Orkney is truly remote. A flight from Edinburgh or Glasgow takes an hour, the ferry from Aberdeen six hours. The shortest crossings are by ferry from Gills Bay or Scrabster on the far north coast of the mainland, an hour and an hour and a half respectively, although you’ll have to drive a long way to benefit from this brief time at sea.
Many inhabitants consider themselves Orcadian first and Scottish only second. In the run up to the 2014 Scottish independence referendum Orkney, and its North Sea neighbour Shetland, began their own campaign for separation from Scotland. A sense of otherness clearly lingers in the collective consciousness; the islands only became part of Scotland in 1472 following the marriage of the Scots King James III to Margaret, daughter of Christian I of Denmark. The Norse connection is very evident, not least in the Orcadian flag which has a decidedly Scandinavian feel.
Another reminder of the one-time Viking presence is St Magnus Cathedral which sits at the heart of Orkney’s main town, Kirkwall. An imposing building of red and yellow sandstone, it was founded in 1137, during the time of Norwegian rule, by Earl Rognvald Kollson to house the bones of his uncle, St Magnus.
The architecture is without ornamentation; the stone speaks for itself. The few stained glass windows that stud the upper walls are small; the winds of this wild place would quickly have destroyed anything too grand. In places the building looks like a waved washed sandcastle, erosion pitting what was once flat and flattening what was once sharp. With the sparse decoration and strong columns of the interior it is not hard to imagine that you are in the halls of Valhalla rather than a church.
Nods to the Norse abound, including a stained glass depiction of Harald Hardrada, considered by many as the last great Viking and whose invasion of England in 1066 was successfully defeated by Harold Godwinson (he of arrow in the eye fame) at the Battle of Stamford Bridge just weeks prior to the arrival of the Normans, Norsemen by another name, on the beaches of Hastings.
The cathedral also boasts some fine examples of stone carving from the Middle Ages. Death was not a stranger to the craftsmen that made these monuments and there is no attempt to shy away from the macabre.
The weather on Orkney can be unremittingly awful; we were treated to a full week of camping in the rain during our visit in June. Indoor attractions are relatively few and far between and so St Magnus was an interesting, and dry, place to while away an hour or so. But, even if your time on the island is blessed with sunshine do add the cathedral to your itinerary, it offers an intriguing glimpse in to the history, and the psyche, of Orkney and its inhabitants.
For the previous post in the series, click here. We’ll be staying on Orkney to explore more of its historic treasures in the next post, so if you’ve liked what you’ve read do stop by again.