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Orphir, St Nicholas's Church

Burial Ground (Period Unassigned), Church (12th Century), Grave Slab (Period Unassigned)

Site Name Orphir, St Nicholas's Church

Classification Burial Ground (Period Unassigned), Church (12th Century), Grave Slab (Period Unassigned)

Alternative Name(s) Orphir Round Church; Orphir, St Nicholas' Chapel And The Earl's Bu; Bu Of Orphir

Canmore ID 1962

Site Number HY30SW 1

NGR HY 33494 04429

Datum OSGB36 - NGR

Permalink http://canmore.org.uk/site/1962

Ordnance Survey licence number 100057073. All rights reserved.
Canmore Disclaimer. © Copyright and database right 2018.

Digital Images

Administrative Areas

  • Council Orkney Islands
  • Parish Orphir
  • Former Region Orkney Islands Area
  • Former District Orkney
  • Former County Orkney

EARLY MEDIEVAL CARVED STONES PROJECT

Earl’s Bu 1, Orphir, Pictish symbol stone fragment

Measurements: H over 0.90m, W 0.40m

Stone type: sandstone

Place of discovery: HY 3349 0445

Present location: built horizontally into a wall at the Earl’s Bu but below ground level and no longer visible.

Evidence for discovery: found during excavations of the Earl’s Bu in 1939. It is likely to have been re-used for that purpose in the twelfth century.

Present condition:

Description

The portion of this slab visible in 1939 is said to have been incised with a crescent and V-rod.

Date: seventh century.

References: Fraser 2008: no.169.1; Scott & Ritchie 2014, no 9.

Compiled by A Ritchie 2016

EARLY MEDIEVAL CARVED STONES PROJECT

Earl’s Bu 2, Orphir, Pictish symbol stone

Measurements: H 0.90m +, W 0.40m

Stone type: sandstone

Place of discovery: HY 3349 0445

Present location: built horizontally into the footings of a wall at the north-west corner of ‘the pend tower’ at the Earl’s Bu but below ground level and no longer visible.

Evidence for discovery: found built into the Earl’s Bu during excavations in 1939. It is likely to have been re-used for that purpose in the twelfth century.

Present condition:

Description

This slab, of which there is an extant photograph, is incised with a rectangle and a crescent and V-rod.

Date: seventh century.

References: Ritchie, J N G 2003, 122; Fraser 2008, no 169.2; Scott & Ritchie 2014, no 10.

Compiled by A Ritchie 2016

EARLY MEDIEVAL CARVED STONES PROJECT

Earl’s Bu 3, Orphir, Orkney, gravemarker

Measurements: H 0.52, W 0.25m

Stone type:

Place of discovery: HY 3349 0442

Present location: lost

Evidence for discovery: sketched by George Petrie in the mid nineteenth century.

Present condition:

Description

This was an upright slab of anthropomorphic shape, with sloping ‘shoulders’ and trimmed rectangular ‘head’.

Date: tenth or eleventh century.

References: RCAHMS Archive Petrie folio SAS 487, 7, 38; Scott & Ritchie 2014, 192.

Compiled by A Ritchie 2016

EARLY MEDIEVAL CARVED STONES PROJECT

Earl’s Bu 4, Orphir, Orkney, runic inscription fragment

Measurements: L 0.26m, W 0.12m, H 0.07m

Stone type: flagstone

Place of discovery: HY 3349 0442

Present location: The Orkney Museum, Kirkwall (OM 690).

Evidence for discovery: found in 1953 during demolition of St Nicholas Church, reused as a building stone. It was subsequently given to Tankerness House Museum in Kirkwall (now the Orkney Museum).

Present condition: broken at one end.

Description

Runes are firmly incised along the narrow face of the fragment and mention a church, though the rest of the inscription is hard to interpret (see Barnes & Page).

Date: possibly twelfth century.

References: Barnes & Page 2006, OR 10, 181-7.

Compiled by A Ritchiie 2017

Archaeology Notes

HY30SW 1.00 33494 04429

(HY 3349 0445) Circular Church (NR) (Remains of)

OS 6" map, Orkney, 2nd ed., (1903).

HY30SW 1.01 HY 3349 0445 Stone: rune-inscribed

EXTERNAL REFERENCE:

Scottish Record Office

Repair of the Kirk and Manse which are becoming ruinous. Request from the Heritors to the Earl of Morton for money from vacant stipends to be applied to this purpose

1741 GD 150/1894

Rebuilding of the Church and Churchyard wall.

Note of the cost which amounts to £312.13. 7 1/4.

1829 GD 217/1114

(Undated) information in NMRS.

The remains of a Romanesque Church, dedicated to St Nicholas, which has been circular on plan with an E apse, stands at the E end of the now demolished parish church. It is unique in Scotland as having been built after the model of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, through Scandinavian prototypes, and it can be dated between AD 1090 and 1160. A reference under the year 1136 in the 'Orkneyinga Saga', mentions this church, although Wainwright argues that the writer may have been describing the church as he knew it about a century later. Wainwright would also place the erection of the church after 1100 on comparison with three, very similar, churches at Praha (Prague).

H Scott 1928; RCAHMS 1946; V G Childe and W D SImpson 1961; F W Wainwright 1962.

A medieval grave-slab, probably dating from the late 14th century or the 15th century but later re-used in the 17th century, was found underground in the graveyard a good many years ago and is now preserved in the modern church.

It is not quite complete and what is left of it is fractured. The present dimensions are 5'9" long, 1'9" wide at the top and 10 1/2" wide at the foot. It bears a Latin cross with a base of three steps. On the left of cross-shaft is a sword and on the right side is the inscription RR DIE(D) 1642. At the head of the cross is incised a central hole within a circle, which may be an original feature, but the inscription and the rudely-cut skull at the base are clearly later additions.

RCAHMS 1946.

The remains of St Nicholas's Church are as illustrated. The course of the wall of the nave has been delineated by a gravel path.

Resurveyed at 1/2500.

Visited by OS (RL), 8 May 1966.

The modern church was demolished in 1953 and the present whereabouts of the slab is not known. Johnston thinks it may have been removed by the IAM. (This information from Mr J Halcro Johnston, Orphir House).

Visited by OS (AA), 25 May 1973.

Scheduled with HY30SW 2 as 'Earl's Bu, Norse settlement and mill, Orphir'.

Information from Historic Scotland, scheduling document dated 29 February 1996.

'The Orkney Herald' in 1902 mentions the proposal to excavate the site.

M Howe 2006.

Activities

Antiquarian Observation (1860 - 1870)

Loose drawings of sites in Orkney and Shetland in the Society of Antiquaries Collection (SAS 487), mainly by George Petrie.

Publication Account (1996)

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).

Geophysical Survey (12 May 2015 - 16 May 2015)

HY 334 044 A fluxgate gradiometer survey and an earth resistance survey were carried out, 12-16 May 2015, on land to the W and S of Orphir cemetery in advance of the proposed extension of the cemetery. A large proportion of the survey area was within the St Nicholas Church settlement and mill SAM.

In the area immediately adjacent to the oldest part of the cemetery, Earl’s Bu, St Nicholas Church, little evidence for archaeological remains were found. Within this area the magnetometry survey located some alignment of negative features that may relate to nearby archaeological remains. Outside of the scheduled area, to the W of the survey area, the magnetometry survey located a possible prehistoric enclosure ditch with a central partition.

Other features of interest mapped by the geophysical survey were part of the medieval agricultural landscape and consisted of two sets of rig and furrow as well as a likely field boundary. Both surveys highlighted numerous anomalies of unknown origin that may potentially relate to the presence of archaeological remains and deposits, plus geological and modern features.

Archive and report: National Record of the Historic Environment (NRHE) and the Orkney SMR

Funder: Orkney Islands Council

Nick Card and Thomas Desalle – ORCA

(Source: DES, Volume 16)

Note (June 2017)

A High Status Settlement

“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”

St. Nicholas Church is Scotland's only upstanding medieval round church. The church and associated high status settlement are mentioned in the Orkneyinga Saga. It was built on the direction of Earl Hakon Paulsson (d. 1122) in the early decades of the 12th century. He may have been inspired by what he saw on a pilgrimage he took to the Holy Land. The church is situated within the modern graveyard of Orphir, on the S coast of Mainland Orkney, close to the sea and overlooking the sheltered waters of Scapa Flow.

The church is part of what was once the preeminent settlement on Mainland Orkney. In the early 1100s it was the residence of Earl Hakon Paulsson, the man responsible for the killing of St. Magnus on Egilsay. The Orkneyinga Saga recounts that Hakon took a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in penance for his crime, and on his return the church was built. The church is one of several such round churches which were built in Europe around this time, and there are southern Scandinavian parallels. As such, although the ultimate inspiration for this building may have been the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the link between the two structures may not be as linear as the Orkneyinga Saga implies.

St. Nicolas Church is part of a larger lordly estate centre. This includes the adjacent buildings at Earl’s Bu, the Earl's 'drinking hall'. Both St. Nicholas Church and Earl's Bu are properties in care, and maintained by Historic Environment Scotland on behalf of Scottish Ministers. Earl's Bu was excavated in the late 19th and early 20th century, and is poorly understood. A horizontal mill complex which forms part of the estate was investigated by Dr Colleen Batey in the early 1990s. She will shortly be publishing a book on the site which will place the settlement at Earl's Bu within the context of Norse Orkney and the rest of the Scandinavian World in the 1100s.

Nothing reliable is known of the archaeological remains on the church site. Geophysical survey failed to detect any remains which might be attributed to it.

'A Fine Church'

St. Nicholas was built on a small scale, and was likely intended for use by the Earl and his immediate family. It was circular in plan, with an eastern apse. The majority of the walls have been lost, but the line of the nave wall is marked by a gravel path on the ground. Enough survives to be able to say that this building was a substantial achievement for Orkney's masons, despite its small size.

The church was still described as complete in the late 1600s, and by the mid 1700s it was being used as a lime store for the new parish church which was being built to the south. About two thirds of the building was robbed for use in building the parish church. This has since been demolished, although its graveyard still surrounds the remains of the round kirk.

Dr Kirsty Owen - Archaeology and World Heritage Team

Orkney Smr Note

...The Stone was found 9 inches below the surface of the ground. The measurements, which were made by Mr W.J.Moar, of the Orphir public school, are:- 5ft.8in. and 5ft.10.5in long x 1ft.10in. wide at the top (including allowance for corner broken off), and 1ft.0.5in. at bottom x 5in. thick. The carving and margin are raised. The sword is 3ft.6in. long, and the hilt 11in. across. The Slab has an inscription R.R.1642 incised on its left

side.... and contemporary incisions in the foot and head of the cross - a skull and a circle with a dot in the centre of it. [R1]

As previous authorities. [R2]

A medieval grave-slab, probably dating from the late 14th C. or the 15th C. but later reused in the 17th C. was found underground in the grave yard a good many years ago and is now preserved in the modern church.

It is not quite complete and what is left of it is fractured. The present dimensions are 5ft.9in. long, 1ft.9in. wide at the top and 10.5 wide at the foot. It bears a Latin cross with a base of three steps. On the left of the cross-shaft is a sword and on the right side is the inscription RR DIE(D)1642. [R3]

Information from Orkney SMR [n.d.]

References

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