KIRKWALL, Orkney’s capital, has one great redeeming feature – its sandstone cathedral, without doubt the finest medieval building in the north of Scotland. Nowadays, the town is divided into two main focal points: the old harbour, at the north end of the town, where inter-island ferries come and go all year round, and the flagstoned main street, which changes its name four times as it twists its way south from the harbour past the cathedral. Kirkwall’s chief cultural bash is the week-long St Magnus Festival, a superb arts festival held in the middle of June.
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St Magnus Cathedral
Standing at the very heart of Kirkwall, St Magnus Cathedral is the town’s most compelling sight. This beautiful red sandstone building was begun in 1137 by the Viking Earl Rognvald, who built the cathedral in honour of his uncle Magnus, killed on the orders of his cousin Håkon in 1117. Today much of the detail in the soft sandstone has worn away – the capitals around the main doors are reduced to gnarled stumps – but it’s still immensely impressive, its shape and style echoing the great cathedrals of Europe. Inside, the atmosphere is surprisingly intimate, the bulky sandstone columns drawing your eye up to the exposed brickwork arches, while around the walls is a series of mostly seventeenth-century tombstones, many carved with a skull and crossbones and other emblems of mortality.