While I don’t live in Kirkwall, I have visited on holiday, and enjoyed the town very much. It isn’t easy to get to, being on the Orkneys in the North Sea, but it is well worth a trip, and there are so many things to do in the town itself, as well as the surrounding areas.
1. In Kirkwall itself, there is the centerpiece, the jewel in the crown, St. Magnus Cathedral. This amazingly beautiful structure is stunning, not only because of the lovely, soaring architecture, as most cathedrals have, but also because of the red and white sandstone that makes it stand out, especially in the rain. Inside, the intricate carvings remind one of the Nordic heritage of the area. Indeed, St. Magnus was Nordic, as are many of the families in the islands, as they only became a Scottish land in the 16th century.
2. Kirkwall also has a talented jewelry artist, well known throughout Scotland. Sheila Fleet uses her natural surroundings to influence her designs, mostly using precious metals and enamel work. She has pendants with Ogham writing, earrings that look like a fishing creel, and rings with waterfalls. Even if you can’t afford a purchase, take some time to look at the beauty she has created.
3. If you fancy a dram of whisky, make sure to go by one of the local distilleries, Highland Park and Scapa. Highland Park is a classic single malt distillery, started in the 1790s as an illegal still. It is the older of the two distilleries on Orkney, and the northernmost in Scotland. Its distinctive double pagoda roof is a dominant feature, and the visitor tour takes you through the process and traditional standards. The newer distillery is the Scapa Distillery, also in Kirkwall, has a distinctive honey flavor, and was founded in 1885
4. The Orkneys have many Neolithic sites to interest anyone who loves the ancients. The most fascinating of these, to me, is Skara Brae, just a couple miles from Kirkwall. While most Neolithic sites are ceremonial in nature – standing stones, burial cairns, etc. – this is a more domestic discovery. Uncovered after a violent storm, these underground homes are interconnected with tunnels, and show a surprising similarity to our own household needs. Wood was in scarce supply, so furniture was made from stone, and has thus survived the 5,000 years. There are stone shelves, hearth and bed boundaries. A recreation of one of the homes, complete with furs, food and fire, is available to explore, as well as seeing the actual places.
5. A bit closer to Kirkwall, in the nearby village of Stenness, there are a couple different stunning sites. The first is the impressive Ring of Brodgar, a large stone circle with tall, thin standing stones on a spit of land, surrounded by the sea. You can just imagine the ancients doing ceremonies at these stones on the fire feasts of Beltaine, Samhain, and the sun feasts of Midwinter and Midsummer. Not far from the Ring of Brodgar are a smaller set called the Stenness Stones, on an even narrower isthmus.
6. Another site in Stenness is Maes Howe, an ancient burial mound that had been used up until Viking times. You can go inside with a tour, and can have some of the graffiti translated for you. Some are quite bawdy, such as ‘Ivar has a giant axe’, and show that humor hasn’t changed much across the centuries.
7. If you are visiting during the summer, the days are very long, and on the solstice, the sun won’t set until after midnight, and it rises again by 4am. It doesn’t get truly dark during this very short night – it’s just a deep twilight until the sun comes up again. Of course, if you are there during the winter, you only get a few hours of dim sunlight during the days, so plan accordingly!
8. A bit farther afield is the Tomb of the Eagles. This Neolithic burial cairn is off on the bottom edge of the string of islands connected to mainland Orkney by a causeway, so you can drive there without need of a ferry from Kirkwall. It does require about a mile hike from the farmhouse of the landowner, but it is worth it for the view, as well as the tomb. The diagonal rocks jut up out of the land at the same angle, like something from a science fiction landscape. In fact, that’s how the farmer discovered the tomb – he found rocks that were straight, level to the ground, and that was unusual enough to warrant some excavation. The tomb itself has several chambers, and there had been the bones of sea eagles inside, thus the name. It is believed this was a totem animal of the people living in the area. While you can stand upright in the tomb, you must pull yourself in on a small cart (on your back) to get inside.
9. If you are curious about the extensive background of the islands, which includes the Neolithic, Pictish and Viking heritage, take a visit to the Tankerness House Museum in Kirkwall. It is within a well-preserved 16th century townhouse, and offers many visual reminders of the island’s varied past.
10. During World War II, there was a prisoner camp for POWs captured during the war. Some were held in Orkney, many of them Italians. During their stay on the island, they wanted to worship in a church similar to those they had at home in Italy. Therefore, using a Quonset hut, paint and scrap metal, they built The Italian Chapel – a wondrous creation of trompe l’oiel (an illusion painted). Outside, there is just a simple plaster church front – and the Quonset hut behind that. Inside, however, it is painted to look like there are arched tiles overhead, on the floor, and a lovely shrine in the back. Scrap wrought iron was used as well, and the effect is amazing.
11. If you travel to Kirkwall, there are many other places and things to experience – this is just the tip of the iceberg. In addition, the other Orkney islands have other attractions. Enjoy your visit!
Don’t miss information on Celtic myth and history, as well as practical travel planning tips, and hidden places, in my travel books. And watch out for my upcoming historical fantasy novel, Legacy of Hunger!
– Stunning, Strange and Secret: A Guide to Hidden Scotland
– Mythical, Magical, Mystical: A Guide to Hidden Ireland
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