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  Kirkwall - Orkney's Capital

Sunrise Skyline. Picture by Sigurd TowrieThe capital of Orkney is the Royal Burgh of Kirkwall, a little town on the northern shore of the Orkney Mainland.

Looking out across Kirkwall Bay towards the island of Shapinsay and the outer North Isles, the town sits almost exactly in the centre of the Mainland, neatly dividing it into the distinct areas known simply as the West and East Mainland.

Kirkwall is a town with two faces.

Firstly, there is the face seen by visitors who have travelled there from some urban metropolis. To them it is a small, leisurely town with squat, grey buildings clustered in the shadow of St Magnus Cathedral.

The narrow, flagstoned main streets, that serve pedestrian and motorist alike, seems both quaint and unnerving.

The second face is revealed when returning from the North Isles.

Approaching from the sea, Kirkwall seems like a bustling city.

Grand buildings decorate the sea-front and the spires of the town's churches challenge the familiar tower of the Cathedral for a place on the skyline. Twisting like an eel, the main street winds from the north to the south, with numerous snaking lanes and closes branching off from the main thoroughfare.

Albert Street: Photograph by Sigurd TowrieThe outskirts of the town may have altered considerably over recent years but the older segments remain practically untouched.

Clustered around these ancient streets are buildings dating from the seventeenth century onward but the oldest surviving buildings to be found within the town are parts of the Bishop's Palace (twelfth century), Tankerness House (which now houses the Orkney Museum and dates from the early sixteenth century) and the Old Kirkwall Grammar School building on Broad Street (sixteenth century).

Kirkwall has a long and colourful history, sadly a fact that most young Kirkwallians now care little about. Over the years, the town's fortunes fluctuated depending upon the varying powers of the islands' earls and bishops who made it their residence.


Kirkwall is first recorded in the Orkneyinga Saga and the town itself probably dates from at least the eleventh century.

At this time, Kirkwall was referred to by its original name Kirkjuvagr - from the Old Norse meaning 'Church Inlet'. Back then, Kirkwall was merely a cluster of dwellings around a natural harbour formed by the Peerie Sea and the sand bar known as the Ayre.

But contrary to popular belief, the town does not take its name from St Magnus Cathedral but probably the smaller church of St Olaf, the only remainder of which is an unassuming doorway in St Olaf's Wynd - an apparantly insignificant little lane branching off one of Kirkwall's old main streets.

The Cathedral and the growth of the town

After 1137, once the construction of St Magnus Cathedral was under way, the settlement began to increase in size as craftsmen and artisans moved into the area to work on the new cathedral.

This influx of people settled to the south of the original dwellings, above the shore of the Peerie, now known as Peedie, Sea. At this time, the shore of the Peerie Sea came up the edge of what is now Broad Street, Albert Street and Victoria Street.

The transfer of St Magnus's relics from their previous resting place, Birsay, to St Magnus Cathedral marked the beginning of a new era for the growing town.

From the thirteenth century onward, the process of land reclamation claimed more and more of the area to the west of the old shore. By the 1930s, the shoreline had reached, more or less, its current position.

Royal Burgh

In 1486, King James III of Scotland decreed that Kirkwall be elevated to the status of Royal Burgh.

In his declaration he referred specifically to the two areas of the town known as the Burgh and the Laverock.

The Burgh was the older, northerly section of Kirkwall, the Laverock being the land surrounding the cathedral and under the control of the Bishop. It is this traditional split between the north and south of the town that may lie at the origin of Kirkwall's annual Ba' games between the Uppies and the Doonies.

Until the early part of this century, Kirkwall comprised of little more than one main street that stretched from the shore and wound its way south, past the front of the Cathedral, and into what is now Victoria Street. This area is still Kirkwall's main commercial centre and known to locals as "up the street" or "doon the toon" depending on the position of your home. The phrase is yet another reminder of the old town split, acted out annually in the Ba' competition.

The Kirkwall Castle was built by Earl Henry Sinclair in the fourteenth century and stood on the site of the existing junction between Albert Street, Castle Street and Broad Street. The castle was destroyed in 1615 after the Sinclair earl and his son rebelled against King James IV of Scotland.

The castle's ruins were finally demolished in 1865. As such, nothing remains of the Kirkwall Castle, apart from a commemmorative plaque on a building in Castle Street.