The Old Kirks of Orkney Part 3 – Bits & Pieces

By Bernie Bell

Next door to Deerness, is Tankerness, and we bring an old Kirk bang up to date, with Sheila Fleet’s conversion of St. Andrew’s Kirk into a gallery/shop and café

Sheila Fleet Gallery and Cafe B Bell

For a more thorough description, have a look here………….

Good Things in Deerness & Tankerness

And that approach to what to do with a fine old church, which is no longer a church – no longer consecrated ground – brings me  back to the West Mainland, to Stenness church, where the kirkyard is still used for burials, but the church itself, was recently sold and is now in private ownership. I had hoped that Historic Environment Scotland might buy it, do some work on it, and open it  as an Interpretive Centre for the Neolithic Heart of Orkney – the whole Neolithic Heart of Orkney, for which it is perfectly positioned – possibly with walks going to Maes Howe, Barnhouse Neolithic ’village’, and on, to Brodgar, both Ness and Ring of…..  An Interpretive Centre for the whole of this ceremonial/sacred/pilgrimage site, is needed. Not just wanted, but needed – and this seemed, to me, to be a perfect opportunity to develop such a Centre,  in just the right place.  It looks like that isn’t going to happen, unless the owners have ideas of their own that we don’t know about?  It could be a privately run Interpretive Centre,  something like  the museum/shop at the Tomb of the Eagles. Bernie Bell: Orkney Walks (with stories) – The Eagle Cairn If the Stenness church became a privately owned Interpretive Centre, they couldn’t have original artefacts, but they could have good copies. Hmmmm  – I wonder..…I hope so!

I’ve been told, that this church stands on the site of at least five churches – a place of worship dating far back in time, and in the Neolithic Heart of Orkney. I wonder about that, too.

While we’re in the area, St. Michael’s Church, Harray, is built on a Broch! As in, yer actual Iron Age broch.  If you park in the car park for the church, and look across, you will immediately see, over the church yard wall, how a ‘mound’ of land, with headstones, stands up, above the wall.  If you then go through the small  gate, just to the left of the church, the fact that there is something other than a natural rise in the land  here, becomes even more plain .

Harray churchyard B Bell graves on mound

If you then walk along, through the burial ground, you get a strong feeling of walking through history – there is the broch, below you, and there are all the people buried here, since.  When walking here, do, please, have respect for where you are – for those who lived here, those who are placed here, and those who placed them, lovingly.

Walking through the burial ground, then along and down the steps to the lower burial ground, and looking back, again, the outline of the broch is clear.

Harray Church and grave yard B Bell

This will have been a perfect position for a broch, with a wide, wide over-view of the surrounding area.  And now, a very peaceful place, still with that over-view, for folk to stand and appreciate, when visiting those they care for.


My spirit will not haunt the mound

Above my breast,

But travel, memory-possessed,

To where my tremulous being found

Life largest, best.


My phantom-footed shape will go

When nightfall grays

Hither and thither along the ways

I and another used to know

In backward days.


And there you’ll find me, if a jot

You still should care

For me, and for my curious air;

If otherwise, then I shall not,

For you, be there.

Thomas Hardy

The broch hasn’t been excavated, but, what did folk find when digging the foundations  for the church? and digging the graves, for that matter?  Many local houses may hold interesting bits of stone and other objects, maybe found here, taken home, out of interest, and then – the tale  of where they were found maybe forgotten, and the stone just known as  ‘Grandpa’s stone’.

And now, to the two Rons.  A couple of years ago, we had a long weekend on North Ronaldsay, mostly spent walking and chillin’. On our rambles, we came across an old kirk, not very, very old, but old – though it is known as the ‘New Church’ – containing an exhibition of life in North Ronaldsay in past times. The structure of the church is managing, though in need of repair, and the exhibition is priceless, but suffers a bit from the damp of the church.  It describes how life was in North Ron until very recent times,  but also, the way of life shown here, was the way in all of Orkney, Shetland, and many other Northern and Western island communities.  The images show a thriving community – many young folk, there is mention of a house with “three full cradles”.  People busy fishing, farming, and, of course, tending to the famous North Ronaldsay  seaweed eating sheep.  The images highlight a problem on North Ron – de-population.  When there, we had an impression  of an island which is being ‘left’.

However, those who live there, are doing their best to make it a thriving community again North Ronaldsay Sheep Festival


Primitive Sheep in Orkney

When we visited, I did wonder what it would be like to live there, and the impression I get is…that…hard though it may be….the people who are there,  wouldn’t be anywhere else.

I think it fitting that this presentation of the potential of  the island, past, present and …future? is in the church, which will, at one time, have been the heart of the community.  Many of the folk in those pictures, will have been christened, married, and had their funerals in that church.  Island life. Country life. I hope North Ron continues to rejuvenate – it’s a special kind of place.  Each of  the Orkney islands has its  own ‘feel’, its own character, and that is certainly true of North Ron.

And so, from the very North of Orkney, to the very South – South Ronaldsay and its old churches, or, should I say, the ones I’m aware of!

I’ll start with the one I came across first, the kirk at Kirkhouse, as described here…………..Bernie Bell Orkney Walks: South Ronaldsay

I briefly mention the Kirk yard, but it is well worth spending some time there, wandering, and wondering.  As is often the case with kirkyards, this is  a very peaceful place, and in a wonderful location – yet another which is right on the coast, with views of the sea, and memories of the sea, taking the people, written on the headstones in the Kirkyard.

More recently, we visited the church at Berwick as part  of a walk along that stretch of coastline Orkney Walks:The-South-Ronaldsay-East-Coast-Walk–Last-Bit – which went a bit odd!

Another place of peace, and much interest, and…humanity.

And finally, for South  Ron – The Italian Chapel!  This a very different kind of structure.  During the Second Word War, Italian prisoners of war were stationed in the area, and put to work constructing the Churchill Barriers Churchill_Barriers     Most of these prisoners will have been Catholic, so they were given a Nissan hut, to use as a place of worship.  They then proceeded to use any bits and pieces they could find – old food tins, scrap, remnants from tins of paint –  anything they could lay their hands on, to make this wonderful little place, on Lambs Holm. I see the Italian Chapel as a triumph of the human spirit – imagine it – far from home and the sunshine of Italy and they use their spare time to build this little wonder. I don’t really need to write much about it, as it is well known, and I‘m not even sure if it should come under the heading of ‘Old Kirks of Orkney’!  But, I can’t leave it out.  To me, it’s a lot of what places of worship are about – the big human things, connecting with ……..bigger things,  bringing people together, while also giving an individual somewhere to go and find some peace to think, and be, outside of what can be the hardships of daily life.

I’ve just remembered…..the monastery on Eynhallow island. Bernie Bell: Orkney Walks (with stories) – Eynhallow ….to Canada

It’s difficult to get to, as there is no regular ferry to the island, which is an RSPB reserve, and so, should be left in peace as much as possible. But it was a place of worship, and served the community there, at one time.

Eynhallow monastery B Bell

And I’ll finish at Marwick Bay, at the church with no name – just some grassy heaps in the field – once the heart of a community……………..

Church with no name Marwick Bay B Bell

Or, so we’ve been told.

If anyone knows of, and would like to tell of, more old Orkney churches, please do – there are so many, and I haven’t lived here all that long!




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9 replies »

  1. Two points; one, never call the island “North Ron” – the islanders and most Orkney folk hate it. The same with “South Ron”, I would guess. Second, Eynhallow is not an RSPB reserve.

  2. If I have offended or angered anyone by using the incorrect names for North and South Ronaldsay – apologies.
    And, indeed, part of Eynhallow is an RSPB reserve, but by no means all of it.
    No-one’s perfect.

  3. The shortened form of North Ronaldsay has gained currency mainly from us “birdy folk”, I’m afraid and I am desperately trying not to use it following comments! Habits can be hard to change. As far as I’m aware, no part of Eynhallow is an RSPB reserve. Certainly an RSPB staff member takes folk around the island on the Orkney Heritage Society evening trip each July – I did it for several years when I was the Egilsay and Rousay warden – but none of the island is a reserve. I can’t find who owns it.

  4. Now then……………
    I looked in various places, and, in Charles Tait’s ‘The Orkney Guide Book’ (Third Edition), Charles Tait says that the island now belongs to Orkney Island Council.

    As to the birds….I think maybe from now on, I’ll just say that it’s a bird reserve, and steer clear of specifics. The main thing, is that folk know that the place, and the birds, need to be left in peace.

    • Yes, I had a feeling OIC owned the island – and anyway, Charles is always right. Or so he tells me!

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