Kirkwall and St. Ola


Kirkwall and St. Ola
   KIRKWALL and ST. OLA, a royal burgh, a sea-port, and parish, and formerly the seat of a diocese, in the county of Orkney, of which it is the capital; containing 3599 inhabitants, of whom 2205 are in the burgh, 21 miles (N. by E.) from Huna, and 327 (N.) from Edinburgh. This place, which is situated in the south-eastern portion of the Mainland, is of great antiquity, and from a very early date has been distinguished for its importance. The rural district around the town, called St. Ola, and supposed to have been originally a separate parish, derived its name from the foundation of a church by Olave, the first Christian king of Norway, to whom the Orkney Islands at that time belonged, at a period anterior to the erection of the ancient cathedral. The buildings near its site, which now constitute a portion of what is styled the Old Town, bear evident traces of remote antiquity. The burgh appears to have derived its name, originally "Kirkcovog," now Kirkwall, from the erection of the Cathedral of St Magnus, founded in 1138, by Ronald, Earl of Orkney, in honour of his uncle, Magnus, the preceding earl, who had been assassinated by his relative, Haco, of Norway, in 1110, and canonized after his death: this cathedral, from its splendour and magnificence, was called the Great Kirk, an appellation subsequently appropriated to the town. The see, which had jurisdiction over the whole of the county of Orkney, subsisted under a regular succession of prelates, of whom Robert Reid was the last Roman Catholic bishop, till the abolition of episcopacy in Scotland. Among its earliest endowments were the lands of the parish of St. Ola, which, on the erection of the town into a royal burgh by charter of James III., and the cession of these islands to the Scottish crown, were partly vested in the magistrates and burgesses as a fund for keeping the cathedral of St. Magnus in repair. This ancient church is a stately cruciform structure of red freestone, partly in the Norman, and partly in the early and later English styles of architecture, with a massive central tower, formerly surrounded by a lofty spire, which, being destroyed by lightning in 1671, has been replaced by a low pyramidal roof. The entire length of the cathedral is 226 feet, and the breadth fifty-six. The roof, which is richly groined, is seventy-one feet in height from the floor, and is sustained by a range of fourteen pillars on each side, fifteen feet in circumference, exclusive of four massive columns twenty-four feet in circumference, supporting the central tower, which rises to a height of 133 feet, and contains a fine set of musical chimes, presented by Bishop Maxwell in 1528. The east window, inserted by Bishop Stewart, in the reign of James IV., is of elegant design, thirty-six feet high and twelve feet in width, surmounted by a circular window twelve feet in diameter; in the south transept is a circular window of equal dimensions, and at the west end of the nave a window similar to that of the choir, but inferior in size and embellishment. This venerable pile, from its remote situation, escaped the havoc committed on such structures at the Reformation, and is still entire. It contains numerous finely-sculptured monuments, of which one at the east end, of white marble, was erected to the memory of Haco, King of Norway, who died in the bishop's palace after his return from the disastrous battle of Largs, in 1264, and was interred within the choir: there are also many monuments of Scandinavian chieftains, saints, and warriors, with some of modern date, among which is a tablet to the historian Laing. The Episcopal palace appears to have been of very ancient foundation, probably coeval with that of the cathedral; but by whom it was erected is not known. It was partly rebuilt in the time of Mary, by Bishop Reid, whose initials and armorial bearings are inscribed on several parts of the walls; and on that side of the round tower facing the town is a niche, in which is a rude statue of the prelate. This tower forms at present the only portion of the palace that is in any tolerable state of preservation. The palace was, in 1264, for some time the abode of Haco, King of Norway: and was also the temporary residence of James V., who was entertained by the bishop when, on a progress through his dominions, he visited the Orkney Islands.
   
   The town is situated in the northern portion of a tract of land extending from the bay of Kirkwall, on the north, to Scalpa bay, on the south; and is divided into the Old Town, along the shore of the former, and the New Town, a little to the south, by a small rivulet over which is an ancient bridge of one arch. It consists chiefly of one narrow and irregularly-formed street, about a mile in length, and is lighted with gas by a company of shareholders. The houses in the Old Town are mostly of very antiquated character, built with the end fronting the street, and having steep roofs, and doors and windows of diminutive size; but such of them as are of more modern erection are of handsome appearance. The New Town consists of well-built houses; in front of each is a neat garden, and there are several pleasing villas inhabited by opulent families, and numerous well-stored shops for the supply of the inhabitants with various articles of merchandize from Edinburgh, London, and other markets. There are two subscription libraries, and card and dancing assemblies are held in the rooms at the town-hall. The manufacture of kelp, formerly very extensive, has been greatly reduced; and the principal manufacture at present carried on is that of straw-plat, by females at their own dwellings, for the manufacturers of the district, whose agents are stationed here. The plat is of various degrees of fineness, and is considered as superior to that of foreign production. The manufacture of sail-cloth and ropes is also extensive; and there are two distilleries of whisky, which, besides supplying the neighbourhood, produce considerable quantities for exportation: two branch banks, also, have been established in the town. The trade of the port is mainly in the exportation of kelp, corn, fish, cattle, and wool; and the importation of wood, hemp, iron, tar, groceries, cloth, and coal. The harbour, which is commodiously situated in Kirkwall bay, has been greatly improved under an act of the 9th of George IV., and is under the management of trustees consisting of the provost and six other members of the town-council, three registered owners of ships, and three landed proprietors of the county. A commodious pier has been erected for the despatch of business, at an expense of £1100. In 1843 there were sixty-four vessels registered as belonging to the port, of the aggregate burthen of 4312 tons; and the customs received in the same year amounted to £618. Boat-building, for which there are several yards, is carried on to some extent. There is no regular fishery established here; but cod, ling, haddocks, skate, halibut, and coal-fish are found off the coast in abundance, for the supply of the inhabitants. A fair is held in August, and is plentifully furnished with Manchester, London, and Glasgow goods, and with jewellery, haberdashery, and other wares. A powerful steamer plies weekly between this place and Leith, and numerous smaller boats to the adjacent islands.
   Kirkwall was erected into a royal burgh, as already stated, by charter of James III., which recited and confirmed all previous privileges, and was ratified by charters of James V. and of Charles II. of England; there were also granted to the burgesses the burgh and city of Kirkwall, the cathedral church of St. Magnus, and various lands for upholding it in repair. The government is vested in a provost, four bailies, a dean of guild, treasurer, and sixteen councillors, assisted by a townclerk and other officers. The provost and bailies are magistrates, and exercise jurisdiction extending over the whole of the royalty. They hold courts for the adjudication of civil suits, and also for trivial nuisances and petty misdemeanors, the town-clerk acting as assessor; but their decisions in the criminal cases seldom extend beyond the imposition of a small fine, or a confinement of twenty-four hours. There are four incorporated crafts, viz., the shoemakers, tailors, weavers, and hammermen, of one of which every one exercising trade within the burgh must be a member, and in which the fees for admission vary from £3 to £5 for sons of freemen or apprentices, and from £4 to £10 for strangers. The burgh is associated with those of Wick, Cromarty, Dingwall, Dornoch, and Tain, in returning a member to the imperial parliament; the right of election is vested in the resident burgesses and £10 householders. The town-hall is a handsome building with a piazza in front, and is three stories in height. The ground-floor contains the prison for the burgh, consisting of several separate cells; the first-floor has a spacious assembly-room, with court-rooms, and the story above it is appropriated to the use of the masonic lodge.
   The parish, which is about five miles in length, and of nearly equal breadth, is bounded on the north by the bays of Firth and Kirkwall, on the east by Inganess bay and the parish of St. Andrew's, on the south by Scalpa bay, and on the west by the parish of Orphir. The surface is diversified with hills, of which that of Wideford, the only one of any considerable elevation, is about 500 feet above the level of the sea, and covered to its summit with heath. In the rocks on the east of Scalpa bay are some singular excavations, made by the action of the waves, and one of which, about 100 yards in depth, forms a narrow winding passage in the rock, generally twelve feet in height, but in some parts nearly twenty feet, with beautiful stalactites of lime depending from the roof. The soil is various; towards the hills, and in the higher lands, a mixture of cold clay and moss; near the shore, sandy; and in several parts, a rich black loam. The exact area of the parish has not been ascertained, but the probable number of acres of arable land is estimated at 1500; the crops are, oats, barley, bear, potatoes, and turnips, with the various artificial grasses, all of which are cultivated with success. The system of agriculture has been greatly improved, and the rotation plan introduced; considerable progress, also, has taken place in draining and inclosing the lands. There is a large tract of undivided common, affording good pasturage for sheep, the breed of which, as well as that of cattle and horses, has been much improved. A handsome mansion has been erected by the Earl of Zetland; and to the east of the town is Papdale House, the residence of Mr. Laing, and formerly of Mr. Malcolm Laing, author of the History of Scotland, which was wholly written here. There are several gardens where various kinds of fruit are raised with great success, and in some of which grapes are produced in hot-houses; but there is little or no wood, and trees of any considerable size cannot thrive unless in well-sheltered spots. The substratum is principally clayslate, alternated with coarse sandstone, and in some places with veins of limestone, and spar containing small crystals of galena.
   The ecclesiastical affairs are under the superintendence of the presbytery of Kirkwall, of which this is the seat, and of the synod of Orkney, which also holds its meetings in the parish. The church, being collegiate, has two ministers, who officiate alternately. The minister of the first charge has a stipend of £150. 18., including an allowance of £4. 3. 4. for communion elements; with £30 in lieu of a manse, and a glebe valued at £42: the minister of the second charge has a stipend of £154, including £4. 3. 4. for communion elements: with an allowance of £50 in lieu of manse and glebe: patrons of both, the Corporation and Burgesses. The choir of the cathedral is appropriated as the parish church, and contains 835 sittings. A church dedicated to St. Mary has been recently erected by subscription, at an expense of £1400, of which £200 were granted from the Church Extension fund; it is a neat structure containing 1000 sittings. The patronage is vested in a committee of twenty-five, appointed by the subscribers to its erection. There are also places of worship for members of the Free Church, United Secession, Original Seceders, and Independents. The grammar school, which is of very early foundation, was originally an appendage of the ancient cathedral establishment, and under the care of the prebendaries; and after the dissolution of that body, the master for some time continued to receive the emoluments of the prebend of St. Peter, which subsequently, with the other revenues of the see, merged in the crown. The present master has a salary of £38, arising partly from a voluntary contribution by the clergy and gentry of Orkney, of 2000 merks vested in the Earl of Zetland, and partly from the proceeds of £500 bequeathed by John Balfour, Esq.: the fees average £50 per annum. The school is attended by about 100 scholars, who are instructed in the Greek and Latin classics, the French and English languages, arithmetic, mathematics, and navigation. The patronage is vested in the council of the burgh, who, in 1820, erected an elegant school-house in lieu of the ancient building, which had become dilapidated. A school is maintained by the Society for Propagating Christian Knowledge, which pays a salary of £15 to the master, who also receives £5 from the Kirk Session; there is likewise a school for females, supported by the ladies resident in the town. Three friendly societies have been established for the relief of widows and orphans and of the indigent sick; and there are two subscription societies. Mr. Meason, of Moredun, in 1810 bequeathed £1000, the interest of which he appropriated towards keeping the cathedral in repair.
   There are considerable remains of what is called the King's Castle, and of the ancient palace of the earls of Orkney. At what period and by whom the former was founded, is not distinctly known. From some inscriptions and a mitre on the walls, it is supposed to have been originally built by one of the bishops; but it is with more probability ascribed to Henry Sinclair, first Earl of Orkney, in the fourteenth century. This fortress, of which the walls are of great thickness, was in a tolerably perfect state in the time of Robert Stewart, created Earl of Orkney in 1581, whose son, Patrick, having committed many acts of rebellion, defended it for some time against the king's forces, by whom it was at length taken and demolished. The palace of the earls of Orkney was erected in 1607, by the above-named Patrick Stewart; it was a spacious structure of grey stone, two stories in height, and embellished with projecting towers and oriel windows of elegant design. The grand hall, a magnificent apartment fifty-eight feet long and twenty feet wide, was approached by a triple flight of steps, leading from the principal entrance in the lower story, and was lighted by a range of noble windows. The walls that are still left are in as perfect a state as when first erected; and the remains display much of ancient grandeur, though the buildings were greatly dilapidated by Cromwell's soldiers, who removed the stones for the erection of a fortress on the east side of Kirkwall bay, the mounds and intrenchments of which, raised to protect it from the sea, are yet tolerably entire. Among the eminent characters connected with the parish have been, Sir Robert Strange, a celebrated engraver; Malcolm Laing; and Dr. Traill, professor of medical jurisprudence in the university of Edinburgh, all of whom were natives.

A Topographical dictionary of Scotland. . 1856.

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