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Churches of the British Isles

Gallery: Churches of the Orkney Islands

by Stuart Smith, Sam Weller, & Peter Kessler, 13 December 2019

Orkney Part 1: Churches of Kirkwall, Burwick & Lamb Holm

St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall, Orkney Islands

St Magnus Cathedral stands at the north-eastern corner of Broad Street and Palace Road in Kirkwall, capital of the Orkney Islands. It was built for the bishops of Orkney when the islands were ruled by the Norse earls of Orkney. It is owned not by the church but by the burgh of Kirkwall as a result of an act of King James III of Scotland following Orkney's annexation by the Scottish crown in 1468. Construction began in 1137, and this was added to over the next 300 years.

St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall, Orkney Islands

The first bishop was William the Old, and the diocese was under the authority of the archbishop of Nidaros in Norway. It was for Bishop William that the nearby Bishop's Palace was built while the cathedral has its own dungeon. Its original design was based on that of Durham Cathedral. Only fragments of that building remain following successive rebuilds, but the walls, ceiling, and pillars would have been plastered and painted with colourful floral patterns, sadly all gone now.

St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall, Orkney Islands

By 1152 the choir and three pillars of the nave had been built. By the mid-1100s the apse was also in existence at the east end. Many years later a casket with the bones of St Magnus was discovered in this area. In the 1960s it became clear the the entire building was in serious danger of subsiding, and restoration work had to be carried out in 1974. Today, the cathedral is a parish church of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland and, therefore, technically no longer a cathedral.

St Mary's (Old) Church, Burwick, Orkney Islands

St Mary's (Old) Church, Burwick, is on the south side of the A961 as it crosses Burwick Loch, with the bay and the ferry terminal on its south flank in the South Ronaldsay parish. Built in 1789 to replace an older building it was otherwise known as the Lady Kirk, and reputedly stands on the arrival site of the first Christian missionaries to visit Orkney. It houses a rounded grey whin stone carved with two footprints which may (or may not) be a Pictish coronation stone.

Italian Chapel, Lamb Holm Island, Orkney Islands

The Italian Chapel sits at the north-east end of Lamb Holm island, close to the south coast of Mainland and immediately north of Burray. It was built between 1943-1944 by some of the 500-plus Italian PoWs who had been captured in North Africa and who were tasked with building the island's Churchill Barriers to prevent a possible enemy landing. With the prisoners requiring a Catholic chapel, they constructed this from two concrete Nissen huts joined together.

Italian Chapel, Lamb Holm Island, Orkney Islands

One of the prisoners, Domenico Chiocchetti, was highly artistic. He undertook to complete the chapel's stunning internal decoration. Another prisoner, Giuseppe Palumbi, had been a blacksmith, and it was he who made the elaborate sanctuary screen. More recently, Antonella Papa, a restoration artist from Rome who had previously worked in the Sistine Chapel, spent a month working in the chapel to refresh areas of Chiocchetti's painting which had faded over time.

Three photos on this page kindly contributed by Sam Weller and two by Stuart Smith, all via the 'History Files: Churches of the British Isles' Flickr group, and one photo originally published on Lynne's 'Echoes of the Past' blog and reproduced here with permission.



Images and text copyright © all contributors mentioned on this page. An original feature for the History Files.