Orkney's capital is built around a wide sheltered bay and is the main departure point for ferries to the northern islands.
code: +44 (0)1856 Population: 7,000
First impressions are a little misleading, as the harbour area has been blighted by modern development. More appealing, however, are the narrow winding streets and lanes of the old town, which has not changed much over the centuries. There are many houses dating from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, as well as Kirkwall's greatest attraction, its magnificent cathedral, the finest medieval building in northern Scotland.
For full details see Transport
Local Sights & Activities for Kirkwall
The town's outstanding sight is the huge and impressive red sandstone St Magnus Cathedral, built by masons who had worked on Durham Cathedral in the north of England. It was founded in 1137 by Rognvald Kolson, Earl of Orkney, in memory of his uncle, Magnus Erlendson, who was slain by his cousin, Haakon Paulson, on Egilsay in 1115. Magnus was buried at Birsay and it is said that heavenly light was seen over his grave. It soon became a shrine, attracting pilgrims from as far afield as Norway. Magnus was canonized in 1133, and four years later his nephew commissioned construction of the cathedral. The building wasn't completed until the 14th century, and major additions were made during the intervening centuries. The most recent addition was a new west window for the nave, to celebrate the cathedral's 850th anniversary in 1987.
The bones of St Magnus now lie in the north choir pillar, while those of St Rognvald lie in the south one. There's also a memorial to John Rae, the 19th-century Arctic explorer who is buried in the graveyard, as well as a monument to the 833 men of the HMS Royal Oak who died when it was torpedoed in Scapa Flow in 1939. Info - Apr-Sep Mon-Sat 0900-1800, Sun 1400-1800; Oct-Mar Mon-Sat 0900-1300 and 1400-1700, Sun service at 1115.
Looming impressively nearby are the ruins of the Bishop's Palace, built in the 12th century as the first Kirkwall residence of the Bishop of Orkney.(We have special entry passes) Here King Haakon of Norway died in 1263 after his defeat at the Battle of Largs. The palace was repaired and extended in the mid-16th century by Bishop Reid, and most of what you see dates from that period. There's a good view of the town from the top of the 'Moosie Too'r'.
The adjacent Earl's Palace was built around 1600 by the notorious Patrick Stewart, Earl of Orkney, using forced labour. Still very much intact, it is one of Scotland's most elegant Renaissance buildings and was occupied by the tyrannical Stewart only for a very short time, until he was imprisoned and later executed. Wandering around both these spectacularly impressive, and solid, buildings is a very good way to get a feel for a period of Orkney's history that is very often ignored, with the likes of Skara Brae just up the road.
Info - Apr-Sep daily 0930-1830. £2, concession £1.50, children £0.75. Joint ticket for all Orkney monuments also available. Tel. 871918.
Opposite St Magnus Cathedral is Tankerness House and Gardens, a 16th-century former manse which has been restored and now houses the Orkney Museum, which features various archaeological artefacts from Neolithic times to the Vikings. If you are spending any time in Kirkwall at the beginning of your stay, then this is an exceedingly worthwhile exhibition. It is a great way to whet your appetite for the archaeological gems that are lying in wait for you all over the islands, and it also puts them into a useful chronological context. Info - Oct-Mar Mon-Sat 1030-1230, 1330-1700; Apr-Sep 1030-1700; May-Sep also Sun 1400-1700. Free. Tel. 873191.
Old radio buffs should not miss the Orkney Wireless Museum, at Kiln Corner, at the harbour end of Junction Road, which houses a jumble of domestic and wartime communications equipment from the 1930s onwards. Info - Apr-Sep Mon-Sat 1000-1630, Sun 1400-1630. £2, children £1.
A mile south of the town centre on the road to South Ronaldsay is the 200-year-old Highland Park Distillery, the most northerly of Scotland's whisky distilleries. There are guided tours of the distillery, one of the few that still has its own floor maltings, and a wee dram of this particularly fine single malt at the end. Info - Tours every half hour Apr-Oct Mon-Fri 1000-1700 (last tour at 1600); Jul and Aug also Sat and Sun 1200-1700; Nov, Dec and Mar Mon-Fri at 1400 and 1530 only. Adult £3, concession £2, children £1.50. Tel. 874619.
Bars & nighlife
The Bothy Bar at the Albert Hotel is a good place for a drink, and sometimes has live folk music. The hotel's Matchmakers Bar has a disco at weekends. The Ayre Hotel also stages folk music nights. Check details in The Orcadian. The town's New Phoenix cinema is housed in the Pickaquoy Leisure Centre, Tel. 879900, on Pickaquoy Rd. It also has sports and fitness facilities, and a café and bar.
Nightlife in Kirkwall revolves around its lively pubs
Kirkwall Hotels & Accommodation
The top hotel in Kirkwall is the very comfortable B-C Ayre Hotel, Tel. 873001, Ayre Hotel on the harbour front. Another good option is the B-DAlbert Hotel, Tel. 876000, Email Albert Hotel on Mounthoolie Lane in the centre of town. It also has a restaurant and a couple of lively bars (see below). Two miles from town on the A964 Orphir road at St Ola is the D Foveran Hotel, Tel. 872389, The foveran Hotel overlooking Scapa Flow. It is friendly and comfortable, and also offers very good food, including vegetarian. The D West End Hotel, Main St, Tel. 872368, The west End Hotel is central and serves good bar meals.
There are also plenty of cheap B&Bs, though most rooms are small and don't have en suite facilities. E Whiteclett, St Catherine's Pl, Tel. 874193. A 200-year-old listed house near the harbour; and E-F Arundel, Inganess Rd, Tel. 873148. A modern bungalow on a quiet road about a mile from the town centre.
F SYHA Youth Hostel, Tel. 872243, open Apr-Sep. This large, well-equipped youth hostel is on Old Scapa Rd, about 15 mins' walk from the town centre. There's also camping at Pickaquoy Caravan & Camping Site, Tel. 873535. Open May-Sep, on the western outskirts of Kirkwall, off the A965.