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Essential maintenance

HES is currently undertaking essential maintenance on our web services. This will limit access to services in the following ways:

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Publication Account

Date 1981

Event ID 1018475

Category Descriptive Accounts

Type Publication Account


Work on St. Magnus' Cathedral began in 1137, apparently following an oath made by Earl Rognvald that he would build a great stone minster in the Orkneys. A passage in a saga which speaks of men taking refuge in St. Magnus' Church allows us to place the consecration of the western part of the choir at the year 1154 (Flett, n.d., 14). The construction of the Cathedral lasted over three hundred

years and architects initially came from Durham or Dunfermline, but the stone itself all came from the local area. The original plan was for a cruciform Romanesque church comprising, first, an aisled nave eight bays in length; secondly, north and south transepts with an east apsidiole and, lastly, a choir of three bays terminating in a central apse and having aisles that may have been apsidal-ended internally, although square-ended externally (RCAM, 1946, II, 113). • The choir and transepts were completed in the twelfth century with an eastward extension of the .choir in the second quarter of the thirteenth century. The west facade itself was not completed until the days of Bishop Thomas Tulloch in the mid-fifteenth century.

When James III acquired the Earldom of Orkney in 1470 he also acquired the Cathedral which pertained to the earldom. The Cathedral was, however, transferred to the possession of the council and community of the burgh of Kirkwall in 1486. Happily, the Cathedral suffered no wanton damage as a result of the Reformation in Scotland, although in 1614 the Earl of Caithness wished to cast it down, but was dissuaded from this regard by Bishop Law (MacGibbon & Ross, 1896, I, 292). Cromwellian occupation of Kirkwall likewise caused little upset to the fabric of the Cathedral. By 1805 the church in some aspects had become ruinous, and while the Crown financed the renovation of the south transept in 1845, further patching was necessary by 1893. In 1903 the Town Council received an unbelievably generous bequest which made complete renovation possible between 1915 and 1930.

Information from ‘Historic Kirkwall: The Archaeological Implications of Development’ (1977).

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