St Magnus Cathedral Graffiti Project

St Magnus Cathedral Graffiti Project leaflet launched

The initials TS carved into a pillar in St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall.
The initials ‘TS’ which appear several times in the Cathedral

A new leaflet has been launched which enables visitors to St. Magnus Cathedral to conduct a self-guided tour of the graffiti, carvings and inscriptions which are to be found throughout the building.

The St. Magnus Graffiti Project was commissioned by Orkney Archaeological Society (OAS). Cathedral custodian Fran Hollinrake was inspired by similar survey work which has been carried out in Cathedrals in England. These medieval buildings tell stories through the many marks left on their walls over the centuries.

The inscriptions in St. Magnus Cathedral were documented by Dr. Antonia Thomas and a team of volunteers trained and assisted by archaeologists from the Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA), part of the Archaeology Institute of University of the Highlands and Islands.

Dr. Antonia Thomas, Cathedral custodian Fran Hollinrake & the research team.

St. Magnus Cathedral is nearly 900 years old, having begun construction in 1137. There are over 600 individual marks to be found in the stonework on the ground floor alone. They have survived despite the fact that the Cathedral walls were once plastered and painted, and subsequently scoured back to the bare stonework seen today (most likely its original intended state).

The nature of the inscriptions to be found in the Cathedral range from stonemason’s marks to graffiti left by worshipers and other visitors. The building has seen several changes in use over the years. At one time locals would pay their debts at the tomb of Bishop Tulloch. Oliver Cromwell’s troops put an end to this when, stationed in Orkney, they wrought considerable damage and apparently used the building as a stable. Some of the graffiti dates to the time of the World Wars. However graffiti has been frowned upon at least since an 1891 court case brought against Henry Hutcheon of Aberdeen. Putting a stop to graffiti has been one of the duties of the Cathedral custodian since the time of the first custodian, one Peter Wick.

Many of the marks left on the walls of the Cathedral defy sure explanation. Some may have religious or mystical significance while others are more mundane. For example, it has been speculated that the strange repeated “pecked” marks may be the result of people scraping away the holy sandstone to ingest it in the form of a miracle cure.

To learn more and see the inscriptions for yourself, visit St. Magnus Cathedral and pick up a copy of the leaflet.

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