Click on pictures to see them enlarged in a photo stream. Comments: word verification on to allow anyone to comment but try and deter excessive amounts of spam! I LOVE getting comments!

Thursday 21 May 2015

A brief visit to St Magnus Cathedral

Yes, yes, I know, I've been very remiss with my blog AGAIN!  Anyway, back to last month when G visited for a  few days.  We took a quick tour round St Magnus Cathedral.  Ahem... I forgot to take a photo of the outside. Doh!  But you can take a look here at some photos of the outside.

Now, I'm not at all well up on religious iconography, so I shall be referring to the trusty free leaflet I picked up!  The Cathedral has a fascinating history and I do heartily recommend a visit, and maybe go on a tour too.

St Magnus Cathedral was founded in 1137 by the nephew of St Magnus, Earl Rognvald. At the time Orkney was still part of Norway, and indeed Orkney only became part of Scotland in the 15th Century when the Scottish King James III gave the cathedral to the people of Orkney. And there it resides.  The local council have responsibility for maintaining it on behalf of the people, and the Church of Scotland hold services here. Though any Christian denomination can use the building.

Since the foundation of the Cathedral it has, like many other cathedrals, undergone change with additions, and of course there is an ongoing need for restoration too.   The stained glass window above is a relatively new addition, installed in 1987 and contains images of Orkney including the Scottish Primrose (bottom right corner).

There are a number of gravestones lining the walls.  These were originally laid over graves in the nave but over the years the graves were exhumed and reburied in the graveyard and the stones line the walls.

As well as what appears to us rather macabre carvings like the skull and crossbones, there are also more poignant touches. In the corner of this headstone is a heart, though I'm not sure what the triangle over the heart means!

I love the patterns in the stone along the walls.

There are a number of windows around the cathedral that date from the 1920s and were designed by the Glasgow stained glass artist Oscar Paterson.

In a pillar in the Choir part of the cathedral is a casket containing human bones which are believed to be those of St Magnus who was murdered on the Orkney island of Egilsay by his cousin, Hakon, or to be precise his cousin, story has it, got his cook to actually kill him.

On a cheerier note, in the chapel that dates from the 13th century are some interesting carvings hidden among the pillars.  These include dragons, an imp, and "Green Men", no not martians or extra terrestrials! The Green Man is often seen as a symbol of rebirth and is very familiar around the UK, often as a pub name!  (Ahem, yes that's more like it!).  Anyway, here are a couple that we spotted....

And here we have the St Magnus Cathedral equivalent of "Poets Corner" (found in Westminster Abbey in London), And that's a neat link, though I say so myself, as the chap forever "resting" on this memorial is Dr John Rae who left Orkney to work for the Hudson's Bay Company, and explored the Canadian Arctic and discovered the Northwest Passage.  He is now buried in the graveyard, but has a memorial here, and *finally* is recognised more widely for his achievements and has a memorial in Westminster Abbey too.  There are also memorials here to Orkney's other famous writers, poets, and artists.

The chapel has a distinctly Norwegian feel to it and indeed it is dedicated to the cathedral's founder, St Rognvald.  The furniture and iconography were redesigned in 1965 by Orcadian artist, Stanley Cursiter. The figure on the left is Rognvald, holding the cathedral.

Not quite sure what this image symbolises...balance? Straight lines (plumb line of a builder?). No idea! Though he was Rognvald's father.

This is the cathedral's oldest gravestone and is thought to date from the 13th century.  The iconography possibly denotes a crusader or a Templar Knight.

Here is an image of St Olaf, who was from the same archdiocese (Nidaros/Trondheim) in Norway that Orkney was once part of.

This is a memorial to those who lost their lives on HMS Royal Oak, in Scapa Flow in 1939. There is a book of remembrance, and the pages are turned regularly to reveal the names. The brass bells is from the ship itself.

Around the choir are some interesting carvings too, like this eagle. There's also a pelican, not sure what that symbolises in terms of a cathedral?

And the choir itself, looking towards the Rose Window....

 Here we have the old market cross that used to stand outside on the market green.

And this is a Mort Brod - apparently it's a "wooden death notice" which commemorates a Kirkwall glazier, Robert Nicholson. It's one of the oldest of it's kind.

And another view of the Rose Window...

Looking down the cathedral nave to the Rose Window.

There are also mason's marks left by the craftsman who have worked on the building over the years and they can be spotted around the cathedral.  Here's one - a crow's foot.

I think this might be a bit of graffiti!

And on our way out, ta-da - I love a bit of "door furniture"!

Outside you can see that the soft sandstone of the building is wearing away

Maintenance on a beautiful old building is never ending.  And the latest generation of stone masons are continuing the work of the original builders.  I'm delighted to say a young Orkney lass has an apprenticeship at the cathedral.  You can hear about here here....

And here is a short film (about 15 mins) of St Magnus Cathedral and Kirkwall town centre taken by a young visitor to the isles recently. Talented lad who has produced some lovely short films of Orkney. I'll try and share some more.

So - hope you enjoyed your tour around the Cathedral and it's environs!


  1. Thank you for this tour, and your photos of all the beautiful details with their stories. I would count it a high privilege to be able to worship there, with all its history and the love for God expressed there.

    1. Glad you enjoyed the photos and stories :-)

  2. A very enjoyable tour thank you very much. On my list to visit when we eventually make it up to the Islands for a holiday.

  3. I love medieval cathedrals both for their history and their acoustics. BTW, the eagle is the symbol of St. John the Evangelist and frequently figures in the design for the stand that holds the Bible. According to ancient lore, the mother pelican would pierce her own chest with her beak in order to feed her young with her blood, so the pelican is used as a symbol for Christ.

    1. Oooh thanks for the explanation of the pelican. And also the Eagle, I knew it was on many lecturns holding the bible but I didn't know why.

  4. i remember this beautiful church :)

    1. I'm glad you visited when you were in Orkney. it is a lovely space

  5. I absolutely love that building - the Royal Oak memorial is very moving, too.

  6. I'm hoping to sail to Orkney this August (from the Clyde), and wonder about anchoring in that lovely bay - Sandside Bay. (sandy bottom or rocky?) I'd be keen to have a look at the lighthouses too, wonder are they open or private?

    1. Hi Geoff, I'm no mariner so I haven't a clue. But you could go onto and on the left is an email address - this is for my neighbour who has done some sailing in the bay and can maybe help! I have seen boats anchored there in the summer but no idea whether it's sand or rocky, and where it gets shallow - though there are rocks around the shore.

    2. Thanks
      I've been in contact with Mick and he's given me loads of useful info.
      Great Blog you have, really interesting.