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Kirkwall, Orkney Islands, Scotland

In bustling Kirkwall, the main town on Orkney, there's plenty to see in the narrow, winding streets extending from the harbor. The cathedral and some museums are highlights.


Bishop's and Earl's Palaces

The Bishop's Palace dates to the 12th century when St. Magnus Cathedral was built. In 1253 this was the site of King Hakon IV of Norway's death, marking the end of Norwegian rule over Sudreyjar (the Southern Hebrides). It was rebuilt in the late 15th century, and a round tower was added in the 16th century. The nearby Earl's Palace was built in 1607 for Earl Partick Stuart, the much despised Earl of Orkney and Shetland who bound the people of both into terrible, inescapable poverty. While his name is still mud, his Orcadian residence is considered one of the finest examples of Renaissance architecture in Scotland. The great hall with its magnificent fireplace may be a ruin, but it evokes the splendor of its age.

Italian Chapel

During World War II, 550 Italian prisoners of war were captured in North Africa and sent to Orkney to assist with the building of the Churchill Barriers, four causeways that blocked entry into Scapa Flow, Orkney's great natural harbor. Using two corrugated-iron Nissan huts, the prisoners, led by Domenico Chiocchetti, a painter-decorator from the Dolomites, constructed this beautiful and inspiring chapel in memory of their homeland. The elaborate interior frescoes were adorned with whatever came to hand, including bits of metal, colorful stones, and leftover paints.

Orkney Museum

With artifacts from the Picts, the Vikings, and other ancient peoples, this museum in Tankerness House (a former residence) has the entire history of Orkney crammed into a rabbit warren of rooms. It's not easily accessible for those with disabilities. The setup may be old-fashioned, but some artifacts—especially those from everyday Orcadian life in the 19th century—are riveting. Lovely gardens around the back provide a spot to recoup after a history lesson.

Orkney Wireless Museum

The lifetime collection of Jim MacDonald, a radio operator during World War II, tells the story of wartime communications at Scapa Flow, where thousands of servicemembers were stationed; they used the equipment displayed to protect the Home Fleet. Run by volunteers, the museum also contains many handsome 1930s wireless radios and examples of the handicrafts produced by Italian prisoners of war.

Highland Park Distillery

Having come this far, you'll have earned a dram of the local single malt at Scotland's northernmost distillery. It was founded around the turn of the 19th century by Magnus Eunson, a church officer who dabbled in illicit stilling. The tour takes you through the essential aspects of this near-sacred process, from the ingredients, to the hand turning of the malt, the peating in the peat kilns, the mashing, and finally the maturation in oak casks. This smoky but sweet malt can be purchased all over Orkney, as well as from the distillery's austere shop.

St. Magnus Cathedral

Founded by the Norse earl Jarl Rognvald in 1137 and named for his uncle, this grand red and yellow sandstone cathedral was mostly finished by 1200, although more work was carried out during the following 300 years. The cathedral is still in use and contains some fine examples of Norman architecture, although traces of later styles are found here and there. The ornamentation on some of the tombstones in the church is particularly striking. At the far end to the left is the tomb of the tragically discredited Dr. John Rae, the Victorian-era Orcadian adventurer and unsung hero who discovered the final section of the Northwest Passage in Canada but was decried for his reporting that the British men of the Franklin expedition, overwhelmed by starvation, had resorted to cannabalism: an assertion that has since been proved true.

Unstan Chambered Tomb

This intriguing burial chamber lies within a 5,000-year-old cairn. Access to the tomb can be awkward for those with mobility problems.

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Kirkwall, Orkney Islands, Scotland