Kirkwall from the Bishop's Palace
Kirkwall from the Bishop’s Palace
We spent our week in Orkney in its capital, Kirkwall. It’s not a large town, but it has a cathedral, two palaces and a couple of interesting museums.

St Magnus Cathedral

Right in the centre is the cathedral, founded in 1137. Magnus, Earl of Orkney, was murdered in 1117 on the orders of his cousin, Hakon. He died praying, and stories grew of miracles at his grave. When his nephew, Rognvald, came from Norway to claim the Earldom, he promised to build the cathedral in his uncle’s honour. Rognvald himself was murdered in 1158 and also became a saint – the bones of both men lie within the cathedral’s walls.

The Palaces

South of the Cathedral are the ruins of the Earl’s and Bishop’s Palaces. The Earl in question was the notorious Patrick Stewart – we last met him in Scalloway Castle, another of his dwellings. He used forced labour to build the palace In Kirkwall between 1600 and 1607, but was only able to enjoy it for a short time before he was imprisoned and charged with treason in 1610. Foolishly, he encouraged his son, Robert, to organise an insurrection. It didn’t end well for them: Robert was hanged and his father beheaded in 1615. It’s not likely that the people of Orkney and Shetland shed many tears, as the Stewart Earls had a reputation for despotism and extortion. You have to admire Patrick’s taste though – his Palace is a beautiful example of Scottish Renaissance architecture.

The Bishop’s Palace is less well-preserved, much of what is left dating to the time of Bishop Robert Reid (1541-58). Climbing the tower allows a good view of Kirkwall (see top of post) and an additional perspective on the Cathedral.

Museums and Library

Orkney Museum is housed in the 16th century Tankerness House (look to the right of the lamp-post in the picture of Broad Street and the Mercat Cross below. It’s the house with the arched entrance: you can also see it in the top picture). It’s interesting, but feels rather old-fashioned after visiting Shetland’s splendid new museum in Lerwick. We had a go at writing our names in runes and strolled round the adjoining gardens.

The tiny Wireless Museum is packed to the roof with antique equipment. I found some of the displays of interest from a social history point of view, but the technical stuff was lost on me. As a quid pro quo, our next port of call was – you’ve guessed it – Orkney Library. This is a very special place – read more on my other blog, Adventures of a Retired Librarian.

Streets of Orkney

Wandering the streets from the Cathedral down to the harbour will while away a happy hour.

Orkney by night

The cathedral and the streets around it take on an attractive glow by night. We spent one happy evening in The Reel listening to traditional music from the Orkney Strathspey and Reel Society (and enjoying some local beer at the same time).

Kirkwall was a good base for exploring Orkney’s Mainland and a wee bit beyond. Coming next: The Italian Chapel and Tomb of the Eagles.