Inside Britain’s ‘most welcoming town’ where the crime rate is so low locals leave their keys inside their cars and their doors unlocked
- Kirkwall, with a population of 8,500, was named Britain’s most welcoming town by a recent study
- Ailbhe MacMahon stays at the Kirkwall Hotel, tours the town’s historic sites and chats to the locals
- READ MORE: The 17 most amazing ‘secret’ restaurants in North America revealed by Time Out
A local taxi driver offers up two stories as evidence of just how friendly Kirkwall, the largest town in Scotland’s Orkney archipelago, can be.
The first: He left his wallet, phone and car keys on the passenger seat of his unlocked car in the town for four days, and nothing was touched.
The second: He dropped a wallet containing £850 in cash on the floor of Kirkwall Airport, only for a kind-hearted stranger to hand it in to the information desk for him.
‘You get this condensed feeling of community that you probably don’t get anywhere else,’ he tells me.
With this in mind, it’s no surprise that Kirkwall was named Britain’s most welcoming town by a Booking.com study that, as we reported, analysed which places in the UK have the highest number of positively reviewed properties in relation to their size. The Orkney archipelago is made up of 70 islands, 20 of which are inhabited. Kirkwall, with a population of around 8,500, lies on an isle that’s confusingly known as ‘Mainland’. Investigating whether the town lives up to its friendly reputation, my partner and I are spending three nights here, having arrived via a NorthLink ferry ride from Scrabster on mainland Scotland.
Ailbhe MacMahon visits Kirkwall, the largest town in Scotland’s Orkney archipelago, which has been named Britain’s most welcoming town
‘You get this condensed feeling of community that you probably don’t get anywhere else,’ a taxi driver tells Ailbhe
Kirkwall, with a population of around 8,500, lies on an isle that’s confusingly known as ‘Mainland’
The verdict? People are welcoming, but not in an overbearing way. Instead, they’re warm and easygoing, happy to chat away with you on a whim.
When we’re walking on the outskirts of Kirkwall, passers-by smile and say hello. In a shop, a customer spots the camera slung around my partner’s neck and strikes up a conversation about photographing Orkney’s landscapes. In Helgi’s pub (the town’s ‘posh pub’, apparently), a waitress volunteers handy recommendations for where to go for live music.
After a breakfast of eggs and kippers at the seafront Kirkwall Hotel, local tour guide Brian Alexander leads us through the pretty paved streets of the town. I ask him whether he thinks Kirkwall is a welcoming place. He replies: ‘We like to think we’re reasonably hospitable.’
Travellers can arrive in Orkney via a NorthLink ferry ride from Scrabster on mainland Scotland. Above, the ferry passes the archipelago’s Old Man of Hoy sea stack
Ailbhe pays a visit to Helgi’s, pictured, which is known as the town’s ‘posh pub’
Ailbhe stays in a sea-view room at the Kirkwall Hotel, where guests can enjoy breakfasts of eggs and kippers
Rooms at the Kirkwall Hotel are priced from £107 per night. Above is the hotel’s Harbourside Restaurant
Originally part of the Kingdom of Norway, Kirkwall was founded by Vikings 1,000 years ago and only came under Scottish rule in the 15th century, fostering a unique mishmash of Scandinavian and Scottish culture.
Its defining feature is St Magnus Cathedral, a 12th-century sandstone edifice that holds the status of Britain’s most northerly cathedral. Its facade is pockmarked with bullet holes from a 17th-century rebellion.
Inside, Brian points out the shadowy portal to the cathedral’s dungeon, where women were held as part of the harrowing Orkney witch trials.
Kirkwall was founded by Vikings 1,000 years ago and only came under Scottish rule in the 15th century
Ailbhe says that Kirkwall’s defining feature is St Magnus Cathedral, a 12th-century edifice that holds the status of Britain’s most northerly cathedral
Pictured left is the interior of St Magnus Cathedral, which has been constructed from sandstone. Image courtesy of Creative Commons. To the right is the portal to the cathedral’s dungeon, where women were held as part of the harrowing Orkney witch trials
A book in St Magnus Cathedral pays tribute to the men whose lives were lost when the HMS Royal Oak battleship was sunk by a German U-boat in Scapa Flow on October 14, 1939
Across the cathedral, there hangs the salvaged bell from the HMS Royal Oak, a WWII battleship that was sunk by a German U-boat in nearby Scapa Flow on October 14, 1939, a night when the Northern Lights flickered over the islands. Eight hundred and thirty-five lives were lost.
Broad Street sits outside the cathedral. It’s the setting for a remarkable ritual in the town, known as the Kirkwall Ba’ – a giant game of street football played by swarms of townspeople on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day each year.
The whole of Kirkwall gets involved, whether it’s to watch the match or partake in the action. The rivalry between teams runs deep. ‘Old ladies will trip you up as you go past,’ Brian, who has been taking part in it since the 1980s, tells us.
Each summer, the town welcomes tens of cruise ships. After disembarking, most passengers set off to explore the treasure trove of archaeological ruins that can be found across the archipelago.
Local guide Lizzie Linklater takes us to Skara Brae, an extraordinary Neolithic settlement that’s even older than Stonehenge.
Set on Mainland’s west coast, it overlooks a blue-and-white stretch of beach that would look tropical if it wasn’t for the bitter gale that’s blowing.
Ailbhe describes Kirkwall, with its ‘unbridled sense of character’, as a ‘must-visit’
Above is a scene from the Kirkwall Ba’ – a giant game of street football played by swarms of townspeople on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day each year
Above are the ‘magical’ Ring of Brodgar standing stones. A treasure trove of archaeological ruins can be found across the Orkney archipelago, Ailbhe reveals
Local guide Lizzie Linklater takes Ailbhe to Skara Brae, an extraordinary Neolithic settlement that’s even older than Stonehenge
To return to mainland Scotland, Ailbhe takes the ferry from Stromness (pictured), a town near Kirkwall
A short drive takes us to the magical Ring of Brodgar standing stones – the comedian Billy Connolly once danced nude around the stone circle while filming a travel series, Lizzie tells me. Next, we crawl inside the 5,000-year-old Unstan burial chamber, where graffiti from 19th-century mavericks adds another layer of history.
On our final day, as we drive from Kirkwall to the ferry port in nearby Stromness, the taxi driver tells us we haven’t spent enough time in Orkney, and that we need at least another week. I can’t help but agree.
Whether Kirkwall is truly Britain’s most welcoming town is open to debate, but with its vibrant history, friendly locals and unbridled sense of character, one thing is certain – it’s a must-visit.
Ailbhe was a guest of VisitScotland.
Rooms at the Kirkwall Hotel are priced from £107 per night.
For tours of Kirkwall visit Kirkwall Walking Tours, and for tours of the island, get in touch with Lizzie’s Orkney Tours.
There are plenty of dining options in the town, including The Storehouse Restaurant with Rooms, which specialises in serving local produce, and Helgi’s gastropub.
Tickets from Scrabster to Stromness with NorthLink Ferries are priced from £19.
For information on visiting the Highlands and Islands, go to discoverhighlandsandislands.scot, where you can also learn about the Spirit of the Highlands and Islands project. The scheme is dedicated to developing cultural attractions and experiences in Scotland. As part of the project, Inverness Castle is being transformed into a new visitor attraction that’s opening in 2025.
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