Earl's Palace, Orkney

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The Earl's Palace is a ruined Renaissance-style palace near St Magnus's Cathedral in the centre of Kirkwall, Orkney, Scotland. Built by Patrick, Earl of Orkney, its construction began in 1607 and was largely undertaken via forced labour. Today, the ruins are open to the public.

The palace was built after Patrick, Earl of Orkney, decided that the accommodation provided by the Bishop's Palace was inadequate for his needs. Earl Patrick is widely acknowledged to have been one of the most tyrannical noblemen in Scotland's history. He decided to extend the complex by building a new palace on the adjoining land. This was complicated by the fact he did not actually own this property. He quickly acquired it by fabricating charges of theft against the unfortunate owner, trying him and having him executed. Upon his imprisonment at Edinburgh in 1609, his bastard son Robert began a rebellion on his behalf and seized the palace, along with nearby St Magnus's Cathedral and Kirkwall Castle. An army led by the Earl of Caithness laid siege, and the Castle was destroyed. Earl Patrick and his son were later executed for treason.

The palace continued to be the residence of the Bishops of Orkney sporadically until 1688, when it became the property of the Crown, and fell into ruin in the 18th century.

The palace is currently in the possession of Historic Environment Scotland as a protected scheduled monument. The ruins are roofless but still reflect the original French-influenced Renaissance architecture, with turrets and decorations carved in sandy coloured stonework.

The Earls of Orkney and The Douglas connection

The Orkneys and Shetland, and the Earl’s Palace have a connection with the Douglas clan.

George, OrkneyOn the tombstone, in St Magnus Cathedral, of George Douglas, who died in 1611, and Elizabeth Douglas, his spouse, who died in 1630, is a shield bearing: Quarterly first and fourth, three piles, second and third, a heart; overall all many mullets in fess.

In 1643 William Douglas, the 7th Earl of Morton, was granted the “regalities” (that is the rights and privileges due to the king) in Orkney and Zetland, as Shetland was known, by King Charles I. Morton was one of the King’s strongest supporters. He had sold his Dalkeith estate so he could advance £100,000, a massive sum at the time, to the king at the outbreak of the War of the Three Kingdoms (also known as the English Civil War). When Charles lost the war Morton retired to Kirkwall and died there in 1648 of natural causes. His son died the next year, and the 9th Earl inherited.

The Earl of Orkney was originally a Norse jarl ruling the the archipelagos of Orkney and Shetland (Norðreyjar). The second earldom was created in 1581 by James VI of Scotland. The Stewart earls were based at Kirkwall Castle, which had been built by Henry I Sinclair. It was demolished on the forfeiture of the title in 1614.

William Sinclair (1410–1484), last of the Sinclair Jarls, 1st Earl of Caithness and 3rd Earl of Orkney married three times, first to Lady Elizabeth Douglas, daughter of Archibald Douglas, 4th Earl of Douglas with whom he had:

•  William Sinclair, 2nd Lord St. Clair (1436) was, in the opinion of the father, a wastrel, wherefore he was disinherited. His family received only the Castle of Ravenscraig in Fife.
•  Catherine Sinclair, married Alexander Stewart, Duke of Albany
•  (second daughter, name not recorded)

He married (second) Marjory, daughter of Alexander Sutherland of Dunbeath, and had 15 children.

The last creation of the earldom was in favour of the man who in 1735 would become the first Field Marshal of Great Britain, Lord George Hamilton, the fifth son of William Douglas, Duke of Hamilton. The peerage was created with "remainder to the heirs whatsoever of his body", meaning that the title can be passed on through both male and female lines. The title passed to the O'Brien family, then to the Fitzmaurice family, and later to the St John family. The subsidiary titles of Viscount of Kirkwall and Lord Dechmont were created at the same time as the earldom. The present earl holds the subsidiary titles of Viscount of Kirkwall and Lord Dechmont. Both subsidiary titles were created at the same time as the earldom, in 1696.

William Douglas of Egilsay, Orkney (and of Spynie?) (c. 17th Century) was a Burgh commissioner for Shetland in 1667.

Sir Alexander Douglas (d. January 1718) was a Burgh and Shire Commissioner of Orkney and Shetland for the Parliament of Scotland and was also the first MP to represent the constituency.

Admiral Sir James Douglas, of Springwood Park, was M.P. for Orkney and Shetland 1754-1768.
George Douglas, 13th Earl of Morton, was MP for  Orkney & Shetland, and was succeeded by his son,  Colonel Robert Douglas (c.1703 – 30 April 1745) of St Ola, Orkney was a British Army officer and Scottish politician who sat in the House of Commons from 1730 to 1745. He died unmarried in the Battle of Fontenoy on 30 April 1745.

See also:
•  Earl of Orkney arms



Sources for this article include:
  • Historic Environment Scotland.
  • Ian Douglas

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    Last modified: Tuesday, 01 February 2022