Kirkwall, the capital of Orkney, offers history on a grand scale in a setting that’s pleasingly compact.
Its original name, Kirkjuvagr, comes from the Old Norse for “Church Inlet” and all around there are reminders that the town had a key role in the power struggles of the Viking era.
Founded around 1035, Kirkwall soon became established as a farming and market centre. In 1137, Earl Rognvald Kolsson began the building of St Magnus Cathedral – an imposing, red sandstone edifice that still dominates the town to this day.
The cathedral was constructed in memory of the earl’s uncle, the martyred St Magnus. The first of many miracles associated with Magnus was the transformation of his rocky, overgrown place of execution into a green field; as time went on, visitors to his graveside were said to have been cured of everything from blindness to insanity.
Close to the cathedral are the Bishop’s and Earl’s palaces, the former dating back to Norse times.
The Orkney Museum at Tankerness House tells the story of the islands from prehistoric to modern times. The museum has a large photographic archive and a programme of temporary exhibitions.
Kirkwall is also the home of the award-winning Highland Park malt whisky, and the distillery – the most northerly in the world – has its own visitor centre. Whisky has been made on the site for over 200 years and the distillery is one of Orkney’s biggest tourist attractions.
The harbour has always played an integral part in Kirkwall’s development. Dozens of cruise ships call in each year and the town is an important ferry terminal.
Kirkwall’s airport has scheduled flights to Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Inverness as well as Sumburgh in Shetland and Bergen in Norway (summer only). There are also air links to Orkney’s northern isles.
There is a thriving cultural scene in and around the town, the highlight being the St Magnus Festival held every summer. It was founded in 1977 by Orkney's famous resident composer, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies.