St Magnus: Connecting Orkney With Harris

An art installation based on George Mackay Brown’s cycle of poems ‘Tryst on Egilsay’ is to be opened on Saturday 1 June at St Clement’s Church, Rodel,  Harris.

Wave One

Earl Haakon, by Dave Jackson

The work by Dave Jackson and Erlend Brown is called  Seven Waves.

‘Tryst on Egilsay’ is the story of how, nine centuries ago, the devoutly Christian Earl Magnus Erlendsson, joint ruler of Orkney and Shetland with his cousin Earl Haakon, under Norwegian oversight, was betrayed and murdered on the island of Egilsay. The Martyrdom of Magnus

st magnus death marker egilsay

St Magnus death marker Egilsay

Each poem, in English and translated for the first time into Gaelic by Ruairidh MacLean, is matched with a huge hanging canvas ‘wave’ suspended from the St Clement’s roof.

George Mackay Brown called the martyrdom of Magnus ‘the most precious event in Orkney’s history’ and Seven Waves makes explicit the Western Isles – and Scotland’s – Scandinavian heritage.

Ruairidh MacLean said:

“Old Norse and Gaelic interacted a lot, especially in the Western isles. A very high proportion of the place names in the Western Isles are actually Norse.”

st magnus church egilsay

St Magnus church Egilsay

Dave Jackson said:

“Erlend and myself have interpreted George Mackay Brown’s beautiful and insightful poetry in a way which conveys both the haunting physical landscape of Egilsay and the huge political and metaphysical power of what happened there.

“St Magnus’s martyrdom and his search for peace in a viciously warlike world has resonated down the ages and is as powerful a symbol today as it ever was.”

Commenting on  St Clement’s, Harris  Dave Jackson said:

“This is a building of worldwide historical importance and enormous spiritual and emotional power. Erlend and I really hope our art and the poems about one of Europe’s greatest religious and political martyrs is both appropriate and inspiring in this context. It is a real privilege to be here and tremendously exciting.”

St Clements Church Harris

St Clement’s is considered to be one of the most outstanding church buildings in the Hebrides, the earliest section dating from the 13th century. The church is remarkable for possessing one of the most ambitious and richly-carved tombs of the period in Scotland, that of Alexander Macleod (known in Gaelic as Alasdair Crotach) said to have been the church’s founder.

By choosing to be buried in Harris, Alexander Macleod was breaking with tradition, as the previous chiefs of his clan had until then been buried in Iona. The tomb is dated 1528 and its high-quality carved mural panels depict biblical stories, a stylised castle, a hunting scene and a Highland galley.

Images from the 1930s shows the galley carving intact, although it was subsequently damaged in the mid-20th century. The church is now under the Guardianship of Historic Scotland.

Information from RCAHMS (PJG) 6 June 2007 CANMORE

Erlend Brown said his uncle would have been happy with the project:

“George would have been pleased with the translation of his poems into Gaelic as his mother (born Mhairi Mackay) was a Gaelic speaker from Sutherland and she was a strong influences as he grew up.”

Claire Whitbread, Exhibitions Manager for HES, said the organisation was delighted to be involved in the project.

“It’s wonderful to have been able to bring this truly extraordinary art installation to Harris, and to be able to stage it in such a historic and atmospheric space has really created a special experience. We have worked closely with Dave and Erlend  and believe that Seven Waves complements St Clement’s architecture and spirit, as well as bringing together aspects of Gaelic, North isles and Norse culture in an effective and moving way.”

Seven Waves is open to the public from 1 June until 1 September.

2 replies »

  1. This is timely as I and my family will be on Harris for the first week in June and will be sure to visit.

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