One of Orkney’s Viking splendours is St Magnus Cathedral, a glorious north-west European Romanesque building with later soaring Gothic extensions. It is the best preserved medieval cathedral in Scotland. Its massive Norman pillars are similar in style to Durham Cathedral as the Durham masons were employed in Kirkwall.
Built in the time when Orkney was ruled by Viking earls, a stone minster was founded in 1137 by Earl Rognvald in memory of his uncle St Magnus who was martyred on the Orkney isle of Egilsay. Kirkwall became an important pilgrimage site where the bones of St Magnus were placed in a shrine and miracles were said to happen. Although the shrine was later destroyed, a skull with an injury compatible with St Magnus’ murder with an axe was found in a pillar during restoration work. It was carefully replaced. The cathedral was originally under the Norwegian archbishop of Nidaros (Trondheim) and later St Andrews diocese in Scotland. It was assigned to the people of Orkney in 1486 by King James III of Scotland. It still belongs to the people, not the church and is mainly used by the Church of Scotland for services. The cathedral is also a concert and St Magnus Festival venue.
Inside there are many 17th-century grave markers featuring carved skulls and coffins and a hanging wooden marker called a mort-brod. A memorial to the Royal Oak ship which was destroyed in Scapa Flow by a German U-boat with the loss of 833 lives sees a page of a book with the sailors’ names inscribed turned every week. There are fine stone memorials to Orcadians; Arctic explorer Dr John Rae and African pioneer William Balfour Baikie. Public tours of the tower, which should be booked, offer the opportunity of seeing spectacular 360 degree views from the top and a close-up look at the clock, stained glass windows, galleries and an unusual Norwegian-style bell ringing method. A highlight of the tour is a double hangman’s ladder used until the 18th century.