St. Magnus Cathedral: The Light of the North

St. Magnus Cathedral: The Light of the North

Jump to visiting information for St. Magnus Cathedral.

St. Magnus, Earl of Orkney, was a man of extraordinary distinction, tall, with a fine, intelligent look about him. He was a man of strict virtue, successful in war, wise, eloquent, generous and magnanimous, open-handed with money, sound with advice, and altogether the most popular of men… He had murderers and robbers arrested, and punished the rich no less than the poor for their robberies, raids and other transgressions. His judgments were never biased, for he believed divine justice to be more important that social distinctions. While he was the most generous of men to chieftains and others in powerful positions, he always gave the greatest comfort to the poor. He lived according to God’s commandments, mortifying the flesh through an exemplary life in many ways which, though revealed to God, remained hidden from the sight of men.

Thus is the life of St. Magnus introduced in the Orkneyinga Saga. The author (or authors) goes on to make an account of the treachery that led to the death of Earl Magnus and the miracles thereafter that led to his sainthood.

St. Magnus Cathedral exterior
St. Magnus Cathedral

Getting to Orkney

Just across from John O’Groats sit the islands of Orkney. Now a part of Scotland, the Orkney Islands were for a long time, along with much of what is now northern Scotland, territory of Norway and the Norse people. In fact, Orkney didn’t become part of Scotland until the 14th century. The Scandinavian people who settled there found that the islands were good for living during the summer and escaping during the long winter. During the dark winter months, they would sally forth and see what they could find elsewhere.

In other words: Orkney was Viking country.

Much of what we know of medieval Orkney comes from one chronicle, the Orkneyinga Saga. At some point in the Middle Ages, someone started writing down the stories of the rulers of Orkney, who held the title of earl and answered to the king of Norway. It is from this piece of writing that we learn about St. Magnus, one of the most popular earls to rule over (part of) Orkney.

St. Magnus Cathedral nave
The main nave of St. Magnus Cathedral

Enter St. Magnus

From the quote above, it’s clear why Magnus was so popular with his people: He was way ahead of his times. The Viking way of life was anchored by pillaging and plundering. In fact, as mentioned above, it was common for Orkney men to farm in the summer and go on raids in the winter. Supposedly, they did this to build up stores. Personally, I think someone just came up with an excuse to escape the blustery Orkney winters.

At any rate, after the Norse people adopted Christianity, they were at a crossroads. How could they reconcile their new pacifistic religion with their gory and time-honored traditions? Magnus was the guy who figured that out. He had all the qualities of a fierce Viking warrior-prince, but also the piety of a devout Christian. (Apart from the killing bit – they still hadn’t figured out how to do without that.)

portrait of St. Magnus
A portrait of St. Magnus

Magnus was join ruler of Orkney with his cousin, Hakon. In a slap-dash power grab, Hakon killed Magnus. After murdering Magnus, Hakon found it hard to rule the whole of Orkney, because the people had all been so fond of the level-headed Magnus. Eventually, he started asking himself W.W.M.D. – “What would Magnus do?” – before making decisions, and the people started to like him better. But that took a few years.

Immediately after he was killed, miracles started happening in connection with Magnus. The rocky pit where his body was left turned into a lush, green field. People experienced miraculous cures. Compulsive gamblers started winning hands that they dedicated to Magnus. All sorts of things.

Establishing the Cathedral

Upon Hakon’s death, Magnus’s nephew, Rognvald Kali, became an earl of Orkney. He started the construction of a church dedicated to his saintly uncle. That church became the cathedral of Orkney. When Orkney became a part of Scotland, it became the most northerly cathedral in Britain, earning itself the nickname the Light of the North.

In one of those entertaining ironies of life, St. Magnus Cathedral has its own dungeon. I’m guessing the Vikings took it very seriously when you fidgeted during mass.

Since the Reformation, the church has not been the seat of any bishops. So, technically St. Magnus Cathedral is not really a cathedral, although it’s retained that grand title. It’s now a Church of Scotland (Presbyterian) parish church. Even today, many years since the Vikings ruled Orkney, you can see their fingerprints on the island. Especially in the cathedral.

Sails painted by local school children hanging in the nave of St. Magnus Cathedral

Visiting St. Magnus Cathedral: 

Getting there: The difficult part is getting to Kirkwall. Once you get there, though, just follow any of the road signs. The church is on the main street and pretty much dominates the area.

Opening hours: April through September, the church is open Monday-Saturday 9:00am-6:00pm and Sundays 1:00pm-6:00pm. October through March, the church is open Monday-Saturday 9:00am-1:00pm and 2:00pm-5:00pm (closed on Sundays).

Admission: There is no entry fee, but feel free to leave a donation and light a candle!

My copy of the Orkneyinga Saga: The History of the Earls of Orkney is the Penguin Classics edition, translated by Herman Pálsson and Paul Edwards. You can find it on here or here. The quotation above is from Chapter 45 (pages 89-90).

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