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Issue 26 - The Flower of kirkwall

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 26
April 2006


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The Flower of kirkwall

In the latest of our series Ian Mitchell visits visits St Magnus Cathedral on Orkney

Sailing into Kirkwall, the capital of Orkney, one building dominates the skyline, soaring above the medieval town centre, with its close, narrow streets and steeply–pitched roofs: St Magnus Cathedral.

St Magnus is one of the largest ecclesiastical buildings in Scotland, and also one of the oldest. It was founded 500 years before St Paul’s Cathedral in London, being a product of Orkney’s 12th century ‘renaissance.’

The building was commissioned by Earl Rognavald Kali Kolsson (c1135-1158) in memory of his uncle, Magnus Erlandson, who was martyred on the nearby island of Egilsay in 1116. Since Magnus was actually fighting for control of the earldom of Orkney, it is not clear to all scholars why his death was considered to be that of a martyr.

Nonetheless, a small, roofless church with a curious, rounded tower stands in an otherwise empty field on Egilsay marking the spot where the future saint was killed.

Presumably for political reasons, Earl Rognavald, who took control of Orkney in 1137, moved the site of the island’s cathedral from Birsay to its present site in the middle of Kirkwall.

From a cultural point of view, the building of St Magnus represented the flowering of the earldom of Orkney, as its military prowess was already on the wane. The islands were becoming less Viking and more European.

The nascent kingdom of Scotland was rolling back Norse power on the mainland, though it was to be another three centuries before Orkney and Shetland were handed over to Scottish control by the Danish king.

The little that is known of St Magnus comes mainly from the Orkneyinga Saga, which was composed in old Norse around the year 1200, nearly a century after his death. His remains were discovered in 1919 entombed within the cathedral.

They showed that he had been killed by two axe-blows, one cleaving his skull and the other splitting his face. Nice lot, the Vikings.

The cathedral was originally designed to serve a community of monks, to be housed in an attached cloister, of which no trace now remains.

From 1152 until 1472 Orkney was part of the see of Trondheim. It was transferred to the province of St Andrews after the King of Denmark mortgaged the Northern Isles in partial payment of his daughter’s dowry when she married the Scottish King, James III.

The handover, which took place in 1468, marked the end of 600 years of Norse rule, first by Viking earls and latterly by the Sinclairs who were the Earls of Orkney.

As Scottish power grew and Norwegian influence waned, they established their main powerbase at Roslin, near Edinburgh, which will be familiar to all readers of the Da Vinci Code.

By the 15th century, the cathedral’s community of monks and choirboys lodged across the road in Tankerness House. This had been built as the town house for the Baikes family, who owned land at Tankerness, on the eastern side of the Orkney mainland.

Tankerness House is now the home of the excellent Orkney museum, containing a very vivid display about the establishment during the Baikes’s occupancy. It is well worth visiting.

The cathedral is a Romanesque design, cruciform in plan, with a tower rising from the centre. Inside, the effect of the sandstone, with its reddish hue, is to give a warm glow to the light which filters through the stained glass windows.

The enormous east window, which is more Gothic in style than Romanesque, has a circular component above four high arches, all fretted with delicate tracery, and contrasting with the solidity of the columns and massive simplicity of the vaulted roof.

A Norwegian bible sits open on a lectern near the lower altar. This, like the adjacent screen, is intricately carved limewood, as is the altar itself.

On the north wall of the choir, flanked by the Union Jack and the White Ensign, is the ship’s bell from HMS Royal Oak, the battleship which was sunk by Günther Prien, in U-47 in October 1939. More than 880 sailors were killed as the huge vessel rolled over and sank, just 13 minutes after having been hit amidships by three torpedoes.

On the Sunday I visited St Magnus’s, Rev Fraser Macnaughton was preaching.

A youngish, vigorous-looking man, his hair was much the colour of the stone interior of his cathedral.

He gave us The Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:24-30) and told the 200 or so worshippers about his recent trip to Australia.

Arriving back at the Manse, he discovered that his strawberry beds had been taken over by weeds.

“But despite the weeds,” he said, “the strawberries had ripened for us to pick on our return from holiday. In other words, even in the midst of evil, in this case personified (sic) by the weeds, there was much of the good.”

Arguably this applied to the Vikings. Amongst people who would split a man’s face with an axe, there were those who constructed a cathedral as majestic as St Magnus was and is.

Compared with the other two I have written about in this series, St Columba’s Church on Iona and St Clements on Rodel in Harris, St Magnus is impressive, not just because of its size but because it has existed more or less as it is today since it was built.

The Reformation, so damaging to Scottish ecclesiastical culture in many other respects, largely passed Orkney by.

A certain amount of interior decoration was removed and, for nearly 400 years, worship was confined to the choir as the nave was used as a graveyard.

Despite several bouts of renovation, starting in the mid-19th century, the nave was not brought back into use until the 1920s.

Orkney is the second most popular cruise-ship destination in Britain, after Southampton. Many people now visit Kirkwall.

It is a pleasant stroll from the quayside up through the narrow, largely carless alleyways that thread through the old town to Broad Street, where the cathedral stands amidst grass and flowers.

When the weather is sunny, the wide pavement outside is filled with backpackers sitting in the warmth on their rucksacks.

Orkney has a charm which is immediately apparent to the visitor, and I confess I liked the place from the moment I stepped off my boat and into a world which is still, in a definite but indefinable way, reminiscent almost as much of Scandinavia as it is of Scotland.

Ian Mitchell’s books about the Scottish islands, Isles of the West: a Hebridean Voyage and Isles of the North: a Voyage to the Realms of the Norse, are published by Birlinn at £9.99. The latter describes his visit to Orkney in detail.