Orkney Part 3: Walkabout in Kirkwall

In Con's Corner, Scotland by Con JagerLeave a Comment

Part 1 of this Odyssey was Neolithic Orkney. We had a look at the Standing Stones of Stennes, the Ring of Brodgar and Skara Brae. In Part 2, we visited the Italian Chapel, Churchill Barriers and the Tomb of the Eagles. Today’s Part 3 (of the planned 4) is about the hub of Orkney, its capital Kirkwall. Perfectly placed in the center of Mainland, a walkabout around Kirkwall makes for a relaxed change of pace after all that active adventuring!

Kirkwall staying power

Kirkwall and its surroundings offer many lodging options. You can stay in a tiny yet neat farm B&B some ten miles away or right in town, at a variety of affordable 3 star hotels. Or, as was our choice for this stay, a pleasant 4 star right in the heart, the Albert Hotel on Mounthoolie Place.

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The Albert is an older building and offers a wide selection of rooms in, appropriately, Scando-modern. Since we were going to be here for a longer stay, we splurged on a loft-like luxury king room, complete with a seating area, bathroom with tub and separate shower. Breakfast downstairs was excellent, with a well-supplied cold buffet and yummy cooked-to-order Full Scottish hot breakfast menu options.

Wynd up your GPS

If your GPS is like ours, it may not be very reliable in getting you to the Albert. Mine steered us to the front entrance via Albert Street and then Mounthoolie Lane but: that’s a street in name only! It’s really a walking alley or “wynd”, way too narrow for a car.

Instead, set your GPS for Busters Diner. When you see that, coming from the south on the A963, pass it, then turn right into a public parking area with some shops right behind the hotel. Coming from the north on the A965 and Junction Road, turn left into said parking lane before you get to Busters. Parking in this lot is free during the night, but make sure you feed the meter during the day. You get the first hour parking for free though, and you can pop in coins the night before!

Ships and shops

Albert Street, the main shopping street, is on the other end of Mounthoolie Lane from the Albert, a very short stroll. It is pedestrianized – but watch out for the odd tourist relying on their GPS driving their car through… Albert Street boasts a variety of shops and some restaurants, with lots more in a mere 3-block radius. Walk the other direction from the Albert and you’re at the Kirkwall harbor.

Magnum opus

Kirkwall’s main sight is the magnificent Saint Magnus Cathedral, Britain’s northernmost Cathedral. Construction started in 1137 and it stands proud today still, visible from miles away.

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Magnus sounds Roman but, nope, the Legions never did make it up here. The Vikings did though: oh boy, did they ever! Orkney was under Norse rule for hundreds of years. So, who was this Magnus?

Early history

In the late 1000s, the two Earls and brothers Paul and Erlend Thorfinnsson jointly ruled the Orkneys. After much intrigue, as described in the Icelandic Orkneyinga Saga, their sons Haakon and Magnus took over, continuing to rule together and peacefully. However, in the early 1100s friction developed between their followers and a choice had to be made.

In a settlement meeting on the Isle of Egilsay around 1116 – the record is not precise – Haakon broke the agreed rules and captured Magnus. Magnus, a peaceful soul, agreed to let go of his rule in favor of Haakon – but the chieftains wanted blood and insisted one Earl had to die. Haakon’s standard-bearer refused to kill Magnus and a furious Haakon then ordered his cook Lilolf to do it in his stead.

Recipe for sainthood

The tearful cook cried and wanted to refuse but Magnus comforted him, instructing the poor fellow to obey, but to do it with one mighty blow to the head rather than the common criminal’s decapitation. Sobbing with despair, the cook obliged, aimed and bashed Magnus’s head in with an axe.

In 1135, Magnus was declared a Saint and April 16th became Saint Magnus Day. When Earl Rognvald ordered construction of the cathedral in 1137, he named it Saint Magnus Cathedral, after his uncle, Saint Magnus Erlendsson. Pretty cool to have a real life Saint for an uncle!

Since 1977, the Saint Magnus International Festival celebrates life, death and all things Saint Magnus. Held in Kirkwall over the Summer Solstice, the Festival features a wide variety of cultural events, including an outdoor theatre performance of Saint Magnus’ untimely death, right on the steps of Saint Magnus Cathedral.

Fun fact: note the Scando last-name system. Magnus, son of Erlend Thorfinnsson, is not Magnus Thorfinnsson but Magnus Erlendsson: son of Erlend. This happens today still in Iceland. Let’s say there’s a girl Helga, daughter of Erik Jonsson. She is not Helga Jonsson, but Helga Eriksdottir!

Safety in numbers

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Inside the Cathedral, we ran into a photo and film crew. We did not see the usual “No Photography” signs and since that crew and others were clicking away, we pulled out the cameras too. Mentally begging for forgiveness if we did break a rule, we took some shots of the stunning interior. You may recall the Bell of the Royal Oak from my Orkney Part 2 about the WW2 sinking of that mighty ship.

As you leave the Cathedral on your walkabout, look across the street and notice the 1884 Town Hall.

Pick a Palace

Just south of St. Magnus are the Earl’s Palace and Bishop’s Palace with its Water Gate. The impressive complex is managed by Historic Environment Scotland. We were out of season, alas, and could not check out the inside, as it’s closed October through March. Still, it was nice to walk into the gardens, see the buildings from the outside, and read the panels on its fascinating history.

The Bishop’s Palace dates back to the 1200s when Orkney was part of Norway. King Haakon IV died here, a major event of the era.

Earl’s Palace came about in the 1600s and was largely conceived by Patrick Stewart. No, not Captain Picard but rather, the Earl of Orkney. Building the then-spectacular complex was quite an enterprise nonetheless, with turrets, bay (“oriel” in architectural lingo) windows and the gardens around it.

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Nothing sheepish about the Ba’

If you look in the Albert Street shop windows, you’ll see rugby-style shirts with names and logos for the Ba’, Uppies and Doonies. What’s tha’ about? Well, in the Christmas to New Year’s time frame, Kirkwall locals play a now rather famous game called the Ba’. It’s a centuries old form of traditional football, more reminiscent of rugby than what Americans call soccer, a mix of kicking, throwing and dropping.

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The Ba’ is played between two teams: the “Uppies” (up the gates) versus the “Doonies” (down the gates). It kicks off right in the centre, at the Town Cross at Saint Magnus Cathedral. Scoring the winning goal occurs at the Catholic Church at New Scapa Road for the Uppies, or the Kirkwall Harbour for the Doonies. The Ba’ can take anywhere from a handful of minutes to many hours! Like rugby, it’s a tough game, no padding and stuff, and the locals take lots of pride in it. They go all-out rain or shine, sleet or thunder, as befits their fierce Viking heritage.

Dining dilemmas

We had several evenings in town and checked out a bunch of places for meals and tea stops. The population of Kirkwall is only about 9,000, so don’t expect a huge variety or dozens of restaurants, but there are decent choices all the same. Tastes differ, but here are some we enjoyed.

Scando name, Orkney bites and brews

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Helgi’s restaurant is on Harbour Street, along the waterfront just a couple of minutes from the Albert. They offer local draught ales with alternating options on tap, as well as other beers, wine, ciders and whisky. Good food too. Helgi’s chefs use mostly local ingredients, preparing meals in a pleasant home cooking style. We were lucky to get in, as it’s small and fills up quickly at peak time. The same holds true for several other restaurants, so do try to reserve or go early.

Jam for dinner

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The Bothy Bar is the Albert’s own pub, right next door and connected via a hallway. We enjoyed a good pub meal, while local musicians were jamming it up. Fun to take a picture or two, buy the band lads and/or lasses a pint, and post it on the Bothy Bar Facebook page. Nice local ales and beers from the Orkney and Swannay Breweries, and of course there’s a solid whisky selection too.

Score a Scone run

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In a narrow side alley off the main street near the Cathedral called The Strynd, you’ll find the Strynd Tea Room. It is a lovely spot for lunch, or a delicious cream tea – had to get my scones with clotted cream fix in! Great soups too, with local bread called bere (pronounced “bear”) bannock, an indigenous Orkney barley bread. Or, just pop in for a nice cuppa, perhaps with a freshly baked pastry.

Small town, big heart

As the hub of the Orkneys, Kirkwall features many bigger city services. Balfour Hospital for example, which we needed for a sudden health emergency. Located in an easy to find side street, you don’t have to be a Sherlock to find it, and thank you, Dr. Watson (not making that up) for salvaging our trip! There’s a large Tesco supermarket nearby too, should you be on island longer, perhaps renting a cottage.

A taste for hops

No man is an island, nor should no man stay on just one. Yikes, that hurts just writing it! Kirkwall, as the Orkney’s heart, pumps ferryboats throughout the archipelago’s water arteries, to over half a dozen Orkney islands. I gotta put that on my bucket list. I can see it now. Ditch the big bag in town, perhaps at my lodgings, and go island-hopping for a few days with just a small backpack. Kicking around Kirkwall was a ball – or perhaps, ba’? – and only boosted my Orcadian wanderlust!

If the shoe fits…

I have one more blog coming in my “Orkney Quartet”. As a “Man of the Dram”, I totally enjoyed visiting the two (two!) whisky distilleries in Kirkwall. I will salute them in Part Four, where I toast these awesome islands farewell – for now! I’m already plotting my return later this year, maybe for the Ba’ – if I can find my old rugby shirt! But if I do, will it still fit?


DISCLAIMER: My travel blog “Con’s Corner” takes a sometimes irreverent look at 4+ decades of travel in the British Isles. My trips are real: no months of staging the perfect photo, no waiting for the perfect weather, no Photoshopping, no promo story in exchange for a freebie: I pay full fare. It’s true travel. Note that the company does not necessarily share my opinions and views. In fact, they may be shaking their heads. The photography is mine except where credited as noted, as are all typos, grammatical errors, and odd expressions. It’s a blog, people, not literature! I also accept full responsibility for any puns, varying on a scale from hilarious to ouch… Be all that as it may, I intend to keep at it until I get it right. Con Jager, Santa Rosa, USA.

(R) Photography by Robin Gabbert

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