"The Earl's Palace forms three sides of an oblong square, and has, even its ruins, the air of an elegant yet massive structure, uniting, as was usual in the residence of feudal princes, the character of a palace and of a castle" Sir Walter Scott - The Pirate. Directly opposite the Bishop's Palace in Kirkwall, and a short distance to the south of St Magnus Cathedral, are the remains of the Earl's Palace. Hailed as "the finest example of French Renaissance architecture in Scotland", the Earl's Palace is undoubtedly a piece of splendid architectural brilliance. However, to the people of Orkney, the palace is regarded as a memorial to what has been described as one of the darkest and bleakest episodes of Orkney history - the rule of the Stewart Earls.
In the late 16th and early 17th centuries, Orkney was under the rule of the Stewart family, first Earl Robert - an illegitimate son of King James V of Scotland - and then his son, Patrick. History treats both men as despots and extraordinarily vicious extortioners. They are alleged to have forced the Orcadians under their rule to work without pay and jailing, or torturing, those who would not comply with their wishes. The Stewarts' men controlled Orkney's council and courts and were therefore held to be above the law. Then known as the "Newark in the Yards", the construction of the Earl's Palace began in 1600, instigated by Patrick Stewart, a few years after his accession to the earldom. Using forced labour to quarry and ship in the stone for the grandiose scheme, Patrick Stewart planned to build a dwelling unrivalled in design, comfort and beauty. His plan was to incorporate the remains of the Bishop's Palace into a massive palatial complex. But his dreams were not to be and by 1606, Earl Patrick Stewart was heavily in debt. The Earl's Palace was completed in 1607 but, shortly afterwards, Patrick Stewart was arrested and work completing the final complex had to be abandoned. After Patrick's execution in 1615, the portion of the Earl's Palace already built became the residence of Orkney's bishops.
By 1705, the palace had fallen into disrepair and was no longer fit for habitation. By 1745, the roof had been stripped and the slates sold. The structure has remained roofless ever since. The Earl's Palace remains a two-storey building today. Consisting of two rectangular sections placed at right-angles to each other, forming an "L" shape, the ground floor contains massive cellars, a large kitchen and a well. A broad stone staircase leads to the first floor and the main apartments and the great hall. Measuring over 16 metres long, with two large fireplaces, ornate high vaulted windows and, at the time, sumptuous painted decorations, it is clear to see why the Great Hall was once said to have been one of the finest state rooms of any castle in Scotland. Outside, the palace entrance was also extremely grand, ornately decorated with tiers of heraldic panels and flanked by carved pillars. Today, however, the effect is not as impressive - Orkney's notorious weather has badly eroded the soft stone used to form the entrance's decorations.
The Bishop's Palace is the older of the two ruined palaces found in the centre of Kirkwall. The Bishop’s Palace was built around the same time as St Magnus Cathedral, in the early 1100s. The builder may well have been Bishop William the Old, crusader and friend of Earl Rognvald, St Magnus’s nephew and patron of the new cathedral. The palace is a little difficult to work out at first sight. But behind all the later alterations and additions lies a simple, two-storey hall house. Little of the first floor hall remains, but the ground level is largely intact. The west wall’s narrow windows, built of alternating red and yellow stones, are similar to those in the cathedral.
Haakon IV of Norway died in the Bishop’s Palace on 15 December 1263 – and the Saga of Haakon Haakonsson includes an invaluable description of the palace at the time of the king’s death. The king had just arrived from a failed expedition to the Firth of Clyde, which ended at the Battle of Largs when his forces were driven off. After the king died in his bedchamber, his body lay in state in the palace’s hall. Haakon IV was the last Norwegian king to rule over the Sudreyjar – the ‘Southern Isles’ or Hebrides. By 1320, the palace had been reduced to ruins through neglect. Thereafter, it disappears from the history books, apparently forgotten. Then, in 1526, the palace came into the possession of William, Lord Sinclair. His ownership, however, was short lived before he was ordered to return the property to the Bishop of Orkney. The building returned to prominence in 1540, when King James V of Scotland arrived in Kirkwall and garrisoned his troops in the Kirkwall Castle and the Bishop's Palace. Soon after, Bishop Robert Reid, the founder of Edinburgh University and the last and greatest of Orkney's medieval Bishops, began an extensive programme of restoration and reconstruction. As well as buttressing the palace's badly sagging west wall, Bishop Reid was responsible for the addition of the "Moosie Toor" - the strong, round tower at the north-western corner of the palace. In 1568, the ownership of the palace passed to Earl Robert Stewart. Robert's son, Patrick Stewart, later planned to include the structure in his scheme to build the Earl's Palace.
On-street parking is available about 350m away, on Thomas Street. Entry to the Bishop’s Palace is direct from the street through an iron gate and down some wooden steps. Both routes to the Earl’s Palace involve steps: 1. The path from Palace Road has 2 steps up and 1 step down, followed by 1 step into the monument. 2. From Watergate there are 3 steps up, a short path and 2 steps down, followed by 1 step into the monument. Once within the grounds of the Earl’s Palace, there is step-free access to the visitor centre. The ground floor of the Bishop’s Palace is mainly on the level and surfaced with gravel. Access to the first floor of the tower is up wooden steps followed by narrow stone steps (with rope handrail). The ground floor of the Earl’s Palace includes the kitchen and an interpretive display. These are reached by 2 wide stone steps. The first floor includes the great hall and bedchambers and is reached by a wide stone staircase (without handrail). Access to the second floor is via a narrow stone spiral staircase. The nearest adapted toilet is at the Kirkwall and St Ola Community Centre, Broad Street, about 120m away. Assistance dogs are welcome.
Location : Bishop’s and Earl’s Palaces, Watergate, Kirkwall, Orkney, KW15 1PD
Transport: Inverness (National Rail) then bus (X99) then ferry then bus (X1). Bus Routes : 6 and 442 stop 2 miles away (taxi available).
Opening Times : 1st April to 30th September, Daily, 09:30 to 17:30
Tickets : Adults £4.50; Concessions £3.60; Children (5 - 15) £2.70
Tel. : 01856 871 918