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Friday August 4 2017

Looking Back: "The Wonder and the Glory of the North"

A history of St. Magnus Cathedral, Orkney, published as it celebrated its 800th anniversary in August 1937

THIS month the Cathedral of St. Magnus at Kirkwall celebrates its eight hundredth birthday.


The Story of St. Magnus

Eight hundred and thirty years ago, when Orkney and Shetland were part of the Norse dominions, Magnus, son of Erlend, and Hakon, son of Paul, were joint earls of Orkney. Hakon was a Viking; and Vikings lived by rapine and piracy. Magnus was also by blood a Viking, but he abhorred the Viking way of life, and his way was the way of peace. This way of peace Magnus learned from the Gospel; for he was a deeply religious man.

A breach came between the earls, as was inevitable. A conference was arranged on the island of Egilsay, “the isle of the Church.” There we can still see the ancient church – alas! now roofless and disused – where Magnus went to pray and to receive the Sacrament. When Hakon arrived, his retinue was four times the agreed size; and his intention was clear. Magnus gave no resistance. The Orkneyinga Saga tells how in his last moments he prayer for his enemies and murderers, and forgave them from his heart. That was in 1115.

The Saga expresses neither execration for Hakon’s deed nor sorrow for Magnus. It reveals, however, that Magnus was scarcely in his grave before a cult sprang up – with visions and miracles and pilgrimages to his tomb. Those in authority discouraged the cult, but it became too strong to be ignored.


The Founding of the Cathedral

Twenty years later we find Rognvald in Norway, planning to strike a blow to recover his earldom in Orkney. The Saga tells how he vowed that, if he succeeded, he would build a “stone minster” at Kirkwall to the name of St. Magnus. His expedition was successful; and the vow was performed. In 1137 the masons began work and, when all was ready, the body of St. Magnus was brought from his grave 20 miles away at Birsay and interred within one of the pillars of the new cathedral; and there it remains unto this day.

For eight hundred years without a break Rognvald’s great ”stone minster” has been in use as a place of public worship. It has known all sorts of churchmen. Mediæval churchmen and Reformed churchmen, (the last Archdeacon under the mediæval régime was the first minister under the Reformed), Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Moderate, Evangelical – they have all been here.


A Miracle of Preservation

Since Rognvald’s day the cathedral has been enlarged – lengthened both in choir and nave; and architects differ as to the dates of each extension. The structure as we see it today was some four hundred years in building. It is built of local stone – largely of a beautiful red sandstone, which gives the building a warmth of colour that is all its own. Its style is Norman, with the arches and ornaments and massive pillars which are characteristic of the style; and there seems to be some architectural kinship with Dunfermline and Durham.

The preservation of St. Magnus is something of a miracle. The building is large and the cost of upkeep is considerable. With small resources the Kirk-Session succeeded somehow in maintaining it; and until the other day nobody else did very much to help.

Of course the cathedral suffered, as all such buildings suffered, from the taste and habits of the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Presbyterians have been accused so often of preferring ugliness and of wilfully defacing beautiful buildings, but the erection of pews and galleries, the putting up of a cheap partition of wood and glass to screen off the choir, and even the use of whitewash, were all of Episcopalian origin in the seventeenth century.


The Restoration

In the end all problems of upkeep were solved by a great act of liberality on the part of a member of the Church of Scotland. Thirty years ago the late Sheriff Thoms, Sheriff of Orkney, bequeathed practically the whole of a large fortune for the restoration of St. Magnus’. The unsightly partitions have been done away, the pews and the galleries have been removed, the floor brought back to its old level, the choir worthily furnished, the nave seated for worshippers, the steeple – once injured by lightning – restored to its former dignity.

Kirkwall Cathedral is now one of the most splendid buildings belonging to the Church of Scotland, and stands, as it has stood for eight hundred years, the sanctuary of a worshipping people and “the wonder and the glory of the North.”

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