Kirkwall Cruise Port

Port of Kirkwall: An Overview

Situated on what's known as the "Mainland" of the Orkney archipelago, Kirkwall is the capital of a group of about 70 islands north of Scotland. The town was founded around 1035, and was declared a Royal Burgh in 1486 by King James III. Kirkwall's most famous landmark is nearly the 900-year old St. Magnus Cathedral, built from beautiful pink and yellow sandstone. Its towering spire dominates the town, even from the water.

Settlements on Orkney's mainland go back to 3000 BC. You can see remains of that civilization at Skara Brae, as well as cairns (man-made piles of stone), Bronze Age stone circles and Iron Age roundhouses, at different sites around the island. The richness of the Orkney's Neolithic past has earned it UNESCO World Heritage status.

Vikings arrived in the eighth and ninth centuries and left their mark, too. The name Kirkwall is derived from the old Norse name Kirkjuvagr, which means "Church Bay." The original town is considered to be one of the best-preserved examples of an ancient Norse settlement.

Follow the streets, which snake around this town built of gray stone, and you'll find shopping, dining, banks and more, as well as a museum and historic sites.

Hanging Around

A scattering of restaurants are located just up from Kirkwall Pier, at the intersection of Bridge, Shore and Harbor streets. A pub called Helgi's (14 Harbour Street; open 11 a.m. until late) serves local brews. There's not much to be found around Hatston Quay.

Don't Miss

Skara Brae: Skara Brae, a 5,000-year-old Neolithic village, was uncovered just over 150 years ago when a howling storm blew away dunes that were covering it. The small homes are still partially buried, and you walk on pathways looking down into the excavations. At first, it might not look like much, but as your guide starts to explain, you'll see beds, cupboards, fire places and possible altars and fish tanks -- all made from stone, so the setting is more intact than you'd expect. A small, but excellent, visitor center has exhibits that explain what life was like in the village. And don't miss the recreated home just outside the visitor center as you head to the village site. It really puts what you'll see into context. (Sandwick, off the B9056 road; open 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily April to September and until 4:30 p.m. October to March)

Maes Howe: More than 5,000 years old, Maes Howe is the finest chambered tomb in northern Europe. It's so well preserved because it's constructed from huge sandstone slabs. The treasure inside didn't fare well, though. Vikings plundered it in the 12th century, leaving lewd graffiti on the walls. You enter through a low, 39-foot passageway, which opens up into the main chamber, with three other chambers attached. Timed tickets must be purchased in advance, and groups are limited to 25 people, which means the site isn't offered on many lines' shore excursions. Tours last 20 minutes. (West of Kirkwall at Tormiston Mill, off the A965 road; +44 (0)1856761606; reservations may be made at other Historic Scotland sites by requesting them to telephone for you)

Ring of Brodgar: The circle of standing stones known as the Ring of Brodgar is at a dramatic location, overlooking the Loch of Harray. After climbing uphill on a well-maintained pathway, you reach the huge circle, which is surrounded by a ditch (or henge), bridged in two spots by causeways. Of the original 60 stones, 27 are still standing, and you can wander the site freely.

St. Magnus Cathedral: The vast St. Magnus Cathedral, built by a Norse earl to honor his murdered uncle Magnus, was completed in 1152. It's Britain's most northerly cathedral. As you enter, check out the lovely doorways and huge hinges that were added later. Inside, square pillars next to the organ screen hold relics of St. Magnus and his nephew Earl Rognvald, who had the cathedral built. Later in the day, the sun strikes the exterior wall, illuminating the pink sandstone. (Broad Street; open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday to Saturday and 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday from April to September and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Saturday from October to March, may be closures for weddings)

Highland Park: About a mile south of Kirkwall, 200-year-old Highland Park is a well-regarded distillery -- one of a handful that still has a traditional malting floor. It offers five tours, from the standard one-hour visit, in which you see a film, tour the distillery and taste 12-year-old Scotch, to the two-hour Magnus Eunson tour, during which you get to sample seven Scotches under the tutelage of a senior guide. The top three tours must be booked in advance, and they include transfers to and from Kirkwall.

Italian Chapel: The remarkable Italian Chapel was built from Quonset huts, barbed wire, concrete and other odds and ends by Italian prisoners during WWII. The prisoners were brought in to build causeways connecting some of the islands in order to block German ships. Working in their free time, the prisoners painted the chapel interior to mimic brick walls, carved stone, vaulted ceilings and buttresses. They created frescos of angelic figures, stained glass windows and an altarpiece depicting the Madonna and Child. An ornate scrollwork screen and gates surrounding the sanctuary were made from scrap metal. It's a true testament to dedication and ingenuity. (On Lambholm Island, about eight miles south of Kirkwall; +44 (0)1856 872856; open 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. April to September and until 4:30 p.m. October to March)

Skaill House: Built in 1620, Skaill House is located near Skara Brae. The house was originally the country manor of a bishop, though it's been expanded through the years. There's a rather eclectic assortment of furnishings inside, but one item of note is Captain Cook's china set, which made its way there when his ship docked at Stromness after his death. You'll also see good examples of Orkney chairs. (Sandwick, off the B9056 road; open 9:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. daily April to September)

Earl's Palace: Discover other remnants of Kirkwall's past. Across Palace Road from the cathedral is the early 17th-century Earl's Palace. It's a ruin but interesting to explore, particularly the great hall and adjoining rooms. Across from it is the 12th-century (with a number of remodels) Bishop's Palace, also a ruin.

Orkney Museum: The free Orkney Museum, nearby on Broad Street, is housed in a 16th-century mansion. It's a wonderful treasure-trove of Orkney history, including Pictish stones, artifacts from a Viking boat burial and displays about country life.

Getting Around

On Foot: It's an easy 10-minute walk into the heart of Kirkwall from the Town Dock. Don't attempt it from Hatston Quay. Once you're in the town center, all the sites are very walkable, and some of the main shopping streets are pedestrian zones.

By Bus: Stagecoach operates a public bus route, the T11, which is designed to take tourists to Skara Brae and the Ring of Brodgar, with time to sightsee at each spot before the bus departs again. Catch it at the Kirkwall Travel Centre on W. Castle Street near the VisitScotland tourism office.

By Taxi: Several taxi services operate in Kirkwall, including Craigies (+44 (0)1856 878787), Bob's (+44 (0)1856 876543) and Kirkwall Taxi (+44 (0)1856 876972). Craigies is the largest operation and can accommodate wheelchair passengers; it also offers mini-vans available for up to eight passengers. We highly recommend booking any taxi tour well in advance of your trip.

By Rental Car: Many travelers to Orkney prefer to drive themselves, so it's essential to book ahead if you're planning to rent a car. W.R. Tullock (Castle Street; +44 (0)1856 873212) is the agent for Avis, National and Europecar, with downtown pickup available. Orkney Car Hire also has rentals available in town (Junction Road, not far from the tourist office; +44 (0)1856 872866)

By Bike: Orkney Cycle on Tankerness Lane, rents bikes at a reasonable rate.

Lunching

There's a bounty of great ingredients in Orkney, including beef and sustainably fished crab, lobster, scallops and salmon. Add to it a tradition of high-quality dairy products, and you know you can dine well. Add to the mix award-winning beers, several cheese-makers, local ice cream, oatcakes (we even found a sundried-tomato version) and Orkney Fudge. The fudge comes in several flavors, including one with Highland Park whisky. You'll find it in gift shops. Be sure to duck into a bakery, too, to check out the vast array of tempting goodies. We bought wonderful shortbread at Argo's Bakery (44 Albert Street).

Traditional Scottish dishes include haggis -- sheep's heart, liver and lungs, minced with onion, oatmeal and spices, cooked in a sheep's stomach and traditionally served with a shot of whisky; tatties and neeps (mashed potatoes and turnips) and black pudding (blood sausage with oatmeal).

Judith Glue Real Food Cafe: This is a great resource for all sorts of food gifts, and it offers a cafe at the rear. You'll find lots of tasty choices using high-quality local ingredients, including salads, homemade soups, sandwiches, quiche, stuffed baked potatoes, an all-local cheese board and the "Orkney Smorgasboard," which gives you a taste of seafood, meats, cheeses, oat cakes, bere bannock (a type of local barley cake) and chutney. Don't forget to check the specials board, and if you have room, go for the Orkney fudge cheesecake. (25 Broad Street; +44 (0)1856 874225; open 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday to Saturday and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday)

Strynd Tea Room: If you need a nice cuppa, The Strynd Tea Room is a great choice, and it also serves a delicious assortment of baked goods, including scones, and lunch items. (Broad Street, near the cathedral; +44 (0)1856 871552; open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday to Saturday)

Helgi's: This establishment dishes up traditional Scottish fare, as well as burgers, fish and chips, and vegetarian dishes -- all adhering as much as possible to fresh, local, organic ingredients. This pub also offers free Wi-Fi for customers. (14 Harbour Street; serving food noon to 9 p.m.; 18 and older only)

Where You're Docked

You'll end up in any of three locations:

Kirkwall Pier: Smaller ships dock at the most convenient spot. After a 400-foot walk on the pier, it's about 10 minutes walking (slightly uphill) to the cathedral; shops, restaurants and other services begin when you hit the shore.

Hatston Quay: Larger ships dock at this facility two miles outside of town. It's Scotland's longest deep-water commercial berth, about a one-minute walk to reach the spot where excursion buses wait. The ferry terminal has toilets, drink-vending machines and a parking lot. For most ships, the town operates a shuttle service to the tourism office in the city center.

Anchored: If berths aren't available, some lines anchor in the bay and use tenders to serve the port. It amounts to about 15 percent of all cruise ships.

For a list of ships stopping at Kirkwall and where they will dock or anchor, check the Orkney Islands Council Marine Services website.

Watch Out For

St. Magnus Cathedral is a popular spot for weddings, so if you're exploring the town, we recommend checking it out first to see whether it might be closed for a wedding, so you can plan accordingly.

There can be chilly winds at places like Skara Brae and the Ring of Brodgar, so you might want to dress in layers.

If you decide to drive, remember that the Scottish drive on the left-hand side of the road. Be particularly careful when you make a right turn, because you have to cross oncoming traffic. Be cautious crossing streets, too.

Currency & Best Way to Get Money

The pound is Scotland's currency. It's comparable to -- and interchangeable with -- the British pound. You'll find convenient ATMs at the Royal Bank of Scotland (1 Victoria Street) and Clydesdale Bank (2 Broad Street) -- a short walk from the cathedral. For currency conversion figures, visit www.oanda.com or www.xe.com.

Language

English with a strong Scottish accent is what you'll hear on Orkney. But you'll encounter many place names that reflect the Viking heritage. As late as the 19th century, a version of Norse was spoken there, rather than Gaelic.

Best Souvenir

Renowned jewelry designer Ola Gorie lives on Orkney, and her exquisite -- though pricy -- silver jewelry is a great souvenir choice. Gorie draws on Norse symbols to inspire her work. You'll find pieces at the Longship shop, 7 Broad Street, across from St. Magnus Cathedral.

Orkney is a center for fine crafts, and the Orkney Craft Trail offers an online guide to artists around the island. We would have loved to take home a traditional Orkney Chair, made of wood and woven straw. Alas, these hand-crafted masterpieces sell for thousands of dollars.

Best Cocktail

When in Scotland, go for the Scotch! Many whisky labels never make it to the United States, so sip and experiment. Scotches made on the islands tend to be more "peaty" or smoky from the peat used as fuel in the production process. You might even want to visit Highland Park, the world's most northerly whiskey distillery (see below). You'll also find a number of Orkney-produced beers and ales.

For More Information

On the Web: Scotland's National Tourism Organization

Cruise Critic Message Boards: British Isles and Western Europe

IndependentTraveler.com: Europe Travel Guide

--By Gayle Keck, Cruise Critic contributor

Image sources:

  1. St. Magnus Cathedral – duchy/Shutterstock
  2. Earl's Palace - Jule_Berlin/Shutterstock
  3. Bishop's Palace Remains – Rey M/TripAdvisor
  4. Scapa Flow – notshy/TripAdvisor
  5. Kirkwall Harbor – Javier O/TripAdvisor
  • Our driver from Orkney taxi never spoke. We heard others were more chatty. We saw what we came to see, stones, ancient dwellings and for cheap price. £20 each for 3 hours. Did our own walking tour of bishops palace and st Magnus cathedral. ... Read more
  • Kirkwall: Norwegian Jade
    amylbush
    Went on the excursion of the Ancient Treasures of Orkney. These stones are older than Stonehenge from the neolithic era. You can actually go and touch some of the stones. Not all are roped off. A cross on one of the stones is believed to be from ... Read more
  • Great experience tainted by sloppy tour operations we missed the Ring of Brodgar do to a "misunderstanding" with the tour company and shore tours operations. Poorly compensated. Many complaints. Rest of tour fine and interesting but too ... Read more
  • Kirkwall: Caribbean Princess
    oatbagg1
    loved the Orkney Isles. Glad the boat could port there. did local shopping and then hopped on a local bus and road (again) thru the beautiful countryside. ... Read more
  • Kirkwall: Caribbean Princess
    JJ-n-JCB
    Looks like I have to rate it something to get past this step, so sorry people of Kirkwall. I'm sure your island is lovely, but we never docked and instead spent an extra day at sea missing this port of call, thanks Princess + Port Authority. ... Read more
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