• Gordon MacLellan

The Unsilent Cathedral

The Unsilent Cathedral

St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall

Magnus was the first Christian Saint of Orkney. His murder by his cousin Haakon is recorded in the Orkneyinga Saga and the subsequent journey of his body to Kirkwall has recently become the heart of a pilgrimage route across the Mainland in the Islands. Magnus' story is embedded in the islands.

A visitor can even stand before the pillar in the cathedral that holds his name and see the stone behind which his remains are contained. They were found in 1919, hidden in the pillar in a box to keep them safe during the Reformation.

CelebrationEarth! asked Tom and fellow storyteller Fran Flett Hollinrake to consider the sense of the sacred over time and how in a place like Orkney that sense of the sacred is embedded in the landscape. The result is four pieces of music and words: the three Eynhallow Laments poems from Tom and The Unsilent Cathedral from Fran. They are (or will be) available to watch and listen to on this channel. Watch Eynhallow 1, here

To describe The Unsilent Cathedral we can do no better than to use Fran's own description of the cathedral and her relationship with it

The Unsilent Cathedral

red sandstone frontage of the cathedral

Although it has been many years since I stood in awe beneath the red sandstone pillars of St Magnus Cathedral, a mere decade has passed since I started working there and got to stand in awe every working day.

The cathedral was founded in 1137, and has been a place of more-or-less continuous worship for nearly 900 years. It has withstood the storms of the Reformation and the Commonwealth, as well as the vagaries of fashion and politics, and towers still over Kirkwall – the spiritual heart of the Orkney community.

St Magnus himself has gone in and out of favour too. In the Middle Ages he was a very popular northern European saint, and now, in the early 21st century when pilgrimage seems to be gaining traction once more, his relics are again the culmination of a spiritual quest, forming the end point of the new St Magnus Way pilgrimage route.

Remembering Magnus: window in St Magnus Church, Birsay

The builders and masons of the early 12th century knew nothing of flying buttresses and gothic arches – their sky-high monuments to God had to be built on solid chunks of supporting masonry. The great round pillars in the cathedral nave are like tree trunks; indeed it is thought that the early church builders sought to emulate places of worship (both Christian and pre-Christian) deep inside forests, beneath the great green canopies.

During the cathedral’s medieval heyday the nave would have been richly coloured and painted in bright designs. On the saint’s feast days, flowers and greenery from outside would have been brought in to decorate it further, reaffirming the connection between man and nature, God’s beautiful creations.

At this time of year, the cathedral is usually thronging with visitors. But even though it remained closed to the public for most of this summer, it was far from silent. The building has its own symphony of noises, from the cooing of wood pigeons and the chattering of jackdaws outside in the graveyard, to the gurgling of the hot water heating, through to the deep sonorous chiming of the 15th century bells. It was these sounds that provided much of the inspiration for the violin piece The Unsilent Cathedral. The melody is also partly based on the ancient Hymn to St Magnus – a piece of music known to date from at least the 13th century, possibly even earlier. It is still sung regularly today, by the cathedral choir.

The recording of The Unsilent Cathedral in the building itself is complemented by the same piece being played in a natural setting, also in Orkney. Nestled into a crevice in the landscape in the west mainland of Orkney, stands the place known as Happy Valley. Although Orkney is not known for its trees and forests, a local man was determined to create a woodland glade at his home of Burnside. He was so successful and so delighted that the nickname of Happy Valley was easily adopted. The tiny little stone house and surrounding wild gardens are now looked after by a local trust for all to enjoy. It was a dreamy pleasure to stand beneath the trees with the burn trickling and the sunlight twinkling through the trees. A bird even joined in as I played.

Both the cathedral and Happy Valley have an ‘unsilent’ and spiritual life, over and above any human activity. I hope my little tune has made a small connection with, and between both of them.

Thanks and credits

Thanks to Fran for her words - and the music in the first place!

Find out more about Fran's work: http://dragon-history.co.uk/


  • St Magnus Bones: picture sourced from Orkeyjar, from Picture courtesy Orkney Library Image Archives

  • all other images: c/o G MacLellan

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