‘Nowadays, when all life on earth could be ended by the pressing of a few buttons, St Magnus, martyr and peace-maker, emerges as a more powerful and radiant symbol than ever before.’ George Mackay Brown
St Magnus Cathedral still manages to dominate the Kirkwall townscape despite the best efforts of more recent developments to take its place. Dedicated to Orkney’s saint and bearing his name, within a pillar of the cathedral Magnus’s bones are interred.
Construction began in 1137 with Rognvald, Earl of Orkney and nephew of Magnus, who had vowed to erect a stone church ‘so that there be not any more magnificent in the land.’ For a cathedral it is small but Rognvald certainly succeeded in making it magnificent.
The red and yellow sandstone glows and changes colour with the rising and setting of the sun – different too in the seasons of the year. Red sandstone from near Kirkwall but yellow transported in from one of Orkney’s northern isles, Eday. The town was much different then with boats being able to bring ashore the stone close in to the construction site.
It is said the masons who crafted this ‘light in the north’ were trained at another great cathedral, that of Durham, started in 1093 and indeed it shares many of the same features like the superb Rose window. St Magnus Cathedral took centuries to construct with moderations taking place into the 20th Century and continual maintenance by skilled masons today.
In 1486 King James III of Scotland handed over the Cathedral to the inhabitants of Kirkwall and it belongs to them (now the People of Orkney) to this day.
Inside the Norse influence is very much present but of course how we see it today is not how it would have looked centuries ago. At one time the walls were richly decorated and then whitewashed over as the Reformation took hold. There are structural problems and in 1972 the west end of the building had to be saved from collapse. Parts have been refurbished and 700 new chairs were purchased in 2007 to replace the less comfortable older batch which were eagerly bought up and now rest easy in pride of place in many an Orkney home.
Ancient mason’s marks and other inscriptions including graffiti are being systematically recorded for the first time by a group of trained volunteers. Gravestones of the wealthy, which had to be moved during one phase of construction, are now features of the internal walls.
Oddly for a Cathedral St Magnus also has a dungeon, ‘Marwick’s Hole’, into which prisoners in the early days were thrown via a chute. Those so condemned would often suffer injury in the process as recent research on the Orkney Witch Trials has uncovered. Not accessible anymore it is tiny and dark.
In the Upper levels, which you can visit on a tour by the cathedral custodians, the tools of the trade of Orkney’s hangman can be seen including the double ladder: two to climb up its rungs but only one to descend. There’s also an amazing collection of artefacts and items saved over the centuries. Simple leaf windows which once adorned the cathedral lie propped up against the wall – they are still beautiful despite the passage of time. There is a maze of narrow passageways and staircases which allow you to look across and down seeing the architecture from an entirely different angle.
Reaching the very top, past the bell tower with its old weaver’s chair for the bell ringer, is access to the outside and incredible views over Kirkwall and beyond. It is from here that you can truly imagine how the old town once looked with its busy harbour, strong Castle, Bishop’s and elegant Earl’s Palace and the Cathedral, of course, central to it all.
‘The essence of Orkney’s magic is silence, loneliness and the deep marvellous rhythms of sea and land, darkness and light.’(George Mackay Brown)
Text by Fiona Grahame, Art & Photography by Martin Laird
This article first appeared in the June/July 2019 edition of iScot Magazine