Category: St Magnus Cathedral

A Small Norwegian Town: Kirkwall in the Middle Ages.

St Magnus Cathedral. Raymond Parks.

[Ali Turner-Rugg, Museum volunteer and former curator at St Albans Museum]

This map from 1766 shows the Peerie Sea linked to Kirkwall Bay with Kirkwall extending along its eastern shore. Orkney Library & Archive.

A small Norwegian town grew up in medieval times on a group of islands. It was on almost the same line of latitude as Bergen on the Norwegian mainland, 490km away across the North Sea. Founded according to tradition in the 11th century, at a spot where a stream ran into a sheltered harbour, it was in an ideal position relative to the Norse trade routes of the North Atlantic, and to the fertile farmland of the islands themselves. The islands were ruled by earls who owed allegiance to the king of Norway. That town was Kirkwall.

A hog-backed grave from St Magnus Cathedral.
The large triangular shaped piece of red sandstone in the museum’s courtyard is the hog-backed gravestone from St Olaf’s Church.

Because of a lack of historical references and of excavation in the area, very little is known of the earliest part of the town. The Orkneyinga Saga records that at this time “Kirkjuvagr” was a market centre with very few buildings. An arch from an early church in this area, the Church of St Olaf, survives, and the museum contains a hog-backed gravestone from St Olaf’s churchyard. An 11th -century earl was making preparations for entertaining his men during the winter in this area, shortly before he was murdered during a power struggle. This suggests that he must have had a feasting hall here.

St Magnus Cathedral. Raymond Parks.
St Magnus Cathedral. Raymond Parks.

The town received a boost about a hundred years later in the 12th century, when another earl, also murdered during a power struggle, was declared a saint. One of his successors built a small but extremely beautiful Romanesque cathedral to house his bones, a short distance to the south of the early settlement. The early settlement, ruled by the earl, became known as the ‘Burgh’, and the area around the cathedral, under the rule of the church, was known as the ‘Laverock’.

The wooden box in which St Magnus’ bones were found. It is on display in the Medieval Gallery of the Orkney Museum.

The little town developed along the natural shoreline, facing west over the bay. Today the line of modern Shore Street – Bridge Street – Albert Street – Broad Street – Victoria Street – Main Street follows that shoreline. Evidence from excavations suggests that although there was some reclamation during the medieval period, most of the infilling of the bay is 19th century. Originally the houses would have been built on the inland side of the street and only later, as land was reclaimed, on the shore side, like the 16th century buildings which are now home to The Orkney Museum.

Tankerness House, David Keith, 1950. The Orkney Museum.

Ships would originally have beached on the shore beside the little 11th century settlement, unloaded at low tide, and then sailed off on the next high tide. For traditional Viking trading ships, beaches were adequate, but cogs, which replaced them for carrying cargo around the North Sea during the 13th century, needed a wharf. There were probably timber wharfs along the shore to accommodate them, and a number of jetties have been found in gardens of houses on the west side of the main street. Remains of a small jetty were found during an excavation in the basement of The Orkney Museum, underneath the present curator’s office!

The jetty was found under the floor of the north wing of Tankerness House, to the right of the arch.

Orkney suffered badly during the epidemic of bubonic plague in the 14th century. There are few historical references to the “Black Death” in Scotland and Norway, but mortality was high and the economic effects far-reaching. The Icelandic “Lawman’s Annal” refers to the same disease affecting Orkney. The Little Ice Age was already kicking in, and the whole of Europe had experienced a series of famines, including a severe famine in the early 14th century, followed by a cattle plague. Orkney must have been affected by these events. By this time the Norwegian king ruled Orkney through Scottish earls, and links with Scotland were growing stronger. One of these earls, Henry Sinclair, built a castle on the seashore in 1379, defended by a curtain wall and a great tower. Unfortunately this castle was completely demolished in the 17th century, although foundations turn up whenever the council makes a hole in the road in the area of Castle Street.

Walls of Kirkwall Castle were uncovered during road works in the summer of 2019. Pete Higgins, ORCA (Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology).

A number of small excavations have taken place in Kirkwall over the years and have recovered many everyday items used by the medieval citizens of Kirkwall. Many of these can be seen in the Medieval gallery at The Orkney Museum. They cooked their food in unglazed grass-tempered cooking pots, which may have been made locally, and poured their ale from green-glazed jugs made of both red and white wares imported from Scotland. A group of glazed sherds found in the Tankerness House excavations were made of a ware produced in Yorkshire in the 13th and 14th centuries and found in medieval towns all along the east coast of Scotland and England. Some of these sherds, from the orientation of the glaze and wheel marks, may have come from a vessel called an “aquamanile”, used for pouring water over the hands into a basin held below.

Above and below: Unglazed grass-tempered cooking pot sherds from an excavation in Mounthoolie Lane.
Comb from the Earl’s Palace.

This 13th century antler comb (broken) with bronze rivets and end plate is thought to have been made in Norway. It probably comes from a waterlogged ditch excavated at the Earl’s Palace.

An annular brooch found in Kirkwall.
Gold ring from Waterfield Road, Kirkwall.

The better-off citizens of the town could afford to wear expensive jewellery. This man’s gold ring with the stone missing comes from Waterfield Road, Kirkwall and is probably mid 13th-14th century in date. It may have been made in the Low Countries or in Norway.

Leather shoe, found under Tankerness House. The chess piece (2) was also found in Kirkwall.

They wore decorated leather shoes, like those found with scraps of waste leather in a water main trench in Laing Street.

The 15th century saw the end of the small Norwegian town. It became a small Scottish town, when the King of Norway and Denmark couldn’t pay the dowry he had promised when his daughter married the King of Scotland. The Orkney Islands were handed over in 1468 as a pledge which was never redeemed, and were formally annexed by Scotland in 1472.

Medieval Gallery, The Orkney Museum.

For more information about the excavations at Kirkwall Castle, follow the link below.

To make a donation to any of the museums please follow the link and support us. Thank you.

Support the Museums and St Magnus Cathedral with Online Donations

The wonderful grave goods from the Viking Age boat burial at Scar, Sanday, remain in Orkney because of the Orkney Museum.
Viking Gallery, Orkney Museum.

Covid-19 has hit everyone hard, museums and galleries as well as businesses. There is now a way that you can support Orkney Museum, Corrigall Farm Museum, Kirbuster Museum, Scapa Flow Museum and St Magnus Cathedral, by donating money online. You can even select where you would like your donation to go. With no sales or donations for almost a year we are relying on your support even more during the pandemic. Every donation is greatly appreciated. Please follow the link below or at the foot of the page to make your donation. Thank you.

The Orkney Museum

The Orkney Museum. Dr Raymond Parks.

The Orkney Museum is owned and run by Orkney Islands Council. Entry is free, but the support of our visitors, through donations and purchases from the museum shop, helps us to care for our buildings and collections, welcome visitors to the museum, respond to enquiries and facilitate research access to our collections. The Orkney Museum houses the main archaeology and social history collection for Orkney, which gives the visitor a greater understanding of the islands’ prehistory and history.

Whether you have visited in the past, plan to visit in the future, or simply care about Orkney’s rich history and culture, please support us with a donation, if you can, to help us continue caring for Orkney’s heritage now and into the future.

The Baikie Drawing Room tells the story of the family who lived in Tankerness House, home to the Orkney Museum. It holds a collection of both archaeology and social history artefacts.

St Magnus Cathedral

St Magnus Cathedral was founded in 1137. Dr Raymond Parks.

St Magnus Cathedral belongs to the people of Orkney. Its life as a working Church is managed by the Church of Scotland, whilst Orkney Islands Council own and care for the building and run the cathedral as a visitor attraction and venue for cultural and community events.

Donations made through this link go towards keeping the doors of the cathedral open to all as well as contributing towards the costs of maintaining the fabric of the building. Please support us, if you can, to help us look after this beautiful building now and into the future.

If you would like to support the work of the cathedral congregation please visit The Society of the Friends of St Magnus also fundraise in support of the cathedral –

St Magnus Cathedral. Dr Raymond Parks.

Kirbuster Museum

Kirbuster Museum. Dr Raymond Parks.

Kirbuster Museum is owned and run by Orkney Islands Council. Entry is free. The earliest part of the house, which contains the central hearth, dates from 1595. Extensions to the house were added in the 1700s.

Kirbuster Museum gives the visitor a feeling of stepping back in time. Living conditions here are not unlike the Neolithic houses seen at Skara Brae. Stone alcoves, a fire in the middle of the room and ‘neuk’ beds built into the wall echo our distant past. The smell of the peat smoke from the fire also evokes a feeling of a time gone by.

Kirbuster Museum. Dr Raymond Parks.

Corrigall Farm Museum

Corrigall Farm Museum. Dr Raymond Parks.

Corrigall Farm Museum is owned and run by Orkney Islands Council. Entry is free. This is a good example of an old Orkney longhouse from the 1700s, where animals would have lived in one end and the family in the other. It was ‘moderised’ in the 1800s when the animals were moved into buildings outside the dwelling house.

With its homely fireplace, the visitor gets a good impression of how life was lived in the Victorian Age in Orkney. This was a time when so many men went in search of adventure and money by joining the Hudson’s Bay Company to work in Canada. Many Canadians, predominantly First Nation people, are descended from them and still bear their Orcadian surnames. The outbuildings, especially the barn with its grain kiln, are particularly well preserved.

The peat fire at Corrigall Farm Museum. Dr Raymond Parks.

Scapa Flow Museum

Scapa Flow Museum, before the extension work began.
The frame for the new extension to the Scapa Flow Museum, which connects to the old pumphouse, formerly used as the museum. It will still be accessed, but the new building will house the collection in an environmentally controlled museum.

Scapa Flow Museum is owned and run by Orkney Islands Council. Currently closed due to a major redevelopment, but free of charge when open. As part of the ongoing museum redevelopment we have a special fundraising appeal to restore a section of oil painting on hessian taken from the frieze that decorated a wall in the Naval Canteen, Lyness Royal Naval Base, during World War II.

Section of the frieze from the Naval Canteen.

It was painted by Duncan Letters, a shipwright working for Metal Industries, and presented to the Museum’s collection by the architect, John Brandon-Jones, who was posted to Lyness and worked as a civil engineer from 1939 to 1945.

Conserving the painting requires the skills of a specialist conservator and framer. Our fundraising target is £10,000. We need your help to raise the money for this work and save the painting for the benefit of future generations.

Whether you have visited the museum in the past, plan to visit in the future, or simply care about Orkney’s wartime heritage, please support us with a donation, if you can, by following the link below. Thank you.

The Unsilent Cathedral

St Magnus Cathedral. Dr Raymond Parks.

Tom Muir

Image preview
Gordon MacLellan.

During the Orkney Storytelling Festival in 2019 one of the guest storytellers, Gordon MacLellan, invited Fran Flett Hollinrake and myself to contribute something towards an environmental arts project called CelebrationEarth! The idea was that it would be a storytelling event in 2020, but that obviously wasn’t possible. Instead we contributed other things. Fran, who is the Visitor Attraction Officer at St Magnus Cathedral, decided to combine music and story to give an account of the spiritual and the strange within the cathedral. The music and story are all Fran’s own work. My contribution will appear in another blog. Here is Fran’s piece, ‘The Unsilent Cathedral’.

For more information about CelebrateEarth! you can follow their blog here.