Kirkwall is the largest town and capital of the Orkney Islands, an archipelago some 10 miles off the north coast of Scotland – United Kingdom.
Kirkwall has two faces, depending on where you have just come from. If arriving from a large city such as Edinburgh or Glasgow, it is a small, quiet town, with a gentle pace of life. On the other hand, if you arrive from a more remote area, such as the outer islands of Orkney, Kirkwall seems like a buzzing metropolitan centre with shops, cafes, bars, traffic and areas of housing and industry sprawling south, east and west from its busy harbour.
The development of cruising in Kirkwall can make a substantial difference to the town. Arrival of a 4000 person cruise ship over summer can cause queues to attractions and a jostle for space in the tea-rooms. If you can time your visit to not be on a cruise-day, you’ll find the town much calmer.
Access : Coordinates: 58.981, -2.96 / By plane : Loganair fly to Kirkwall from Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness, Aberdeen and Sumburgh in the Shetland Islands. They also operate inter-island flights to Westray, Papa Westray, Sanday and Eday. Kirkwall airport is five miles south-east of town: see “Orkney Islands: Access ” for more details
By boat : There are four ferry routes between the Scottish mainland and Orkney. The only one to Kirkwall itself is the Aberdeen to Shetland car ferry, operated by Northlink, which calls here several nights a week. Northbound it leaves Aberdeen at 17:00 (April-Oct Tu Th Sa Su, Nov-March Th Sa Su not Tu), reaching Kirkwall (Hatston Terminal) at 23:00 before sailing on to Lerwick for 07:30 next morning. Southbound the ferry leaves Lerwick at 17:30 (April-Oct M W F, Nov-March W & F not M), similarly reaching Kirkwall at 23:00 before sailing on to Aberdeen for 07:00 next morning.
– ferries to Kirkwall, from both Aberdeen and Lerwick, are evening sailings arriving by 23:00, so you won’t need a cabin, a lounge seat is fine. (But you need to have sorted your Orkney accommodation, as near midnight is a poor time to start looking.) Sailings from Kirkwall to Aberdeen or Lerwick are overnight so you’ll appreciate the cabin, and ability to doze on board till 09:00.
1 Hatston Terminal is two miles north of town on the main road to Stromness: look for the very large wind turbine. Check-in for vehicles is at the start of the pier, check-in for foot passengers is at the end. A late-night connecting bus X10 runs from Kirkwall right to the end of the pier, back to Kirkwall, then on to Stromness – it doesn’t run if the ferry’s not running. Bus X1 Stromness-Kirkwall-St Margaret’s Hope also passes the junction for the terminal, but the last bus is a couple of hours before the ferry. The other three routes, described under Orkney Islands: “Get in”, are: Scrabster to Stromness car ferry 2 or 3 times a day, 90 mins.
Gill’s Bay to St Margaret’s Hope car ferry 3 times a day, taking an hour;
John O’Groats to Burwick ferry for foot passengers and cyclists only, 2 or 3 times a day May-Sept, 40 mins.
Kirkwall is also the starting point for ferries between Mainland and the islands of Shapinsay, Stronsay, Eday, Sanday, Westray, Papa Westray and North Ronaldsay – see those islands for details. These sail from the piers in town centre, not from Hatston Terminal.
Cruise ships often visit the Orkneys. They either berth at Hatston Terminal with a shuttle-bus to town, or anchor out in the bay with tenders bringing passengers ashore. The main tourist attractions get mobbed when they arrive.
By bus : June to August there’s a daily bus from Inverness, which meets the John O’Groats foot-passenger ferry to Burwick, from where there’s a connecting bus to Kirkwall: By car : Kirkwall has numerous car parks located in the town centre and harbour area. Parking around the harbour is free and mainly unlimited time, so it is the best place to park if you are exploring the town for a whole day. However, there can be a lack of parking in the town, even in the pay car parks. Car Parks are charged at: Summer: 1 Hour – 40p 2 Hours – 80p 3 Hours – £1 Winter: 1 Hour – Free 2 Hours – 50p 3 Hours – £1
- The most attractive part of Kirkwall is the central alley, which starts as Bridge St by the harbour, turns along Albert St, then widens into Broad St with the Cathedral and palace ruins. The Kirkwall City Pipe Band often parades here on a Saturday evening. The street then narrows again to the alley of Victoria Street. Just west of the centre, circumnavigate the Peedie Sea: once a tidal inlet, it’s now been enclosed into two freshwater lagoons. (Well, 2.1 if you count the little overflow pond.) Beyond the centre, Kirkwall is a modern and work-a-day place, with various marine industries sprawling along the shore.
- St Magnus Cathedral , Broad Street KW15 1NX. Apr-Sept Mo-Sa 09:00-18:00, Su 13:00-18:00 Oct-Mar Mo-Sa 09:00-13:00 & 14:00-17:00. Founded in 1137 but taking 300 years to complete, this is an impressive Romanesque building with alternating courses of sandstone: red from Kirkwall and yellow from Eday. Probably the builders were the same as for Durham and Dunfermline cathedrals. The interior is atmospheric, dominated by red circular columns and multi-coloured textile hangings. This is a working church so it’s closed to tourist visits for services, funerals etc. It started out as part of the RC Archdiocese of Trondheim but is now a Presbyterian parish church, so ecclestiastically it’s no longer a cathedral.
- Bishop’s & Earl’s Palaces, Watergate KW15 1PD (Opposite the cathedral). April-Sept daily 09:30-17:30. Two ruins either side of the street. Enter the Earl’s Palace, the newer one, first for tickets. The Bishop’s Palace was originally built in the 12th C at the same time as the cathedral, but fell into ruin. It was restored and extended in the 16th C by Bishop Robert Reid, founder of Edinburgh University. Ownership then passed to the wicked, wastrel Earls of Orkney, and in the 17th C Earl Patrick decided that it wasn’t grand enough, and set about building a new palace next door. He couldn’t remotely afford it, even by the stratagem of lynching the landowner instead of buying the land, and by using slave labour. Adult £5, conc £4. Bishop’s Palace.
- Orkney Museum, Tankerness House, Broad Street KW15 1DG (opposite the cathedral). Mo-Sa 10:30-12:30 & 13:30-17:00. For 3 centuries this was the home of the Baikie family from Tankerness. It now houses exhibits on Orkney from the Stone Age to the present. Free.
- Orkney Wireless Museum (call sign GB2OWM), Kiln Corner, 1 Junction Rd KW15 1LB (At roundabout by harbour). M-Sa 10:30-16:30, Su 14:30-16:30. In the early 20th C radio technology developed rapidly, and was a lifeline to remote islands like South Ronaldsay. Jim MacDonald (1927-1988) grew up there and amassed a great collection, including rare prototypes and secret-squirrel military kit. And here they are.
- Highland Park Distillery, Holm Road KW15 1SU (On A961 one mile south of town), +44 1856 874619. Apr-Sept daily 10:00-16:00, Nov-Mar M-F 10:00-16:00. The world’s most northerly Scotch whisky distillery (just edging nearby Scapa Distillery), producing some 2.5 million litres a year for blend and a variety of single malts. These are more peaty than the Scapa whisky. Founded in 1798, it’s now owned by Edrington Group of Glasgow, who also produce Famous Grouse, Cutty Sark, Macallan & Glenrothes, as well as vodka and rum. Longer & pricier tours than the basic involve sampling more whisky: so imagine the £250 tour?? Basic one hour tour £10.
- Scapa Distillery, KW15 1SE (On Scapa Flow 2 miles S of town, follow A964). Apr-Sep M-Sa 09:30-17:00 & Su 12:30-17:00; Oct-Mar M-F 09:30-17:00. Founded in 1885, though with occasional lapses in production, the present facility dates from 2004 / 5 and turns out a million litres a year for blend or single malt. It’s only slightly peaty, the chief single malt bottling being the Scapa 16 year old. Short tour £10, 45 min, long tour £20, 90 min, booking recommended. The distillery is today part of Chivas which is part of Pernod Ricard.
- Grain Earth House is an Iron Age chamber, circa 1000 BC, entered by a 5 m underground passage. It was probably part of a larger settlement now engulfed by Hatston Industrial Estate on the north edge of town. Free to enter, but you need to collect keys from (and return them to) Judith Glue’s Knit Shop at 25 Broad Street during business hours (M-Sa 09:00-21:00, Su 10:00-18:00). The chamber is at the corner of Swordfish Rd and Dakota Rd, Kirkwall KW15 1GR.
- Wideford Hill Cairn: Maeshowe all booked out? This stone cairn is of similar construction and quality yet no-one else will be there. Built around 3000 BC, it has a central chamber with three cells to the side nowadays you enter through the roof. It’s set into the hill two miles west of Kirkwall (KW15 1TS), follow Old Finstown Rd not the main road. Free to enter, any time.
- Cuween Hill Chambered Cairn, is a similar but smaller burial chamber from 3000 BC. You’ll need to crawl down the passageway into the chamber. It’s a mile further west along the Old Finstown Rd (KW17 2EJ), almost coming into Finstown village. Free to enter, anytime.
- Rennibister Earth House, circa 1000 BC, is a stone-lined underground chamber accessed by a hatch and a ladder. In it were found the bones of six adults and a dozen children, who may have been interred later. It’s three miles west of Kirkwall (KW15 1TX) on A965 towards Finstown, bus stop “Rennibister”, in a farmyard. Free to enter, any time.
Activities : Norwegian Constitution Day. 17 May. To celebrate the historical ties Orkney has with Norway, the Norwegian Constitution Day is celebrated every year with a parade and guests from Norway.
St Magnus International Festival, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. 22-27 June 2018. Orkney’s midsummer celebration of the arts. Founded in 1977 by a group including the late Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, the Festival has grown from small beginnings into one of Britain’s most highly regarded and adventurous arts events
Go next : Kirkwall is within easy reach of the rest of Orkney. The top sights on Mainland are Stenness with its neolithic remains, Stromness the old fishing port, and the road across the “Churchill Barrier” past the Italian Chapel. Beyond Mainland, visit one of the other islands for a tranquil contrast: Shapinsay is the closest. And then either continue north to Shetland, or return south to the Scottish mainland – which you’ll have to do to reach the Hebrides and other Scottish islands