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    The story of St Magnus Cathedral in seven paintings…


    St Magnus Kirk, Egilsay Bob Jones  2009 Wikimedia

    St Magnus Kirk*, Egilsay, Bob Jones 2009 – Wikimedia

    A light that has once shone is never quenched. Can a diamond wither?

    (George Mackay Brown – Magnus)

    St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall, Orkney, Source Wikimedia

    St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall, Orkney. – Source Wikimedia


    Hi everybody !

    How the martyrdom of earl Magnus and the miracles who followed his death led to the building of St Magnus cathedral in Kirkwall, that is what we’re going to learn today in the last seven paintings of the children of Arran who so beautifully illustrated this page of the  Orkneyinga SagaThis famous saga was one of the main sources of inspiration for George Mackay Brown, the great Orkney bard, who has given a new life to the mythical book in his poetry, novels, essays and chronicles.

    An Orkney Tapestry George Mackay Brown Quartet Books 1973

    An Orkney Tapestry George Mackay Brown Quartet Books 1973


    It was not possible to fake the miracles that increased like ears of corn, like fish in the net, after the death of Magnus. The names of the sick people who were healed at the shrine of the saint, first in Birsay and afterwards in Kirkwall, were set out in order like a roll-call, together with their occupations and islands, and the cures effected… The sceptical French-educated Bishop William was involved, against all his inclinations.

    (George Mackay Brown – An Orkney Tapestry – 1st published in 1969)


    On my desk, three of GMB’s books are open:  Magnus, his best known novel,  Rockpools & Daffodils, a selection of his weekly chronicles written for The Orcadian in the years 1979-1991 and published in a single volume in 1992 and An Orkney Tapestry, a collection of essays about Orkney. The choice of the term ‘tapestry’ is particularly relevant in this last title for it is a recurrent theme in GMB’s works. Indeed, the ‘loom’ is a key image in Magnus.

    On 10 July 1980,  George Mackay Brown wrote a beautiful chronicle in The Orcadian celebrating the young talented artists and their paintings.

    Here, out of the imagination of these young artists, is much of the direct strength of the saga itself.

    Weaving through all is a charm and innocence that belongs to youth: the dew is still on the grass, the first birds are still singing.  So, two distinct events fuse in the same picture. Blind Mary goes on the road with her dead dangling white chickens; then, the miracle of seeing having been restored to her, there is the chicken alive and perky among her rags. It is a small triumph of the imagination.

    (Rockpools & Daffodils ‘Images from Arran’ – 10/7/80)

    But let’s come back to the Arran children’s paintings…

    St Magnus cathedral painted panels - Scene VIII - 'Thora's Feast & Burial at Birsay © 2012 Scotiana

    St Magnus cathedral painted panels – Scene VIII – ‘Thora’s Feast & Burial at Birsay © 2012 Scotiana

    ‘Thora, mother of the murdered Earl, sets an example of Christian love to Hakon. At the feast to celebrate the Egilsay treaty, she invites Hakon to be her son now, and entreats him to allow Magnus to be buried at Birsay. Hakon, guilt-stricken, agrees.’

    St Magnus cathedral painted panels - Scene IX - 'Mary's miracle'  © 2012 Scotiana

    St Magnus cathedral painted panels – Scene IX – ‘Mary’s miracle’ © 2012 Scotiana

    ‘Hakon repented, ruled as a Christian, and his son Earl Paul the Silent succeeded him. Paul and Bishop William ignore all the miracles taking place at Magnus’ grave. When old Mary regains her sight, Jock the Tinker shouts ‘God blesses St Magnus’ to the closed kirk door.’

    St Magnus cathedral painted panels - Scene X - 'Bishop breaks his oath' © 2012 Scotiana

    St Magnus cathedral painted panels – Scene X – ‘Bishop breaks his oath’ © 2012 Scotiana

    ‘Bishop William is caught in a storm at sea. He promises that in return for good weather, he will honour the holy relics of Earl Magnus. The storm subsides. William reaches home safely, but he continues to ignore the miracles at Magnus’ grave.’

    St Magnus cathedral painted panels - Scene XI - ' Bishop keeps his wow' © 2012 Scotiana

    St Magnus cathedral painted panels – Scene XI – ‘ Bishop keeps his wow’ © 2012 Scotiana

    ‘Suddenly Bishop William is struck blind in his Kirk and, terrified, he gropes for the door. At Magnus’ graveside he regains his sight. At last, William has the Earl’s coffin dug up and his relics consecrated in a holy place on St Lucy’s Day.’

    St Magnus cathedral painted panels – Scene XII – ‘Paul Rognvald’s promise’ © 2012 Scotiana

    ‘Rognvald Kali, nephew of St Magnus, newly made Earl of Orkney, wishes to share the islands with Hakon’s son. But Paul opposes him and prepares for battle. Rognvald and his father, Kol, promise do dedicate a great church to St Magnus if they succeed against Paul. ‘

    St Magnus cathedral painted panels 'building begins' © 2012 Scotiana

    St Magnus cathedral painted panels – Scene XIII – ‘Building begins’ © 2012 Scotiana

    ‘Hakon’s son, Paul, mysteriously disappears when Rognvald arrives in Orkney where the people greets him as their new Earl and ruler. Soon, Rognvald and Kol, the architect, start directing the building of a new great church in Kirkwall.’

    St Magnus cathedral painted panels - Scene XIV -  'St Magnus Cathedral' © 2012 Scotiana

    St Magnus cathedral painted panels – Scene XIV – ‘St Magnus Cathedral’ © 2012 Scotiana

    ‘St Magnus cathedral, founded in the year 1137, has received many pilgrims, Bishop William, Rognvald and Kol, farmers and fishermen, poets, musicians, artists and children.’

    Magnus George Mackay Brown Quartet Books Limited 1977

    Magnus George Mackay Brown Quartet Books Limited 1977

    Now that we know the story of St Magnus and the origins of the cathedral dedicated to him in Kirkwall, I would  like to quote several passages from the last chapter of Magnus  entitled ‘Harvest’. Here, GMB describes the peregrination of an old couple of tinkers on their road to the burial place of St Magnus. These characters appear recurrently in the book. A ‘dialogue de sourd’ has taken place between Jock and Mary, his companion who has become blind. Jock firmly believes that St Magnus can give back her sight to Mary and he is ready to do anything to make this happen while Mary is following him reluctantly and grumbling. The  scene  is particularly moving when old Jock, trying to light his ‘hunk of tallow’ as a votive candle,  repeatedly begs Saint Magnus to cure Mary while the old woman is making  such a nuisance of herself that she finally awake sthe bishop (‘Jock, it’s midnight. A rat ran over me’…).

    Viking Church remains Brough of Birsay Colin Smith 2007 Wikimedia

    Viking Church remains – Brough of Birsay – Colin Smith 2007 Wikimedia

    –  I’m not going a step further till I know where we’re going.

    – I told you. To the Birsay Kirk.

    She screamed at him.

    – I’m not going to any kirk!

    – You must.

    – I will not!

    Echo after echo came back from the low crags. A cave boomed. He put his hand over her mouth. He said, gentle and low and pleading.

    – Please, Mary.

    She tore her wild mouth from his hand. She screamed like a madwoman.

    – No! (…)

    – I’m tired of the holy talk of them brothers every time they put a bandage on my eyes. O my poor afflicted daughter, bear your cross with patience… I don’t want any more of that class of talk. O no. I’ve had my belly-full of that palaver.

    – Stay where you are, then. I won’t be that long (…)


    He [Old Jock]went forward, tremulously, down the nave. There it was, set in the centre of the aisle, a square of new sandstone with a carved cross – the tomb he was looking for. (…)

    – A small blink only, Magnus. I’m asking no more (…)

    Stone and silence. His knees and hands and mouth were beginning to be numb.


    This man [St Magnus] was now in two places at once. He was lying with a terrible wound in his face in the kirk near where the old man and the old woman were girding themselves for the road; Birsay, place of his beginning and end, birth and sepulchre. Also he was pure essence in another intensity, a hoarder of the treasures of charity and prayer, a guardian.

    This fragrant vivid ghost was everywhere and always, but especially he haunted the island of his childhood. That morning he had been summoned by a candle, a small pitiful earth-to-heaven cry; its flame quickly quenched, and seemingly futile (…)

    Saint Magnus the Martyr accepted the tallow flame. He touched it to immortality, a hard diamond. The radiance he reserved, to give back again when it was needed (…)


    She [Mary] screeched. She put her hands to her face.

    – Ah-h-h-h! You struck me! You tore my face!…

    – Be quiet. Nobody touched you.

    Mary whimpered. And rubbed salt scurf from her eyes. And was quiet. And bent down. She plucked, tremulously, a flower from the grass. She knelt. She murmured names – daisy, seapink, thistle…

    The old one got to her feet. She turned her glimmering face this way and that. Her finger pointed at the incoming ocean, then wavered over in the direction of Revay Hill…


    These extracts are very limited but I hope they will make you want to read Magnus. Not easy reading but it’s worth the effort. This very deep, poetical novel and its author will remain forever in your imaginary…

    Bonne lecture!

    A bientôt.




    * St Magnus Kirk, Egilsay.  The kirk was built towards the end of the 12th century and consists of a nave and small chancel. The tall round tower on the western end is a notable landmark, being visible from Rousay and the Orkney mainland. The church lost its roof sometime in the 19th century. It is dedicated to St Magnus, who was slaughtered on Egilsay in 1114. (Wikimedia)

    ** Viking Church Remains, Brough of Birsay.  The larger walls on the left contained the church. The slab in the centre is a copy of a Pictish symbol stone. In the distance are the northern cliffs of Birsay. In the foreground are sea pinks or thrift.(Wikimedia)

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