Mainland Orkney: Kirkwall as a home base

Kirkwall is the largest community in Orkney, and is located on the largest island, called Mainland. It makes a terrific base of operations. As with everything I'm writing about pertaining to this trip, I can't do it justice but I can offer glimpses.

Here's a view of Kirkwall, with Saint Magnus Cathedral prominent:


I can't get the cathedral's own website to load right now (it may later when I'm not writing at the coffee shop—indeed, it did), and my photos of the interior seem to be AWOL. I'll have to go to Orkney again and take more, won't I? (It's a tough job, but not one I'd want to delegate.)

For the most part, I focused on early history and sheep-related topics during my time in Orkney. There's so much there that the only way not to go nuts trying to see and do everything is to have an organizing principle in mind for the visit. Even with personal guidelines (or, rather, boundaries), I found it was only possible to do reconnaissance and think about what I was seeing that would shape a future visit. (The same was true for Shetland.) The cathedral in Kirkwall was outside my primary scope, or so I thought. But it was so conveniently located (and highly recommended by a friend) that I did get there just before I left, and was very glad to have done so.

But back to getting oriented in part of Kirkwall.


Here's the street that was the focus of my days there. It is, obviously, better constructed for the use of pedestrians than for cars. And in windy, wet weather, it's more sheltered than other parts of the nearby environment. I'd give names of streets, but they seem to change every few blocks. Walking around is easier than giving directions with names on them. I'm pretty sure this section was called Victoria Street. Other parts of the same continuous route were called Albert Street, and one section might have been Castle Street. (In the other direction, the road turns a corner and becomes High Street, and then Old Scapa Road, and then . . . on foot, it's not confusing at all.)

A number of narrow passageways lead off that primary street. One I photographed is called Gunn's Close. As I mentioned in an earlier post, although I'm a mix of heritages, one predominant family line is the Robson one, a branch of the Gunn clan, which was resident in northeastern Scotland and . . . Orkney.


A similar narrow, but dead-end, passageway on the other side of the main street and a little bit farther from the cathedral led to the self-catering apartment where I stayed. "Self-catering," for those not familiar with the concept, involves renting a space that has cooking facilities and where the itinerant residents do some of the housekeeping to prepare for the next inhabitants (i.e., "leave it as you found it, to the best of your ability"). The arrangement has the huge benefit of permitting easy, comfortable, and economical meals. It isn't necessary to eat out unless you want to.


Just down the street was Lucano, however. It is an extraordinary Italian restaurant, and a delightful place for a lunch and a dinner. The sort of place you do go back to.


As you may have noticed, parking along the street is scarce and short-term. Basically, you can drive along the street to deliver things (like your luggage) or pick them up (if they are, for some reason, too bulky to carry). Thus the car got parked a block uphill, on another street that was adjacent to these garden plots.


The view from there of Kirkwall (and beyond) was lovely.


There are larger roads running through the area, and if you walk from where I stayed back up toward where I took the first photo, you will find a couple of supermarkets, including a Tesco. If you're walking from Victoria Street, you can use trips destined for Tesco as an opportunity to see what happens if, for example, you walk down Gunn's Close.

When I was at the Tesco in Kirkwall, I noticed KNITTING in one of the refrigerated cases.


This is apparently not unusual. But it was one of my first tours of a Scottish grocery store on this trip, and while I ultimately got the hang (more or less) of how they were organized and how things were packaged and what brands were associated with what products, it was comforting (if also a bit startling) to catch sight of "the big knit" in a cooler. It turns out that "the big knit" is a very cool thing even when it's not refrigerated.

I found several types of SHEEP (only one is pictured here) in another aisle.


Farther down what I came to think of as "the street," although there are many others, is The Orcadian book shop, a fine place.


Look what I found there—see the asterisks (it was a fine place even before I made these discoveries):


Another place to visit was R. A. Finn, where I missed out on some hand-dyed North Ronaldsay yarn because I thought it would be there the next day (it wasn't) . . . 


But I did get a skein (now two balls) of marled North Ronaldsay yarn to play with.


And then there's The Reel. Also within walking distance. A great coffee shop with free wifi. An easy place to hang out. (There was wifi in the self-catering unit, but The Reel's was more reliable, if only available when the place was open.)




I bought a CD—Jennifer and Hazel Wrigley's Idiom. Except for the need to conserve money for wool, I would have bought more. I'll have to go back, right?

Although I'm not done talking about Kirkwall yet (the post on the museum is in process) and we haven't gotten to North Ronaldsay, which was also part of the Orkney section of this adventure, I need to mention the last night in Kirkwall, just before the overnight ferry trip to Shetland. The ferry leaves Kirkwall a little before midnight. It's good to get in the car line about 10:30 or 11. What to do to stay awake and happy until it's time to play the ferry game?

Leave the car somewhere and walk in the early evening toward the welcoming lights of the white building housing The Reel.



Tea, a light snack, and an open music session make for a sweet departing point.


Next posts will backtrack a bit, for the sake of The Orkney Museum in Kirkwall and the fine and amazing and wonderful and windy time on North Ronaldsay.


The new-to-us pup now has a new name: Tam.

And the approval of our already-resident Border collie, Ceilidh.

More on that soon, too.


5 thoughts on “Mainland Orkney: Kirkwall as a home base”

  1. Goodness, you are bringing back all my memories of Kirkwall. I loved St Magnus – it’s such a magnificent space for what, on the outside, is a fairly small cathedral. And the shops and streets of Kirkwall too…

    I’m so glad you loved it so much.

  2. Freyalyn, I loved Kirkwall and Orkney. The Cathedral: AMAZING. Just the floors and the walls. You know what I mean. All those smaller spaces within that big open space. I would like to watch it in use over the course of a week: just sit there and see how people relate to it. Ive never been any place like it.

  3. Did you get to climb up inside the cathedral? The view from the top is fascinating, but the spaces inside look so different as youre climbing, they have all sorts of stones and archaelogical stuff on display on the way up, and you can see the windows closer too.

  4. Okay, Freyalyn, I definitely need to go back. The time available was very short–at the end of a day, as they were closing in 30 minutes. I mostly looked at the tiles on the floor, the carved stones all along the outside walls, and the textiles. I missed any climbing up.

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