The Old Kirks of Orkney – Part One

By Bernie Bell

Some ‘Orkney News’ readers may remember a piece I did about Orkney Mills

As with mills, Orkney has many kirks. Some, little more than some stones in a field, some ruinous, some semi-ruinous, some entire but un-used, some renovated and lived in, or used for other purposes, such as art galleries.  Some are even still operational as places of worship!

I’ll start closest to home, with what used to be the Parish Church of Rendall, which is situated on the Bay of Hinderayre, in Gorseness. All that’s left, is a corner of the actual kirk, the burial ground, and the surrounding wall – but – what a position!  Right on the edge.

A big sea-wall is constantly maintained by the Council, to prevent the whole thing from being lost to the sea, as is happening with so many coastal sites in Orkney.

The  wall  around the kirkyard includes some stone steps, built into it, next to the gate.  I remember a similar arrangement by an old church near where my family are from in Ireland.  The idea was, that folk could get in and out to the churchyard, even if the gate was kept shut to prevent livestock from getting in.

The gate  is  flanked by impressive stone gate posts, on which you can just about see two dates, 1732 and  185?  The lichen shows how clean the air is here.

Within the kirkyard, a hog-back grave marker (possibly Viking?)  was found, though, unfortunately, it’s whereabouts now is un-known.  There is also a head stone which tells a tale, as do many headstones.   A man died, in 1939 and was buried here.  His wife outlived him for 66 years, and then, in 2005 she, too was buried here. And that was the last burial to take place in this kirkyard. The kirkyard was kept open as a burial place, until this lady could be buried with her husband. Though still consecrated ground, as there are relatively recent burials here, there will be no more.

When walking Ben-The–Dog down that way, I often met with folk from far away, looking for their relatives. I was familiar with the kirkyard ( I go along with my Dad’s idea that a churchyard is one of the most peaceful places you‘ll find, as no-one is arguing there), which meant that I could usually point out to them where their ancestors were buried, as they tend to be buried in family groups.  Many of these folk, were enraptured by the situation, and went away feeling somehow better, knowing that their ancestors were buried in such a beautiful and peaceful spot.

On a recent walk to the Bay of Hinderayre, we found that someone had placed a Bible in a niche in the wall of the church.

Rendall kirk bible

Though not religious myself, I like this – the continuity – and that folk still see it as a special place, as it has been for so long.  Along the Bay, from the church, at South Aittit (The Ayre) a cist burial was found, and along the coast in the opposite direction, past the Knowe of Dishero broch remains, there is  what’s marked on the OS map as ‘St. Thomas Kirk (remains of)’.  This is difficult to access, but can be seen as the remains of stone walls.  I  found a mention of it on Canmore which is always a good source of reliable information.

For further information about Gorseness, and Rendall Parish,  ‘Rendall in the 1930’s’ by Jim Nicolson is a good read.

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