On the windswept islands of Orkney, where the North Sea meets the Atlantic, a story every bit as gripping as the Norse sagas is unfolding.
Orkney is a cluster of 70 islands located just 10 miles off the northern coastline of Scotland. Separated from the mainland by a treacherous stretch of water, Orkney has a history and Norse-influenced culture all of its own.
Nowhere is this culture more visible than in Kirkwall, the biggest town and capital of the islands. Here, the flag of Orkney and the flag of Norway—both extremely similar—share prominence, more so than the Scottish Saltire and especially the Union flag. The town’s St. Magnus Cathedral is packed with connections to Norway, and especially Trondheim.
Understanding Orkney’s Norwegian Heritage
Recently, the Orkney Islands Council ignited a debate that resonates with the islands’ historic Scandinavian ties, voting to explore the possibility of “greater subsidiarity and autonomy” and to strengthen their “Nordic connections.”
The council’s latest motion may not herald a literal reunification with Norway, but it is the latest in a series of strategic and symbolic gestures to leverage Orkney’s distinct Norse heritage in the quest for greater recognition.
Orkney was ruled as part of Norway until 1472. Then, due to the non-payment of a dowry that was promised by Margaret of Denmark’s family for her marriage to James III, Scotland annexed Orkney. The islands have since remained part of Scotland.
However, grievances under recent British rule have surfaced several times causing the islanders to glance in the direction of Scandinavia, highlighting the pro-autonomy sentiment within the Orcadian community.
A stroll through the streets of Kirkwall swiftly immerses one in the island’s Norwegian legacy, starting with the most notable landmark.
St. Magnus Cathedral
The heart of Kirkwall is undoubtedly the magnificent St. Magnus Cathedral, the northernmost cathedral in Britain and fondly known as the ‘Light in the North’.
Founded in 1137 by Earl Rognvald in honor of his uncle St. Magnus, the cathedral is a masterpiece of Romanesque architecture. Its red and yellow sandstone walls hold centuries of history.
Inside, the Norwegian flag hangs proudly alongside the Union flag. A statue of Saint Olav, gifted from Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim—home of Norway’s patron saint—watches visitors pass by.
Among the cathedral’s spiritual treasures is a historic Norwegian-language Bible, a proud emblem of Orkney’s heritage.
Other Things To Do In Kirkwall
Beyond the cathedral, Kirkwall offers more activities for the curious traveler. Although the building is dated, the Orkney Museum still manages to tell the rich story of the islands from prehistoric times to the present day.
Orkney in the Viking Age and its time under Norwegian rule is covered, but as part of the wider story of these fascinating islands.
For whisky enthusiasts, the Highland Park distillery provides a taste of Orkney’s finest exports.
Taking a tour at the distillery visitor center is the best way to dive into the story of the spirit of Orkney, in more ways than one. Highland Park whiskies embrace Norse imagery and naming, leaning heavily into the islands’ heritage for their eye-catching brand.
If there’s no time for a tour, the store in downtown Kirkwall is the best place to pick up a souvenir, such as a bottle of whisky or a box of fudge with a special flavor.
Kirkwall is a gateway to the rest of the archipelago, with regular ferries departing to the other islands. Local buses are available but infrequent, so organized tours or car rental are the best options to visit the Neolithic sites, such as the Ring of Brodgar and Skara Brae. Advance booking is essential.
Kirkwall’s Cruise Ship Debate
Islanders share something else with Norway too, besides heritage. Orkney is the most popular cruise destination in Scotland, and one of the most popular in the British Isles.
But as with some small towns in the Norwegian fjords and even big cities like Oslo, there’s a growing frustration in Kirkwall with the number of cruise ship calls throughout the year.
During the summer, there can be several ships filling up Kirkwall’s small harbors or anchoring in the bay. With bus tours to the Ring of Brodgar and Skara Brae readily available from the cruise port, the pull of Orkney for tourists—and the cruise companies—is understandable.
But for locals, the disruption to traffic, services, and the tranquility of daily life has become overwhelming, to the point where the Council is taking action.
Previous Council proposals to limit numbers have proved difficult to implement, but plans are now underway to restrict the number of larger ships allowed to dock in the main harbors at the same time.