A Cathedral Sets its Viking Sails


Kirkwall, Orkney Islands, Scotland, September 4, 2017:  According to our Norwegian Sea Captain, Dag, Kirkwall is from the old Norse meaning “Church Harbor.”  The town is best known for St. Magnus Cathedral but the town was named for the earlier St. Ofav’s Cathedral.  This year Kirkwall is commemorating the 900th anniversary of the martyrdom of St. Magnus, Jarl (Earl) of Orkney and the 880 the anniversary of the cathedral.  It is Romanesque and made of striking red and yellow sandstone.  It played a large part in our visit.

We arrived in Kirkwall on Sunday night hoping to find a good pub music session but we ended up in church.  Kirkwall was finishing up the Orkney Rock Festival and all the bars, including ones that usually advertised Sunday folk sessions, were blaring out loud rock ‘n roll. But C. P. E. Bach was coming out of the Cathedral.  We got to the church during the interval, the lady at the door said we could come in but we had already missed half the performance.  She thought a minute and said “So then I’ll charge you £5, half price.  “Deal.”  We enjoyed a young Orkney pianist going to conservatory, home for the end of the summer and a string quartet with Telemann and Mozart.  The Acoustics of the cathedral made the audience of 75 sound thunderous in its applause.

The Church itself is beautiful, red inside with modern stained-glass windows (the reformation smashed the old ones.)  I liked that instead of banners Viking sails were hoisted between the pillars, each depicting some scene in the Magnus story.  This church was built by the Norse and was part of the Arch Diocese of Trondheim, Norway.  In the 15th Century Orkney was given go the Scots as part of a marriage dowry, as was Shetland.  Orkney, however, seems to revel more in its Norse heritage than Shetland.  For instance, there was an Odin Stone along the street.  An Odin Stone is an upright slab of rock with a hole through it.  It is used for “hand fasting.”  Couples hold each other hands through the stone.  It was a way of publicly declaring betrothal, or in pagan times, being married without a priest.  It is used today in Neo-pagan ceremonies but this Odin Stone was the real thing.  Today in Iceland, hand fasting is sometimes used to renew wedding vows.

We returned to the cathedral the next day (after visiting the Orkney Wireless Museum, my “must see.”) largely to get out of the rain, but also to see the windows with daylight coming through and to look more closely at the sails.  The Magnus Visitors Center behind the church has a good film on the Jarl turned Saint, and on some of the Norse History of the islands.  We also ducked in out of the rain at the Norse Heritage Center and had a very lively conversation with some Scots ladies who seemed more Viking than Scott in temperament although not in accent.

We also wandered around town, sometimes in a deluge.  This was not a gentle rain.  We had our obligatory (and delicious) tea and scones, and even better, some famous Orkney Ice Cream, apple cinnamon crisp and lemon chard flavors.  I asked about deep fried Mars bars and got “Aye, that’s a city thing, not here lad.”

I was chilled getting back on Prinsendam.  By then I had a full-blown head cold.  A piper piped us onboard.  As we left our Norwegian accented disembodied voice from the bridge told us that while the wind had calmed the seas were still rough for our ride to Edinburgh so “take a pill.”

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