capital of Orkney is the Royal Burgh of Kirkwall, a
little town on the northern shore of the
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
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.
The 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
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
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.
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.
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.