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.
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