CoffeeBeer >> Pint Pleasures >> Previous Beer Columns >> 5 Kirkwall Pubs


Previous Pint Pleasures - December 29, 2007

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Matchmakers Bar, Albert Hotel, Mounthoolie Lane, Kirkwall, Orkney, Scotland

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West End Hotel, Main Street, Kirkwall, Orkney, Scotland

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Auld Motor Hoose, 26 Junction Road, Kirkwall, Orkney, Scotland

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Orkney Hotel, 40 Victoria Street, Kirkwall, Orkney, Scotland

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Torvhaug Inn, 4 Bridge Street, Kirkwall, Orkney, Scotland

Last summer, when I visited Orkney with my friends Ali and Marion, we spent a couple of days in the capital town of Kirkwall. Founded in 1035 and once the heart of Norse culture, Kirkwall became a Royal Burgh in 1486. The Old Norse Kirkjuvagar means "Church Bay", as the town was named because of its 11th century Church of St Olaf where St Magnus is buried. Built in honour of him is another Kirkwall church, St Magnus Cathedral, which is one of the better preserved medieval cathedrals in Scotland. Other historic Kirkwall sites are the ruins of the 12th-century Bishop's Palace and the Earl's Palace.

Today Kirkwall is a connecting hub to other parts of the Orkney Islands, with ferries daily to Aberdeen on the Scottish mainland to the south and to Lerwick in the Shetland Islands to the north. The airport provides flights to the Scottish mainland as well as to the other Orkney islands.

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Because of this Kirkwall is the entry point for many who visit Orkney. And naturally it's got everything a tourist town should have, including quite a number of hostelries.

As we were hoping to find cask ale in Kirkwall we made our way to the Albert Hotel in search of its CAMRA-listed Bothy Bar. The word bothy is an old Scottish term for a hut or small cottage, and the cosy fire-warmed pub sounded inviting. Unfortunately the Bothy Bar was a little too fire-warmed, having been damaged in a blaze the year before. As it hadn't quite opened yet we settled for the Albert's other pub, the Matchmakers Bar, which is obviously much brighter and more modern than its sister. The large room features a big wiggly L-shaped bar and an interesting sloped red wood ceiling with a lattice effect. The lamps are odd but appealing, and of course there is the obligatory bare-bum photo behind the bar, as well as a photo of someone standing beside the famous Twatt roadsign.

(On a related bit of trivia, I've only recently come to realise that the northernmost point on this planet I have reached in my life is the Orkney village of Twatt. Not many people can claim the same.)

The 3 handpumps were all dispensing local brews: The Red MacGregor, Dark Island, and St Magnus Ale. I had a pint of The Red MacGregor (4% ABV, Orkney Brewery Ltd, Stromness, Orkney, Scotland). This brew, which won Best Beer of the Year at the 2002 Brewing Industry International Awards, was a nice postprandial pint after my refreshing meal of salmon and salad on the waterfront. As we enjoyed our pints we couldn't help but overhear a conversation about why people would want to light their farts. A slightly wavering man was at the jukebox putting on some Clash, and the songs were blasting satisfyingly out of the large speakers. The bar stools seem massive as well with nice tall backs. This is a big pub in all ways. And on this particular Friday night it was obviously a "bar", i.e. loud jukebox, young girls in skimpy dresses, etc.

The Matchmakers Bar is a music venue for the annual St Magnus Festival of the Arts which occurs early in the summer. In case you're visiting Kirkwall at that time, the Albert Hotel offers 19 ensuite bedrooms, and lunch and evening meals are served.

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Earlier on the same day we stopped for a pint at the West End Hotel. Located in a quiet residential area of town, the West End has an interesting history. It was built in 1824 by Captain William Richan of Rapness for his wife whose extravagant tastes drove him to ruin. He died in deep financial trouble and is buried in a tomb at nearby St Magnus Cathedral. In 1845 the house became Orkney's first hospital, and 81 years later it was converted into a 16-room hotel. Lunch and evening meals are served, there is a quiet back garden, and the upstairs pub features an open fire.

The staff and patrons seemed very friendly. There was one handpump, but sadly on our visit there was nothing on it as they were awaiting a delivery of local ales. So we tried more local bottles: Raven (3.8% ABV, Orkney Brewery Ltd, Stromness, Orkney, Scotland) and Dark Island (4.6% ABV, Orkney Brewery), which was voted Champion Winter Beer in Scotland 2007. As we were chatting with a couple from Skipton a very cute and friendly black and white cat joined us at our table. He was apparently from the neighbourhood and not from the pub, and he reminded me of two of the cats I've owned and loved, especially Django with his wonderful face and Malcolm's lovely black goatee. He jumped onto the table, introduced himself, and before we could stop him he'd had a good taste of Ali's Raven. I think he quite liked it.

On another day we stopped in at the Auld Motor Hoose, a bar with which Ali and Marion were already familiar. A small, dark, and friendly place which hosts live music, the Auld Motor Hoose features a full-sized sportscar on top of the bar, along with other trendy memorabilia. Sadly they have no cask ale, but again they offer bottles of Orkney's finest. So we each had a bottle of Dark Island again, which was thoroughly enjoyable.

Our next stop for the day was the Orkney Hotel, which has a slightly intriguing history in that it was built in 1670 by a John Richan as a large family home. This Richan is also buried in a tomb in St Magnus Cathedral, which makes me think he must have been an ancestor of William. Although the hotel offers 30 ensuite rooms the public bar seems like a typical working man's pub. Again there were no handpumps, so Ali and I had bottles of Northern Light (3.8% ABV, Orkney Brewery Ltd, Stromness, Orkney, Scotland). This beer tastes like hoppy toasted grapefruit -- if you could toast a grapefruit like a piece of bread, that is. It was quite nice and cooling, welcomely cooling, even on such a suddenly brisk and windy day. It brought to mind a lovely crunchy ripply orange scarf wrapped around my neck, which I would have appreciated just then. Marion had a pint of St Magnus Ale (4.5% ABV, Swannay Brewing Co, Swannay by Evie, Birsay, Orkney, Scotland) which was very malty but a nicely bitter malt, like a brick red and olive green plaid as opposed to a magenta and blue plaid, which I think would taste a bit too treacly.

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Auld Motor Hoose
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The last pub we visited on this day was the Torvhaug Inn. Here we had bottles of Dark Island, which by this point I had come to decide is a strong stout with a good dry porter character. It's good to have a taste of a dark island so close to the summer solstice while there's so much daylight this far north. And as we were drinking this in a dimly lit Kirkwall pub at a sticky table while young people played pool to blasting heavy metal, for some reason it seemed to make sense...







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