Orkney Part 2 – Kirkwall

Then back to Kirkwall the islands’ capital, and a visit to St Magnus Cathedral.

The building of St Magnus Cathedral was started by the Viking, Earl Rognvald, in honour of his uncle St Magnus. The Orkneyinga Saga tells the story of St Magnus.  

St Magnus Cathedral

The Saga reports that Magnus was a gentle and godly man, who was granted part of Orkney to rule, the rest being ruled by his cousin Hakon. They ruled together from 1105 to 1114, but after a time bad blood arose between the Hakon and the Magnus faction.  War seemed inevitable.  Hakon and Magnus agreed to meet on the Orkney island of Egilsay, ostensibly to negotiate a peace. Magnus brought two ships as agreed, but Hakon brought a small army and had the saintly Magnus executed. This at least avoided war.

One of the attractive cathedral doors

Construction began on the cathedral in 1137, and the building was changed and enlarged over the next 300 years. Some of the masons involved in the original building are believed to have been responsible for the building of Durham Cathedral.  The cathedral, in red sandstone with some embellishments in yellow sandstone, dominates Kirkwall.

Inside the cathedral built by the Norsemen
John Rae’s memorial in the cathedral. The explorer forgotten because he discovered an inconvenient truth.

Inside the cathedral is the tomb of John Rae. Rae should be better known. Rae was an Orkney man and a surgeon, who explored parts of northern Canada, and found the final portion of the Northwest Passage, named after him as Rae Straight.  But it was to be one of his other discoveries that was to ensure that he was to remain in relative obscurity.

In 1849 the Franklin expedition, an expedition of 129 men under Sir John Franklin, had disappeared while trying to travel from the North Atlantic to the Pacific.  Rae was involved in several attempts to find the Franklin expedition, or what had happened to them.  In spite of the efforts of a number of search parties nothing had been discovered until Rae met some Inuit with various trinkets from the expedition, who told of Europeans resorting to cannibalism and dying of starvation and cold.  I suspect that they had eaten people who had predeceased them, rather than murdering comrades to devour, but in reality we shall never know.

Discovering that a group of British heroes had resorted to cannibalism was not the way to endear yourself to the British ruling class – it rather undermined their image of British superiority.  Therefore the ruling class, led on my Franklin’s widow, did what they could to write Rae out of history. So he did not get the recognition and honours he deserved for all his work in northern Canada, but he is still remembered in Orkney.  

Opposite the cathedral is an excellent museum – I thoroughly recommend a visit.

Next, Part 3 – the Earl’s Palace in Orkney.

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