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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2 Responses to Kirkwall, Orkney – St Magnus Cathedral, the general tour

  1. Stephen Dunhill says:

    Thank you for this wonderful tour. My wife and I have always wanted to visit Orkney and this is yet another spur. Have you read George Mackay Brown’s novel ‘Magnus’. T0 my mind the chapter describing his martyrdom is the finest thing he ever wrote.

    • admin says:

      That was a quick response, I only just posted it! I haven’t read GMB’s book for a while – and am now prompted to do so again. Three more Cathedral blogs to come. Cheers, Peter

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