Kirkwall (Scots: Kirkwaa, Scottish Gaelic: Bàgh na h-Eaglaise, Norn: Kirkavå) is the largest town of Orkney, an archipelago to the north of mainland Scotland.

The name Kirkwall comes from the Norse name Kirkjuvágr (Church Bay), which later changed to Kirkvoe, Kirkwaa and Kirkwall.


The town is first mentioned in Orkneyinga saga in the year 1046 when it is recorded as the residence of Rögnvald Brusason the Earl of Orkney, who was killed by his uncle Thorfinn the Mighty. In 1486, King James III of Scotland elevated Kirkwall to the status of a royal burgh. On the west edge of the town, surrounded by Hatston Industrial Estate, is a prehistoric ancient monument, Grain Earth House (Historic Scotland), a short low stone-walled passage deep underground leading to a small pillared chamber. This is the form of earth house or souterrain characteristic of the Northern Isles (although Grain is unusually deep below ground). It was originally connected to a surface dwelling, which has since disappeared, and the original purpose of these Iron Age structures remains unknown. Further west towards Grimbister is the similar Rennibister Earth House.


Kirkwall is the administrative centre for Orkney, and is the home of headquarters for Orkney Islands Council and NHS Orkney.

Kirkwall was a parliamentary burgh, combined with Dingwall, Dornoch, Tain and Wick in the Northern Burghs constituency of the House of Commons of the Parliament of Great Britain from 1708 to 1801 and of the Parliament of the United Kingdom from 1801 to 1918. Cromarty was added to the list in 1832. The constituency was a district of burghs known also as the Tain Burghs until 1832, and then as the Wick Burghs. It was represented by one Member of Parliament until 1918, when the constituency was abolished and the Kirkwall component was merged into the county constituency of Orkney and Shetland. Modern roadsigns still indicate "The City and Royal Burgh of Kirkwall", although Kirkwall is not an official Scottish city.

In 1784–85 the well-known outspoken Liberal Charles James Fox represented Tain in the British Parliament, while his political opponents fiercely contested his having been elected in his usual constituency of Westminster; for this purpose, Fox was made an unlikely burgess of Kirkwall.


Kirkwall is 130 miles (210 kilometres) north of Aberdeen and 528 mi (850 km) north of London. It is situated on the northern coast of Mainland Orkney with its harbours in the bay of Kirkwall to the north, and with Scapa Flow 1.4 mi (2.3 km) to the south. Its parish, St Ola forms the isthmus between Firth and Holm. It is the most populous island settlement in Scotland.


Kirkwall experiences an oceanic climate, with strong maritime influence of temperatures. This means it is generally cooler than the rest of the UK, this is especially notable in summer. Even so, its relative proximity to mainland Scotland renders it warmer than Shetland, although temperatures above 20 °C (68 °F) are rather infrequent. Winters are damp, chilly and windy, but are very mild for their latitude due to the Gulf Stream passing to its west, enabling sea surface temperatures to remain stable. This results in winter temperatures very typical for the generic British climates, in spite of its high latitude with infrequent snowfall. Even so, the said latitude of Kirkwall means a strong difference in terms of daylight between the solstices. In summer, the weak sun strength is not capable of warming Kirkwall up much, unlike similar latitudes over larger landmasses to its east in relative proximity such as the Baltic Sea region where even coastal locations average up to 7 °C (13 °F) warmer than Kirkwall during July days. Due to a lack of warm air enabling convection, thunderstorms and heavy rainfall in summer are rare occurrences, resulting in a drying trend during that season.

The annual mean temperature is strongly moderated by its mild winters and therefore is warmer than those of the fellow coastal location on the same latitude of Stockholm, that has a oceanic climate. The mild nature of the climate coupled with a relatively shielded location enables tree growth in the urban area, on an otherwise near treeless island.


The estimated population was 7,420 in 2016. The population was predicted to be about 10,000 in 2018.


Kirkwall harbour with nearly 1 kilometre (0.6 mi) of quay edge is the second commercial hub for Orkney after Hatston. There is a Marina, and support for fishing and dive vessels. After extensive work on harbour facilities, the town has become a popular cruise ship stop, with several ships arriving each week in the season. This has added to the prosperity of the town and allowed a thriving sector of independently owned shops. Each year now, 140 cruise ships visit Kirkwall and Stromness.

Weaving in Orkney took place from Viking times, with John Sclater & Co involved in Tweed production in Kirkwall in the 1970s. They used the brand names Norsaga and Jarltex.

Culture and community

Orkney Library and Archive, Kirkwall

The Orkney Library and Archive is in Kirkwall. Kirkwall also has the most northerly of the world's Carnegie libraries, which was opened by Andrew Carnegie and his wife in 1909. The building survives, although the library has since moved to a larger building on Junction Road.

The town has two museums, the larger being Tankerness House Museum, which contains items of local historical interest within one of Scotland's best-preserved 16th-century town-houses. It is a Category A listed building Scotland. The prehistoric, Pictish and Viking collections are of international importance. The other museum is the Orkney Wireless Museum, dealing with the history of radio and recorded sound.

There is a Royal National Lifeboat Institution lifeboat station.

One of the major annual events in the town is the Ba Game, held each Christmas Day and New Year's Day between the Uppies and the Doonies, each team representing one half of the town.

Media and the arts

The composer Peter Maxwell Davies was among a group which founded the annual St Magnus International Festival which is centred on Kirkwall each midsummer.

Orkney Theatre, a 384-seat venue, was opened in 2014 next to Kirkwall Grammar School in The Meadows. It has an orchestra pit which can be made available for use by removing two rows of seats.

Kirkwall Harbour can be seen in The Highlands and Islands – A Royal Tour, a 1973 documentary about Prince Charles' visit to the Highlands and Islands, directed by Oscar Marzaroli. Scottish film-maker Margaret Tait was born in Kirkwall, and many of her films (in particular the Aspects of Kirkwall series) are set there.

Long-running The Simpsons character Groundskeeper Willie was born in Kirkwall.


Kirkwall Town Hall exterior
Broad Street in Kirkwall

Kirkwall has many 17th–18th-century houses and other structures in the local vernacular style. Kirkwall also once had a medieval castle, which was destroyed in the 17th century.


Kirkwall is a port with ferry services to Aberdeen and Lerwick, as well as the principal north islands in the group. Hatson pier, the main ferry terminal, is some 2 mi (3 km) outside the town centre.

The Aberdeen, Leith, Clyde & Tay Shipping Company operated steamer services to Kirkwall from 1836, with successor companies operating until 2002.

Kirkwall Airport, the main airport for Orkney, is 2 12 mi (4 km) southeast of the town. There are no passenger rail services in Kirkwall, the nearby railways having been industrial or military.


Kirkwall Grammar School has been established since circa 1200. The current school building was opened in 2014.

The Orkney College main campus is situated in Kirkwall, in a purpose-built building that opened in 2000.

Kirkwall has two primary schools, Papdale Primary School which opened in 1955 and Glaitness Primary School which opened in 1979.

Robert Gordon University (RGU) in Aberdeen started a research project in 2018 into the history of Orkney Tweed as part of a wider Orkney Project which is using the archives in Kirkwall.

Religious sites

St. Magnus Cathedral dominates the Kirkwall skyline

The 'Kirk' of Kirkwall was not the Cathedral (which was originally at Birsay), but the 11th-century church of Saint Olaf of Norway. One late medieval doorway survives from this church, and an aumbry from the original church survives within the late 19th-century structure of the present-day Saint Olaf's Church (Episcopal) in the town's Dundas Crescent. At the heart of the town stands St. Magnus Cathedral, which was founded in memory of Saint Magnus Erlendsson, Earl of Orkney 1108–1117 by Earl (later Saint) Rögnvald Kali. Next to the Cathedral are the ruins of the former Bishop's Palace and Earl's Palace.


The Pickaquoy Centre, Orkney's largest leisure centre, is located in Kirkwall. It contains two pools, an indoor sports arena, squash courts, climbing wall, athletics track, synthetic and grass pitches and various exercise/gym studios.

Kirkwall Grammar School Sports Centre has indoor sports facilities, and grass and synthetic pitches, available to the public.

Notable people

External links

Uses material from the Wikipedia article Kirkwall, released under the CC BY-SA 3.0 license.