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It is easy to forget that for much of history the sea has been less a barrier to movement than a highway that promoted it. To Scottish eyes, Kirkwall may seem a distant northerly outpost. To the Norse at the end of the first Millennium it lay at the heart of a culture linking Scandinavia with Iceland, Shetland, the Western Isles, Argyll, parts of Ireland and the Isle of Man. For this seafaring empire, Kirkwall was not at the edge of their world but at the very centre of it.
Kirkwall seems more a Scandinavian town than a Scottish one, and for a large part of its history it was one. The name comes from the Norse "Kirkjuvagr", or "Church Bay" and comes from the foundation of a church to St Olaf here in the early 11th Century. By 1046 Kirkwall was a farming and market centre, and in 1137 the Norse Earl Rognvald commenced the building of St Magnus Cathedral here. Work began a little later on the construction of the nearby Bishop's Palace.
In 1468 Orkney was acquired by James III for Scotland and by 1540 Kirkwall was the administrative centre for both Orkney and Shetland. 1607 saw Earl Patrick Stewart replace the Bishop's Palace with the Earl's Palace. While Patrick was imprisoned in Dumbarton Castle for his tyranny in 1614, his son Robert rose in rebellion, seizing the Earl's Palace and nearby Kirkwall Castle. The castle did not survive the siege that ended the uprising, and neither Robert nor Patrick survived the judicial process that followed it.
In 1798 a hillside site overlooking Kirkwall started to be used by one Magnus Eunson for illegal distilling and whisky smuggling. In 1825 the operation was legalised as Highland Park Distillery, Scotland's most northerly. Highland Park continues to thrive, and is also now also one of Orkney's most popular visitor attractions. Overlooking nearby Scapa Bay is Scotland's second most northerly distillery, Scapa Distillery.
The story of Kirkwall has largely been the story of the development of its harbour. In the early days the bay extended further south than it does now, to the Peerie Sea. These days this is a manicured inland lake. In the 1100s it formed the harbour and extended almost to the west end of the Cathedral.
In 1811 work began on a series of harbour improvements at the north end of the town, on the site of today's harbour. These improvements have continued over the years, and the late 1990s saw a significant extension to the main pier. 2003 saw the trend continue with the completion of deeper water port facilities a little around the bay at Hatston. Only some of the 70 cruise ships that call into Kirkwall each year could previously berth at the quayside. Others had to anchor in the bay and transfer passengers to dry land on tenders. The pier at Hatston means this far fewer now need to do so, and it also serves the larger NorthLink Ferries that replaced the long-standing P&O services to Aberdeen and Lerwick.
Kirkwall is also the terminal for many of the ferries to Orkney's north isles. The ferry to Shapinsay departs from a slipway on the west side of the lifeboat pier. Ferries to Westray, Stronsay, Sanday and Eday depart from the linkspan on the main pier.
Kirkwall's geography takes a little working out, but is in reality pretty straightforward. Harbour Street runs east to west along the waterfront, with the port facilities extending to its north. It is connected to the south by the medieval dog-leg pattern of Bridge Street and Albert Street to Kirkwall's other main point of focus, Broad Street. This in turn is fronted by St Magnus Cathedral, the Tourist Information Centre, the Town Hall, and the Orkney Museum. And just around the corner are the Bishop's and Earl's Palaces.
Most of Kirkwall's excellent shopping is to be found in Bridge and Albert Streets, whose narrowness and architectural value would do considerably credit to somewhere better know for its medieval street pattern like York. A word of warning. These streets are paved and pedestrianised, but this is neither observed nor enforced. As a result pedestrians have to dodge a steady stream of vehicles making their way from the harbour to the Cathedral. This is a shame: this traffic is all that prevents shopping in Kirkwall being a truly idyllic experience.
Today's Kirkwall is the centre of Orkney in many different ways. Lying on the narrow neck of land on which East and West Mainland meet, almost all roads linking the two pass through the town. It is also the point from which ferries depart for all the northern isles except Rousay. Orkney Ferries provide the inter-island links and their fine stone headquarters building is on Harbour Street, nearly opposite the end of Bridge Street.