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Kirkwall stands on the northern end of the Kirkwall-Scapa isthmus which divides Mainland into eastern and western parts.
The town dominated by its splendid 800 year old cathedral spreads up the hillside from the harbour.
Historically Kirkwall has been the main island centre since it was a Norse trading centre and today it combines its role of capital with that of shopping and business centre. When visiting the island B&B is one of the best solutions for your holiday base with its flexibility travelling from one B&B to another, but Kirkwall also offers Hotels, Guest Houses and Self Catering as well as B&B accommodation.
Notable events include the Christmas and New Years Day Ba' Games when the Uppies play the Downies, symbolizing the ancient rivalry between the bishop's ecclesiastical town and the secular authority represented by the now vanished castle.
Kirkwall capital of Orkney for many centuries and indeed a cathedral city, has become increasingly worthy of that title with the advent of North Sea oil to the island of Flotta, lt was the main seat of the Norsemen throughout their six centuries of occupation up to the mid l5th century and it was the natural choice of site when Earl Rognvald decided to build a great cathedral as a monument to his saintly uncle Magnus, who had been martyred some twenty years earlier.
The Cathedral is of ﬁagstone and red and yellow sandstone and in massive Romanesque style, It measures 234 ft in length and 101 ft across the transepts.
The ravages of Croinwellian troops, common throughout Scotland, have long since been repaired, and there is an interesting series of tombstones marking Kirkwall’s eminent men from the 16th century to the present day, a plaque commemorates the 833 men lost in the Royal Oak in 1939 at Scapa Flow. There is a l9th century rose window at the south end, but the ‘keeled’ shafts of the clustered piers supporting the tower and the mouldings of the tower arches are ofthe 12th century.
St Magnus Cathedral would be impressive in any mainland site, but its setting on the island mainland of Orkney makes it the most outstanding building anywhere in the Scottish islands. It
also has the oddity that, while it is ‘the Parish Church of Kirkwall and St Ola’ and the services are those of the Church of Scotland, it does not belong to any denomination but is the property of the town, and its people through a Royal Charter of James111 in 1486, when he directed the Burgh Council of Kirkwall to be responsible for its maintenance.
In the Cathedral are preserved the remains of St Magnus and his nephew, which were found almost accidentally during repairs between 1919 and 1926.
The excellent state ofthe Cathedral interior was mainly attributable to repairs completed in 1916 with a handsome bequest by George Hunter Thoms, Sheriff of Orkney and Shetland 1870 to 1899, but some years ago it became apparent that all was not well with the fabric, cracking and distortion appeared, and the west Gable was being pushed outwards, it was thought that an earthquake in 1927 was the root of the trouble.
An appeal was immediately launched for £50,000 to cover vital and urgent repairs, and for a further £250,000 to ensure a more extensive preservation.
In 1974 Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother was able to attend a service of thanksgiving in the Cathedral when the ﬁrst target had been reached and some repairs done. Much activity continues towards the second target, including the revival of the Old Lammas Market now termed St Magnus Fair, on the third Wednesday of August each year.
The old town of Kirkwall clusters round the Cathedral and is notable for its handsome Scandinavian type buildings and streets without pavements, Near the Cathedral are the ruins of the
12th century Bishop’s Palace with its massive tower and the Earl’s Palace, built about 1600 for the hated Earl Patrick Stewart but described as the ‘most mature and accomplished piece of Renaissance architecture in Scotland‘.
Opposite is the interesting museum of Tankerness House, with its ﬁne collection of Orkney relics and beautiful gardens, forming a welcome oasis in this bustling town, now humming with the polyglot tongues of sailor men and oilmen.