Whiskey, history, and sightseeing in Kirkwall – Orkney Isles

Kirkwall is the largest town in the Orkney Isles. If you catch the plane in like I did, this is the first place you’ll come to, and many people base themselves here for their trip as it has the best facilities for tourists. There are nicer places to use as your home base in my opinion, but there are still some sights worth checking out in the town.

Kirkwall from the Bishop's Palace. St Magnus' Cathedral to the right

Kirkwall from the Bishop’s Palace. St Magnus’ Cathedral to the right

As far as the town itself goes, Kirkwall has a fairly nice main street but is nothing particularly special. Some people like it just because it’s bigger and has more of the comforts of home. Better supermarket, more cafes, places to go shopping, you get the idea. I preferred Stromness to be honest. Having said that, I did enjoy seeing all of the sights in Kirkwall, but once that was done I was ready to move on.

Highland Park tasting room

Highland Park tasting room

I started my day with a tour of the Highland Park whiskey distillery. I’m no whiskey tour expert but I’m guessing this is one of the more interesting ones since a lot of the methods they use are still very traditional. I had no idea what went into making whiskey beforehand, so I found it all very enlightening. As a bonus the stills they use are oh so very steampunk. The Scotch we tried was pretty damn good too, and that was just one of the cheaper ones. An enjoyable experience all round.

Well...maybe just one bottle

Well…maybe just one bottle

The ruins of the Bishop’s and Earl’s Palaces lie in the center of town. The two buildings are right across the road from each other, which is somewhat amusing as apparently the Bishop and Earl despised each other. No surprise really as the Earl in question sounds to be a bit of a villain, I’m not sure many people liked him very much. His name was Patrick but he was known as ‘Black Patie’. Never a good sign. He built the palace around 1606 and ruled the isles ruthlessly until he was executed in 1615 and the palace became the residence of… wait for it… the bishop. Revenge is sweet indeed.

The Earl's Palace - Kirkwall

The Earl’s Palace, which somehow came out looking like a 3D jigsaw in all my photos

The Earl’s Palace is well worth a visit. The building is partially ruined, but there are helpful information boards around telling you what each room was used for and what it would have looked like at the time. It really helps you to visualize the place. I could almost see Black Patie handing out cruel judgments in the great hall, and smell the stench coming up from the foul medieval kitchen.

The Bishop’s Palace is older than the Earl’s, dating back to the early 12th century. In fact, the Earl’s reason for building the new palace was that he found the accommodations at the Bishop’s Palace inadequate. My palace isn’t good enough! Woe is me! The Bishop’s Palace is much smaller than the Earl’s, it doesn’t take long to get around it, but it’s definitely still worth a look. Even if you’re as scathing of the building as the Earl was, the top tower has a fantastic view over Kirkwall and St Magnus’ Cathedral. Careful though, it’s a tricky staircase.

The Bishop's Palace - Kirkwall

The Bishop’s Palace with St Magnus’ Cathedral peeking up over the wall

No trip to Kirkwall is complete without a visit to St Magnus’ Cathedral. It’s the focal point of the town and it’s easy to see why. The building itself is a majestic sandstone structure surrounded but a stunning graveyard.

St Magnus' Cathedral - Kirkwall

St Magnus’ Cathedral and the surrounding graveyard

Inside is lovely as well, both for the architecture and the intriguing 17th century gravestones that line the walls. I haven’t seen much of the Norse side of Christianity so I was enthralled by the idea of a viking cathedral.

St Magnus' Cathedral - Kirkwall

Inside St Magnus’ Cathedral

St Magnus' Cathedral - Kirkwall

On of many interesting gravestone inside the cathedral. The skull and crossbones is a recurring theme. Since no one’s told me otherwise I can only assume a lot of pirates are buried here…

There’s an information center up the road that shows a short film on the origins of the cathedral which is worth a look as well if you have time. The cathedral is dedicated to Magnus Erlendsson, the first Earl of Orkney, who ruled from 1108 to 115 AD. Not your typical viking thug, he was martyred when he refused to take part in a viking raid in Anglesey, which obviously angered the Norwegian king. His bones are contained in a pillar in the upper half of the cathedral.

John Rae: Arctic Explorer!

John Rae: Arctic Explorer!

Last but not least, the graveyard is absolutely wonderful. There are graves of some interesting people as well as ones that are in a simply beautiful state of disrepair. I visited on a drizzly day which just added to the atmosphere of the place. Good thing I was traveling on my own. Most traveling companions aren’t keen on spending an hour out in the rain to take photographs of gravestones. Personally I thought meandering around in graveyard heaven was a perfect way to wait for the bus to Stromness.

Gravestone - Kirkwall

Worn gravestone on a rainy day

Listening to: If I Had A Tail – Queens of the Stone Age

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2 thoughts on “Whiskey, history, and sightseeing in Kirkwall – Orkney Isles

  1. Good blog! We’re enjoying keeping up with your adventures 🙂 wish I could be there with you but this will have to do for now. Have fun and keep posting about your travels!

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