Kirkwall is said to be Norway’s best-preserved Viking town, and has the distinction of having the first recorded pub in Scotland, where a murder took place in the 12th century.
The original, characteristically medieval, layout of long thin plots and gable-end shops and houses is still present. As you walk down the main street of Kirkwall from today’s harbour, through the wide street in front of the Viking (St Magnus) cathedral, and into the narrow street beyond you are following the old shoreline. The original harbour beach came right up to the middle of the road in front of the cathedral. Later successive infilling has led to the harbour now being entirely enclosed, and the Peedie Sea is all that remains of it.
The first church in Kirkwall, whose name comes from Old Norse "Kirkuvagr", translating as church harbour, was dedicated to St Olaf, Norway’s national saint and king (995-1030). This was situated on Albert Street. Today, a garden gate in a wall in St Olaf's Wynd is made from architectural fragments of the now demolished church.
The early 11th century saw the harbour in Kirkwall the centre of what only just avoided being an international incident, when Earl Thorfinn surprised the followers of Earl Rognvald Brusison and slaughtered his unarmed followers on the beach. Many were also the Norwegian king’s men, and Thorfinn had later to apologise for his actions, and was only saved from the king’s wrath by distance and the king's distraction with other enemies.
The cathedral was founded in the first half of the 12th century in a broad meadow in the middle of the bay. Earl Rognvald commissioned it to house St Magnus’s relics in a magnificent setting. The bright red and white stone of the cathedral, built in the European Romanesque architectural fashion, reflects Rognvald’s credentials as a sophisticated traveller. Of course, as is the nature of large capital projects, the Earl ran out of money to pay for the build, and to complete it had to bargain with the farmers, freeing them from future tax obligations for payment up front. This was successful and the cult of St Magnus lay at the heart of Kirkwall’s medieval prosperity.
In 1263, the Norwegian King Hakon returned to Orkney and took up residence in Kirkwall, dying soon after in the nearby Bishop's Palace, following his disastrous naval defeat by Scotland at the Battle of Largs. He was laid in state, and then temporarily buried in the cathedral, before his body was returned in springtime to Norway.
Despite the ups and downs of the Orkney Earls’ fortunes, the islands remained in the hands of the Norwegian crown until 1468 when they were pawned along with Shetland to Scotland.
Tours available, contact Cathedral custodian on +44 (0)1856 874894
Religion and Belief
St Magnus Cathedral, Broad Street, Kirkwall, Orkney, KW15 1NX