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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