the early period of Norse rule, the Mainland parish of Orphir
was a centre of power.
Today, the parish contains the remains
of Scotland's only surviving circular medieval church.
Built in the late 11th, or early 12th century,
the Orphir Round Kirk is thought
to have been built by Earl Hakon. Dedicated to Saint Nicholas, its design was inspired by the
Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.
At the time of the kirk's construction, the Great
Crusades were in full swing and the circular church had become a
popular design with returning crusaders attempting to copy the famous
structure in the Holy Land.
Originally, the Round Kirk consisted of a circular
nave just over six metres in diameter and an apse. The apse remains
today, along with a small section of the nave's eastern section.
It is sad to note that the church survived, almost complete, until
the middle of the 18th century when sections were
pulled down and the stone used to construct the new parish church.
The replacement parish kirk did not last and no trace survives
today. The only evidence of its construction is the kirkyard that
still surrounds its ancient predecessor.
to the Orkneyinga saga, after the slaying
of Saint Magnus in Egilsay,
Earl Hakon assumed complete power - seizing control of all Orkney.
It is perhaps not surprising that the man responsible
for the murder of the beloved Magnus - around whose remains strange
tales of miraculous happenings were already beginning to circulate
- was having trouble with his conscience.
The saga explains that as a penance for his terrible
crime, Hakon decided to undertake a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
On his return to Orkney, he is said to have instigated the construction
of the little church on his estate.
The church is mentioned in the Orkneyinga saga,
which also tells us that the Earl's drinking hall (or "Bu")
"There was a great drinking-hall at Orphir,
with a door in the south wall near the eastern gable, and in front
of the hall, just a few paces down from it, stood a fine church.
On the left as you came into the hall was a large stone slab,
with a lot of big ale vats behind it, and opposite the door was
the living room."
The Orkneyinga Saga - Chapter 66
foundations of the Bu were discovered in 1859 (see picture right), although there is
some doubt as to whether the kirk and the Bu were in use in the
The saga goes on to recount a number of violent
incidents and deaths that took place within this drinking hall. It would appear that these savage bouts of drinking were often interrupted
for brief visits to the church.
"They kept drinking till
Vespers and when the Earl went out Svein Asleifson walked ahead
of him, but Svein Breast-Rope stayed behind, still drinking."
The Orkneyinga Saga