Orkney Part 3 – the Earl’s Palace

This is the third and final post relating to my one day visit to Orkney. There was just so much to see.

Next to St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, Orkney, is the Earl’s Palace, now looked after by Historic Scotland.  This is a large complex. The original building on the site was the Bishop’s Palace, some of which was built in the 12th century at the same time as the cathedral. The Bishop’s Palace seems to have fallen into disrepair for a time as the islands suffered famine and plague, but then been repaired and extended in the mid 16th century, when the islands were under Scottish control, and even received a visit from James V.

The Earl’s Palace – this is only a part of the Earl’s Palace complex. 1 in the following plan.

But the outstanding feature of the complex is the Earl’s Palace. This was added to the site in the first decade of the 17th century by Earl Patrick Stewart, or rather by forced labour working on the instructions of Stewart. Patrick Stewart’s father Robert was an illegitimate son of James V, and so was a half-brother of Mary Queen of Scots.  The Stewarts were hated by the populace.  They taxed the ordinary people excessively and used them as forced labour to build their palace and castles on the islands.  But they overreached themselves, and in 1615 Patrick Stewart was arrested.  His son tried to ferment a revolt against the crown. In the end the revolt was put down and father and son were executed in Edinburgh. 

The full complex
Another view of the palace, 1 in the above schematic by Historic Scotland.

But the palace they built in Kirkwall was one of the best pieces of renaissance architecture in Scotland. With its corner turrets and oriel windows, it is a world away from the austere, defensive tower house that was the usual building design for noble’s houses only a few decades before. But it was built by heavily taxing the population and using their forced labour.  Today it is ruined, but the magnificence of the building in its heyday is still obvious. The Earl’s Palace was a statement of comfort, beauty and status, built for the corrupt Stewart earls.

The Stewart Earls were absolute rogues. Eventually the Douglas Earl of Morton took over the complex

The Orkneys and Shetland, and the Earl’s Palace have a connection with the Douglas clan (my clan).  In 1643 William Douglas, the 7th Earl of Morton, was granted the “regalities” (that is the rights and privileges due to the king) in Orkney and Zetland, as Shetland was known, by King Charles I. Morton was one of the King’s strongest supporters. He had sold his Dalkeith estate so he could advance £100,000, a massive sum at the time, to the king at the outbreak of the War of the Three Kingdoms (also known as the  English Civil War). When Charles lost  the war Morton retired to Kirkwall and died there in 1648 of natural causes.  His son died the next year, and the 9th Earl inherited.

In 1652 Orkney was garrisoned by Oliver Cromwell’s parliamentarian troops.  They used the adjoining St Magnus Cathedral as a stables and the palace as a barracks.

But the palace fell into disuse. By 1705 it was a roofless ruin. But the magnificence of the building in its heyday is still obvious. 

How Could we Have Made Better Use of Our Time on Orkney?

This is my third post describing what we saw in our one day on Orkney. Based on our experience the best way for a history nerd to make the best use of a day on Orkney would have been to hire a car.  This is what we did on an earlier visit in 2015. Particularly if there are two or more in your party it will be cheaper than tours organised by your cruise liner, as well as giving you the freedom to take in a range of sites.  Basically you could follow a circular route west of Kirkwall, taking in Maeshowe, Skara Brae, the Gurness Broch complex, the Ring of Brodgar, the Stones of Stenness.  That would be a full day as is.  If time had allowed on returning to Kirkwall you could visit St Magnus Cathedral, the Earl’s Palace and the excellent museum opposite the cathedral. 

However, rather than taking the above advice, arrange to stay in the Orkneys for a week!  There is just so much history to see on the main island and other islands in the group. Even a week isn’t enough – make it a fortnight.

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