The Bishop’s Palace in Kirkwall is located adjacent to the Earl’s Palace and beside St Magnus Cathedral in the heart of the town. There has been a Bishop’s Palace on the site since the 12th century, but much of what remains today is from the 1600s.
The building, although now in ruins, has an interesting history. It was built in the 12th century, remodelled in the 1550s, and then again in around 1600 by Earl Patrick Stewart to incorporate it into his Earl’s Palace as quarters for his bodyguards. In 1263 King Hakon IV of Norway died in the Bishop’s Palace on his return home from battle at Largs. It is believed that in 1290 the body of Margaret, the child Queen Regnant of Scots known as the Maid of Norway, was brought to the Bishop’s Palace after her death on her way from Norway to be crowned.
The Bishop’s Palace today is really only a shell of what it once was. The main section of the building was the great hall but now you walk through it below the level of where the floor would have been. The tower known as Bishop Reid’s Tower survives, and you can climb up quite high for a view of the cathedral and Kirkwall.
Due to the current surroundings of the Bishop’s Palace, I found it hard to picture what would at one time have been an imposing building. While the Earl’s Palace is surrounded by grass, enabling visitors to step back and get a proper external perspective of the building, the Bishop’s Palace is right on the road, not even a verge between the pavement and Palace walls. Walking along the pavement right beside the walls means you can’t get a sense of how it was, and even from across the road the building is diminished by the tarmac surrounding it, unlike the Earl’s Palace. It is worth pointing out however that the road was first constructed in the 19th century, when the original gateway to the Bishop’s Palace was moved to make way for the road.
The Bishop’s Palace is not wheelchair accessible. There are steps to enter, and more down into the main hall. You can get a good view of the interior without going down into the hall, but you have to cross it in order to reach the tower and also the cellar which remains under the tower.
Entry to the Bishop’s Palace is a joint ticket with the Earl’s Palace at adult £3.70, child £2.20, and concession £3.00. We used our Orkney Explorer pass for this.
Of the two, the Earl’s Palace is definitely the larger, and there is more to see – however I found the history of the Bishop’s Palace more interesting. The Bishop’s Palace did feel rather like a sideline though, thrown in with the Earl’s Palace ticket as a little extra. This is largely due to its position, and the fact that it is hard to get a real sense of the building, which is a shame. It’s worth going to the two palaces, but the Bishop’s Palace just seemed a bit sad and forlorn, a real shame given its history.