With its shopping, historic buildings and general air of bustle and briskness, Kirkwall, - and its cathedral - make for essential visiting on any Orkney excursion.
Kirkwall – ‘church bay’ – at the centre of a northern kingdom
Kirkwall was once at the heart of the seaways of the Vikings. Today Kirkwall still services the other islands of the group via its ferry links and retains a historic ambience. Earl Rognvald’s cathedral was started in the 12th century, ahead of the Bishop’s Palace that still stands opposite. The town was also chosen as the site of a Renaissance palace by the tyrannical island ruler, Patrick Stewart, 2nd Earl of Orkney in 1607.
Tankerness House, a fine example of a 16th century townhouse, and some surviving buildings from the 17th and 18th centuries, all add to the character of the town. It remains a busy commercial centre. From a visitor’s viewpoint, it offers good shopping choice today, especially for craftwork such as logical jewellery.
Accommodation in Kirkwall:
Kirkwall has a good selection of hotels, some close to or right on the harbourfront. Guest house and bed and breakfast accommodation can be found both in the town and in rural locations within easy reach, some with fine views across Scapa Flow. There are both town properties and also converted farmhouse accommodation in the self catering sector. Kirkwall also has a choice of hostel accommodation, with a further selection on the other islands, and there is also a caravan and campsite in the town.
St Magnus Cathedral, the Bishop’s and Earl’s Palace are at the heart of the town. The islands’ heritage is displayed at Kirkwall’s main Museum at Tankerness House. There is also a wireless museum near the harbour. Close to the town, the Highland Park Distillery is another popular attraction. The wealth of archaeological attractions for which Orkney is famous lie with an easy drive of Kirkwall, with places like Skara Brae, the Ring of Brogar (or Brodgar) and Maes Howe on every visitor’s ‘must see’ list.
The lochs of Mainland are easily reached from Kirkwall and offer good brown trout fishing. Scapa Flow, where the German naval fleet was scuttled in 1919, is popular with divers. Operators also offer boat trips here. The Outer North Isles can be explored in summer on excursions with the local ferry operator (Orkney Ferries). Three golf courses are easy to reach from Kirkwall. There are also riding and trekking opportunities.
Hoy, with its moorland and rounded hills, is different from the other islands of Orkney. It offers a good walk from Rackwick Bay to the Old Man of Hoy, or further to the mighty cliffs of St John’ Head. This is of special interest to birdwatchers, with great skuas over the moors just one of the seabirds seen. Also on Hoy, the fascinating Scapa Flow Visitor Centre (Lyness Interpretation Centre) tells the story of the importance of this natural anchorage to the British Navy in time of war.
It is said that Orkney has more archaeological sites per square mile than anywhere else in Europe. The Neolithic village of Skara Brae, with its nearby interpretation centre, invokes the life of the early island folk in a unique and vivid way. The Ring of Brogar is also a site with a palpable sense of the past. Maes Howe is the UK’s finest megalithic tomb, already 3,500 years old when Viking visitors left their graffiti and carvings – notably the little ‘Maes Howe dragon’.
Earl Rognvald started work on a magnificent new church - ‘a stone minster at Kirkwall’ according to the sagas – 20 years after the death of his uncle Earl Magnus. The choir was completed by 1142 and has been described as the finest Romanesque work north of Durham, in England (where some of the original stonemasons are believed to have come from). Work continued in stages until the late 14th century. Today the two distinctive colours of sandstone have mellowed to create a space of huge solemnity and presence. There is an impressive view of the setting from the topmost tower of the Bishop’s Palace opposite.
Orkney in general is strong on guided walks and illustrated talks on wildlife and archaeology – and music too, for example with the annual Orkney Folk festival, based in Stromness, Kirkwall and other locations at the end of May. The St Magnus Festival is an important celebration of the arts, in June, built around midsummer. Orkney Craftsmen’s Guild Exhibition is a reminder of the creative work of the area – in July, Kirkwall. Full information from www.visitorkney.com.