The Remarkable Survival of Medieval Churches in Orkney

Professor Barbara Crawford, Hon Professor of Institute for Northern Studies and Member of the Norwegian Academy


Having just finished writing about the Romanesque church in my neighbouring village of Leuchars in Fife I have become interested in how many other parishes in Scotland have surviving churches from the same period (12th century). Reading the relevant chapter in Richard Fawcett’s magisterial study of ‘The Architecture of the Scottish medieval church 1100-1560’ (2011) I was struck by how many examples he cites of early medieval  churches in Orkney (and Shetland), and this makes me appreciate that the survival of medieval churches in the Northern Isles is impressive compared with the rest of Scotland. Why this should be is not my main question just now but is worthy of consideration (perhaps the less extreme nature of the Reformation in Orkney has something to do with it).Of course the fact that Orkney was a diocese in the Norwegian archbishopric of Nidaros (Trondheim) meant that the background context was completely different from the rest of Scotland (barring the Western Isles) whose dioceses were not subject to any metropolitan authority in the 12th century.

This was the time when a parochial structure was established in most of Scotland, but of the parish churches constructed ‘relatively few have survived in any recognizable state, and none is structurally complete’ (as Prof. Fawcett says, p.). However, those which have survived, and which he cites, grace a significant proportion of the thirty-five parishes in Orkney:[1]

First to be named is the bishop’s church founded by Earl Thorfinn at Birsay which was succeeded by the present ruined church on the Brough of Birsay. That is a very special surviving 12th century stone church, probably founded to be one of the memorial churches built in memory of the island’s saint, Earl Magnus Erlendsson. [2]  Of course the other memorial church which was built to commemorate the saint’s martyrdom, on the island of Egilsay is also a remarkable surviving 12th century building, with its very individual round tower. Round towers are a particular feature of other churches in both Orkney and Shetland and they mark the churches out as special, perhaps being modelled on the Egilsay example, and linked in with the cult of the island saint. Towers were only constructed at the most important churches, and must have been an expensive item for the landowner to provide. It is worth noting that the church on the Brough of Birsay was intended to have a square tower, as the foot plate of the tower can be seen at the west end of the nave, but it was never built, perhaps due to the cost. Richard Fawcett discusses these towers in Orkney and Shetland at some length commenting on their ‘particular inventiveness’ and in contrast to the few that have survived from the period in the rest of Scotland.

Discussing the plan of the early churches he notes that the ‘two-compartment plan’ develops, that is divided up into nave and chancel, the latter providing the sacred space where the holy mysteries were celebrated. He includes the chapel on Wyre in his list, which has a square chancel, with semi-circular arches entering the nave and the chancel. An additional architectural development is the important apse added to the east end where the high altar is located and as he says ‘as with towers apses are usually only built at the more important churches’. The semi-circular apse at the Brough of Birsay church is an important feature of this important church and survives to window height. The ‘unique arrangement’ at Orphir is then noted, where the apse is the only surviving part of the circular church probably built in emulation of the Holy Sepulchre Church in Jerusalem by Earl Hakon after his pilgrimage of about 1120.[3]

Of course the wealth and international background of the earldom dynasty helps to explain many of these notable architectural features, with the saintly member of the earldom family being the stimulus to the founding and decoration of some of the surviving prestige churches, most notably the cathedral founded in his name and for the enhancing of his memory. The bishops also had an important role in leading the way in building churches which were appropriate for the celebration of the Christian liturgy, and it is very likely that St.Magnus Egilsay was built by Bishop William, who is said in the saga to have resided on Egilsay which was probably his episcopal estate. A current project is looking at other surviving architectural elements, and in particular the use of blocks of red sandstone,  which are thought to reflect the spread of the cult through the islands, (and in Shetland also where there are more churches dedicated to Magnus than in Orkney itself).

In conclusion it is important to know who the founders of the parish churches were, as they were responsible for the overall plan and architectural design, perhaps under the guidance of the bishop, and they paid for the expense in bringing masons out to the farms and islands where these churches were built, as well as resourcing the best building stone available. These masons had probably been trained in the design and building of the cathedral and thanks to the Orkneyinga saga we know how much control was exercised over the inception and planning of this monumental Romanesque structure by the earls. The building of a cathedral or a big priory church was an important source of expertise and influence on the parish churches which followed. We should be aware of this aspect of the cathedral’s significance in the whole ecclesiastical development in the diocese. There were many links which we know very little about, because of the lack of documentary sources in the post-saga period. For example it is possible that the memorial church on the Brough of Birsay and its associated monastic (Augustinian) community may have fulfilled a role as the place where priests were trained for joining the community of cathedral canons.[4]

This discussion of the survival of churches in twelfth-century Orkney would be incomplete without bringing in the remarkable survival of a church on the island of Eynhallow, which was only discovered to have been originally a church in 1851 after an outbreak of fever on the island and when the later farm buildings were cleared in 1897. [5]  The slight historical information which is known about the site indicates that it was originally founded as a monastery,  and the assumption has been that it was a Cistercian foundation. [6] The original church survived almost complete, with a rectangular nave opening into a rectangular chancel, and a substantial square porch at the west end, which may indeed have been the base of a tower. Whether this monastic community was established by an earl, or the bishop, or indeed a wealthy landowner on the neighbouring island of Rousay is quite unknown, but its architectural survival is another marvel of the ecclesiastical treasures of the Orkney islands.

Of course some of the parish churches were not the first church to have been built in a particular location - or the last - but it is the surviving examples of those built in the 12th century which enable the architectural historians to cite the numbers of surviving Romanesque churches in the islands as remarkable compared with most of Scotland. There are many more partially surviving 12th-century parish churches like Cross Kirk in Westray and St. Boniface on Papa Westray. [7] This short assessment invites further discussion of the situation in Orkney, both the reason for the numbers and quality of 12th century churches, and the reason for their survival in better condition than many of Scotland’s parish churches.

[1] Note that these are the parish churches and so do not include the unparalleled Romanesque cathedral church dedicated to St. Magnus

[2] As discussed in my recent  article in New Orkney Antiquarian Journal (‘The Brough of Birsay continued. Further Thoughts on its Monastic Foundation’ 2018, 2-16)

[3] ‘the only medieval church of circular plan known to have existed in Scotland’ (B. Crawford, The Northern Earldoms. Orkney and Caithness from AD870-1470. 2013, 213)

[4] See discussion of this possible scenario in Crawford, 2018, 9-10

[5] A.Ritchie, Exploring Scotland’s Heritage. Orkney and Shetland  (1985, no.52; J.Mooney,Eynhallow. The Holy Island of the Orkneys (1976, chap.6); L.Dietrichson and J.Meyer,Monumenta Orcadica (1906, 36-43)

[6] Ritchie, Orkney and Shetland.40-43

[7] More can be read about the founding of Orkney’s parish churches in the thesis written by Sarah Jane Gibbon (“The Origins and Development of the Parochial system in the Orkney earldom’ unpublished doctoral thesis of the UHI, 2006)