Apart from the Cathedral (of which more below), the only really ancient relics of Kirk-wall's past buildings are the earls palace already referred to and the bishop's palace of pre-Reformation days, now in ruins.
The Cathedral, which would be an impressive building anywhere in Scotland, gains added stature in its island position. Apart from Glasgow, Kirkwall is the only city in Scotland to preserve structurally undamaged its pre-Reformation cathedral. The old statues, ornaments, and other signs of the Catholic past are, of course, long gone, but the building remains as it was. It has one unique qualification. Though the services in it today are those of the Protestant Church of Scotland, and though it is the “parish church of Kirkwall and St Ola”, the building itself does not belong to the Established Church; it is the property of the town. The Town Council of Kirkwall is responsible for its maintenance and repair, an obligation the burghers of Kirkwall are proud to fulfil.
Kirkwall Cathedral was built in the 12th century as a result of what was virtually a pagan vow. A nephew of the saintly Earl Magnus had vowed to build a noble minster in memory of his murdered uncle — this at a time when the Norse in Orkney were scarcely Christian. He fulfilled his vow, became Christian, and was buried in the Cathedral along with the remains of the great and good Magnus, who was shortly afterwards canonized. The remains of St Magnus and of his nephew were discovered all but accidentally during repairs to the building between 1919 and 1926.
Cruciform in construction, the Cathedral is of flagstone and red and yellow sandstone with a central tower and spire. Its style is uncompromisingly massive Romanesque. It is 234 ft long and 101 ft across the transepts. Though damaged by Cromwellian troops, as so many buildings were, during the Commonwealth usurpation and subjugation of Scotland, the ravages have long since been repaired. In the interior is an interesting series of tombstones marking Kirkwall's eminent men from the 16th century down to the present day. A plaque commemorates the 833 men lost in the Royal Oak in 1939 at the beginning of the Second World War. There is a rose window at the South end. It is of the 19th century. The “keeled” shafts of the clustered piers supporting the tower, and the mouldings of the tower arches, are of the 12th century.
Dominating and alive, St Magnus's Cathedral of Kirkwall in Orkney speaks in its stones of the close on nine centuries it has existed, It is, in size and style, easily the most outstanding island building in Scotland. If Rodel is the most poignant reminder of Scotland's religious past in her islands, St Magnus's is the most impressive. It would be impressive on the mainland of Scotland. It is double impressive on the island Mainland of Orkney.
Reaching Kirkwall from Scotland is easy. There are daily flights to Kirkwall airport from Glasgow and Edinburgh via Aberdeen, Inverness, Wick, and Lerwick, and steamer services from Scrabster, Aberdeen, and Leith. Let it be repeated that the little town of Kirkwall is in many respects a capital city on its own, yet in touch with the world.
Nearby islands: Island of Hoy
Nearby towns: Lerwick, Stromness, Thurso
Nearby villages: Birsay, Burray, Deerness, Finstown, Georth, Orphir, Redland, Scapa, Shapinsay, Stenness, St. Marys
Have you decided to visit or the surrounding villages? Please look above for somewhere to stay in:
- a bed and breakfast (a B&B or b and b)
- a guesthouse
- a hotel (or motel)
- a self-catering establishment, or
- other accommodation