A WALK THROUGH KIRKWALL
submitted by Sandy Firth
A favourite stroll starts on the Ayre Road, at the car-park in front of the Ayre Hotel, which dates from the end of the 1700’s. Heading in to the town the night club started its life as a fish curing station. Over the road is the imposing building which houses the City sewage pumping plant. We are now at the West Pier. Almost exactly two hundred years old and built from masonry recovered from the demolition of the last remnants of Kirkwall Castle. Adjacent is the Shapinsay Terminal with rest room and toilets. Along its west side, the Shapinsay ramp is where ships used to be beached on the sandy foreshore to careen the weed from their hulls. Opposite is the Kiln Corner named after the kiln which was part of the Girnel, now the Orkney Sailing Club, with its blue plaque. Next door the Girnel Keeper’s House has a 17th century skew putt and the former Earldom Estate Office is to the rear. It now houses Orkney Wireless Museum. Roofs can tell a houses age. Crow steps are an obvious feature and it is also possible to see where a chimney has been altered when thatch gave way to slate. The addition of Chimney cans to assist in the burning of coal can also be obvious.
Passing the Harbour Basin with the Corn slip, used to unload grain for the Girnel, we see the original pier, built by public subscription to a design by Thomas Telford in 1800, with the later shore-due office of the mid 1800’s. The Harbour is the ‘Doonie’ Goal of the annual Ba Games.
Bridge Street turns up in to the town with The Kirkwall Hotel at the corner. It boasted a flush lavatory on each floor when it opened in 1890. Along the old main thoroughfare are Closes opening on either side to give access to the old houses and their yards. Many of these are worth exploring. Sir Walter Scott was dined in the restaurant, now under Indian ownership. The Anchor Close opens to the left. On its left side we see the former Piper’s house. His duty was to waken the town each morning. The next square opening on our left was created by a huge fire in the 1930’s. Opposite are examples of wealthy merchants houses of the 17th and 18th centuries, gable end to the street, with shops and stores under. To their rear the unreclaimed Peerie Sea was the harbour. To our left, let us now go up St.Olaf’s Wynd and read the plaque on the old gateway.
Where Bridge Street Ends and Albert Street begins we have an open space which was the site of the ‘TING’ – the Old Norse Parliament. In the ruined house fronting it the Scottish parliament was once held. As we go along, look above the modern shop fronts and notice the touches of flamboyant extravagance in the old buildings. In many places inscribed stone from former property has been rebuilt in the newer masonry. The street narrows and it was here that the Butcher’s shop had 12 feet demolished in the 1950’s to make the street wider. Then there is ‘The Big Tree’-- reputedly Orkney’s only tree, which is taken in at night for safety. It stands in the former garden of the house to the rear which is where the Laing family resided in the 1700’s.
The Broad Street opens, with the Strynd on our left .It is built over a stream and the buildings on its left side are remnants of Kirkwall Castle. On the right Castle Street sits on the foundations of the castle. 12th Century St. Magnus Cathedral sits behind the Kirk Green with its Market Cross facing a happy mixture of property dating from the15th century. These include Orkney Museum - Tankerness House, originally two manses for Cathedral clergy, with its later arched gate from the 1500’s. It stands opposite a group of houses with the 1544 former Grammar School carrying its blue plaque. Victoria Street lies ahead with some of the oldest houses in Kirkwall at its entry. Notice the carved stone lintels and other features which look down on passers by. Trades as well as initials are recorded. At Spence’s Square two skew putts in this17th century group of houses are worthy of note. The Baptist Church fits snugly beside the old buildings as we reach the next road junction.
The Clay Loan on the left is where the clay for building houses was obtained. The site of the Gallows was at its top, with the Hangman’s house beside it. Now a pleasant green. Union Street to the right leads down to join Junction road, built in the mid 1800’s, over the broad sands of the Peerie Sea and indeed across it.
Main Street with the West End Hotel, once the Balfour Hospital, with the Fever Hospital alongside and the horse ambulance stable opposite have a fascinating story of their own. Further along look at the dated skew putt, crow steps and closes on our left. We end our stroll beside the ruins of a huge former Cathedral lodging. Traces of the kitchen fire and arched basement can still be seen. The modern stone wall is the ‘Uppies’ Goal in the annual Ba games, played on Christmas and New Year’s Day. Opposite is the Catholic Church.
Whilst this must needs be a lightning description, there is a wealth of information available for a follow-up in the Orkney Library, Museum, and leaflets. The secret is to look up and see what Kirkwall’s upper stories have to tell us.