“If anywhere there exists an ecclesiastical building bearing the marks of neglect and decay, it certainly is this.” A 19thC Visit to Orkney

Publishing his impressions of Orkney in the local paper The Orkney Herald in 1890, an American Professor reflected on his visit with Seeking the Stones: A 19thC Visit to Orkney and Meeting Mr Cursiter: A 19thC Visit to Orkney. Before sailing onward to Shetland where he remarked the best ‘Pictish castles’ were, he took one last look around St Magnus Cathedral, The Earl’s Palace and the Bishops Palace. The latter two which he described as being in ruins.

the rounded tower of the Bishops Palace Kirkwall as it is today
Bishops Palace, Kirkwall, tail lights at sunrise credit: Martin Laird

‘ The Bishop’s Palace would be uninteresting save for its low, round tower, but this, rude and massive as it is, produces a very artistic effect. The Earl’s Palace is rendered picturesque by being enclosed in a park of trees; and seen in the interplay of light and shadow produced by the rustling foliage, produced a very noble and at the same time charming effect. Within there is nothing of interest, if we except the fireplace in the old banqueting hall. According to Baddely, Scott selected this room as the meeting place of Cleveland and Bunce in ‘The Pirate’. A little out the town are also the remains of a fort built by the soldiers of Cromwell.’

The earls Palace in Kirkwall with its trees
The Earl’s Palace Kirkwall

‘The Cathedral of St Magnus is the chief object of interest, architecturally considered, in the whole northern archipelago.

A low square central tower breaks pleasingly the line of the nave and choir. The carving about the doorway still preserves traces of very delicate and beautiful workmanship, but the graceful shafts and lacework have almost entirely crumbled away. From without it produces a rather imposing effect, although there is a manifest commingling of styles. In the lower part the round arch predominates. I was impressed upon entering the doorway, by the massiveness of the low round pillars and the simple, severe effect of the structure as a whole.

But, if anywhere there exists an ecclesiastical building bearing the marks of neglect and decay, it certainly is this. I was not able to discover whether any portion had been for a period without a roof, but the weather stains and general decrepitude of the whole would seem to indicate such a condition. As a ruin, or more properly semi ruin, it is very impressive; but for a place of worship, it has too much of sepulchral damp and decay. The sculptured slabs that adorn its side aisles are of a school of monumental art hitherto unknown to me. Ghostly, emaciated kneeling figures, or equally grotesque caricatures of souls bursting their mortal chrysalis, the whole not infrequently blackened, so as to render it more hideous – such are the mortal and spiritual conceptions portrayed upon these slabs. Nor are emblems of death lacking. On one stone, besides the customary insignia, the hourglass, the skull, cross bones scythe &c.’ the various implements used in digging the grave and also the coffin were graphically depicted.’

an old carved stone in storage above the cathedral

‘St Magnus, in whose honour the cathedral was constructed, was one of two cousins who divided between them the earldoms of the islands’

Our American Professor then goes on to recount the story of St Magnus.

St Magnus Cathedral – Canmore

HY41SW 10.00 44921 10872

(HY 4492 1087) Cathedral (NR)

OS 6″ map, Orkney, 2nd ed., (1903).

HY41SW 10.01 HY 4494 1087 Hog-Backed stone

HY41SW 10.02 HY 44920 10910 War Memorial

HY41SW 10.03 Centred HY 44982 10867 Graveyard

HY41SW 10.04 HY 4494 1087 Sheela-na-gig

St Magnus Cathedral, founded by Earl Rognvald in 1137 and dedicated to his kinsman St. Magnus who had been executed at Egilsay in 1116. Building was completed 3 3/4 centuries after its foundations.

Although it is the most considerable monument erected in the Norse occupation, there is nothing distinctly Norse either in its technique or its design, and the original work may be confidently assigned to masons of the Durham school. The material used is the local flagstone used as rubble, with dressings of freestone from the Head of Holland, less than 3 miles away. The building is not church property but was conveyed to the ‘Provost, Baillies, Councillors and Inhabitants of our said Burgh of Kirkwall’ by Royal Charter in 1486 AD.

RCAHMS 1946; H Marwick 1954.

St Magnus Cathedral is administered by the Town Council and is in use as the Parish Church.

Visited by OS (NKB), 5 April 1964.

HY 449 109. A watching brief was undertaken during the demolition and rebuilding of a 50m section of the wall on the N side of the graveyard to St Magnus Cathedral. The graveyard wall was found to directly overlie the base of an earlier wall on the same line. Evidence survives for a boundary ditch and other activity pre-dating the establishment of the graveyard wall on its present line. Artefacts recovered are all post-medieval to recent date and there is no evidence for medieval or earlier activity.

Sponsor: Orkney Islands Council.

S Carter 1998

‘The Orkney Herald’ described the discovery of plated copper vessels at this site in 1877. The ‘John O’Groat Journal’ in 1849 mentions the discovery of a skeleton found in a SW wall (now believed to be that of Earl Erlend Haraldsson).

M Howe 2006.

Non-Guardship Sites Plan Collection, DC28541- DC28553, 1828, 1847, 1924 & 1954.


National Library of Scotland:

‘Uncatalogued MSS of General Hutton” Nos 177, 178 – West View in pencil sketch on interior plan in pencil, 1818

Scottish Record Office:

Papers relating to ownership of cathedral and adjacent ground (2 items; see also E.341/23):

1. Report on proposal to erect new school adjoining transept of cathedral, on ground supposed

to belong to crown, 26 June 1818.

2. Reasons for rejection by magistates and council of Kirkwall of lease of part of Brandyquoy on

condition of renunciation of their rights in cathedral, 9 June 1819, with annotations by A(lexander) P(eterkin).


Letters and papers relating to alterations and repairs (12 items), including:

1. Copy of petition to presbytery by Alexander Peterkin, sheriff substitute, and others for erection

of parish church in place of cathedral, which is ‘altogether unfit to be occupied as a place of worship’,

5 Feb 1823.

2-3. Letters from J.A. Maconochie (sheriff depute) to Francis Wilson, WS, referring to local resentment

against Peterkin, 14-19 April 1823.

4. Letter from John Dunn, Kirkwall, (to Peterkin) referring to erection of house on foundations of

‘old castle’ and to effects of fixing memorial tablets to pillars in cathedral, 20 Sept 1824.

5. Petition by trustees of Gilbert Meason’s mortification for grant towards re-seating choir, 3 Apr 1826.

7. Copy of correspondence about insertion of lath and plaster partitions in arches of choir, 3 Apr 1826.

10. Report by Robert Reid on unsuitability of cathedral as parish church and repairs needed there, 26 Nov 1828.

11. Letters from Reid, with copy of his correspondence with William Matheson, land surveyor, Kirkwall, about

plans and drawings of the cathedral, 6 Dec 1828.


inside St Magnus cathedral as it is today. Magnificent looking with stained glass windows, new entrance doors
St Magnus Cathedral today

Fiona Grahame

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