The City and the Stars (8) : Longships

The traditional picture of the Vikings – looting, marauding, raping invaders – may not be entirely true of their time on Orkney, though they did rule this gentle archipelago with an iron fist for five hundred years… (1300 words, a ten-minute read)

(Above: the glory of St Magnus (Viking) Cathedral, Kirkwall)

History can be complex. Patterns of events that fit in one situation may not, even from the same peoples, dovetail into another. To understand why Orkney’s history of these times is likely to have differed from what might be expected, we need to put ourselves in the minds of the Vikings and examine what Orkney represented to them.

(Above: one of the ancient religious stones)

The sophisticated stone-age race that built the Ness of Brodgar temple-complex and neighbouring stone circles had long gone from Orkney. But the Norsemen did not immediately fill the gap.

No-one knows if anyone did, though farming continued – but without the intense spiritual concentration of former times. During the late Iron Age and for at least 400 years, the dominant cultural force on Orkney was Pictish. It’s likely that they came north, expanding their successful base centred on Inverness. They ruled Orkney for almost as long as the Vikings did, after them. Orkney had its own Pictish Kings, but, though powerfully autonomous in the islands, they were subservient to Inverness in wider Pictish affairs.

In many ways, our own journey over this extended weekend had mirrored that of the Picts. But we had already covered their achievements and culture further south, and they are documented in the earlier blogs (see below). The much more ancient wonders of Orkney had been our focus here. But, now, the story of the Picts had come into view, again, if only in the way they were subsumed into the Viking future, here on Orkney. There seems to have been little warfare, so perhaps they co-existed for a long time, Eventually, the Viking tribes emerged as the stronger cultural force, in line with the expansion of the whole Norse culture, driven by the ambitious Kings of Norway.

In many ways, Orkney was already theirs…

(Above: the pulpit at St Magnus Cathedral)

The Vikings were, essentially, seafarers. They were brave and fearless warriors and mariners of great skill. From their native bases in Scandinavia, they expanded across the world, following oceans and river systems deep into Europe and along the northern and western edges of Britain. Whenever they made these western journeys, they had to sail past Orkney. Its gentle hills and safe harbours were a haven to them. It was a natural stopping point on their outward and return journeys; and there are records (and sagas) of Norwegian royalty being entertained on Orkney, by their Earls – a measure of how important this place was in Viking times.

I hadn’t realised that the Vikings built Christian cathedrals, or that they had Earls, like the English. But both were here in Orkney during the height of their power. It’s confusing when you first look at St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, the capital of Orkney, and the place which became their power base in the later years of their reign. The location of the Cathedral is co-existent with the Earl’s Palace and the Palace of the Bishops across the street. So your first reaction is why there was so much ‘British hierarchy’ so far north?

(Above: the ruin of the Earls’ Palace, opposite the Cathedral)

But it’s not. Both the Cathedral and the two palaces are from the period when the Vikings ruled Orkney, administering it under the control of their own, powerful Earls – often two at a time, which was the gravitational force that created St Magnus Cathedral.

(St Magnus Cathedral: the main East-West axis)

The story of how St Magnus Cathedral came to be, and came to be here, is one of internecine warfare and a touch of Viking opportunism.

In 1103 the Viking cousins Magnus Erlendson and Haakon Paulson succeeded to the Earldom of Orkney. At first all went well, but, by 1117, major disputes had arisen. It was agreed that these would be resolved by a meeting on the island of Egilsay on 16th April of that year. Rules of engagement were drawn up, the core of which was that each Earl would take only two ships.

Haakon arrived with six, overwhelming the honest Magnus, who, though threatened with his life, refused to give up his Earldom. Haakon ordered Magnus’ own cook, Lifolf, to kill his master with a meat cleaver blow to his head.

A cenotaph now stands on the spot where this happened. Magnus was buried at Birsay, in the north of the ‘mainland’. Birsay was the Viking Earl’s base at the time, from which they could watch the northern waters. Magnus’ fame and the horror and dishonour of his death meant prayers were said for his soul and pilgrims began to visit his grave. Miraculous cures were reported and soon the place assumed legendary status.

Earl Haakon, now politically secure, became worried by this notoriety and made a pilgrimage to Rome to stabilise his position with the Christian church. He seems to have been successful. He was succeeded as Earl by his son, Paul… and now the tale gets interesting…

(Above: Rognvald Kolson holding a model of the original Cathedral dedicated to his uncle)

Paul was deposed in 1135 by the murdered Magnus’ nephew Rognwald Kolson, who declared his uncle a saint and vowed to raise money from the farmers of Orkney to build a vast cathedral dedicated to St Magnus. Durham masons – among the most skilled in Britain – were drafted in to supervise the design and construction. The new generation of Christian Bishops were a powerful force, and Rognwald Kolson, St Magnus’ nephew, made sure that the three buildings sat side by side. We can assume his political skills were as astute as his military prowess…

The cathedral was consecrated in 1150, when St Magnus’ remains were transferred from Birsay to a shrine in the east of the new church. The building was lengthened and extended in the next two centuries, and was completed to its present form in the 14th century.

Over the years that followed, it fell into disrepair – the Viking rule is not remembered here with fondness. But, in the past twenty years, extensive repair work has been carried out, which has made the St Magnus Cathedral more a more positive part of Orkney’s emotional future. It’s a very beautiful building, and a thriving centre of Kirkwall, which is a feature-rich place to visit.

Our time on Orkney was nearly over. We had one more day to explore, and we had chosen to leave the ‘Mainland’ for the first time and visit one of the neighbouring islands – Rousay. There, we knew, was an extensive defensive structure from the Iron Age. But first, we had to face a tense time on the ferry crossing!

The humorous and terrifying short ferry journey has already been written up as part of the parallel ‘incidentals’ blogs. The link is here.

The story of our final full day on Orkney and its visit to Rousay will be published on Thursday’s blog.

To be continued.

If you would like to be notified of future Silent Eye weekends, drop us a line to rivingtide@gmail.com, saying what your areas of interest are.

Other parts in this series:

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six, Part Seven, this is Part 8.

The preceding Pictish Trail weekend blog posts:

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six, Part Seven, Part Eight, Part Nine

©Stephen Tanham, 2020.

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye – a journey through the forest of personality to the sunrise of Being.

An Orcadian Diary (4) – The light of the North

 

St Magnus x Cathedral keyarch

We could be in any of the great cathedral cities of Britain. If someone took off the blindfold and asked, we might say Salisbury, York, Lichfield or the wonders of Durham Cathedral. The latter is significant, because they who built Durham came here to add their skills…

We are in the capital of Orkney – Kirkwall (reference ‘F’ in the Northlink Ferry’s map, below), in one of the most splendid cathedrals I’ve every visited. And yet this town of Kirkwall, the commercial centre of the archipelago of Orkney, has a population of only 10,000 people. The rest of Orkney is compact, beautiful, and infused with a sense of ancient mystery. So why is this magnificent building here, so far from the rest of British ‘civilisation’?

Orkney 11Jun18 - 1

It’s a story involving Earls

Aha! I thought to myself, upon hearing this – some medieval outpost of early Britain, strategically important – as it was to be, a thousand years later, during WW1, when the British fleet was based in Scapa Flow. But these were not English earls; they were Vikings, albeit Vikings who had adopted Christianity.

St Magnus x Cathedral Full central view ace - 1

St Magnus Cathedral is referred to, historically, as The Light in the North. It’s not hard to see why when you stand in the west and look along the nave towards the chapel in the East.

St Magnus x Cathedral Lamps better

The Earls of Orkney were from Norway, and had settled in these fertile islands, as part of their vast and successful expansion. Modern Stavanger is a mere 300 miles to the East – no problem for a nation with the seafaring expertise of the Vikings. The Old Norse name was actually ‘Jarl’, rather than Earl; and the two terms only became synonymous during the 15th century when, under the Sinclair family, control passed to mainland Scotland.

St Magnus Cathedral x Full Arches

Until that time, the ‘Jarls’ of the combined territory of Orkney and Shetland (Norðreyjar) had a great deal of independence and local power. The office of Jarl of Orkney became the most senior rank in medieval Norway except for the king himself.

St Magnus x Cathedral side chamber1

Magnus Erlendsson was the Earl of Orkney in the early 1100s. He seems to have been a very spiritual man, which many contempory Norwegians saw as a weakness. Magnus once refused to fight during a Viking raid on Anglesey, staying on his ship, praying and singing psalms.

He shared the Earldom with his ambitious cousin, Hakon. The two men fought a series of battles, damaging the land. To settle this, it was agreed to hold a council of peace on the Orkney island of Egilsay. Each Jarl would bring only two ships, containing unarmed men. Hakon broke the agreement and arrived with eight ships, each fully armed. On his orders, in an act of humiliating barbarity, Magnus was executed by Hakon’s reluctant cook, using an axe.

Magnus prayed as the axe was swung towards him… He was buried at Birsay, in the north-west of the Orkney Mainland (see map, above). Over time, stories of miracles associated with the royal grave began to circulate. During this time, Hakon’s reign seems to have been blighted by misfortune.

St Magnus x Cathedral Font

Eventually, Magnus’ nephew, Rognvald, came from Norway to claim his uncle’s Earldom. He promised the people of Orkney that he would build a ‘great stone minster’ in honour of his uncle; and that he would turn it into a place of pilgrimage.

St Magnus Cathedral x East window

The Cathedral was founded in 1137 and inaugurated as part of the Archdiocese of Nidaros (now Trondheim) in Norway. Orkney became part of Scotland in 1468. A few years later, the cathedral was given to the people of Kirkwall by King James III.

St Magnus' skull
(And early photograph of St Magnus’ split skull, now interred in the cathedral)

After the Scottish Reformation in 1560, the cathedral was used for Protestant worship. Nowadays, it belongs to the people of Orkney. It is maintained by the Orkney Islands Council. It has a Church of Scotland congregation and can be used, by arrangement, by any Christian denomination.

St Magnus Cathedral x Roof thru pillars

Restoration work took place in the 1850s and again, following a large bequest from Sheriff George Thoms, during 1913-1930. Because of its great age, the cathedral structure is constantly monitored for stability.

St Magnus x Cathedral EntranceAA

The exterior of the building shows off the local sandstone, from which most of the cathedral is constructed.

St Magnus x Cathedral HMS Royal Oak - 1 (1)

The north choir aisle is home to the brass bell from HMS Royal Oak, the battleship sunk in Scapa Flow in 1939. The case holds a Book of Remembrance to honour those who died. The pages are turned every week by the cathedral custodians.

St Magnus x Cathedral HMS Royal Oak panel

The chapel at the east end of the building is dedicated to St Rognvald, the founder. It was redesigned in 1965 by the Orcadian artist Stanley Cursiter. The wooden communion table and lecterns, incorporating medieval panels, were made by a local craftsman, Reynold Eunson. The left figure is Rognvald’s father, Kol Kalisson; the right is William the Old, Bishop of Orkney when the cathedral was built.

St Magnus x Cathedral East 3 fi

The central figure is that of St Rognvald, the founder of the cathedral. He is seen holding a model of the original cathedral building.

St Magnus x Cathedral East Rognvald - 1

The right side of the chapel is home to Dr John Rae, a resident of Orkney, who worked for the Hudson Bay Company, which explored the Canadian Arctic. He discovered the vital Northwest Passage, enabling the shipping of goods between Europe and northern Canada by a much shorter route. His remains are buried in the cathedral’s graveyard.

St Magnus x Cathedral John Rae Arctic

Sadly, the chapel area was being used for a lecture, which meant I could not get close to:

  1. The cathedral’s oldest gravestone, thought to date from the 13th century. Its golden sandstone face depicts a carved ‘morning star’ symbol and a sword, possibly indicating a crusader or a Templar Knight. Initials P and C were added at a later date, according to the guide leaflet.
  2. The chapel also contains some of the oldest carvings, including dragons, a small hooded imp, and a squatting female Sheela-na-gig. At the top of a column there are two Green Men, ones with distinct foliage coming out of his mouth – a deeply mystical symbol and one emotionally linked to my personal past…

The majority of the present stained-glass windows were designed by the Glasgow artist Oscar Paterson. They depict a variety of saints and biblical figures, as well as characters from Orkney’s Norse past.

St Magnus x Stained glass windowsAA

I have, therefore, many reasons to go back… something I look forward to very much.

Other parts of the Orkney series:

Part One    Part Two

Part Three


Stephen Tanham is a director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit organisation that helps people find the reality and essence of their existence via home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised.

His personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com.

You’ll find friends, poetry, literature and photography there…and some great guest posts on related topics.

©Stephen Tanham