2017 saw a year of commemoration and celebration, marking the life of Orkney's Patron Saint, Magnus. Take a look back at the events and watch a special video recapping the year.
Orkney is a festival hotspot, with an annual programme celebrating everything from folk music and the arts to books, blues, science and storytelling.
But throughout 2017 there was one special strand that ran through almost all our major events, one that focused on a story central to Orkney’s history, culture and tradition.
Magnus 900 launched in April, a year-long programme of cultural activity to commemorate the life of Orkney’s patron saint and to celebrate his continued legacy, 900 years after his martyrdom on the island of Egilsay.
View this short film looking back on the full year of activity as part of the Magnus 900 commemorations
“The year was obviously a significant anniversary in Orkney and a special opportunity to revisit the St Magnus story,” said Antony Mottershead, Arts Officer with Orkney Islands Council and a member of the working group set-up to organise the commemorations. “We basically had a blank page at the start but we knew that the story would provide number of important themes to work with. We certainly weren’t short of ideas once we had begun to speak with different communities, organisations and groups!”
Several themes emerged from these early conversations including power, faith, trust, friendship and betrayal. The organisers quickly realised that events in Orkney 900 years ago mirrored many of the same questions that society continues to wrestle with today.
As 2016 turned to 2017, public meetings were held to generate ideas. It quickly became apparent that this was a story Orcadians were keen to play a part in. “As someone quite new to Orkney I was interested in how much people knew about Magnus and whether or not the story had relevance today,” said Antony. “It’s a well-told story in the islands but I was still surprised that detail of the story was less well known amongst the younger generation of Orcadians and some people who have moved here.”
The working group decided to take a durational approach to Magnus 900. Instead of simply hosting a week of events, the programme was spread throughout the year. This gave existing festivals the chance to develop their own take on the story, and also allowed for new projects too.
After months of planning, Magnus 900 was officially launched in April, during the weekend that marked the date of his martyrdom. It began with a re-enactment of that event in Egilsay before a new Magnus Foy and Viking feast, prepared by the community, in Birsay. The Sunday saw the launch of the St Magnus Way, a pilgrimage route tracing the path the body of Magnus took to his final resting place in Kirkwall’s cathedral, named in his honour.
“We had everything crossed for that first weekend,” remembers Antony. With the rain lashing down at 8am on the Saturday morning I remember thinking ‘whose bright ideas was this?’, but the sun came out and shone all day – it was a sign of good things to come!”
Hundreds of people took part in the opening series of events, highlighting the continued importance of the St Magnus story to the community.
That early momentum was sustained as the year continued. There were exhibitions, concerts and school projects. The Magnus theme could be found in the Orkney Folk Festival, and it was at the heart of the St Magnus International Festival too. The story was central to many other events across the islands, making it accessible to local folk as well as visitors to Orkney.
So much happened throughout the course of 2017 that it is impossible to mention it all, but for Antony, a few main events did stand out. “’For the Journey & Return: The Orkney Boat’ was a particular highlight for me. The opportunity to work with Beatrice Searle was a real pleasure. Little did we know that an artist with a project so well aligned to the Magnus story would come forward by chance. It turned out to be an important part of the year.”
The launch of each stage of the St Magnus Way also helped to anchor the year. “The Orkney Pilgrimage group achieved something incredibly ambitious,” said Antony. “Little did I know that by September a small group of volunteers would have created a new 55-mile route that has already been enjoyed by so many people.”
Other highlights included the Mapping Magnus project, which included archaeological fieldwork, surveys and archive research. It also saw homeowners work with the UHI Archaeology Institute to excavate locations in Palace village in Birsay, sometimes literally in their own gardens!
Now that it’s all over, the organisers have had a chance to catch a breath and look back on a busy but enjoyable programme. “It’s difficult to estimate just how many people have been involved or how far the events reached beyond Orkney,” said Antony. “What is clear however is the enjoyment so many people have taken from being part of the year. My one ambition was to create opportunities for folk of all ages to come together, no matter what their interest in the Magnus story, and I think we achieved that.”
“People have come together, learnt new things and, above all, made new friends. Hopefully it’s a year that people will remember fondly.”
Visit the St Magnus Way website for more on the 55-mile pilgrimage route. Find out more about the Orkney Boat project via the official Facebook page.
If you'd like to experience the Magnus story for yourself, search for your ideal travel and accommodation in Orkney on the Visit Orkney website.