Kirkwall is the largest town and capital of the Orkney Islands, off the coast of northern mainland Scotland. The town is first mentioned in the Orkneyinga saga in the year 1046. It was established as the settlement of Rögnvald II, Earl of Orkney, who was killed by his successor, Thorfinn. In 1486 King James III of Scotland elevated Kirkwall to the status of a royal burgh; road signs still indicate 'The City and Royal Burgh of Kirkwall'.
The name Kirkwall is derived from the Norse name Kirkjuvagr (Church Bay). This was later corrupted to Kirkvoe and then Kirkwaa. English cartographers mistook the latter part waa as the Scots wa meaning wall, hence the town became Kirkwall.
Situated on the northern coast of Mainland Orkney and with a population of about 8,500, Kirkwall is a port with ferry services to Aberdeen and Lerwick, as well as the principal north islands in the group. At the heart of the town stands St Magnus Cathedral. It was founded in memory of Saint Magnus Erlendsson, Earl of Orkney 1108-1117 by Earl (later saint) Rögnvald Kali. Next to the Cathedral are the ruins of the former Bishop's Palace and Earl's Palace. The town has two museums: Tankerness House Museum, which is contained within one of Scotland's best-preserved sixteenth century town-houses, contains items of local historical interest. The prehistoric, Pictish and Viking collections are of international importance. The other museum is the Orkney Wireless Museum, dealing with the history of radio and recorded sound.
Apart from the main historical buildings, mentioned above, Kirkwall has many 17th-18th century houses and other structures in the local vernacular style. The 'Kirk' of Kirkwall was not the Cathedral (which was originally at Birsay), but the 11th century church of St. Olaf of Norway. One late medieval doorway survives from this church. An aumbry from the original church survives within the late 19th Century structure of the present-day St. Olaf's Church (Episcopal) in the town's Dundas Crescent. Kirkwall also once had a medieval castle (destroyed in the 17th century).
On the west edge of the town, surrounded by Hatston Industrial Estate, is a prehistoric ancient monument, Grain Earth House (Historic Scotland), a short low stone-walled passage deep underground leading to a small pillared chamber. This is the form of earth house or souterrain characteristic of the Northern Isles (though Grain is unusually deep below ground). It was originally connected to a surface dwelling which has since disappeared. The original purpose of these Iron Age structures is unknown. Key for the monument from Ortak Visitor Centre and Factory.
Kirkwall also has the most northerly of the world's Carnegie libraries, which was opened by Andrew Carnegie and his wife in 1909. The building suvives although, the library itself has since moved to a larger building on Junction Road.
Kirkwall was a parliamentary burgh, combined with Dingwall, Dornoch, Tain and Wick in the Northern Burghs constituency of the House of Commons of the Parliament of Great Britain from 1708 to 1801 and of the Parliament of the United Kingdom from 1801 to 1918. Cromarty was added to the list in 1832.
The constituency was a district of burghs known also as Tain Burghs until 1832, and then as Wick Burghs. It was represented by one Member of Parliament. In 1918 the constituency was abolished and the Kirkwall component was merged into the county constituency of Orkney and Shetland.