Tuesday 9th June 2015
Helgi’s Bar proved to be a lifeline on the evening before this visit as we had arrived on the ferry from Lerwick, Shetland at 23.00. After getting the connecting bus to our hotel and checking-in we quickly rushed out and found Helgi’s a few doors away. Where we were lucky was that it seemed to be the only bar open to midnight on that day and we still had 25 minutes for a pint!
So, here we are the following morning with a day ahead of us devoted to researching the pubs of Orkney’s capital. I was with Linda and we were staying at the Orkney Hotel overlooking the harbour. I liked the harbour a lot as it is a working port that is used by both fishing boats and lots of small ferries serving the outlying islands.
Helgi’s is to found in Harbour Street which is the epicentre of the cask ale scene in Kirkwall with four pubs offering the real thing. There’s nothing wrong with these pubs but they haven’t got the selection that Helgi’s offers, yet they deserve a mention.
They are the Ayre Hotel, St Ola Hotel, Shore Hotel and Torvhaug. All sell only Swannay Brewery Scapa Special (4.2%) with the exception of the St Ola (next door to Helgi’s) that sells a guest beer also.
Inside Helgi’s you could be forgiven for thinking that you were in a much older pub. There are slate floors and wonderful wooden panelling on the walls. The bar counter must have come from an older pub and there is a beautiful carved wooden fireplace that I hope is used in winter times.
The former shipping agent’s offices have undergone a remarkable transformation. See photograph from the harbour above left, Helgi’s is the small white building to the right with the flag flying above.
Entering the pub you first notice the L-shaped bar on the right with the fireplace also on that side of the room. Against the other wall there is a fitted leather settle and opposite the bar there are a couple of four-seater booths. There are high shelves on this wall that hold bric à brac. Painted on to the plaster is the story behind Helgi.
So, what’s in a name? A first thought might be that it is or was the name of a former owner but no. At the very end of the 10th Century Orkney was very much a Norse settlement, with no Scottish influence. Helgi was the child of Ulf and Ingibjorg Thorsteinsson. He was one of the bravest warriors of Earl Sigurd the Stout of Orkney. Helgi means holy and his parents believed his birth was blessed by the goddess Freya.
He was born to be a warrior and undertook his first Viking raid with his father when he was just twelve. A pivotal moment was in 1014 when the Earl went to Ireland with the army of King Sitrygg the Silkbeard. Helgi went as fighter with his father.
They went into battle against Celt King Brian of Ireland at Clontarf, now a Dublin suburb. Both his father and the Earl were killed. He lay concussed and was taken for dead.
He returned to Orkney and was treated as a hero. Later he went to Norway in a long boat with gold but wasn’t respected by King Olaf Haraldsson who was a Christian. The Orkney community still believed in the old Norse gods. He went to Sweden and Denmark with a bit of raiding on the Eastern Baltic coast in between. He was treated a lot better in these countries.
After returning to Orkney his next expedition was to Iceland. After a very difficult journey out and back via Shetland and Faeroe he decided to do some raiding along the western side of Scotland and England. On the way back he went ashore in Scotland and attempted some cattle rustling. The Scots were very unhappy and a small battle ensued and many of Helgi’s men were lost.
He arrived back in Orkney very badly injured and was nursed back to life by a woman named Astrid who was a widow. She owned a tavern at a place known as Ayre. Her husband had drowned whilst bringing malted barley from the mainland to be used for beer making. He married the lady and because of his injuries was no longer able to fight so settled down as an inn-keeper.
He built a landing stage nearby and that must have helped trade. The Norse religion was by now dying out although it is said he worshipped the old gods in private. A Christian church was built in this small village and it became known as Kirkjuvágr or Church Bay in English. The present-day Kirkwall is the same place. Helgi ended his days running the tavern which is said to have sold the best beer in Orkney. It could well have been very close to the Ayre Hotel, just a few hundred metres from the pub that now bears his name.
I think you’ll agree that is quite a story from 1,000 years ago. The new Helgi’s Tavern also sells good beer and Swannay Brewery of Elvie, Orkney, also known as the Highland Brewery supply the cask ales. Scapa Special (4.2%) is a regular and the two guests when we visited were Dark Munro (4.0%) and Duke IPA (5.2%).
There’s another room upstairs that’s normally used for dining. However it’s good for just a drink at quiet times. It has a good view of the harbour from the front windows. The pub is well-known locally for its quiz nights (Thursday 21.30). There are also some live music sessions. It’s noted for whiskies with a big range from Highland Park, one of the two distilleries on the islands. A full menu is offered, see below for times.
Helgi’s has been awarded CAMRA Northern Isles Pub of the Year 2011 and 2015. It is a great little pub and shouldn’t be missed if you are in Orkney.
Helgi’s Bar, 14 Harbour Street, Kirkwall, Mainland, Orkney KW15 1LE. Tel: 01856 879293
Hours: Monday-Friday 11.00-23.00; Saturday 11.00-01.00; Sunday 12.30-23.00
Food: Full menu 12.00 (Sunday 12.30)-14.00; 17.00-21.00. Reduced menu in afternoons.
Location: Opposite Harbour (for the outer islands) and about 300 metres from the bus station. It’s about a mile and half from the Aberdeen/Lerwick ferry terminal.