Although technically two separate buildings, the spectacular ruins of the Bishop’s Palace and Earl’s Palace sit side by side in the heart of Kirkwall, the capital of the Orkney Islands. They may have been sitting derelict and deserted for centuries, but they remain standing despite the best efforts of time.
The ruins are still impressive to this day, and you won’t regret stopping by for a few hours to enjoy the unique history of some of Scotland’s more remote palaces.
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History of Bishop and Earl’s Palace
The Bishop’s Palace was built in the early 1100s, more or less at the same time as St Magnus Cathedral. It’s possible that Bishop William the Old himself was the builder. He was a friend to Earl Rognvald, as well as St Magnus’s nephew, who was the patron of the new cathedral.
The medieval Bishop’s Palace began as a two-storey hall house much like a standard Norwegian palace, with store rooms situated below a large rectangular hall and a single tower house that functioned as the Bishop’s private residence.
However, in 1320, the palace was in a ruinous state. It was only after 1540 that extensive restorations were begun by Bishop Robert Reid, and the round tower called the Moosie Tower was added.
In 1568, ownership of the Bishop’s Palace to the 1st earl of Orkney, Robert Stewart, who then passed it on to his son, Earl Patrick Stewart. But the 2nd Earl wasn’t satisfied with what he considered an inadequate property and, in 1606, had the Earl’s Palace built beside the Bishop’s Palace on land he didn’t own using slave labour. In order to claim the land, he accused the owner of theft and had him executed. Known as “Black Patie,” He was one of the most notorious rulers in the history of Scotland.
Later on, he and his bastard son, Robert, were both executed for treason in 1615, and until 1688 when it became the property of the Crown, the Earl’s Palace continued as the residence of the Bishops of Orkeny. In the 18th century, the two remarkable residences fell into ruin, which is how they remain today under the protection of Historic Environment Scotland.
Things to Remember About the Bishop’s and Earl’s Palaces
Here are a few things to keep in mind before your visit.
Bishop and Earl’s Palace, Kirkwall, Opening Times
From April to September, the opening times for the Bishop’s Palace and Earl’s Palace are 9:30 am to 5:30 pm with last entry at 4:30 pm. The sites are open daily during these warmer months but close entirely for the winter season from October to March.
An adult ticket costs £7.50, and concession tickets are £6.00. Tickets for children from age 7 to 15 are £4.50, while children 6 and under can enter free. Family tickets are available from £15 to £25.50, and Historic Scotland Members and those carrying an Explorer Pass can enter for free.
Tickets must be booked in advance.
There are often one to several steps to be negotiated along a pathway, and while the ground floor of the Bishop’s Palace is mainly level, it’s also covered with gravel, so assistance may be required for disabled guests.
Certain parts of the ruins may be closed to the public, so check on the Historic Environment Scotland website to see what’s open before you book your tickets. Concession tickets only apply if you provide proof of age or disability. They don’t apply to students.
Children younger than 16 must have an adult accompanying them.
How to Get There
Built upon Orkney Mainland, you’ll have to cross the sea to reach the palaces if you’re on the mainland of Scotland.
Ways to Get There Using a Car
If you drive to Aberdeen along the A90 and then the A956, you can catch a ferry to Orkney Mainland and continue to Bishop’s palace, Kirkwall.
Ways to Get There Using Public Transportation
Depending on your budget and time, you can opt to fly to the Orkney Islands from any of the major cities or take a ferry. The ferry from Aberdeen takes 6 hours, and the one from Scrabster takes 90 minutes.
The ferry terminals are about 30 minutes from the palaces, but there are multiple bus lines that go to the site. The closest bus stop is St Magnus Centre, only a 2-minute walk from the palaces.
Attractions at Bishop and Earl’s Palace, Orkney Islands
Need some points of interest to search for? Here they are.
Roam the Courtyard
Standing in the courtyard containing both the Bishop’s Palace and the Earl’s Palace within its walls is the easiest way to get a scope of the grandiose ruins (and some incredible photos).
The Earl’s Palace is in a better state of preservation, especially regarding its upper floors, being the more recent building, and it’s easy to admire the round, protruding oriel windows of the first-floor hall remains.
Visit the Bishop’s Palace
The smaller of the Bishop’s and Earl’s Palaces, These ancient ruins hold wonder in their crumbling stones. While the ground level is largely intact, there isn’t much left of the upper level. Nonetheless, head to the west wall and examine the narrow windows there.
You’ll find that they’re made of alternating yellow and red stones, very similar to the style in which the cathedral’s windows were built.
Stop by the Earl’s Palace Dining Room
Although it’s already pretty amazing with centuries-old stonework to behold, just imagine what this upper floor hall designed for hearty meals and entertaining guests once looked like with timber ceilings, wooden panelling, and heavy tapestries gracing the walls.
Close your eyes, and you can almost imagine the crackle and glow of a warm fire dancing in the huge fireplace.
See the Great Hall
This hall would’ve been the most public area of the palace and contains many doorways and recesses. It was where Earl Patrick would dispense his own justice, so you can imagine there’s a trove of history in those cold walls.
Get Chills in the Cellar
Most cellars have a spooky feel to them, but none so much as that of a castle ruin. The Earl’s Palace cellar is constructed in a masterful arch with a small window to light it up, and while there is no history of ghost sightings at the palace, it’s not hard to imagine a spectre or two might linger within this damp enclosure.
See the Laird’s Bedchamber
In a corner tower of the Earl’s Palace, you’ll find his comfortable accommodation in very good condition considering its age. It has several large windows for great lighting and a sizable fireplace that would’ve warmed up the cold palace room.
The chamber was richly decorated in its time, and this is where the Earl would entertain his guests and family.
Tips and Advice to Have a Fulfilling Trip
- It’s a good idea to pack a rain jacket if the weather seems like it might turn as most of the ruins don’t have a roof.
- If the weather is particularly bad, the site can close at short notice due to safety hazards. Check on the Historic Environment Scotland website before you travel for any closures.
- There aren’t many information boards, so you’ll have to read up about the site’s history if you want to know more about it.
Interesting Facts about Bishop and Earl’s Palace
King Hakon IV of Norway wintered there after the Battle of Largs and ended up dying in the Bishop’s Palace in 1263. His body was laid in state in the palace’s hall before being buried at St Magnus Cathedral. When spring arrived, he was exhumed and his body returned to Norway and reburied at the Old Cathedral in Bergen.