The History of Kirkwall
The city and royal burgh of Kirkwall has a history going back long before written records began, as evidenced by the Iron Age remains at Grain Earth House to the west of the modern community. But it is as a Viking outpost that it was established as a settlement in about 1046, according to the Orkneyinga Saga, by the Earl of Orkney Rognvald II.
Though Kirkwall has with one exception avoided pitched battles, its rulers are no strangers to violence – Rognvald II himself was murdered - something of an irony given that the name of the place means Church Bay (Kirkuvagr, later Kirkvoe and Kirkwaa, which legend has it English mapmakers thought meant Kirkwall and duly named it so). The Kirk in question is that built in the 11th century, dedicated to a suitably Norse saint, Olaf.
A far larger and historically more important church, the Cathedral of St Magnus , was begun in 1137, changing Kirkwall in terms of its appearance, the vast building dominating the centre; in terms of the population of the settlement at that period, as large numbers of masons and other craftsmen were attracted to work there; and even politically. The man who initiated the project was Earl Rognvald Kali, prompted to promise the magnificent building by his father as a way of gaining the support of the residents of Kirkwall in his dispute with rival to the Earldom Paul Hakonsson. His plan worked; Paul Hakonsson met an unknown end, captured and then lost to history, legend has it blinded and imprisoned far from help – naturally Ragnvald, kidnapper and murderer, was eventually made a saint by the Catholic Church. And equally naturally Ragnvald himself was murdered in turn in 1158.
Kirkwall remained a Norse stronghold for centuries to come; in 1263 Haakon the Old withdrew there after defeat at the Battle of Largs , a defeat that doubtless hastened his end – he died in the Bishop’s Palace in Kirkwall. Another rather younger monarch, Margaret Maid of Norway, likewise died in Kirkwall as she travelled in 1290 to Scotland aged just 7 to assume its throne, fate having seen her inherit the crown. A third monarch is also associated with the city, Robert the Bruce supposedly having overwintered there in 1306.
Orkney finally became a Scottish possession on February 20 1472. Having been given in pledge against payment of a dowry for the marriage of Margaret of Norway and James III of Scotland, and the dowry not being handed over, the islands, and those of Shetland, passed to the Scots.
James III it was in 1486 who made Kirkwall a royal burgh, cementing his hold on the place. In the document to do this the division of the town into two main areas was noted: this division – into the Burgh and the Laverock – is celebrated to this day in the annual game of (very) rough-football between the Uppies and the Doonies - the Kirkwall Ba' .
The most famous medieval lords of Kirkwall were the Sinclairs, who continued the turbulent history of Orkney magnates: in 1529 Sinclair absentee landlords off in Scotland refused rent by the Sinclairs on Mainland (the island on which Kirkwall stands) sent a large force to retake it; the invading force was badly beaten, and more than 100 of its number killed at the Battle of Summerdale on May 18 1529. The Sinclairs, specifically Earl Hugh Sinclair, built a castle in Kirkwall in the 14th century; this was destroyed in 1615 after an abortive uprising against the Scottish king.
The last great historic event in Kirkwall was a rather pathetic one: in March 1650 the Earl of Montrose, sacrificed in a wild gamble by Charles II , passed through the city on his way to the Scottish mainland with a force of Danish soldiers of fortune, thence to defeat at Carbisdale on April 27, and his eventual execution in Edinburgh .