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Publication Account

Date 1996

Event ID 1016315

Category Descriptive Accounts

Type Publication Account


The history of this remarkable cathedral goes back beyond the year in which its long programme of building began, 1136 or 1137, to the year in which died the man to whom it was dedicated: Earl Magnus, who was murdered on Egilsay c1116. His body was taken to Christ Church at Birsay and became a focus of pilgrimage. Orkneyinga Saga relates that 'a bright heavenly light was often seen over Magnus' grave and that people were cured of illnesses by praying at his graveside. At first the church in Orkney was highly sceptical of the new cult growing up around Magnus, but eventually he was accepted as a saint and his bones became holy relics. Some time later, Bishop William was persuaded to transfer the relics to the church in Kirkwall, presumably St Olaf's Church (no. 45).

According to the saga, the impetus to build a new cathedral at Kirkwall came not from within the church but as a vow made by Earl Rognvald, then seeking control of the earldom: if he succeeded, he would build 'a stone minster at Kirkwall more magnificent than any in Orkney', which would be dedicated to St Magnus and would hold his relics. The episcopal seat was also to be in Kirkwall, and it has been suggested that Rognvald's vow reflects not only the medieval belief in the efficacy of saintly relics but also a shrewd political move on the part of the Orcadian Church, promising support for Rognvald in return for a fine cathedral and a new and more powerful centre for the bishopric. Rognvald succeeded in taking over the earldom and work began on building the Cathedral of St Magnus.

Its completion was to take far longer than anyone can have envisaged at the start, but its final splendour was well worth the delay. Indeed it was a magnificent structure at all intervening stages of the work, for the earliest part to be built was the choir, completed probably around 1142, which has been described as ' the finest Romanesque work north of Durham'. Comparison with both Durham and Dunfermline suggests that either Englishmen or Scotsmen were responsible for the design and execution of St Magnus Cathedral, a practice familiar from Norway itself at this period, when foreign expertise was often sought to build the great churches.

It appears that the foundations were laid at the start for the whole building, and work on the superstructure began at the east end of what was designed to be a cruciform Romanesque church with aisled choir and have, projecting transepts and an apse at the east end. As work progressed, this design was modified and enlarged, and its style changed according to the fashion of the time. Compare the piers of the nave, for instance: at the east end, the first pier on the north side and the first two on the south are in early 12th-century Romanesque style with multicubical capitals and chamfered bases, whereas the next five piers on the north and four on the south are in late 12th-century Transitional style with moulded capitals and bases. In the 13th century the building was enlarged by removing the apse at the east end and extending the aisled choir eastwards for another three bays. The three doorways at the west end of the cathedral were built at this time, enriched with carved decoration similar to that used in the choir, each with shafted jambs and pointed arches. Notice the use of alternate red and white stone in the arches, for this is one of the major and very pleasing decorative devices used inside the church as well, for instance as horizontal banding on the east wall of the south transept.

Prior to whitewashing in the 19th century, the interior was even more colourful, for it was painted with formal designs in red and black; unfortunately little traces of this survives, for both the whitewash and most of the underlying paintwork were removed in the late 19th century. Although the structure of the cathedral was completed in the 15th century, there have inevitably been some changes since then, the most radical external change being the replacement of the original spire, destroyed by ; lightning in 1671, by a pyramidal wooden roof.

There is a fine series of medieval and later tombstones in the Cathedral, including the Paplay tomb, a 14th-century arched tomb recessed into the wall of the south aisle of the nave. Other sculptures include early 16th-century effigies of St Magnus and the Norwegian King Olaf, as well as the burgh mercat cross. Three famous men of the 12th century were buried in the new minster: Bishop William, Earl Rognvald and, eventually, St Magnus himself. The bones of Bishop William were discovered in 1848 in a tomb in the choir - he had apparently been moved from the original choir into the newly extended east end in the 13th century. Both having been canonised, the bones of St Rognvald and St Magnus would have been kept in resplendent caskets or reliquaries in the choir, until they were hidden for safety at the time of the Reformation. In each of the rectangular piers separating the 12th-century choir from its 13th century extension, there is a cavity at a height of about 2.7m; that in the north pier was discovered in 1848 and in it was a wooden box containing the loose bones of an incomplete male skeleton believed to be that of Rognvald, and a similar discovery in 1919 in the south pier contained the bones of St Magnus. The saga account of Magnus' death makes it clear that he died of a great blow on the head, and the skull in the casket showed unmistakeable signs of such a blow.

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

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