Orkney's capital dates back to Norse times, in the 11th century, when it was called Kirkjuvagr (church of the bay).
At that time the sea lapped at the steps of the cathedral, but now much land has been reclaimed. In 1486 Kirkwall was granted Royal Burgh status by King James III of Scotland.
The capital of Orkney has vibrant, independent shops and a lively night life in its many hotels and bars. It's also a transport hub for bus routes across mainland Orkney and the port for ferries to Aberdeen, Shetland and the North Isles. Kirkwall Airport - with links to Scotland, Shetland and, in the summer, Norway - is less than three miles from the town centre.
A Mecca for lovers of chain-free shopping, Kirkwall has everything you need, from boutique fashions, designer brands and locally designed clothing, to CDs and DVDs, jewellery, outdoor clothing, bread and cakes, linen, musical instruments, household goods and shoes. Privately owned grocery stores offer the kind of personal service that's largely disappeared elsewhere in Britain and stock local produce and international favourites. Artisan bakeries, butchers, chemists, banks and several cafes add to the exciting retail mix. The long and picturesque flagstone paved main street snakes down from the harbour, changing its name from Bridge Street to Albert Street and then to Broad Street as it goes.
At the heart of Kirkwall stands the magnificent St Magnus Cathedral, while nearby are the Earl's and Bishop's palaces and the Orkney Museum in Tankerness House with its splendid gardens. Carrying on down narrow Victoria Street there are more shops and cafes.
On the edge of the ancient burgh there are three supermarkets and the Pickaquoy Centre with its multi-purpose arena, swimming and leisure pools, fitness and health suites, outdoor sports pitches, a café, the New Phoenix Cinema and meeting rooms. Orkney Islands Council is based in central Kirkwall at School Place. There are several venues in the town for performance including a theatre in the fantastic new Kirkwall Grammar School, community and church halls, hotel function rooms and of course, the Pickaquoy Centre. Industrial activity takes place at Hatston Industrial Estate on the edge of town and this is where you'll also find our auction mart.
Inside Explore Orkney
Quaint closes and narrow old streets huddled between stone buildings of historical interest is the delight that is Stromness. Orkney’s second largest town is an architectural gem that inspires artists and writers and is a favourite with visitors. T…More
The west mainland of Orkney is home to the Heart of Neolithic Orkney UNESCO World Heritage Site which is one of the most important areas in Britain for archaeological remains. Here are the famous standing stones of Ring of Brodgar and Stenness and Ma…More
This area east and south east of Kirkwall is cattle country with its low-lying fertile farmland. It may not have a world heritage site but there are plenty of historical sites and attractive villages to explore. The parish of St Andrews has a well-u…More
The largest settlement outside Kirkwall in the east is the attractive harbour village of St Margaret’s Hope on South Ronaldsay. Here a catamaran ferry runs to Gill’s Bay near John o’ Groats. There is an art gallery and craft shop, hotels, an aw…More
Burray is a small island linked to the east mainland of Orkney and South Ronaldsay by the Churchill Barriers. Once only accessible by boat and a farming and fishing community, it is now linked by the causeways. It has a population of around 350, a pr…More
Eday is at the centre of Orkney’s North Isles and has a rich heritage and history to explore as well as being at the forefront of research for the modern renewable energy industry. Eight miles long, Eday is home to 150 people who are vastly outnum…More
If you want to see Stromness and Kirkwall at the same time you need to head for Flotta in the South Isles. There are fantastic panoramic views around Scapa Flow from this flattish island. Flotta was at the centre of the Royal Naval anchorage during …More
Hoy and Graemsay
Orkney’s second largest island Hoy dramatically rises from the sea with mountainous moorland and glacial valleys, appearing more like a highland landscape than a typical Orkney low-lying island. The Vikings named it High Island and Orkney’s highe…More
Seaweed eating sheep, an Old Beacon featured on prime time television and the flight path for thousands of migratory birds have all helped put North Ronaldsay on the map. It’s a small island and the most isolated and northerly of Orkney’s populat…More
Take the world’s shortest scheduled flight and see northern Europe’s oldest house on one of Orkney’s smallest inhabited islands with a big community heart. Papa Westray is one of the last places in the UK where you can experience being part of …More
Rousay, Egilsay and Wyre
Rousay has many major archaeological delights as the coast at Westness was an important power base from the Iron Age until the 19th century. The coast from Midhowe Cairn and Broch to Westness Farm is referred to as the most important mile of history …More
Sanday by name and sandy by nature, the largest island of Orkney’s North Isles is 16 miles long and has a population of around 550. Sandy bays and dunes form part of the low-lying coast though the gentle landscape was not without its dangers in the…More
Shapinsay is only a 25-minute ferry ride from Kirkwall but the atmosphere of a small Orkney island can be soaked up even before you step ashore. There is a splendid panorama of Shapinsay’s attractive village and castle and the lighthouse on Helliar…More
Stronsay is a beautiful island to visit and to live on with magical sandy beaches backed by dunes, a stunning coastline with interesting rock formations and a main settlement with grand houses dating back to the herring fishery days. There is a stro…More
Westray is known as the Queen o’ the Isles and is a vibrant place to live, work and visit. With a healthy population of 600 including 75 school age children, much of Westray’s recent vitality and prosperity has been nurtured by the Westray Develo…More