Kirkwall is the main town on the largest island in Orkney, and as such is the "capital" of the archipelago. It is both a city and a Royal Burgh, and has an impressive cathedral, the Cathedral of St Magnus, dedicated to an 11th century earl who was murdered and subsequently canonised. In fact a skeleton discovered during rebuilding work may have been that of the earl, since he is believed to have died from a blow to his skull from an axe, and the skeleton in question had an injury apparently caused by an axe. The neighbouring Bishop's Palace and Earl's Palace are administered by Historic Scotland. Life in the Orkneys is displayed in the Tankerness House museum. For whisky enthusiasts, there is the Highland Park Distillery.
The Orkneys saw plenty of action during both World Wars, and there is a wireless museum in Kirkwall which covers military communications from 1930. Scapa Flow, the body of water to the south of the Orkney Mainland, was used as a naval base during both wars, and there are still sunken German warships in the area, which are a popular draw for divers, with the M.V. Invincible offering expeditions to the sunken ships. During World War II a German U-boat torpedoed HMS Royal Oak in Scapa Flow, and a buoy placed at the point where the vessel sank marks a war grave in memory of the tragedy. It was this incident which prompted the building of the Churchill Barriers (see South Ronaldsay post). In 1940 a Norwegian steamer called the Cometa was torpedoed near the British contraband control base at Kirkwall. The 42 survivors were taken to a port in the northeast of the Scottish mainland.
Webcam of the harbour.
Map of the area.