The Old Kirks of Orkney  – Vikings!

By Bernie Bell

Vikings are often seen as marauding heathens – praying to Odin & Co – but many were Christianised, and, upon settling in Orkney ( not always peacefully!), they built churches/kirks. A Kirk, is a kirk, whether Viking or not.

One peaceable Viking is, of course, St. Magnus, whose early life is said to have been  spent at the monastic settlement on the Brough of Birsay, where there still stands the remains of a small chapel.  A wonderful place to sit, look about you, and think of Magnus and his ways of peace.

Brough of Birsay church B Bell

George MacKay Brown’s book ‘Magnus’ tells of his life with sympathy and insight.

The chapel is known as St. Peter’s – I wondered had it always been dedicated to St. Peter? and turned to Canmore again to find out.

The more modern-looking church, in Birsay village, is named after St. Magnus, and is still used occasionally for services and for music events, as it has very good acoustics. It looks modern, but – you can’t judge a book by looking at its cover, and the present building is known to stand on the site of a series of churches, possibly dating back to the 11th century. Each time that work is done on this church, they seem to find another clue to its past. It is in the care of St. Magnus Church Birsay Trust, and houses some interesting bits and pieces which have been found, associated with previous churches on the site.

The Round Kirk at the Bu, Orphir, was built by a Viking who wasn’t  at all peaceable. Jarl ( Earl) Haakon Paulsson, murdered Magnus, (or rather, had him murdered), so that he, Haakon, could become sole ruler of Orkney.  Then, racked with guilt, he made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and on his return, had this church built in memory of Magnus.  The style of building is unique in Orkney, and was inspired by The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.  Though built to honour Magnus, the church is dedicated to  St. Nicholas.

The Bu Orphir B Bell

At the end of Sandside Bay,  Deerness, stands St. Ninian’s Church,  which also has good acoustics, in fact, very good acoustics, and is also used as a music venue, sometimes as part of the Orkney Folk Festival,   playing host to visiting musicians. The music presented here is usually acoustic, and sometimes even unaccompanied singing. The effect of this kind of music, in this building, in this setting, on the Bay, is….indescribable.  Here’s what I wrote to ‘The Orcadian’, in praise of The Unthanks in St. Ninians………..

“The core of the band is two sisters. I don’t know what it is about family harmonies, but they always produce something extra-ordinary – though the addition of the voice of Niopha Keegan blends so well, that it could easily have been three sisters singing.  The word ‘magical’ can be used a bit too easily and too often, but The Unthanks deserve it – it’s about the only word which can truly describe the experience of listening to them, especially in St. Ninian’s.  How they sing, and their arrangements, go deep, deep, deep into the human soul and psyche.   What happened  there was good, strong, human stuff, all too rare in today’s world.

Thanks, to The Unthanks, for that experience, and to the Folk Festival organizers for choosing to bring them to Orkney, and place them in St. Ninians.”

This place has some kind of magic to it, and, thankfully,  is being taken care of by the Friends of St. Ninian’s Trust.

St. Ninians stands on the site of an unusual  church with two towers, which stood on the site of an even earlier church.  Canmore again……

There is a Viking burial ground nearby, which was probably associated with  one of the earlier churches.  We know someone who, on asking for permission to camp near there, was directed to a patch of land, camped there, happily, only to be told the next morning, that he’d been camping in the Viking graveyard!  His rest hadn’t been disturbed, so maybe the Vikings are long gone from there – or were sleeping off a heavy night!

Another Viking kirk, also demonstrating the importance of this area in early Christian Orkney, is on the Brough of Deerness.  I’ve never been onto the Brough, the path is too steep and the drop at the side is too precipitous, for me to venture there, and so, I turn to Canmore again.

Imagine having a settlement on the Brough of Deerness?  The position offers some protection from enemies, and isolation for contemplation, but – how did they manage to live, and feed themselves?  It’s always a puzzle to me, when faced with these remote monkish settlements.

Maybe a bit irreverent, but I do like to make up Limericks……………..

There was an old monk at Mull Head

Whose robes blew up over his head

He was seen by a nun

Who thought it great fun

Now it’s not just the sandstone that’s red!

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5 replies »

  1. Re. the Bu – I just remembered that Fiona(G) wrote this……..

    An alternative, is to park at Brek ( as mentioned in the piece by Mr. Halcro-Johnston, for which there is a link in Fiona’s piece –
    ………………and do the walk which Fiona describes, in reverse. A little way into this walk, there’s a very conveniently situated bench – a good stopping place for sandwiches, or just to look about you – great views of Hoy.

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