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  The Bishop's Palace, Kirkwall

The Bishop's Palace is the older of the two ruined palaces found in the centre of Kirkwall.

Situated a short distance to the south of St Magnus Cathedral, the palace was built in the mid-12th century for Bishop William the Old - a friend and crusading companion of Earl Rognvald Kolsson, the cathedral’s founder.

The palace was originally intended to provide accommodation for Bishop William and his entourage.  So, shortly after the construction work on the cathedral began, the Bishop and his staff moved from their old seat of power in Birsay to their new home in Kirkwall.

At this time, it is likely that the palace conformed to the plan of a Royal Norwegian Palace - consisting of a hall, used for entertaining, and a tower house that formed the Bishop's private residence.

King Haakon's base

Moosie Toor: Illustration by Sigurd Towrie

Picture: Sigurd Towrie

The first of the “notable” events in the palace’s history took place in 1263, over a century after it was first constructed.

Then, the Norwegian king, Haakon the Old, used Kirkwall as a base for his fruitless attempt to maintain Norse rule over the Western Isles.

After a crushing defeat at the Battle of Largs, Haakon's fleet returned to Kirkwall, where the king fell ill.

He died in the Bishop's Palace on December 15, 1263.

By 1320, the palace had been reduced to ruins through neglect. Thereafter, it disappears from the history books, apparently forgotten.

Then, in 1526, the palace came into the possession of William, Lord Sinclair.

His ownership, however, was short lived before he was ordered to return the property to the Bishop of Orkney.

The building returned to prominence in 1540, when King James V of Scotland arrived in Kirkwall and garrisoned his troops in the Kirkwall Castle and the Bishop's Palace.

Soon after, Bishop Robert Reid, the founder of Edinburgh University and the last and greatest of Orkney's medieval Bishops, began an extensive programme of restoration and reconstruction.

Bishop William's restoration

As well as buttressing the palace's badly sagging west wall, Bishop Reid was responsible for the addition of the "Moosie Toor" - the strong, round tower at the north-western corner of the palace.

The Moosie Toor, pictured above, still stands today.

In 1568, the ownership of the palace passed to Earl Robert Stewart.

Robert's son, Patrick Stewart, later planned to include the structure in his scheme to build the Earl's Palace, a massive residence in Kirkwall.

But Patrick's plans never came to fruition and, in 1607, "drowned in debt", he was forced to return the complex to Bishop James Law.

In 1614, both palaces were seized by Robert Stewart - Earl Patrick's son - who staged a rebellion following the incarceration of his father for treason.

This act resulted in a military siege, but whether the action taken against the Stewarts actually damaged the Bishop's Palace is unknown. For more information relating to the events surrounding this siege, see the page dealing with Earl Patrick Stewart.

These days, all that remains of the Bishop's Palace is the shell of one main building and the Moosie Toor.

The ruins we see today in no way show the full extent of the building in its heyday.