Hoy, Orkney – The Kirk

On Monday 17 July we took the boat to the island of Hoy. It is about a 35 minute crossing to Lyness on Hoy, and then a 35 second drive up to the Scapa Flow visitors’ centre.

We had had a good morning here last time when we holidayed on Orkney. Today was half good. The café was great, the displays about wartime Scapa Flow were fascinating, and there was an interesting display about HMS Vanguard.

We spent quite a while in their reading room – I read a file about the Otter Bank mobile boat bank. There are some lovely pictures at this website, and a film “Bank Ahead” was produced in the late 1960s. There is a reference to it here, but the film does not seem to be available (which is a shame).

We then borrowed their disabled buggy to go and see the displays in the oil tank, but the buggy was out of charge, and the path was not wheelchair friendly. That was a shame. Last time they had had interesting dvds on sale too – I purchased “Echoes”, a superb 2007 film about the War on Orkney (produced by Moya McDonald, Another Orkney production).

We got in the car and drove north, stopping at Hoy Kirk, which is now a heritage centre. It is believed that there was a church in this area about 1650, and another parish church was built in 1780. It seems to have lasted about 15 years because of the quality of the materials. The current church dates to 1892.

The panels of the pulpit are reputed to have come from a Spanish Armada wreck, although the carved date is later. The date 1624 and initials HMS commemorate the minister of the parish.

The crucifix is carved from wood salvaged from HMS Vanguard. The battleship sank off Flotta after internal explosions in 1917, with the loss of 800 lives. The cross was made by the late Harry Berry, described on a board as “local artist and Custom and Excise Officer” – am I being cynical, I wonder how often the two go together? More about him soon.

The Hoy Kirk was badly damaged by storms in January 1952. Funds were raised for the restoration – including by an exhibition tour of a piece of needlework embroidery by Queen Mary.

The Friends of Hoy Church was set up in 2003. They relocated the pulpit, removed the pews and renovated the Kirk to make it a community venue. I am very pleased that this church – and others – are in use as community venues, but find it sad that their previous use is not regarded as “community use”. A warning for those of us in the Church of England who are starting to realise our buildings may be surplus to requirements. How do we get them to be used and supported by the whole community before they close for worship, rather than after?

There is a good deal of information about the history of the church, lots of village archives, and a good display of fascinating bits and pieces.

There was a kitchen with tea, coffee, biscuits (help yourself for a donation). Loo too – Julie comments how many excellent disabled loos there are on Orkney.

There was an exhibition of photographs from the collection of Harry Berry – the artist and Customs’ Officer He was born in Peckham, London in 1905, and joined the Royal Navy at 15. He settled in Lyness on Hoy, married local girl Jeannie Guthrie, and apparently never left Orkney. Lots of photos of ships and boats.

The composer Peter Maxwell Davis lived on Hoy for several years, and they have a display about him and his work – website – I hope no one minds me using this photo.

We listened to a lovely piece called “Lullaby for Lucy”. It is a setting of George Mackay Brown’s acrostic lines for the birth of Lucy Rendall, the first baby born in Rackwick for 32 years – it would be great to do it with Derventio (the choir we sing with in Derby).  It is on youtube.

Let all plants and creatures of the valley now


Calling a new

Young one to join the celebration.


Rowan and lamb and waters salt and sweet

Entreat the

New child to the brimming

Dance of the valley,

A pledge and a promise.

Lonely they were long, the creatures of Rackwick, till

Lucy came among them, all brightness and light.



Among the various books and papers to read was Magnus Mackay’s College project about the Post Office. His great grandfather, Isaac Bremner, was the post master on Hoy – and Chairman of the Sub Postmasters Association of Scotland.

The project also contained a photo of Miss Isabella Nicholson from the Burnmouth in Rackwick, who was the delivery girl for Rackwick. She would collect the mail from the post box there, walk to the Post Office, then return home making her deliveries. I wonder how many miles she walked every day.

I hope Magnus doesn’t mind me reproducing his photos – the social and economic history of the Post Office is fascinating. It is another of those great British organisations that was so much a part of our past – but I can’t remember the last time I went to one.

Finally, there is a room about the RSPB and nature reserves on the island – and these nice pictures from the  children at the school. North Walls School is the only school on the island. Their website says they have 18 children plus 7 nursery children. I love the tag line – “We believe is takes a whole island to educate a child”. Well done whoever came up with that!

We headed back to Lyness Naval Cemetery. I went for a wander. It is an evocative place. HMS Hampshire, HMS Vanguard, HMS Barham – and naval ships called Blond and Sunflower (I bet sailors serving on those got a lot of stick). The cemetery was begun in 1915. There are 445 Commonwealth burials of WW1, 109 of which are unidentified. The 200 burials of WW2 include 26 men from the Royal Oak, the ship’s final resting place in Scapa Flow is also a War grave.

There is an area of German burials – 14 from the Navy – and some from other faiths.

There are several websites about the cemetery – here is the first, and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website.

There are graves from HMS Barham and the action of the Battle of Jutland.

There is information about Henry Dixon Dixon-Wright here, and about HMS Barham here. She was sunk off Malta on 25 November 1941. In November 2011 Gareth and I attended the Remembrance Service at Westminster Abbey – the last one when the survivors paraded the Standard to the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior – website. It was a very emotional moment, one I will never forget.

At the going down of the sun, and in the morning,

We will remember them.







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Lamb’s Holm, Orkney – The Italian Chapel

At the start of WW2 a submarine slipped between the islands into Scapa Flow and torpedoed the Royal Oak. Churchill ordered that barriers should be built to block the four channels. There is a very good display about this work at the Fossil Museum on Burray – website – an excellent museum with lovely tea room, and friendly staff.

In the later years of the War, Italians captured in North Africa were sent to Camp 60 on Lamb’s Holm. They were not happy being used on what they saw as war-work, but were persuaded it was legitimate. You can imagine that thirteen Nissan huts were not very much like home (especially in Orkney weather), but the Italians planted flowers, laid concrete paths, and made the best of a bad job – they even had a band.

This plan is on a display board – can we re-open the narrow gauge railway? – and the painting of casting concrete blocks is by Domenico Chiocchetti.

Chiocchetti also made this statue of St George, made up from a framework of barbed wire covered in concrete.

What the camp still lacked was a chapel, but a new commandant, Major Buckland, an enthusiastic padre, Father P. Gioacchino Giacobazzi, and the artist, Chiocchetti, enthused the others. Late in 1943 two Nissan huts became available – and a work of art was created.

The Italian Chapel on the island of Lamb’s Holm (HY 488007) is now a major Orkney tourist attraction. Previous visits have been free, now they sell us a ticket for £3, but I would rather pay something and know the chapel is being properly looked after.

As well as the usual guidebook, the Italian Chapel has been written about more fully – Donald S. Murray, And on this rock, Birlinn 2010, and Philip Paris, Orkney’s Italian Chapel, 2013 are non-fiction, and Julie is currently reading a novel – Kirsten McKenzie, The Chapel at the Edge of the World, 2010. There is an interview with Philip Paris on youtube – and when northernreader reviews The Chapel at the Edge of the World, I’ll put a link in.

Having their Nissan huts, the corrugated iron was hidden with plasterboard, and the painting on it is amazing. I like the wheat and grapes – eucharistic images.

The altar, altar rail and holy water scoop were fashioned out of concrete, the paintings are beautiful, and I seem to remember that the lamps were crafted out of old corned beef tins.

The Madonna and Child was based on a holy picture that Chiocchetti had carried with him through the War. The painted windows are of St Francis of Assisi and St Catherine of Sienna.

The prisoners left the island on 9 September 1944, almost before the chapel was finished. Fortunately it was not demolished with the rest of the camp. In 1960 Chiocchetti was invited back to do some restoration work, and kept links with Orkney for the rest of his life (he died in 1999). Other former prisoners also kept links. One of those who visited in 1992 was Bruno Volpi. He wrote “People cannot be judged by their precarious situations. Their culture, spirit and will to express themselves in creative thoughts and deeds are stronger than any limitation to freedom. This is the spirit that gave birth to the works of art on Lambsholm.”





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Harray, Orkney – St Michael’s

Another church (or to be more precise, churchyard) we visited on Wednesday 12 July was Harray Church (HY 314179). I think it is St Michael’s Kirk. It was locked.

Steering the Stone Ships, is a book about the Orkney church by Jocelyn Rendall, Saint Andrew Press, 2009. She writes that in the C18 the Church of Scotland was not in a good place – there was a shortage of ministers, a huge social gulf between the minister and the people, a cosy alliance between Manse and mansion, “dull, moralistic sermons endured in damp and draughty buildings; the almost total lack of connection between the teaching of the New Testament and the practice of the Kirk” (page 148). Across Scotland there were divisions caused by the question of Patronage, who was in charge of appointing the minister – the people or the Laird? – and what right did Parliament have to interfere in Church affairs? At the General Assembly in 1843 474 ministers, 192 probationers, all overseas missionaries, and thousands of ordinary people left the Church of Scotland to form the Church of Scotland Free.

“For their stand on principle, the ministers gave up a respected position, a large house, a substantial salary and all security for themselves and their families – a considerable social and financial sacrifice that won them widespread admiration. (Perhaps the most courageous thing that they did was to go home and tell their wives that they could start packing!)”

The assistant minister at Birsay and Harray was a young man called John Garson. When news of the Disruption reached Orkney he announced he was joining the Free Kirk. His Presbytery excluded him, and appointed the Sandwick minister, Charles Clouston, to officiate at Harray the following Sunday. He preached inside the church, Garson preached outside to a much larger and very excited crowd. I hope Jocelyn (if I may) does not mind me quoting her:

“St Michael’s Kirk was just a few years old at the time, but the kirkyard was ancient, tumbling over a prominent mound where a broch had once dominated the fertile lands that sweep to the Harray loch. That day, the roads to the kirk had buzzed with the news from Edinburgh; the women’s summer dresses made bright splashes of colour against the gravestones; everyone’s eyes were fixed on the young minister who was speaking with such passion from the top of the mound. The door of the kirk opened. Clouston emerged, torn between desire to appear calm and dignified, and the urgency to get to his horse as quickly as possible. It was saddled and waiting; so was Garson’s. Did the ministers exchange looks before they leapt on their horses and raced each other to get to the Birsay kirk?” (page 155).

Clouston got there first, but most of the congregation walked out. Garson became the first Free Kirk minister at Birsay, and served there for 38 years.

I had a wander round the churchyard and let the wind blow the cobwebs away.

I found the grave of Eric Linklater (1899-1974). Although born in Wales, his father was Orcadian, and Eric spent many years on the islands. He served in WW1, then went to Aberdeen University, then spent time travelling in Asia. He became a full time writer in the 1930s and wrote about 20 novels for adults and children, plus short stories, travel pieces, military histories and other works. He is one of those authors I have heard of, but I fear I have not read. I will have to remedy that – and I did. I found I had a copy of his book The Dark of Summer, Jonathan Cape, 1956. It is a good yarn, with excellent descriptions of a storm at sea, the countryside of Orkney and Shetland, and the war in Korea (a subject I know nothing about). Well worth a read.

Harray, Birsay and Sandwick are now served by Milestone Community Church in Dounby. They have a very good website – and I admire their decision to close their old buildings and re-locate to the centre of their community. However I was sad that when I stopped to have a look at the new church I found it locked.

There are incredibly old religious sites in Harray – the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness. On our last holiday we had a very special time at Brodgar – Hannah and Gareth having fun – and had a sunset visit to Stenness. Here are photos from that holiday. I won’t try and write up the history of these amazing places – have a look at this website.

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Sandwick, Orkney – St Peter’s

A few miles south of Birsay, is St Peter’s Church, Sandwick – HY 234198. It is a very dramatic setting, on the north side of the Bay of Skaill. It is rather nice closer up, and there is parking next to it. There was a “Church open” sign, so I opened the door. It is now in the care of the Scottish Churches Trust – website.

The kirk was built in 1836 on an ancient site. The earlier church had fallen into disrepair. The Reverend Charles Clouston, minister at the time, wrote that it was “in a very bad state of repair … the roof being so old that no patch seems to remain longer than the commencement of the first gale of wind: That it is consequently so intolerably cold that I have been twice severely indisposed from exposure in it.” Not a happy man.

Some of the material was re-used, but there is also a tradition (written about by George Mackay Brown) of the women of the parish bringing new stone from a local quarry, each piece carried on their backs. As the leaflet says “built by the people for the people.”

It is a simple rectangular preaching space, simple outside, simple inside. The pulpit is the focal point of the interior – it takes me back to my Baptist days, I have preached from some formidable pulpits in my time. Here, even into the C20 sermons would last an hour (even as a good Baptist 25 minutes was long enough). The lower desk was for the precentor – I’ve been a precentor in some formidable places too.

Electricity and water were never installed in this church, but it remained an important place for the community. On many occasions storms caused shipwrecks, on one occasion it included a consignment of gin which was stored in the church to keep it safe, on the orders of the minister. (If the minister had had a daughter like mine living in the manse, the gin would not have been safe). The War Memorial reminds us what happened to some local men, and there is another memorial in the churchyard.

The C20 saw a decline in churchgoing so after 150 years (not long in the history of Christianity) the church closed in 1988. Restoration was complete by 2008 – and the work has won awards.

Outside is rather lovely too – fascinating stones. It is wonderful how well the church and churchyard are kept – I wish I could persuade Derby to keep my churchyard so immaculately.





















A couple of miles south of St Peter’s is the wonderful Skara Brae – Historic Scotland – website. It is very atmospheric – a village that is 5,000 years old, with houses and furniture. Here are three pictures.

A couple of miles north of St Peter’s is Marwick Bay and on Sunday 9 July I left Julie in the sun with a book while I walked up to the Kitchener Monument. It is a strenuous walk up the cliffs – I am a Fenman after all – but the views are wonderful. The monument is, as the name suggests, a memorial to Lord Kitchener who died, with many others, in HMS Hampshire in June 1916. Here is a website. Since I last walked here, a memorial wall has been added with the names of all those who went down. I like the fact that HH Kitchener is just one of the names. A memorial plaque also names HM Drifter Laurel Crowe, another ship sunk by mines in the area, and gives details of the German submarine S.M. U-75 which laid the mines. They are all victims of War.

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Birsay, Orkney – St Magnus

Monday 10 July. We drove along the A966 to Birsay, past the Earl’s Palace, and found a very nice café, Birsay Bay Tearoom – website. It has wifi – so I spent a happy half hour booking seats to Cumbria in the Virgin Trains mega sale. All done in a café off the north coast of Scotland, and with electronic tickets. The first time I came to Orkney, in 1983, I had a free British Rail pass from Cambridge to Thurso. The line from Inverness to Thurso and Wick divides at Georgemas Junction, so I planned to go north to Thurso, and return from Wick. Therefore I needed a single from Wick to Georgemas Junction. My friend Adele worked in Lunn Poly Travel Agents on King’s Parade in Cambridge. They were British Rail agents, so I got her to sell me a ticket. They didn’t sell many Wick to Georgemas Junction tickets in Cambridge.

After tea, we parked by the sea, and I went for a walk.

Birsay is on the top north west corner of the Orkney mainland. The Brough of Birsay is a tidal island. The plan was to have a walk there, but tide times and Julie’s times never coincided. This was an important centre of Norse Christianity, and may have been important to the Picts who preceded them. There is, according to Caroline Wickham-Jones, Orkney, a historical guide, Birlinn, 2015, “much evidence of metalworking, in particular fine pieces of jewellery: brooches, pins, and finger rings. Elsewhere in Pictland, this sort of specialised activity seems to have been confined to power centres where leaders not only had the resources to acquire the raw materials and pay the skilled craftsmen necessary to do the work, but also the status to use such high-class goods and affirm their authority” (page 100).

Before the Bishopric of Orkney was moved to Kirkwall, it was located at Birsay. The Sagas relate that Earl Thorfinn built a minster, the Christchurch, here after his return from Rome in the mid C11. It is thought that, although there are the remains of a Norse settlement and church on the Brough, that Earl Thorfinn’s minister was on the mainland, where the village is now.

The Earl’s Palace was built about 1574 by Earl Robert Stewart, illegitimate son of James V, father of Earl Patrick and half-brother to Mary, Queen of Scots. The display board says “The tyrannical way in which Lord Robert administered his estates made many an Orcadian’s life a misery. But the blackness of Lord Robert’s reputation pales into a lighter shade of grey beside that of his son, Patrick, who succeeded him officially as earl in 1600.”  It was a fine Renaissance building, standing around a central courtyard with gardens, and greens for bowling and archery. Wickham-Jones’ book contains pictures and plans (pages 161-3). The palace was derelict by 1700, and it is a bit of a struggle to picture it now in all its glory.

Opposite the Palace is St Magnus church – HY 247277. It is now maintained by the St Magnus Church Birsay Trust, and there is a page about it on this website. We are welcome.

1064 for the original church, rebuilt in 1664, rebuilt again in 1760, restored in 1867, restored in the 1980s. The different stages can be seen if you spend time looking – the red sandstone of the original church, and this rather nice window. This is C13 and the broken lintel at the base has the inscription (S) BELLUS. The first part of the inscriptions MON(S) is built into the window surround of the farm on the north side of the church. This must have come from the residence of the bishop’s, “Mons Bellus” (the beautiful mountain) being the name given to the bishop’s residence in the Benedictine Order throughout France.

This sculptured stone (now by the pulpit) has the coat of arms of the Craigie family, important in Orkney since the C15, and the font is a copy of a baptismal bowl, thought to date from the C15.

I don’t know what date this stone is. The one inside is dated 1645 and the initials NN are probably those of Nicol Nisbet. The Nisbets had come to Birsay as gardeners to the Stewart earls, and acquired some land in the Swannay district of Birsay. (I feel a PhD in Orkney gardeners coming on).

The stained glass window was designed by Loveday McPherson, the artist wife of the Reverend Joseph McPherson, minister from 1900 to 1906. It was made in 1904 by Alex Strachan. The left hand scene depicts Magnus at the Battle of Anglesey in 1098.

The church is made so colourful by a selection of wonderful banners installed for the 900th anniversary of the martyrdom of Magnus. These seven waves are by Erlend Brown and Dave Jackson. The image is a response to “Tryst on Egilsay”, a cycle of seven poems by George Mackay Brown, re-interpreting the great story of the peace talks with his cousin, Hakon Paulson, ending in the martyrdom of Magnus. Today’s artists see the waves rolling the same direction as the rolling waves in Birsay Bay, 900 years ago.

The foyer also has some lovely children’s art work based on the same poem. I do love George Mackay Brown’s work. There is some information about him here and here. On youtube there are also various videos of his poems being read.

The vestibule window was designed and made by the Orcadian stained glass artist Shona McInnes, who lives and works in Yorkshire. Her website is here. It was installed in 2013. The design was inspired by the legend of the bright aura of light said to glow around the church, which is the original burial place of St Magnus. The votive candle is a universal symbol of prayer, and the words “Bright Magnus, pray for us” are from a poem about Magnus written by Gilbert Markus. We have the church, surrounded by the Earl’s Palace, the whalebone, sea pinks, stalks of barley and a sack of bere meal. The Brough of Birsay, beach and axe representing the martyrdom of Magnus. “The hands supporting the church represent the Trust’s role in maintaining the church and welcoming visitors from all over the world … People are gathered together in praise and fellowship, participating both in worship and the musical and literary events held within the church, symbolised by the sheet music and book.” I had enjoyed my visit and, like most of my church visits, felt enlightened.

The other place we visited in Birsay (on Sunday 16 July) was Barony Mills (HY 255274). I had an excellent guided tour and was invited to pull the lever which starts the water flowing to the wheel. When turning 110,000 gallons of water per hour comes from the Boardhouse Loch to turn the wheel – it was fascinating to see how the water flow could be controlled. This (1873) is probably the fourth mill on the site, and two of the earlier ones still remain – and their wheels are intact, which surprised me. On the top floor there are three sets of stones (two of French burr, one of Yesnaby stone) – shilling stones (separating the grain from the husk), oatmeal stones, and beremeal stones – so to get the finest meal the grain would be thrice ground. Bere is a type of barley which is ideal for the Orkney climate, damp with a short summer. There is also a fan which allowed the separate husks to be removed. The bere digestive biscuits are tasty too. It was a good welcome – and has prompted me to make the effort to re-visit the mills of the East Midlands.


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Orphir, Orkney – Round Church

This was our first Orkney church of the holiday (Sunday 9 July). I have always liked the south road from Kirkwall to Stromness, the A964, that runs along the top of Scapa Flow. We went through to Orphir and stopped at the little Heritage Centre, the Saga Centre, and enjoyed the presentation – it hasn’t changed in many years, but tells the story of Magnus very well.

I left Julie and walked to the Church – HY335043 – and Earl’s Bu. The round kirk is the only-surviving circular medieval church in Scotland, built around 1120. It was reputedly built by Earl Hakon Paulsson, who had visited the round Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem while on pilgrimage to atone for the murder of his cousin Magnus. The circular nave was demolished in 1757 when they needed the stone for the new parish church.

The Earl’s Bu was a drinking hall of some status and speculation has linked it with Earl Hakon himself. The Orkneyinga Saga – which is an Icelandic Saga written about 1200 – website – provides a detailed account of the Earl’s Hall and the activities (mainly drinking) that took place there. “Earl Paul had a great yule feast, which he prepared at his bu, in Orphir. … There was a large homestead there, and it stood on the hillside. … There was a large drinking hall, and the door was near the east gable on the southern wall. A magnificent church stood before the hall door, and one had to go down from the hall to the church. As one entered the hall one saw a large flat slab to the left; further in there were many large ale-casks, and facing the outer door was the stofa (or heated sitting room).” The Hall is probably the ruins beside the church.

There is a lovely variety of gravestones – what a beautiful place to wait for eternity. Gorgeous lichens too – I’m told it grows best in clean air.

I then walked along the bay to The Breck, up to Gyre – round in a circle. Just two miles, but lovely.

Back by the church is the horizontal water-mill. It dates back to the Norse period and would have been an important feature of the farm here. Horizontal wheels need no head of water, just a passing stream. They couldn’t mill much, but enough for the local farms. It would have been something like this one at Dounby, further north, in the middle of Mainland – website.

Psalm 45.9

From ivory palaces stringed instruments make you glad; 
   daughters of kings are among your ladies of honour;
at your right hand stands the queen in gold of Ophir.

I’m told that Ophir is somewhere in India, or it could be Sri Lanka. I want to do a PhD on the fact that the bible is referring to Orkney.

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Deerness, Orkney – St Ninian’s church and the Brough of Deerness

Julie and I had a fortnight on Orkney in July 2017 – the first holiday fortnight we’ve had just the two of us for many years (and we didn’t argue!). We drove north from Derby – as you have probably guessed from previous blogs – and crossed the Pentland Firth on Pentland Ferries – website – who could not have been more helpful to a traveller in a wheelchair.

We stayed at The Slap Cottage on the Island of Burray – website – which was excellent (thank you).

Normally I blog about churches simply in order of when I visited them – I’m going to do the Orkney churches in a rough historical order. If you’re really good, I might even add some Neolithic sites.

There are many lovely Orkney books – I know, Julie has purchased most of them in the last fortnight (I’m sure the car was lower on its springs as we returned than when we had drive north).



Caroline Wickham-Jones Orkney; a Historical Guide, Birlinn, 2017,  is a very good introduction, with a gazetteer of places to visit. She has also written the official Historic Scotland guide – website. There is an excellent book about Orkney churches – Jocelyn Rendall, Steering the Stone Ships, the story of Orkney kirk and people, Saint Andrew Press, 2009. With chapter titles like “Feuds and Formidable Women” and “Sex and Sackcloth” you know you are in for a good read. I now understand a little more about the tangled history of the church in Scotland than I did (but don’t ask me to blog about it in detail).

On Tuesday 18 July we spent most of the day in Kirkwall – be patient, you’ll get St Magnus Cathedral eventually. We wanted a drive before going home, and had spin round through Tankerness. We stopped at St Ninian’s church at Skail – HY 588064. The church is open on Sunday afternoons, or a notice invites you to phone if you want access at any other time, but it was too late in the day to make that call. There is a website.

Jocelyn Rendall’s book includes line drawings from 1774 of the important church that was here “at the important Norse farm of Skaill” (page 37). It had a couple of round towers, but was ruinous and demolished a few years later. Like other churches we have visited, it had begun life as the chapel next to the Lord’s Hall. Excavations have found a high-status Norse settlement, and earlier Pictish remains. This church, successor to the earlier one, was built on the same holy site, despite the fact that the population now lived several miles away. I didn’t get the impression the church is used for regular worship now, though I might be wrong.

I took some photos in the churchyard, and managed to find the War Grave (young Mr Irvine was only 17). There are also a lot of names on the village war memorial.

Looking through the window there is a hogback tomb. Next time I come I will get inside. Caroline Wickham-Jones book tells me it was dug up in a corner of the graveyard so must date to the earlier church. It is made of red sandstone and dates to the late C11 or early C12.  The Orkenyinga Saga says Skaill was the home of which  Thorkell Fostri, foster-father of Earl Thorfinn.

We continued north up the minor road to the small car park by the RSPB centre, and I had a couple of miles walk to the Gloup and along the cliffs to the Brough of Deerness (HY 597089).

Excavations took place here in the mid-70s, revealing postholes and grooves indicating the lines of the walls of a C10 chapel and wooden altar, possible of pre-Norse origin – it is the Picts who pre-dated the Norse. Rendall (page 28) suggests it shows that Christianity was being practised in Orkney before Sigurd’s conversion in 995. Is it possible that Thorkel founded it, just down the cliffs from his Hall? – I see parallels with Bamburgh and Lindisfarne.   There is an illustration of it (also Rendall, page 28) – vertical planks, the walls clad in stone. You can imagine (and several books talk about) a community of monks, perhaps just a few of them, living an austere life high above the ocean – I do not expect it is always as beautiful as it is this evening. Life was tough – the graves of two infants, dating to this period, were found, buried in the Christian manner. However, there is no burial ground for elderly monks and Wickham-Jones writes that “recent excavations indicate that it was purely a secular, defended settlement” (page 135). The chapel then fell into disuse for a long period when Orkney was inhabited by what the display board describes as “the pagan early Norse.” An Anglo-Saxon coin struck during the reign of Eadgar (959-975) was found.

The chapel was then re-founded in the C11 or C12 once the Norse conversion to Christianity had occurred, and the chapel was rebuilt in stone, with a low perimeter wall. (Apparently the walls stood to about 4 feet high, until the Navy used it for target practice in WW1. Apparently one lot of C20 scholars thought the depressions nearby were the remains of Celtic beehive huts, only to be told they were shell holes). There is a stone altar, and the enclosure was used for burials.  (Again, an illustration Rendall, page 48, shows this). It continued in use into the C16, with some improvements (like a flagstone floor) being installed, but was then abandoned. Pilgrims continued to visit through to the C19, sometimes climbing the steps on their knees – I didn’t take a photo of the steps, I was too busy hanging on. The pilgrims (and the Kirk did not encourage pilgrimage) often left votive offerings – 38 coins dating from 1642 to 1860 were excavated. Was I a walker or a pilgrim, and were the young couple who followed me (he is the one taking the photo, she is in the chapel) walkers, pilgrims, or lovers (O to be young again!). It was a wonderful evening.

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Cromarty, Highland – East Church

After a morning (Friday 7 July) in Inverness we drove over the Kessock Bridge and on to the Black Isle to visit the little town of Cromarty. Coffee in the bookshop, then I parked by the sea and went for a 2 mile walk. The town looks slightly more prosperous than it has – there are some lovely houses. We first came we came here was when the kids were little, and we came on the bus from Inverness – then went across to Dingwall (or it could have been vice versa). Buses still terminate by the shore. There is a three car ferry across to Nigg – website.

Cromarty Courthouse – website – was a favourite place (you could dress up) and Hugh Miller’s cottage – website – is a lovely National Trust for Scotland property.

I don’t recall ever visiting the East Church, Cromarty – grid reference NH 792673. It has a website and a sixty page full colour guidebook. It is somewhat ironic when redundant churches have so much more resources than open churches.

This church is on the site of the medieval church – we know that James IV lodged with the parish priest in March 1499 on one of his pilgrimages to St Duthac at Tain (if I remember rightly he also had a mistress in a village nearby). Cromarty was a royal burgh and a flourishing town before then.

This C15 grave slab was excavated when the church was restored. The long swords signify that it is for a man of some importance, and the open book suggest he was also a man of learning. The three Calvary steps at the bottom were a common shorthand for the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. They instruct the viewer that the way to heaven – shown as a lively sunburst – was by following his example.

The Reformation of 1560 meant a church that was governed by its members, rather than bishops, through a series of church courts. At the parish level the governing body was the Kirk Session, and it was a long and painful progress to move the church on. The focus of the worship moved from the altar to the pulpit – and the pulpit is decidedly central. It was 1582 before the first Presbyterian minister was appointed to the church, his name was Robert Williamson. Gilbert Anderson was next, then his son Hugh – Hugh managed to cling on during the Episcopalian church rule under Charles II. And so it went on – very lively these Scots!

I missed the memorial to Sir Thomas Urquhart (1611-c60). He was Laird of the Cromarty estate from 1642. He fought in the Civil War on the Royalist side, was at the Battle of Worcester which Charles lost to the Parliamentarians, and is said to have died laughing when he heard that the king had been restored in 1660. Recounting an argument with the parish minister, Gilbert Anderson, he writes that he “did rail against [me and my] family in the pulpit at several times … more like a scolding, tripe seller’s wife than good minister, squirting the poison of detraction and abominable falsehood … in the ears of [my] tenancy”.

In 1684 the Cromarty estate passed to the George Mackenzie of Tarbat and then to his son Kenneth in 1695. Fragments of painted armorial panels survive – Sir Kenneth’s is dated 1702. Originally these would have been at least three metres high and over a metre wide. They may have once formed ceiling panels in the church, or they may have originally been in Cromarty castle. They were later used as pew back in the east loft, perhaps when the east loft was built in 1756. They are now displayed in the west loft.

The North Loft was added in 1739 – the population of the town was growing as the port and Burgh were prosperous. Money to build it came from the Poor Fund. It was an investment – once they had built the loft, they rented out the space, and people built their own pews. I didn’t look closely enough, but apparently you can see the individual style and wealth of the occupants by reflecting on the variation of pew size and differences in latches and hinges (I feel a PhD thesis coming on).

There are several interesting memorial tablets. The middle one is to Hugh Rose Ross, who died in Afghanistan. We forgot how many wars have taken place there, and how many we have been behind.

Cromarty’s fortunes declined in the C19, and economic decline was matched by increasing discontent in the church. At the Disruption in 1843 one third of Church of Scotland ministers left to form the Free Church of Scotland, where congregations had the right to appoint their own ministers, free from the influence of the lairds. Hugh Miller was one of the leaders of the movement to create the Free Church, but he felt the pain – “I do begrudge [the Church of Scotland] our snug, comfortable churches. I begrudge them my father’s pew. It bears date 1741, and was held by my family through times of poverty and depression, a sort of memorial of better days, when we could afford getting a pew in the front gallery.” The congregation of this church was greatly reduced. It was modernised at the end of Victoria’s reign – so, in fact, the pulpit only dates to 1901.

The town was busy during the First World War. The guidebook contains the memories of Mrs Newell (born in the town in 1908). She remembered Handel’s “Comfort ye” sung at a Christmas service, and a very talented organist, soon to be sent to France, sitting and staring at his hands in fear that they would be injured on the battlefield.” Cromarty lost 45 of its sons during the War.

Through the C20 the population of the town continued to decline, and by 1971 it had dropped to 484. As early as 1936 there was a plan to close the East Church, but it was not until 1998 that it was finally declared surplus to requirements. A huge amount of restoration work was done between 2008-11 and now “the church is open daily for all to visit and is once again being used by the community. Its fine acoustics and intimate elegance provide the ideal setting for events, concerts, occasional services and weddings.”


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Inverness, Highlands – St Andrew’s Cathedral

Inverness Cathedral, Serving the Highlands – says the tag line. Grid ref – BB123456 – website. Interesting that the guidebook gives their social media links, not the website. It is the Episcopal Cathedral, as the Church of Scotland doesn’t do things like bishops and Cathedrals (“they haven’t got bishops to show them the way” Michael Flanders and Donald Swann A Song of Patriotic Prejudice) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1vh-wEXvdW8. The Provost of the Cathedral is also the Bishop of Moray, Ross and Caithness.

The Cathedral stands west of the river in an imposing position, and doesn’t align to the usual east/west position. Built of pink sandstone from Conon near Dingwall, with a roof of Westmorland slate.

In 1851 Robert Eden was elected bishop. He was a parish priest in Essex, and had to learn very quickly that the Episcopal Church in Scotland was a very different beast from the Church of England. The Reformation in Scotland was a far greater upheaval than that in England. John Knox lit the fire in 1559, and in 1560 the Scots Parliament abolished Papal authority, forbade the Latin Mass, and adopted a reformed Confession of Faith. For more than a century Episcopalian and Presbyterian factions struggled for dominance. In 1688 James VII/II fled to France, and most Episcopalians were unable to swear allegiance to his daughter Mary, and her husband, William of Orange. The Established Church adopted a Presbyterian Order, and the Scottish Episcopal Church came into separate existence. After the 1715 Jacobite Rising, more stringent laws were enacted against Episcopalian clergy, and after the failure of the 1745 rebellion, the government sought to wipe it out. By the time Eden was elected a century later, the vote was taken by 7 clergy.

Eden was a powerful preacher, and by 1866 there was enough to energy to start to build a Cathedral. The architect was a young man from the congregation, Alexander Ross, but his original plans had to be cut back due to limited funds. The foundation stone was laid on 17 October 1866 by Dr Charles Longley, Archbishop of Canterbury, the first official act in Scotland by an English Primate since the establishment of Presbyterianism. It was opened on 1 September 1869 and the inaugural sermon was preached by the Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce – the one who is remembered for his debate with Charles Darwin. It cost £15,106, and on opening there was a debt still owing of £6,835. A building cannot be consecrated while there is a debt, so it was 1874 before it was consecrated – in the presence of the Bishop of Derry (William Alexander, the husband of Mrs C.F. Alexander “All things bright and beautiful”) and the Bishop of Bombay. There must be a tale to tell about the Bishop of Bombay’s journeying from Bombay to Inverness! This plaque remembers the Architect.

We entered the cathedral through the side door with the disabled ramp, and were greeted with the stark reality of life in the C21.

On a more cheerful note we were also greeted with a banner celebrating the churches of the huge diocese.

We walked down to the “west” end, and said hello to the Angel font. This was gift, in 1871, of Colonel and Mrs Learmouth of Dean (near Edinburgh). It was copied by James Redfern from Thorvaldsen’s kneeling angel font in Copenhagen, which Bishop Eden saw on his journey to Russia in 1866. There is one significant difference – this font has the face of Mrs Learmouth.

The view from the west end is quite impressive, we continued up the north aisle, past some candle stations with Russian icons. Some of these date to the Bishop’s visit in 1866 – he wet to visit the Anglican communion in St Petersburg, and make links with the Russian Orthodox church. There were a lot of visitors in the Cathedral today, and the prayer stations were being well used.

We moved into the Lady Chapel, with this memorial tablet to Bishop William Hay, the last established Bishop of Moray. He was deprived of his living of St Giles, Elgin, for refusing to read out the proclamation of William and Mary as joint sovereigns, and he retired to Inverness.

The altar is by Angus Ross of Aberfeldy, and I like this Christ – no mention of his maker, and I do think the position of the CCTV is interesting (Jesus is watching you).

The pulpit is of Caen stone and Irish marble, was carved by local sculptors, and shows St Andrew, the Good Shepherd, and John the Baptist.

The High Altar is wonderfully Victorian, and if you look west through the screen and over the Nave altar, the “west” window shows Christ in Majesty. It is a very colourful windows and works well – because of the alignment of the Cathedral it never receives direct sunlight.

Most of the stained glass is by John Hardman and Co of Birmingham, and forms a complete scheme. Here are some examples – note the “pair of turtle doves or two young pigeons” in the Candlemas window.

There is some lovely embroidery work in this Cathedral – I loved the otters.

A reminder that real people sit in our pews – and we ended our visit in the café in the Church Hall, being looked after by lovely members of the congregation. Thank you!


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Fortingall, Perthshire – Kirk

I first came to Fortingall in the summer of 1982. Richard Hunt, Chaplain of Selwyn College Cambridge, used to organise long-distance walks, and that summer’s was from Dundee to Iona. I had to leave before we got to Oban as I needed to be back in Cambridge for an orchestra course – I remember that there was a rail strike and I hitch-hiked home. One lift from Oban to Edinburgh, another to Doncaster, and one ten minutes later to the M11 two miles from home. A few days earlier we had arrived in Fortingall, and then made our way west along Glen Lyon, to Bridge of Balgie, and then over the Pass and down to Tyndrum. I seem to recall using the Post Bus for some of that journey – and will explore my archives to see if I have any photos of that journey. [Yes, it was Monday 5 July 1982, and I caught the Aberfeldy to Glen Lyon post bus at 0950 from outside Fortingall Post Office. We got off at Glen Lyon PO, then walked up and camped by the Glen Lawers NTS Visitor Centre. Joyce now lives in Singapore].


Fortingall Kirk, we are in Church of Scotland territory, is in the village next to the hotel, at NN742471 – website.

This part of the world has been settled for at least 5,000 years – and we have a 5,000 year old yew tree. This must surely be one of the oldest living things in the world, and must have been regarded as venerable, holy, for many, many centuries – long before Christianity. The wall was erected in 1785 to protect it, and there is a clever time line as you walk to it.


There is a legend that Pontius Pilate was born here, following a visit by his father to the Caledonians as an emissary from the Emperor Augustus. There is no evidence of any Roman contact with this part of Scotland until AD 80. (But I shall index this blog under “Roman” just in case!)

It is believed that Christians were in this area from the late 600s. They walked in the opposite direction to the Hunt walk – coming from Iona, the west coast, over the top, and down the valley towards the east. St Adamnan (Abbot from 679) was active in the valley. Apparently he was also at the Northumbrian meetings between the Celtic and Roman church. There seems to have been a large monastic site here through to the C10. Inside the church we have various Pictish cross fragments, dating around 800 AD, of stone which is not local, but which may have carved by the same person.

By the time the monastery closed, a network of parish churches had been established in the valley. Following the 1560 Reformation, Scottish kirks tended to be simple, austere buildings. In 1585 the parishes of Glenlyon, Kinloch Ranoch and Fortingall were combined – they covered an area of 300 square miles (and Allestree moan that they are combined with Darley Abbey a mile away!). Now it is Fortingall, Glenlyon, Kenmore and Lawers.

A belfry was added to the church in 1768, and this is preserved in the churchyard. The grave of the Reverend Duncan Macara, minister of the church from 1754 to 1804, is beisde the Yew tree. Following the turbulence of the Jacobite uprisings, he brought tranquility and education to the area. The Rotterdam bell dates to 1765 – I failed to photograph a C7 handbell (excuse for a trip back).

In 1885 the estate and village were purchased by Sir Donald Currie (1825-1909). He had made his money in shipping – starting as a clerk in Greenock he rose to become head of the Union Castle line. He engaged James Marjoribanks MacLaren (1853-90), a promising young architect, to build him an estate village. He sort to merge Scottish medieval buildings with the English Arts and Crafts movement. After his early death, the work was continued by William Dunn and Robert Watson, and they produced plans for a new church in 1899. It was paid for by Sir Donald, built by John McNaughton of Aberfeldy, and opened in September 1902. The interior is sandstone, with lovely oak pews and ceiling.

The screen was designed by Sir Robert Lorimer and installed in 1913 as a memorial to Sir Donald – sad that the guide records the designer, but not the craftsman who made it. The font is an Arts and Crafts interpretation of an ancient Celtic font.

I wonder what the stories are behind the war memorials. A lovely church.

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