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  The Earl's Palace, Kirkwall

"The Earl's Palace forms three sides of an oblong square, and has, even its ruins, the air of an elegant yet massive structure, uniting, as was usual in the residence of feudal princes, the character of a palace and of a castle"
Sir Walter Scott - The Pirate

Directly opposite the Bishop's Palace in Kirkwall, and a short distance to the south of St Magnus Cathedral, are the remains of the Earl's Palace.

Hailed as "the finest example of French Renaissance architecture in Scotland", the Earl's Palace is undoubtedly a piece of splendid architectural brilliance.

The Earl's Palace: Picture by Sigurd Towrie
The Earl's Palace

However, to the people of Orkney, the palace is regarded as a memorial to what has been described as one of the darkest and bleakest episodes of Orkney history - the rule of the Stewart Earls.

Patrick Stewart's grand scheme

In the late 16th and early 17th centuries, Orkney was under the rule of the Stewart family, first Earl Robert - an illegitimate son of King James V of Scotland - and then his son, Patrick. History treats both men as despots and extraordinarily vicious extortioners.

They are alleged to have forced the Orcadians under their rule to work without pay and jailing, or torturing, those who would not comply with their wishes. The Stewarts' men controlled Orkney's council and courts and were therefore held to be above the law.

Then known as the "Newark in the Yards", the construction of the Earl's Palace began in 1600, instigated by Patrick Stewart, a few years after his accession to the earldom. Using forced labour to quarry and ship in the stone for the grandiose scheme, Patrick Stewart planned to build a dwelling unrivalled in design, comfort and beauty.

His plan was to incorporate the remains of the Bishop's Palace into a massive palatial complex. But his dreams were not to be and by 1606, Earl Patrick Stewart was heavily in debt.

The Earl's Palace was completed in 1607 but, shortly afterwards, Patrick Stewart was arrested and work completing the final complex had to be abandoned. After Patrick's execution in 1615, the portion of the Earl's Palace already built became the residence of Orkney's bishops.


Earl's Palace CorridorBy 1705, the palace had fallen into disrepair and was no longer fit for habitation. By 1745, the roof had been stripped and the slates sold. The structure has remained roofless ever since.

The Earl's Palace remains a two-storey building today. Consisting of two rectangular sections placed at right-angles to each other, forming an "L" shape, the ground floor contains massive cellars, a large kitchen and a well.

A broad stone staircase leads to the first floor and the main apartments and the great hall.

Measuring over 16 metres long, with two large fireplaces, ornate high vaulted windows and, at the time, sumptuous painted decorations, it is clear to see why the Great Hall was once said to have been one of the finest state rooms of any castle in Scotland.

Outside, the palace entrance was also extremely grand, ornately decorated with tiers of heraldic panels and flanked by carved pillars.

Today, however, the effect is not as impressive - Orkney's notorious weather has badly eroded the soft stone used to form the entrance's decorations.