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 was gentle and agreeable when talking to men of wisdom and goodwill, but severe and uncompromising towards thieves and vikings, putting to death most of the men who plundered the farms and other parts of the earldom. 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.
Just across from John O’Groats are 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, the territory was often disputed, and settlements were often reached through military alliances and intermarriages, especially at the highest levels of society: the heiress of King Alexander III of Scots was Margaret, the Maid of Norway. 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.
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, on Orkney, it was common for men to farm in the summer and go on raids in the winter, supposedly 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 the devoutness of a pious Christian (apart from the killing bit – they still hadn’t figured out how to do without that).
Magnus was killed by his cousin, Hakon, with whom he was join ruler of Orkney, in a slap-dash power grab. 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 were miraculously cured; compulsive gamblers started winning hands that they dedicated to Magnus. All sorts of things.
After Hakon died, Magnus’s nephew, Rognvald Kali, became an earl of Orkney, and 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, and therefore Britain, it became the most northerly cathedral in Britain and earned 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 it’s technically not a cathedral, although it’s retained that grand title. It’s now a Church of Scotland (Presbyterian) parish church.
Visiting the 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, which can be found on Amazon.com here or Amazon.co.uk here. The quotation above is taken from Chapter 45 (pages 89-90).