These palaces near St Magnus Cathedral are regarded as two of the finest examples of architecture in Scotland and highlight Orkney’s strong Norse and ecclesiastical links.
Residence spiritual and temporal
Kirkwall is the capital of Orkney. For centuries it was the capital of the Norse-held Nordreyjar – the Northern Isles. But that ended in 1469 when Christian I of Norway failed to pay the dowry promised to his son-in-law, James III of Scotland; James called in the debt by assuming sovereignty of Orkney and Shetland.
Kirkwall was graced by three fortified medieval residences. The only one actually called a castle was Kirkwall Castle, stronghold of the Sinclair earls of Orkney from the late 14th century; it was demolished around 1615. The other two – the Bishop’s Palace and Earl’s Palace – do survive, and they are among the most fascinating ancient buildings in all Scotland.
The Bishop’s Palace
The Bishop’s Palace was built around the same time as St Magnus’s Cathedral, in the early 12th century. The builder may well have been Bishop William ‘the Old’ (d.1168), crusader and friend of Earl Rognvald, St Magnus’s nephew and patron of the new cathedral.
The ancient palace has had a chequered history, and what remains today is bewildering. But when the later alterations and additions are peeled away, what remains is a straightforward, two-storey hall house. Little of the first-floor hall remains, but the ground level is still largely intact. The narrow windows through the west wall, built of alternating red and yellow stones, are mirrored in the cathedral itself.
On 15 December 1263, a momentous event happened here: King Hakon IV of Norway passed away. He had lately arrived from his failed expedition to the Firth of Clyde that had ended so ignominiously at the Battle of Largs. After he died in his bedchamber, his body was brought to the hall so that all could come and pay their respects. Hakon was the last Norwegian king to rule over the Sudreyjar, the ‘southern isles’ or Hebrides.
The Earl’s Palace
The Earl’s Palace was built around 1606 by Patrick, Earl of Orkney. Known as ‘Black Patie’, the tyrannical Patrick ruled the Northern Isles with an iron fist from 1592 until his execution 23 years later. It was declared at his trial that he used slave labour to build his residences.
His Kirkwall residence is a building of extraordinary refinement, spacious and masterfully planned. It still has the power to impress. Externally, the eye is drawn to the frontal façade, while internally it’s the great hall that overwhelms most, with its huge, 5m-wide fireplace. The building also reflects the owner’s obsession with privacy and security, for his own apartment lay beyond the top end of the great hall, well away from those occupied by his household officials and guests.
Very occasionally the property has to close at short notice due to adverse weather conditions or other reasons out with our control. Please check the Historic Scotland closures page for any unexpected site closures www.historic-scotland.gov.uk/hsclosure. You can also follow closure tweets from @welovehistory using #hsclosure. Alternatively please call the site before setting off to check they are open.
ORKNEY EXPLORER PASS:
The key to unlocking thousands of years of History at some of the Top Attractions in Orkney. The Orkney Explorer Pass is the ideal way for your clients to enjoy the fantastic heritage offered on Orkney.
Places to Visit:
Visit the 5,000 year old village of Skara Brae and see what life was like in the Stone Age.
This world famous Maeshowe was built before 2700BC. The large mound covers a stone built passage and a burial chamber with cells in the walls. Timed tours now operate, please call in advance to book on 01856 761 606
The Bishop’s Palace is a 12th-century hall-house in Kirkwall. The notorious Patrick Stewart, Earl of Orkney, built the adjacent Earl’s Palace between 1600 and 1607.
Surrounded by a warren of Iron Age buildings, the Broch of Gurness probably dates to the 1st century AD.
The Brough of Birsay is a Pictish and Norse powerbase with well, replica carvings, ruins of Norse homes and 12th century church.
Hackness Martello Tower & Battery is one of a pair of towers built between 1813 and 1815 to provide defence against French and American privateers for British convoys assembling in the sound of Longhope.
Due to the number of sites closed over the winter period it is not advisable to buy the Orkney Pass for use between October & March. Please refer to link at the bottom of this page to purchase online.