Papa Westray, Orkney – St Ann and St Boniface

We will be return to Orkney (probably in 2019 – 2018 will be a bit busy with Hannah and Bertie’s wedding). Before we leave, let me blog about a visit to Papa Westray on Monday 29 August 2011. In those days I only blogged Northumberland churches, but it was a very special day – made more special in memory because it was a wonderful day I had with Gareth (my eldest son, who died on Boxing Day 2013).

One of my ambitions was to fly the shortest scheduled air flight in the world – the route from Papa Westray to Westray, less than 2 minutes. There is lots of information about the island on this website – including details of the plane, the ferry, and ways of seeing the island once you arrive. I booked us on a tour.

There was only one spare seat on the day we wanted to fly, so we ended up with me catching the ferry from Kirkwall to Westray at 0630.

Then a minibus across Westray, and the ferry to Papa. Stuart, who was showing us round the island, collected me, took me to the Co-op Hostel so I could have coffee while he used the minibus for the school run. He then picked Gareth up from the 0930 flight, which arrived at 0953, having done the hop from Westray en route.

We were given a guided tour of the island, went into the little museum, met Chris the RSPB Warden who – it turned out – had been a pupil at the school in Ponteland I was governor of. He asked after various members of staff. “Can I take your photo and mention you in assembly?” I asked. “Yes. You can tell the little b*****s, that if they don’t do any work, they’ll end up on an island off the coast of Scotland”, he replied.

We had lunch, cooked by Stuart’s wife Mary, at St Ann’s church – HY495516 – website. They have a weekly service – last week she had taken it (with a congregation of 15). They have modernised the church, it now has a hall, a doctor’s surgery, and a flat for a visiting medic or minister. The felt banners are lovely, though my photos do not do justice to them.

My diary says “Fed and watered, we continued to St Boniface Kirk. This ecclesiastical site dates back to the 8th century and stands above the rocky shore towards the north west of the island. A Norse hog-back gravestone and two Early Christian cross-slabs found in the Kirkyard all combine to indicate a site of great significance. There is a good write up here. The woodwork inside is good – rebuilt quite recently. One lump of panelling is said to be from a ship lost after the Spanish Armada, the lamps came from St Ann’s, and the tiles were made by the school children. The lichens and the fuchsia hedge are rather special too.”

Our last visit was to the Knap of Howar – website. This is the oldest known dwelling in Orkney, and the oldest standing buildings in northern Europe. Skara Brae is 5,000 years old. The Knap is 600 years older. Here you can crawl through the entrance tunnels and enter the houses themselves. They are incredibly well made – you can imagine people living there. The larger standing slabs of stone that seem to divide the rooms, the cupboards, hearths and quernstone.

Back to the church for a final cup of tea, then Stuart ran me to the airport for the 1651 plane, to go via Westray and arrive at Kirkwall at 1714. I got the seat behind the pilot. It is odd when he turns round and addresses you. “It’s a bit noisy and the corner we turn over to Westray is a bit tight. We’re landing on the grass when we get there, so don’t think I’ve missed the runway. Your lifejacket is under your seat, but if an engine cuts out I can glide into land.” He wasn’t kidding about the tight turn. We did take off to landing in 1 minute 46 seconds. The flight back over the islands to Kirkwall was stunning.

Gareth got the 1655 ferry, the bus across Westray, and arrived back at Kirkwall at 1920. A marvellous day – and this was the only photo I got of my son!

In 2014, some Ponteland friends went north for the wedding of Chris the bird man. They must have chatted to Stuart and told him Gareth had died, as a few days later I got a card saying how he remembered this day, and the pleasure he had had showing us round the island. That meant a huge amount. You meet some lovely people in this world.

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Kirkwall, Orkney – St Magnus Cathedral, upper level tour

On Tuesday 18 July 2017 I did the upper level tour of St Magnus Cathedral. You have to book in advance, and it fills up fast. 1½ hours for £8 – just six of us being taken up. One of the custodians was in charge, and showed us many wonderful things. I have 122 photos, so I won’t put them all in.

We started on the triforium, looking up and down. It is wonderful Norman architecture and it is good to see the sails from a different angle.

They have an interesting collection of bits and pieces in their museum. The hangman’s ladder – two ladders up, one column down – some keys, and a set of stained glass by Oscar Paterson. Apparently it was never unpacked, and never installed. There is a web page about him here. Rather lovely colours. I like this clear glass too.

The west window was created by Crear McCartney  to mark the 850th anniversary of the Cathedral. It was unveiled by the Queen in 1987. There is an article he wrote about Scottish Stained glass in 2002 here. He died in 2016 – his obituary is here. Just enjoy, both the window itself and the patterns of light.

We followed the signs, read the warning, and enjoyed looking down – spot the Julie. Then a very narrow passage.

The weight chamber for the clock is rather chunky (that’s a technical term), and the clock itself was originally made by Hugh Gordon of Aberdeen in 1761. It was updated in the early C20. The bells date from 1528 and are played by one man who sits for the task. I didn’t get a phoro of the seat. I would love to watch them being rung.

We came out into the sunshine and admired the view. The graveyard, Bishop’s Palace, view across the town and harbour, and Kirkwall Library.

What a wonderful afternoon – I had even organised the weather. Where better to end this summer’s Orkney blogs.


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Kirkwall, Orkney – St Magnus Cathedral, art installation

George Mackay Brown wrote that “in 1511, fifteen ships got ready in Scapa to make a crusade to Jerusalem. The commander-in-chief was Earl Rognvald II of Orkney. With him sailed Bishop William of Orkney in his own shops. There was a group of Scandinavian poets. Some of the Crusaders broke into Maeshowe and cared runes on the stone walls of the dead: ‘Jerusalem farers broke in here.’”

In 1993, for the St Magnus Festival, artists Mary Scott, Andrew Parkinson, Dave Jackson and Erlend Brown used him as inspiration for a major visual art collaboration. Painted sails were created to hang between the arches of the nave of St Magnus Cathedral. Each sail interprets a poem by GMB based on Earl Rognvald’s journey. They were last displayed at St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh, in 2016, and are now hung once more in St Magnus to mark the 900th anniversary of the death of St Magnus. Erlend Brown and Dave Jackson are involved in the art work at Birsay that we saw a few days ago.


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Kirkwall, Orkney – St Magnus Cathedral, memorials

In St Magnus Cathedral we have some lovely memorials. Lots of C17 stones which were always indoors, so were never eroded by the calm Orkney weather. There is a lovely book about them by Spencer J. Rosie, Saints and Sinners; memorials of St Magnus Cathedral, Orcadian, 2015. As it’s £30, I really couldn’t justify buying it, so I used the reference copy in Kirkwall library – website – I will say again how wonderful Orkney Libraries are.

Here are a selection of them, with some details from the book. I have given the page number in case anyone wants to do more research – or for when I get the pleasure of returning for another lovely holiday.

This is one of the oldest – the Paplay Tomb (page 13) The traditional story is that a husband, whose nagging wife had threatened to dance on his grave, built this low arched tomb to prevent her. The coat of arms is linked to Steven Paplay in 1584, but the style of the tomb is from the latter half of C14. It could be that of a Lawman, i.e. chief magistrate, and there is a Sigurd of Paplay mentioned in an agreement dated 1369. Is the name of Mrs Sigurd lost to history?

Margaret Young (page 85) was from a prominent Kirkwall family.

There is a similar design on the memorial to Elizabeth Cuthbert and James Wallace (page 79) He was the last Episcopal minister of the Cathedral to die in office, having been appointed in 1672, and one of Orkney’s first historians. Elizabeth died in 1685. She is buried in the Cathedral next to some of their children who had died young.

The memorial of Nicola Traill 1688 and David Covingtrie (page 80) also has a woman with her hair loose. A symbol of Vanitas “Emptines or worthless”, but she is looking up, and the scroll says “To thee Sweetest Jesus, bu watever path thou callest”. Nicola was the sister of George Traill, and David Covingtrie was the rent collector and chamberlain to Bishop Mackenzie. Presumably Nicola was his first wife, and a rent collector a wealthy husband.

James Baikie of Burness 1679 and Sibilla Halcro (page 69). The words “ad hoc” mean to this immortality, “ab hoc” from this life, and “per hoc” through this death – so now you know!

Thomas Baikie 1665 (page 68) became minister of the Cathedral in 1658, but the kirk presbytery did not take to him. He was described as “disorderly and unhanesome”. In October 1659 he moved to Rousay and Egilsay, where he was described as very learned and a lover of literature. He was one of the few native ministers at that time.

This Baikie is Jean who was buried in 1674 along with Captain Peter Winchester in 1677. He was a trader, often sailing the Leith Amsterdam route – there were many strong links between Scotland and the Low Countries. The family probably came from Elgin.

This is George Drummond (page 54). His family motto is Virtute tutus (protected by courage). He was the 6th Laird of Ballock, and nephew of Bishop Graham. His son John took an active part in the Marquis of Montrose’s campaigns on behalf of Charles I, eventually escaping to Norway in 1646. He (George, I assume) was Provost of Kirkwall 1648-50.

Patrick Prince 1673 and Margaret Groat’s memorial has Death piercing a two handled urn with a dart, while a cherub blows a call to life on a long trumpet. Patrick was a merchant’s son. His father was one of the merchants  elected to the Council in 1669 following Charles II’s renewal of Kirkwall’s ancient liberties and privileges. After his death Margaret carried on his business with much success.

The final one of these memorials that I photoed, and there are quite a few more, is that for John Richan 1679 and Janet Loutit (page 67). Apparently it includes Hebrews 4.9 in Greek “There remaineth therefore arrest for the people of God”. John was a litster, who cleaned and prepared wool for household use. He was an elder in the Kirk, and was commissioned to purchase a new mortcloth, which was used to cover the coffin in its carriage from the deceased’s house to the grave. The new velvet cloth cost £169 18s Scots – which sounds a lot of money!

There are many more recent tombs. Here is a small selection.

William Balfour Baikie (page 112) was in the navy during Napoleonic wars, and later became the agent of the National Bank of Scot, Kirkwall’s first bank. He had been educated at Kirkwall Grammar school and Edinburgh university. In 1854 he was naval medical officer and a naturalist in and expedition to River Niger to try and locate explorer the Heinrich Barth. They did not find Barth, but they surveyed 700 miles of river). This expedition saw the first use of quinine to ward off malaria. On a second visit he set up trading posts. “Far from trying to transplant British ways into Africa, as his successors would do Baikie went native, wearing sandals and the long cotton shirt called a tobe. He lived in a mud hut with a thatched roof and took a native mistress, with whom he had  several children.  His little settlement, lying in an area where slavery was a way of life, became a refuge for many natives fleeing from this barbaric trade” (page 114). His was a trading post which closed on Sundays – what would he make of our 7 day a week shopping habit? He translated parts of the bible and prayer book into Hausa, and died in Sierra Leone in 1864. “Queen Victoria wrote a personal letter to the Emir of Nupe, informing him of Baikie’s death and urging the Emir to put a stop to the slave trade, knowing that this was an issue close to Baikie’s heart” (page 115). There is more information about him at this website.

George William Traill’s father came from from Westness. George was educated at the East India Company College in Haileybury in Hertfordshire, which he entered in 1808. He arrived in India 1810 and by 1816 was running the mountainous province of Kumaon. This had originally been part of Nepal, but was handed to the Company to rule. George leaned to speak and write the local language, and conducted a major survey of Kumaon, “which still continues today to form the basic document for determining village boundaries” (page 106). He retired from India in 1836, and used his wealth to buy up property on the isle of Rousay. “Traill may have been well regarded in India, but in Orkney he is remembered as the tyrannical laird who undertook the only clearance in the county on the scale of those carried out in the Highlands, clearing the township of Quandale on the west side of Rousay” (page 107).

Thomas Smith Clouston was educated at Harray parish school, West End academy in Aberdeen, and went to Edinburgh University at the age of 15. He graduated MD in 1861 “receiving a gold medal for his thesis on the nervous system of the lobster” (page 131). He assisted at the Edinburgh Royal Asylum for 4 years. At just 23 he  was appointed medical superintendent of the Cumberland and Westmoreland Asylum in Carlisle, and later returned to Edinburgh.

The most photographed memorial in the Cathedral must be this one, to those who died in the Royal Oak. 833 men drowned in Scapa Flow in October 1939, after being torpedoed by a German U-boat. The ship’s bell was recovered from the wreck. The ship is now a War Grave, and there is far more information on this website and on this one.



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Kirkwall, Orkney – St Magnus Cathedral, the general tour

Welcome to the Cathedral that stands in the middle of Kirkwall. It is welcoming, has a good website, and is owned by the Council. It was assigned to the inhabitants of Kirkwall by James III of Scotland in a charter dated 1486. The guidebook says “In 1845, the Government presumed the ownership of the Cathedral, expelling the then congregation and carrying out major restoration work to the fabric of the building.” In 1851 it passed to the Royal Burgh of Kirkwall, and eventually to Orkney Islands Council. I had a chat to one of the Custodians, aka Vergers, who tell me the arrangement works well. I am very glad it does, but wonder, if we were in England, where Council services are being decimated and libraries being closed, whether a church would be safe.

The sandstone is gorgeous. Red sandstone quarried from the Head of Holland, north of Kirkwall, and yellow sandstone probably from Eday. The building started in 1137 during the bishopric of William the Old of Orkney (1102-68). There are many similarities to Durham Cathedral, so it is thought that some of the masons worked their way north. We used to say that the carvings in Ponteland were done by ex-Durham craftsmen, so perhaps they were en route. By 1152 the choir and three pillars of the nave had been built, by the mid-C12 the apse had been added. At the Reformation the organ, treasures and rich vestments were removed, and the wall decorations were covered in plaster. Services were held in the choir – the nave was a gathering place, and a place where wood was stored and sails were dried. By the start of the C20 the Cathedral was not in a good state, but George Hunter Thoms, Sheriff of Orkney, Caithness and Zetland, died in 1899 leaving £60,000 for its restoration. Thank God for him. A lot of work was done, and the future secured. More work in the 1960s coped with nasty subsidence. There is a nice modern loo block – which fits in well.

It is worth walking five minutes up the road to the St Magnus Centre, the Cathedral Centre. A little café, though with a coffee machine, shop, loos, meeting rooms, and a dvd about the life of St Magnus. We got a good welcome because, I fear, few people make it this far. Apparently it has a good library – and worth saying that Orkney Libraries are superb, follow them on twitter.

Disabled access to the Cathedral is through a door on the south side – which crashes beautifully when the wind blows. Let’s wander the ground floor, look more closely at the tombs, enjoy the exhibition of sails, then go on the roof tour.

The Orkneyinga Saga tells the story of Magnus. In 1098 the Orkney earldom was divided between two brothers, the Earls Paul and Erlend. Magnus was the eldest son of Erlend, Haakon the son of Paul. The former was the more popular leader, a pious man of peace and great authority, while Haakon was warlike and envious of the popularity of his cousin. In 1117 a reconciliatory meeting was organised at Easter on the island of Egilsay – but Haakon arrived with eight ships full of armed men. Despite his offers to disappear from the scene, to go off on pilgrimage to Rome or Jerusalem and never return, it was decided that Magnus must die, and Haakon’s cook Lifolf was given the axe. Magnus was buried at Birsay.

In 1129 Magnus’s nephew came from Norway, overthrew Haakson’s son, Paul, and became Earl Rognvald. He started the building of this church. In the C20 restoration, bones and a skull with axe mark, were found high in a pillar – and reburied. The story of Magnus is told in many ways – including this mural made by pupils from the Isle of Arran, presented to the people of Orkney in 1980, and in this picture (who is it by?). I thought this chap would be Magnus, but he is St Olaf – King of Norway – presented by the Church of Norway on the occasion of the Cathedral’s 800th anniversary.  The Norseman theme can be seen throughout the Cathedral – here are the carvings in the Rognvald Chapel.

The font in the Rognvald Chapel is inlaid with 29 stones brought by children from each parish and island of Orkney to make the 850th anniversary of the Cathedral. We have more Norsemen in stained glass – even St James is almost a Viking warrior. Elsewhere St David is in gorgeous Victorian glass, and there is some interesting modern glass.

The choir area has some rather good carving – if this was an English Cathedral we’d have Choral Evensong on a regular basis. I rather fancy sitting and listening to it surrounded by these birds and creatures.

There is some lovely carving on an impressive chair, on a second font, and in the very stones themselves. The next blog has some more amazing carvings.


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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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