Kirkwall Airport Memories

by Jim Muir, Valdigar

The Kirkwall Airport is near to the farm where my husband Tom and his siblings were born and grew up. For many of us, this was the place of first arrival when we ventured to the Orkney Islands.

I never pass the airport without a little thrill of remembrance: flying over the green islands that first summer of 2015, the flat map images of the islands that I'd poured over for so many years appearing below me in glorious 3D as we flew above them, heralding the new life that awaited me in Orkney.

This is another kind of remembrance of the airport, written for me by my beloved brother-in-law, Jim Muir. Thank you, Jim.

(Archive photos of the airport kindly provided by Orkney Library & Archive)

A very interesting experience

There are many people throughout the world who have lived close to an important landmark: a famous battle site or historic building, a football stadium or a major music venue.

Well, I was brought up on a farm very close to Kirkwall Airport in Tankerness, slightly east of Kirkwall. For me, living next to the airport has been a very interesting experience.

Kirkwall-Airport-terminal-1960s,Orkney Islands, Scotland. www.orkneyology.comKirkwall Airport terminal 1960s


The Kirkwall Airport's original name was Grimsetter Airport because Grimsetter was the name of one of the small farms that were bought and converted into the airport.

Runic letters spelling "Grimsetter" for the original name of the airport in Kirkwall, Orkney Islands, Scotland. www.orkneyology.comA runic "Grimsetter" above the airport terminal

When I was about four years old our family moved out of the farmhouse when the original thatched roof was removed and replaced by sheets.

Elizabeth Muir in the doorway of the farm of Valdigar, Tankerness, Orkney Islands, Scotland.

We stayed in some old Nissen huts above our house, which were used during World War II.

One of these huts had a small wooden porch just outside the door. The west wall of this porch, which faced the airport, had a small knothole or something which was exactly equal with my eye level.

First terminal building at the old Grimsetter Airport, Kirkwall Orkney Islands, Scotland. www.orkneyology.comFirst terminal building made of Nissen huts

Whenever I heard a plane overhead and coming in to land, I used to run into the porch and watch it landing.

At that age, I assumed that was what the hole was meant for, which must have been very confusing for my parents!

Gerry Meyer disembarking from Faroe Airways flight 1965-67, Orkney Islands, Scotland. www.orkneyology.comGerry Meyer disembarking, former editor of the first wartime forces newspaper, The Orkney Blast, and later The Orcadian. John MacDonald is on the left and Charlie Flett is on the right.

Kirkwall Airport - early days

When I was a schoolboy, there were very few types of aircraft carrying passengers, letters and mail to Orkney.

Early BEA staff at the airport in Kirkwall, Orkney Islands, Scotland. www.orkneyology.comBEA staff, 1940s, in front of a de Havilland Dragon Rapide

I can remember Dakotas, Leopards, and a few small double-winged aircraft that looked as though they belonged to a different era.

A woman at Grimsetter/ Kirkwall Airport in the early 1950s, in front of a BEA Dakota. Tankerness, Orkney Islands, Scotland.  www.orkneyology.comA woman at Grimsetter, early 1950s, in front of a BEA Dakota.

A limited view of the world

When I went to Tankerness Primary School, the headmaster was rather sneering about the fact that although I lived very close to the Kirkwall Airport, I knew nothing about passenger jets throughout the world's airlines.

Termianl-Building-1950s, Orkney Islands, Scotland, Kirkwall. www.orkneyology.comTerminal building in the 1950s

Personally, I couldn't understand how he expected me to know all about planes that couldn't possibly land here and never came here, like American Boeings and British Comets.

Faroe-Airways-1965-67, the airport at Kirkwall, Orkney Islands, Scotland. www.orkneyology.comFaroe Airways Dakota, 1965-67

Bigger plans at the airport

As the years went past, planes increased in size to meet the greater demand.

Air traffic controllers, Kirkwall, Orkney Islands. www.orkneyology.comControllers Geoff Greavey and Janet Firminger, 1980s

By 1966 the main runway at the airport was lengthened to accommodate the bigger Viscounts and Dart Heralds which were being introduced.

First Viscount visit to Kirkwall, Orkney Islands, Scotland. www.orkneyology.comFirst Viscount visit

A squad of workers were employed, complete with diggers, to get the soil removed from the land intended for the extended runway, and machines to finish the work.

Aiport-early-1970s, Kirkwall, Orkney, Scotland. www.orkneyology.comEarly 1970s

My brother Cecil was one of the workers involved. He must have been about eighteen at the time.

Cecil Muir of the Orkney Islands farm of Valdigar, Tankerness, Orkney, Scotland. www.orkneyology.comA young Cecil Muir

As we live so close to the airport, we have become so used to aircraft flying over us that we rarely notice them. The exception would be if a plane from the North Isles flew over our house while coming in to land.

BEA-Heron-Ambulance-flight-1950s, Kirkwall, Orkney Islands, Scotland. www.orkneyology.comBEA Heron ambulance flight 1950s

An incident at the Kirkwall Airport

Accidents or incidents at Kirkwall Airport are almost unheard of, but a potentially serious one took place in October 1979, when a Viscount aircraft operated by Alidair was coming in to land.

BEA Viscount airplanes, 1960s, Kirkwall, Orkney Islands, Scotland. www.orkneyology.comBEA Viscount airplanes, 1960s

It was a windy day with gusting crosswinds. On touching down, one of the propellers touched the runway and forced the aircraft off its normal flight path.

The plane ran off the runway and on to the grass, causing the nose of the plane to collapse.

Accident at Kirkwall Airport, 1979

We never knew what had happened until later, when we saw a plane off the runway. It was too badly damaged to repair, but happily none of the passengers or crew was injured. 

BEA Ground staff pre-1972, Kirkwall, Orkney, Scotland. www.orkneyology.comGround staff pre-1972

Limited vision

One of the big problems we have in the East Mainland is fog and low cloud, especially in summer.

For years this caused delays in aircraft taking off and landing at the airport during foggy weather.

Airport apron, late-1970s, Kirkwall, Orkney, Scotland. www.orkneyology.comApron, old control tower and Loganair Islanders, late 1970s

In 2001 HIAL (Highlands and Islands Airports Limited, the Kirkwall Airport company) decided to overcome these problems by installing landing lights (or ILS) on the land just beyond the two ends of the runway.

Terminal from Met Office tower, Kirkwall, Scotland. www.orkneyology.comTerminal from Met Office tower

These lights could be switched on during very cloudy weather but the deal could only be done by buying land from the nearby farmers.

Aircraft landing at the airport in Kirkwall, Orkney Islands, Scotland. www.orkneyology.comImage: Colin Smith, Take-off at Kirkwall Airport, CC BY-SA 2.0

Coming to terms

There were four farmers whose land was wanted, and one of them was myself.

Three of us employed the same agent to fight our cause and as this land sale was a one-off, we decided to fight for a figure higher than HIAL was prepared to offer.

However, it soon became obvious that they were not prepared to negotiate.

BEA-Check-In-Desk, Kirkwall, orkney Islands, Scotland. www.orkneyology.comBEA check-in desk (British European Airways, now British Airways)

Eventually they forced us into a position where we had little choice but to accept their offer.

The money I received was very welcome at the time, but the way we were treated left me feeling a bit bruised by it all.

Artist Sheila Scott's mosaic at the airport terminal in Kirkwall, Orkney Islands, Scotland www.orkneyology.comSheila Scott mural of the Ring of Brodgar

A sad parting

A particularly sad event took place in 2009. My brother Cecil, who I mentioned earlier regarding the runway extension, was married and living in London.

In May 2009 he was diagnosed with cancer, and he came back to Orkney for a while. Towards the end of the year he and his wife went back to London.

My brother John and I went with them to the airport to see them leave. This was a heartbreaking event for me because I knew we'd never see him again.

This was true. He died the following May.

Jim Muir and Cecil Muir of Valdigar, Tankerness, Orkney Islands, Scotland. www.orkneyology.comBrothers Jim and Cecil

"Now, in 2022, air travel is entering an interesting phase."

Loading a DC-3, BEA, Kirkwall, Orkney, Scotland. www.orkneyology.comLoading a Douglas DC-3 (Dakota) with mail

There has been a climate and environment conference in Glasgow to find ways of slowing climate change.

Three issues are at the forefront: reducing the use of fossil fuels, reducing the number of petrol and diesel vehicles and interestingly, reducing gas emissions from farm animals!

However, up to now, little mention has been made of passenger jets carrying people to holiday destinations around the world.

Royal-Flight-Queen-Mother, Kirkwall, Orkney Islands, Scotland. www.orkneyology.comRoyal Flight, the Queen Mother

We will have to wait and see what the outcome of this will be. I hope that whatever course of action they take will turn out to be the right one.

~ Jim Muir, Valdigar ~

A few of the gorgeous mosaics that grace the terminal walls, by artist Sheila Scott.

One of the gorgeous mosaics gracing the terminal, by artist Sheila Scott. Orkney Islands, Scotland.
Artist Sheila Scott's mosaic at the airport terminal in Kirkwall, Orkney Islands, Scotland
Artist Sheila Scott's mosaic at the airport terminal in Kirkwall, Orkney Islands, Scotland
Maeshowe Dragon, mosaic at the airport in Kirkwall, Orkney, by artist Sheila Scott.
One of the gorgeous mosaics gracing the Kirkwall terminal, by artist Sheila Scott. Orkney, Scotland.
Artist Sheila Scott's mosaic at the airport terminal in Kirkwall, Orkney Islands, Scotland
Artist Sheila Scott's mosaic at the airport terminal in Kirkwall, Orkney Islands, Scotland
Artist Sheila Scott's mosaic at the airport terminal in Kirkwall, Orkney Islands, Scotland

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Mermaid image (Rhonda's pages) and storyteller image (Tom's pages), and all other illustrations except where noted are here by the courtesy of our dear friend - Stromness author, artist and historian, Bryce Wilson MBE, who owns all copyrights. Thanks, Bryce!

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