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  St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall

St Magnus Cathedral: Photograph by Sigurd TowrieIn 1135, Earl Magnus Erlendsson of Orkney was canonised.

About this time, the revered remains of Magnus were taken from Christchurch, in Birsay, where they had lain for 20 years, and moved east.

Their destination was the unassuming little Church of St Olaf, in a small seaside settlement Kirkjuvagr - or Kirkwall as it is known now.

Some years later, the saint's relics were moved again - this time transferred into the massive, sandstone cathedral that had been raised in Magnus's honour.

The cathedral's founding

The story of the founding of St Magnus Cathedral is well documented within the pages of the Orkneyinga saga.

In a tale of political intrigue and dirty deeds, the saga tells us that the cathedral was built on the instructions of Earl Rognvald Kolsson, who had been advised, by his father Kol, to:

"build a stone minster at Kirkwall more magnificent than any in Orkney, that you'll have (it) dedicated to your uncle the holy Earl Magnus and provide it with all the funds it will need to flourish. In addition, his holy relics and the episcopal seat must be moved there."
The Orkneyinga Saga - Chapter 68

However, Rognvald's intentions in building the cathedral were not entirely honourable.

Born in Agder, Norway, around 1100AD, Rognvald was the son of Kol and Gunhild, the sister of Saint Magnus. He changed his name from Kali Kolsson in honour of Earl Rognvald Brusison - the earl of Orkney from around 1037 until his murder in 1045.

Before long, Rognvald turned his attention to his uncle Magnus’s half-share of the Orkney earldom. In 1129, his chance came when he was handed the earldom by the Norwegian king, Sigurd the Crusader.

At the time, Rognvald did nothing about claiming his share. In fact, he did nothing for some time, until King Harald, Sigurd’s successor, ratified the claim.

Picture Sigurd TowrieThen, Rognvald assembled a fleet and set sail for Orkney, with the intention of overthrowing Paul Hakonsson, the existing earl of Orkney. After battling severe weather, Rognvald and his men finally landed in the islands, but were met with fierce resistance.

Not surprisingly, Paul had no intention of giving up his earldom without a fight.

It was then that Rognvald's father, Kol, had an idea.

Rather than wage all-out war, he suggested that Rognvald should try and secure the earldom by other, less direct, means. Kol instructed Rognvald to tell the people of Orkney that once he became earl, he would raise the finest church the north had ever seen. This church was to be in memory of his saintly uncle, Magnus, a man whom the islanders venerated above all.

While Rognvald was capturing the hearts of the Orcadian people, behind the scenes he had Earl Paul kidnapped in Rousay and spirited from the islands.

The Orkneyinga saga is unclear as to the fate of the dispossessed Paul.

Sweyn Asleifsson is said to have reported back to Rognvald that Paul had been blinded and incarcerated – upon the instruction of Paul who had decided to remain in Scotland.

However, it adds:

“But some men tell a story which is less seemly, that Margaret had led Sweyn Asleifsson, by her counsel, to blind earl Paul her brother, and put him into a dark dungeon; but after that she got another man to take his life there.”

The saga concluded:

“…we do not know which of the two stories is more true; but all men know that he never afterwards came back to the Orkneys, nor held he any rule in Scotland.”

Paul's murder, or abdication, saw his three-year-old nephew Harald Maddadsson made joint-earl. And back in Orkney, despite the underhand tactics surrounding the fate of Earl Paul, Rognvald was good to his word.

Construction begins

Picture Sigurd TowrieWith the earldom in Rognvald's hands, work on the cathedral started. Under the direction of the wily Kol, construction work began in 1137.

The ambitious project was to be built on a prime site by the shore - which at that time came up as far as the current Kirk Green.

However, a project on this scale was not cheap and Rognvald's grandiose construction scheme soon ran short of money.

Kol stepped in again, this time advising his son to restore the rights of tenure to Orkney's "°dallers" in return for a cash payment.

Rognvald agreed, the scheme was a success and construction continued.

Unfortunately, Earl Rognvald never saw his cathedral reach a state anywhere near completion. In 1158, he was murdered by a rebellious Scottish chieftain.

Holy relics

Picture Sigurd TowrieRognvald's bones were returned to Kirkwall, where they were eventually placed within the cathedral he had founded.

He was canonised in 1192, but some doubts exist as to the validity of his sainthood, because no existing records seem to confirm it.

However, Saint Rognvald's relics were discovered in the 18th century, set into a stone pillar opposite the one that would, in 1919, be found to contain Saint Magnus' holy remains.

Built from alternating bands of local red and yellow sandstone, the cathedral of Saint Magnus gradually grew, and with it the village at its feet. Upon its completion, three centuries or so after the first foundation stone was laid, it towered over Kirkwall - by now a thriving town.

The cathedral has been justifiably described as "one of the finest and best preserved medieval cathedrals in Scotland" and it is not difficult to see why.

Even now, over 860 years after the initial building work began, St Magnus Cathedral still dominates the Kirkwall skyline - a familiar, and comforting sight, to Kirkwallians around the world.