The Cathedral was founded in 1137 by Rognvald, the nephew of Magnus Erlendsson (St Magnus). Magnus was the Earl of Orkney and shared the title with his cousin Hakon. Magnus had been killed in a dispute with his cousin and Rognvald then came to Orkney to claim his uncle’s Earldom. Stories grew of miracles at Magnus’s grave and he was made a saint. The bones of both St Magnus and St Rognvald lie within the walls of the choir. Their presence made Kirkwall an important place of Christian pilgrimage.
A statue of Norway’s patron saint St Olaf stands in St Magnus Cathedral and was gifted by Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim in 1937 to mark the 800th anniversary of its founding. On July 29th a flag is flown to mark Olsok (St Olaf’s Day). (King Saint Olaf II Haraldsson (995-1030), was King of Norway, 1015-1028).
The cathedral is also home to the bell from HMS Royal Oak, the battleship that was sunk in Scapa Flow in 1939 along with a book of remembrance in honour of those who died.
Most of the stained glass windows were designed in the 1920s by Glasgow stained glass artist Oscar Paterson and depict saints and biblical figures as well as character’s from Orkney’s Norse past.
The West Window above the entrance was designed by one of Scotland’s finest stained glass artists Crear McCartney (1931-2016) and was installed in 1987 and dedicated in the presence of Queen Elizabeth II who came to Orkney to commemorate the 850th anniversary of the cathedral. Crear McCartney grew up in Lanarkshire and was taught to draw by a Polish expatriate who was billeted at his home.
There were many events that year to celebrate this anniversary and gifts were offered by the Norwegian royal family including a beautiful tapestry which hangs inside the south choir aisle. The cathedral has a large leather-bound book, signed by Her Majesty, which names all the individuals, schools, companies, societies and organisations who contributed to the window’s cost.
This window can apparently look very different in the winter and summer months with a cool blue dominating in winter and the warm hues at the top dominating in summer with the high sun streaming in. The main theme of the window is of light, specifically the light of God. The artist cited George Mackay Brown’s observation that ‘nowhere is the drama of light and darkness enacted with such starkness as in the north’. You may spot arctic terms and pink primroses, fish and a viking longship, which is representing Rognvald Kolsson, the founder of the cathedral. The four central panels represent Matthew, Mark, Luke and John who wrote the gospels. They are represented as an angel, an eagle, a winged bull and a winged lion. The blue cross on the right represents a silver cross found in Trondheim in Norway and thought to date from the 10th Century. The cross at the top represents the mould that was found within the cathedral and was perhaps the mould for the pilgrim’s crosses that were given to the pilgrims who came from Northern Europe to venerate the remains of St Magnus. The original mould for the cross is in Orkney Museum.
Directions: Our next stop on the Eurowalk is the Town Hall that is directly across from the entrance to St Magnus Cathedral.