St Magnus Cathedral, often known as the "Light in the North", is Britain's most northerly cathedral and it dominates the heart of the town of Kirkwall. The building of St Magnus Cathedral was started in 1137 by the Norse Earl Rognvald. He had been granted half of the Earldom of Orkney by the King of Norway and came to Orkney with the express intention of reclaiming rights lost by his uncle, Earl Magnus of Orkney and to build a church of stone to celebrate his uncle's sainthood.
The real story of the cathedral therefore begins with Earl Magnus. In 1117 he and his cousin, Håkon, were the joint Earls of Orkney, but there was considerable enmity between their followers. It was agreed that the two would meet to resolve their differences, each bringing only two ships, on the island of Egilsay.
Magnus had already gained a reputation for piety and gentleness, having declined to carry arms during a raid on the Welsh some years before. He arrived for the meeting on Egilsay on 16 April 1117 with his two ships, but Håkon then arrived with eight.
Håkon ordered his cook, Lifolf to kill Magnus after others in his party had refused to do so. Lifolf killed Magnus with an axe blow to the head. He was buried in the Norse Christchurch at Birsay and by popular acclaim 16 April quickly became established as St Magnus's day. So when Earl Rognvald came to Orkney twenty years later it was to reclaim his half of the Earldom from Håkon's son. (Continues below images...)
This he did, and he also built his church of stone. What you see today is the result of near continuous work over the centuries since. But much of the glory is owed to the original vision that built the church using red sandstone quarried near Kirkwall and yellow sandstone from the island of Eday. These were often used in alternating courses or in a chequerboard pattern and add greatly to the beauty of the building.
The original church comprised the choir of today's Cathedral, and on its completion St Magnus's remains were brought here from Birsay and interred in a column. After his death and subsequent sainthood, St Rognvald was also interred here. During extensive restoration work in 1919 a skeleton was found behind stonework whose skull carried a wound consistent with the axe-blow said to have killed Magnus. Rognvald's bones had been found and re-interred during earlier work on the building in the 1800s.
The first Bishop was William the Old who took his authority from the Archbishop of Trondheim, and it was for him that the nearby Bishop's Palace was originally built. It was in that Palace a hundred years later that King Håkon IV of Norway died, in December 1263, after his defeat in the Battle of Largs. The King was buried in St Magnus Cathedral until the weather was good enough to return his remains to Bergen.
In 1468 Orkney was annexed for Scotland by King James III. St Magnus Cathedral subsequently came under the control of the Archbishop of St Andrews and the Bishops were subsequently of Scots rather than Norse origin.
The Reformation in 1560 had a less dramatic effect on St Magnus Cathedral than it had in some other parts of Scotland, but it had a narrow escape in 1614. Government forces suppressing a rebellion had besieged and destroyed Kirkwall Castle, and intended to destroy St Magnus Cathedral after rebels had hidden inside. The Bishop of the day intervened to prevent them.
Major work was undertaken on the Cathedral in the early 1900s. This included replacing the dumpy stone pyramid atop the tower with a taller spire clothed in copper sheeting. As a result today's Cathedral looks much more as it did until its original spire was struck by lightning in the late 1600s.
Restoration and renovation work on the building continues, and with increased urgency since it was discovered in the 1970s that the west end of the Cathedral was in danger of collapsing away from the remainder of the structure. Other work is more progressive, and to celebrate its 850th anniversary in 1987 the Queen unveiled a magnificent new west window.
Internally, St Magnus Cathedral is a fascinating place to visit. The great age of much of its structure means it has smaller windows that are found in more modern churches, and it is therefore much darker than you might expect. But internally, as externally, the illusion of much greater size than is actually the case has been maintained.
And recently there has been a further way to really appreciate the intricacies and the open spaces (and the height) of St Magnus Cathedral. Visitors can explore the upper areas of the Cathedral and the tower on guided tours in small groups. This involves the negotiation of some very tight and confined spiral stone staircases, but also gives truly stunning views, both within the Cathedral itself and of much of Orkney from the tower.
En route you gain close up views of the new west window, of the clock, and of the peal of three bells housed in the tower. Plus incidentals like the double ladder used by Orkney's hangman and now stored in a handy loft space in the Cathedral. Those with a fear of heights might think twice: but we very highly recommended these tours.
50 yards up the hill formed by Palace Street to the west of the cathedral is the St Magnus Cathedral Visitor Centre, where you can view a 15 minute film about the cathedral.
Visitor InformationView Location on Map
Broad Street, Kirkwall,
Orkney, KW15 1NX.
Tel: 01856 874894.
Grid Ref: HY 449 109
What3Words Location: ///contour.sheets.buildings
The Cathedral In Fiction
Bloody Orkney by Ken Lussey (29 June 2021).
It’s November 1942. Bob Sutherland, Monique
Dubois and the Military Intelligence 11 team fly in to review security in Orkney. But an unidentified body has been found.
It becomes clear that powerful men have things they’d rather keep hidden and MI11’s arrival threatens the status quo.
The climax of the book takes place in the cathedral.