tower house
12th century


KW15 1PD
HY 449 108
Kirwall, Orkney
s of A960
off Palace Road


also Earl's Palace


Historic Scotland
Undiscovered Scotland


Bishop's Palace, Kirkwall

While the centerpiece of Kirkwall is the magnificent St Magnus Cathedral, just across the street are two ruined houses -- the Renaissance palace of the Earl of Kirkwall and the much older and smaller Bishop's Palace overlooking the churchyard.

Inside the palace, looking towards the Bishop's tower

12th century and beyond

This tower house has been expanded to a narrow courtyard castle, across from the cathedral. The tower is three stories with an attic, and there is a large, distinctive round tower on the cathedral end. The tower has a cirbelled parapet walk and has a square extension above for an additional two stories.

The core of the building dates from the 12th century,an early hall block 27m x 8m, and th epattern of building stones -- alternating red and yellow stones -- matches that of the cathedral. It wax a simple rectangular block with a hall, patterned after the royal palaces in Norway.

However, most of the work is contemporary with the Earl's Palace across the street, from the 16th century. At that time, an arched courtyard was added to the tower, with turrets. It may have even been connected to the Earl's Palace.

The round tower has a vaulted basement, and the upper floors have square rooms wiith a stairway leading to the upper floors. These were the living quarters of the tower - known colloquially as "The Moosie Toor".


From the 12th century onward, this was the home of the Bishops of Orkney, starting with the first, William the Old-nephew of St Magnus, among other things, and, associated with the magnificient Cathedral across the road. It was under the aegis of the Norse at the time, reporting to the bishopric in Norway. The bishops moved from their earlier site in Birsay to the center of Orkney power - Kirkwall. It was referred to as the Palace of the Yards.

the narrow, two-storey hall of the original palace

The tower remained associated with the norse bishops through at least 1263 when King Haakon of Norway died here. His granddaughter Margaret also died here in 1290 on her way to be crowned Queen of Scotland. The original palace was abandoned after that, and ruinous by 1320.

It was briefly owned by William, Lord Sinclair in the early 16th century, but passed quickly back to the Bishops of Orkney.

Bishop Reid (1541-58) was probably the first beneficiary of the newly enlarged tower house. He lived in the private rooms of the round tower. (by the way, he founded the University of Edinburgh).

The lands passed to Robert Stewart in 1568. He was an illegitimate son of James V - the lands, the bishopry, and a new title were bestowed at the same time, and he rules the islands with almost king-like power.. The rather small tower here was remodeled in 1595 by his son Patrick, who had the Earl's Palace across the way built, using slave labor. Both of the men were executed in 1615, for leading an uprising on the islands. The bishops of Orkney took back ownership of the two sites and held them until 1688.