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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