Kirkwall’s energy ebbs and flows along its streets and doorways, as vital and natural as a Scottish tide.
Kirkwall is the main town on quirky Orkney. Set back from a wide bay, its youthful vigor combined with the aging, twisting lanes, reflects the capital of Orkney’s personality. Kirkwall has been settled since the early 11th century. If you’re looking for a great example of an ancient Norse town, Kirkwall is a must-see.
St. Magnus Cathedral takes center position in Kirkwall. Building began on the red-stone cathedral in 1137 AD, and it was completed in the 15th century. Duck inside and prepare to be amazed. The gigantic Roman-style pillars and carved stones lift you into a different world. It’s a world of quiet and peace. Nearby, the Earl’s and Bishop’s Palaces are definitely worth rambling through. (One of the best views is from the top of the ruins of the Bishop’s Palace.)
While you’re in Kirkwall, go with the locals and enjoy Highland Park whisky—it comes from the distillery that’s farthest to the north in Scotland. They make an unbeatable single malt Scotch. Want to have more than a drink? Touring Highland’s Distillery is unique. You’ll see the entire whisky-making process. It is one of the few distilleries that still does its own barley malting, also known as floor malting.
Not in the mood for whisky? Head two miles south of Kirkwall to the Orkney Wine Company. They produce handmade wines made from berries, vegeys, and flowers. We’re not kidding! Every one of them is naturally fermented. The gooseberry is divine. And, you’ve got to give gorse-flower-plonk a whirl. You’ll never find it anywhere else.
Take a short, side-trip to Maes Howe. It’s a high, grassy mound south of Loch of Harray. Beneath the grass is a chamber that dates from 2,800 BC. It is a treasure of World Heritage status. You’ll walk through the 47-foot passageway and emerge into a lit, inner chamber that is 15-feet-square. The walls are covered with perfectly-fitting stone slabs. The roof is corbelled. There are three small side chambers. The contents were looted centuries ago, but the structure has survived intact…other than old runic graffiti left by passing Vikings!
The close, tidy buildings of Kirkwall, this old harbor town, date from the 16th to the 18th centuries. Kirkwall’s long, main street is lined with engaging shops that include high-quality crafts and jewelers. So much to imagine, and so little time…