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St. Magnus' Cathedral in Kirkwall, Orkney is a must-see when visiting these wonderful islands. Its magnificent red sandstone presence dominates the town making it hard to miss. Now, I'm not a religious person, nor am I at all knowledgeable on Church history or architecture, but a building of this beauty and stature just cries out to be investigated more closely. And so I found myself drawn through it's doors on a recent (September 2010) visit to the island. Though not large in Cathedral terms, I was immediately impressed by the magnificent interior, and some of the wonderful stained glass windows. I love looking through Churchyards and reading the tombstones - but the many that have been preserved and are on display within the Cathedral are some of the finest - and the earliest - I have seen. But as I left, I could not help noticing a sign advertising guided tours to the upper levels of the Cathedral, subject to pre-booking, at 11:00 am and 2:00 pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Each tour accommodates just five people, costs £5.50 each and takes around 1 1/4 hrs. I could not possibly leave the island without booking myself onto one of these tours. I was not to be disappointed. Meeting prior to commencement of the tour, we were first shown a series of photographs depicting some of the rather tight, narrow, and very steep passageways and spiral staircases that we would encounter, and asked to sign a form to declare our physical wellbeing, I guess a disclaimer in case that any unfortunate accident should befall us! The subsequent tour was absolutely fascinating, and the tour guide a fountain of knowledge. Along a gallery on the first level a varied and extensive array of early stone carvings, structural fixtures, fittings, and other artefacts from throughout the history of the site were displayed, the guide bringing them to life with his informed narrative. Ascending through further galleries we would see at close quarters the magnificent stained glass windows, unique architectural features, and have explained to us the extensive history and development of the building, and would see birds-eye views of the splendid interior from on high. In the tower we saw the magnificent clock mechanism wind into action as the bells on the floor above chimed out the hour. Also here, a much earlier clock mechanism, and a chance to peer through into an 'attic space' over the original arched stone roof, long since hidden from view beneath the later pitched roof. And then upwards again to see the bells themselves, before venturing outside onto the top of the tower, with it's magnificent views across the town, harbour, and beyond. An opportunity for some great scenic photos (though photos are permitted throughout the tour) Truly a unique and fascinating insight to the 'hidden' side of this magnificent building and it's extensive history - worth every penny and thoroughly recommended!
St Magnus Cathedral is located right in the heart of Kirkwall, Orkney, visible from all around the town. Founded in 1137 by the Viking Earl Rognvald, nephew of St Magnus, it is a red-coloured building, built primarily from sandstone. It is an impressive building from outside, yet somehow understated. It isn't beautiful in the conventional sense, yet it is perfectly suited to Orkney. It is rather squat, unlike so many cathedrals, particularly English ones, which seem to soar elegantly towards the sky. St Magnus Cathedral hunkers down as if to better fend off the elements and the strong Orkney winds. For several days, every time I saw it, it felt familiar, as if I knew it. I finally realised that it reminds me of the Lewis chessmen, short and wide. My parents and I decided to venture inside one day for a look around. I am almost always ill at ease in religious buildings, and I could feel that coming on again on entering St Magnus Cathedral. . However, I was soon distracted by the beautiful stained glass window at the far end of the cathedral. There being no notices forbidding photographs, I sneakily took a couple then wandered down the side of the cathedral. I found a plan of the building, pinpointed a few things to see that I thought sounded interesting and headed off for a look while my parents had a more leisurely wander. The first was the memorial to the Royal Oak. Orkney is full of history from fairly defined periods of time - Neolithic, the Norsemen and the two World Wars. HMS Royal Oak was lying at anchor in the natural harbour of Scapa Flow in 1939 when U47 snuck in and torpedoed it. The ship and its men are remembered in the islands, and this small memorial of a bell, flags and book of remembrance was understated and poignant, it struck the right note without making a fanfare about it. I then had a look at the memorial of John Rae, Arctic explorer who died in 1893. His grave is in the churchyard, but there is a fitting memorial to him inside. Unlike many memorials, the effigy was not lying on its back. Rather, he is on his side, dressed in his Arctic clothing with rifle at the ready. This seems wonderfully fitting for such a man. The neighbouring memorial/tomb was not so refreshing. It was for William Balfour Baikie, died 1864, who was credited on the inscription with helping to bring Christianity to people of Africa, or words to that effect. As an atheist I strongly dislike this attitude that Christianity is the best thing for other cultures. This added to the unease I was already feeling at being in a cathedral, and I started to feel very uncomfortable. Close to the memorial for John Rae was Orkney's own "Poets Corner", like in Westminster. The most notable name there was George Mackay Brown, alongside other Orcadian literary figures such as Eric Linklater. The last thing I looked for was the relics of St Magnus, as marked on the plan I had consulted. I found where they should be, but it took me a few minutes to notice the plaque on the pillar next to me stating that the relics were contained with the pillar. I think I must have been expecting something daft like the relics on display... St Magnus Cathedral is an interesting place to have a stroll around, but cathedrals and churches are really not my cup of tea, with the notable exception of Westminster Abbey. I much preferred it from the outside - the exterior, shape and colour really spoke to me.