The Muddy Archaeologist's Blog

Blog by Gillian Hovell, The Muddy Archaeologist

ORKNEY : Kirkwall’s St.Magnus’ Cathedral

After spending the morning in the Neolithic at 5,000 year old Skara Brae and the Ring of Brodgar, we headed for Kirkwall’s St. Magnus’ Cathedral.  This most northern of Britain’s cathedrals is fittingly known as ‘The Light of the North’.

Hefty and solid, Kirkwall Cathedral was built in distinctive red and yellow sandstone by the same masons as those responsible for the awesome Durham Cathedral (or so the masons’ marks indicate).

Begun in AD 1132, it was built by Earl Rognvald Kolsson to house the much venerated remains of St.Magnus (and to impress and the locals that he was fit to rule).  The story is told in the Orkneyinga Saga, written by Icelandic scribe(s) at the end of the AD 1100s to record the beginning of the Norse Earldom and rule of Orkney.


Good Magnus conquers the Bad Magnus         Muddy Archaeologist Gillian Hovell

More recent stained glass windows celebrate modern Christianity with a hint of ancient and Viking overtones in the art; Orkney is a marvellous blend of past and present rubbing shoulders.  This cathedral is another blend; this great building is used by many denominations and that ebb and flow means that the cathedral is very much the hub of the community now, perhaps as the great standing stone circles had been so long ago.  Activities have been taking place every time I’ve visited Kirkwall’s cathedral and today was no different.

A children’s orchestra  was tuning up while we were regaled with tales of Norse warrior sons, the very rare indeed medieval AD 1600s hanging ‘mort board’, traces of paintwork that once decorated the masony, and the tragedy of the WWII HMS Royal Oak, sunk in 1939 with the loss of 833 lives.  People’s lives have been brought together in this place for hundreds of years; and here we gathered for our Smithsonian Journey’s group photo.

Then there was the story of St.Magnus’s dramatic death – killed by his cook who was forgiven by the about-t0-die Magnus and asked to smite his head from above as he knelt.

The bones were lost when such relics of saints were destroyed in the Reformation.  But then there was the dramatic recovery of unidentified bones and a distinctively axed skull from a centuries’ old hiding place marked by a single cross, high in a pillar of the cathedral.  Magnus remains safe to this day.

Back at L’Austral, we left Orkney to sail for Shetland and Jarlshof, a jewel in the archaeology of these northern islands and our destination tomorrow.


Muddy Archaeologist Gillian Hovell



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