The name Kirkwall comes from the Norse name Kirkjuvagr, which later changed to Kirkvoe, Kirkwaa and Kirkwall.
Situated on the northern coast of Mainland Orkney and with a population of about 9,000, 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, which 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, the larger being Tankerness House Museum, which contains items of local historical interest within one of Scotland's best-preserved sixteenth-century town-houses. 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 Saint Olaf of Norway. One late medieval doorway survives from this church, and an aumbry from the original church survives within the late 19th-century structure of the present-day Saint Olaf's Church (Episcopal) in the town's Dundas Crescent. Kirkwall also once had a medieval castle, which was 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 (although Grain is unusually deep below ground). It was originally connected to a surface dwelling, which has since disappeared, and the original purpose of these Iron Age structures remains unknown. Further west towards Grimbister is the similar Rennibister Earth House.
One of the major annual events in the town is the Ba Game, held each Christmas Day and New Year's Day between the Uppies and the Doonies, each team representing one half of the town. 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 survives, although the library has since moved to a larger building on Junction Road.
As with the rest of Scotland, Kirkwall experiences a maritime climate with cool summers, mild winters, often strong winds, plentiful rainfall, frequently overcast skies and sparse amounts of sunshine.
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 the Tain Burghs until 1832, and then as the Wick Burghs. It was represented by one Member of Parliament until 1918, when the constituency was abolished and the Kirkwall component was merged into the county constituency of Orkney and Shetland.
The Orkney Library and Archive is located in Kirkwall.
The composer Peter Maxwell Davies was among a group which founded the annual St Magnus International Festival which is centred on Kirkwall each midsummer.
Kirkwall Harbour can be seen in The Highlands and Islands – A Royal Tour, a 1973 documentary about Prince Charles' visit to the Highlands and Islands, directed by Oscar Marzaroli. Scottish film-maker Margaret Tait was born in Kirkwall, and many of her films (in particular the Aspects Of Kirkwall series) are set there.
The Simpsons character Groundskeeper Willie is said to be from Kirkwall.
After extensive work on harbour facilities, the town has become a popular cruise ship stop, with several ships arriving each week in the season. This has added to the prosperity of the town and allowed a thriving sector of independently owned shops.
Each year now, 140 cruise ships visit Kirkwall and Stromness.