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Publication Account

Date 1996

Event ID 1016314

Category Descriptive Accounts

Type Publication Account


To visit Orphir is to be transported back into sagatimes, for despite their fragmentary state the remains of these buildings neatly fit one of the few circumstantial descriptions in Orkneyinga Saga.

'There was a great drinking-hall at Orphir, with a door in the south wall near the eastern gable, and in front of the hall, just a few paces down from it, stood a fine church. On the left as you came into the hall was a large stone slab, with a lot of big ale vats behind it, and opposite the door was the living-room.'

In the early 12th century, Orphir was the seat of Earl Haakon Paulsson, who was responsible for the murder of Earl Magnus on Egilsay c1117 but managed himself to die peacefully in his bed five years later. In between those events, he made a pilgrimage to Rome and to Jerusalem where, we are told, 'he visited the holy places and bathed in the River Jordan'. One of the places that he would have visited was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and this must have been the impetus to building a similar round church on his own estate at Orphir.

Only a third of the church survives bur the rest of its plan is marked our on the ground: a precisely circular nave, 6.1m in internal diameter, into which there would presumably have been an entrance at the west with a semi-circular apse on the east.

The church was complete until 1757, when it was largely demolished and its masonry used to build a new parish church alongside; ironically, the latter has now been demolished to reveal as much as possible of the earlier church. The apse is still intact with its half-barrel ceiling and internal plastering and a rounded-headed window above the seating for the altar, and early accounts of the nave describe its domed roof with a central hole to provide light.

A few metres away, or a few paces as the sagawriter put it, are the excavated walls of a large building, most probably the Earl's hall. Late Norse artefacts have been found in the vicinity, but more excavation is needed to establish the layout and extent of this important site. Beside the road have been excavated, beneath a late Norse midden, the remains of a horizontal corn-mill which ev idently served the Orphir estate at an earlier period.

The superstructure of the mill has gone, but visible are the underhouse that contained the horizontal paddles, the lade that supplied the water to drive the machinery and the tail-race that took the wateraway.

Information from ‘Exploring Scotland’s Heritage: Orkney’, (1996).

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