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Kirkwall is the largest town and capital of Orkneymarker, off the coast of northern mainland Scotlandmarker. The town is first mentioned in Orkneyinga saga in the year 1046. It was established as the settlement of Rögnvald II, Earl of Orkney, who was killed by his successor, Thorfinn. In 1486, King James III of Scotland elevated Kirkwall to the status of a royal burgh; modern roadsigns still indicate "The City and Royal Burgh of Kirkwall".

The name Kirkwall is derived from the Norse name Kirkjuvagr (Church Bay), which was later corrupted to Kirkvoe, then Kirkwaa. English cartographers mistook the latter part waa as the Scots wa (meaning wall); hence the town became Kirkwall.

Kirkwall Town Hall Exterior.
Kirkwall in relation to the rest of the Mainland.


Situated on the northern coast of Mainland Orkneymarker and with a population of about 6,000, Kirkwall is a port with ferry services to Aberdeenmarker and Lerwickmarker, as well as the principal north islands in the group. At the heart of the town stands St. Magnus Cathedralmarker, which was founded in memory of Saint Magnus Erlendsson, Earl of Orkney 1108-1117 by Earl Rögnvald Kali. Next to the Cathedral are the ruins of the former Bishop's Palacemarker and Earl's Palacemarker. The town has two museums: Tankerness House Museum, which is contained within one of Scotland's best-preserved sixteenth century town-houses, contains items of local historical interest. The prehistoric, Pictish and Viking collections are of international importance. The other museum is the Orkney Wireless Museummarker, dealing with the history of radio and recorded sound.

Apart from the main historical buildings mentioned above, Kirkwall has many 17th-18th century houses and other structures in the local vernacular style. The 'Kirk' of Kirkwall was not the Cathedral (which was originally at Birsaymarker), 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. Kirkwall also once had a medieval castle, which was destroyed in the 17th century.

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. The key for the monument comes from Ortak Visitor Centre and Factory.

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. 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 itself has since moved to a larger building on Junction Road.

Parliamentary burgh

Kirkwall was a parliamentary burgh, combined with Dingwallmarker, Dornochmarker, Tainmarker and Wickmarker in the Northern Burghs constituency of the House of Commonsmarker of the Parliament of Great Britain from 1708 to 1801 and of the Parliament of the United Kingdommarker from 1801 to 1918. Cromartymarker 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 Shetlandmarker.

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