The Bishop’s Palace at Kirkwall

The Bishop’s Palace at Kirkwall

By W. Douglas Simpson

Thridji Vikingafundur [Third Viking Congress], edited by Kristján Eldjárn Ritsjóri (Reykjavik, 1958)

Introduction: In Haakon Hakonsson’s Saga we are told how the great King, returning northwards from his failure at Largs, reached Kirkwall and took up his residence in the Bishop’s Palace. A distinct picture is presented of a two-storey hall, upon the upper flat of which the King took up his quarters. No indication is given us of the material out of which this hall was built. Yet there is no reason why it should not have been of stone, and indeed it is hardly credible that twelfth and thirteenth century Bishops, then busy with the building of their noble Minster, and thus commanding on the spot of highly skilled mason-craftsmen, should have contented themselves with a timber aula for their own episcopal residence. In fact there is every reason to believe that the primary work in the existing Bishop’s Palace, tinted black on the plan published in the Orkney volume of the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments, may represent the very building in which King Haakon died. The commission’s description seeks to date this primary work to circa 1500, entirely on the strength of a single keyhole pattern in the west wall:

Lighting was provided by eight lancet windows in the west wall. These were widely splayed internally, but externally they were narrow and were shaped somewhat like a reversed key-hole. One fo them has a chamfered margin.

In must, however, be confessed that the above description is somewhat of a flight of fancy. There are no lancet loopholes anywhere in the Bishop’s Palace. Only one of the ground floor openings, the southmost on the west front, has the shape of a revered key-hole – though it is now much enlarged by ill-usage and weathering. Moreover this solitary key-hole opening is quite obviously an insertion. So the Royal Commission’s dating, in so far as it depends on this key-hole loop, must be rejected out of hand.

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