Descriptive Gazetteer Entry for Kirkwall

Kirkwall (a corruption of Scand. Kirkjuvagr, pronounced Kirkevaag, i.e., 'church-bay'), a parish, with a royal burgh of the same name, in the E of the Mainland of Orkney. The landward portion of the parish is commonly known as St Ola, taking its title from Olaf the Holy, who was killed in 1030, and had here a church erected to his memory. The full official name is Kirkwall and St Ola. It is bounded N and NE by the sea, E by the sea and by St Andrew's parish, SE by Holm parish, S by the sea, and W by Orphir and Firth parishes. Its outline is highly irregular, the N being deeply indented by the Bay of Kirkwall and the Bay of Carness, the NE by the Bay of Work and the Bay of Meil, and the S by Scapa Bay. The distance across the centre of the parish from the sea at Scapa Bay to the sea at Kirkwall Bay, excluding the Peerie Sea, is 1 5/8 mile; but the greatest length, from a point W of Wideford Hill on the W to Head of Holland on the E, is 5 3/8 miles; and the extreme breadth, from Car Head on the N to the point on Scapa Flow where it joins Holm parish, is 5 6/8 miles. The land area is 11,088 acres, of which only 3000 are arable. The surface is very irregular, and reaches its highest point at Wideford Hill (726 feet) on the western border, from which there is an excellent view. At its foot is the market stance, where the great Lammas fair is held (though now sadly diminished in importance), and where Bunce and Cleveland quarrelled with the pedlar. The drainage is carried off by a number of small burns that flow direct to the sea. There are some small lakelets, and 2 miles S of the burgh is a chalybeate spring, called Blakely's Well. The soil near the shore is generally of a sandy nature; but in some places, especially near the town, there is a rich black loam; while elsewhere, particularly in the higher grounds, it is a mixture of cold clay and moss. The underlying rocks, belonging to the Old Red sandstone, are in some places coarse, dark-coloured sandstone, in others flaggy. Many of the beds abound in fossils; and at Pickoquoy Quarry at the Peerie Sea very numerous, but not very well preserved, specimens may be obtained of the only ostracod crustacean of the system, the little Estheria membranacea. As elsewhere throughout Orkney, the appearance of the land is bare and bleak from the total absence of trees, which, numerous as the remains in the peat mosses show them to have once been, do not now thrive except under shelter. The shores are rocky, but, though higher on the S than on the N, they nowhere attain any great height. Near Gait-nip on Scapa Bay are some small caves. Off the E point of the Bay of Kirkwall is Thieves' Holm, and off the W point is Quanterness Skerry, both belonging to this parish. The Bay of Kirkwall is 2½ miles wide at the mouth, and penetrates the land for 2 miles; at the centre of the sweep, immediately to the W of the town, is the Peerie Sea, separated from the bay by a mound of earth and stone, locally known as an ayre. This sheet of water used at one time to be a fresh-water lake; but many years ago an attempt was made to drain it by making an opening in the earthen mound, with the result that while the fresh water ran out the salt water runs in twice a day. It is at present proposed to fill it up with rubbish. The Bay of Carness is ½ mile wide at the mouth, and penetrates the land for the same distance; the opening of the Bay of Work and the Bay of Meil measures about 7 furlongs by 7 furlongs at its deepest part; Inganess Bay is 6 furlongs wide at the mouth, and extends inland for 2¾ miles; Scapa Bay is 1¾ mile wide at the mouth, and extends inland for the same distance. Kirkwall, Inganess, and Scapa all afford safe and excellent anchorage for ships of the largest size, and the latter is the ordinary resort of boats and small craft from the southern Orkneys and from Caithness. At Scapa a pier of sandstone, 530 feet long, protected by a sea-wall, was built in 1878-80 at a cost, inclusive of the improvement of the road to Kirkwall, of £11, 000, and this is now the harbour for the mail steamer from Thurso. The harbour at Kirkwall is noticed in the following article. The principal antiquities, besides those noticed under the burgh of Kirkwall, are the sites of three broughs-one on the shore of Inganess near Birstane, one NW of Scapa, and one at Lower Saverock, 1½ mile along the coast NW of Kirkwall burgh-and Picts' houses at Quanterness and Wideford Hill. The latter is a fine specimen, the circumference of the mound being 140 feet and the height of it 12 feet. A passage, 18 inches high and 22 inches wide, led to a central apartment, 10 feet long, from 3 to 5 feet wide, and about 9 feet 3 inches high; connected with this were other three smaller apartments. It is to be regretted that both the Picts' houses are now filled up with rubbish. Distinguished natives are James Atkins or Aikin (1613-87), Bishop of Galloway; Sir Robert Strange (1721-92), the celebrated engraver; Malcolm Laing (1762-1818), the historian; Professor Traill, M.D., professor of medical jurisprudence in the University of Edinburgh from 1832 to 1862; and William Balfour Baikie, M.D. (1820-64), African explorer. Besides the industries connected with the burgh and the shipping at Scapa, there is a distillery, noted for the excellence of its whisky, at Highland Park, 1 mile S of the burgh. The parish is the seat of a presbytery in the synod of Orkney, and the charge is collegiate. The stipend of the first charge is £158, with a manse and a glebe, worth respectively £30 and £112 a year; the second charge stipend is £150, with £4, 3s. 4d. for communion elements, and £50 for a manse and glebe. The landward (St Ola) school board has under its charge Glaitness public school, which, with accommodation for 120 pupils, had (1881) an attendance of 96, and a grant of £77, 2s. 8d. Twelve proprietors hold each an annual value of between £500 and £100, 22 hold each between £100 and £50, and there are many others of smaller amount. Valuation, exclusive of burgh, (1881), £5037. Pop., inclusive of burgh, (1801) 2621, (1831) 3721, (1861) 4422, (1871) 4261, (1881) 4801, of whom 2213 were males and 2588 were females.

The presbytery of Kirkwall comprehends the quoad civilia parishes of St Andrews, Deerness, Evie and Rendal, Holm, Kirkwall and St Ola, and South Ronaldshay, the quoad sacra parish of Ronaldshay-St Mary's, and the mission stations of Rendal in Evie and Rendal, and Burray in South Ronaldshay. Pop. (1871) 11, 497, (1881) 12, 251, of whom 1822 were communicants of the Church of Scotland in 1878.

(F.H. Groome, Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland (1882-4); © 2004 Gazetteer for Scotland)

Linked entities:
Feature Description: "a parish, with a royal burgh"   (ADL Feature Type: "cities")
Administrative units: Kirkwall Burgh       Orkney ScoCnty
Place names: KIRKJUVAGR     |     KIRKWALL
Place: Kirkwall

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