New tour of Cathedral gravestones brings Orkney’s past to life

Locals and visitors can delve into Orkney’s fascinating history and colourful characters of the past as revealed by the gravestones surrounding St Magnus Cathedral – through a new in-depth guided tour, available from this summer. The project has been made possible through the support of the Friends of St Magnus Cathedral who’ve helped fund a new Cathedral Curator post – filled earlier this year by Fran Flett Hollinrake who will be well known to many as Cathedral Custodian for many years and gifted local storyteller. During the hour-long tour guided by Fran, folk will encounter the many characters who have shaped Orkney’s trajectory, or been affected by pivotal moments in its past.

Highlights include gravestones of the rich and famous, including the 19th century epitaph of Samuel Baikie of the Orkney family dynasty of Tankerness House. Brother of William Balfour Baikie, the renowned African missionary from Orkney buried inside the Cathedral, Samuel built the striking Town Hall opposite St Magnus Cathedral – and also much of Dundas Cresent. The tour will also showcase five war graves from WWI (three in War Grave Commission style), the mass graves where nave burials were relocated from inside the Cathedral, paupers’ graves – and a gravestone somewhat uniquely featuring the date ‘30 February’.

Wealth of history

Fran explains the tours are aimed at people who want to get a view of Orkney over the centuries – through a grass roots lens, “It’s often said death levels us all, and there is much to be learned by reading between the lines of someone’s gravestone and how their contribution to society was recorded at the time in this most final of ways.” One of Fran’s favourite gravestones is that of Peter Wick, the first Cathedral Custodian, who died in 1902 and whose photo is held by the Orkney Library and Archive: “His main job seems to have been to be stop people from carving their names in the walls of the Cathedral! I think everyone would agree we’ve moved on since then – nowadays the Cathedral is admired around the world and seen as a marvel holding an age of amazing stories. And this new tour of the graveyard is just one way to prise open the lid on that wealth of history.”

Chair of the Council’s Education, Leisure and Housing Committee, Gwenda Shearer, said: “Fascination for Orkney and its history continues to grow the world over, as does local pride in our heritage – so it’s with delight that we are launching this new tour to further celebrate the wonderful history embedded in St Magnus Cathedral.”

St Magnus Cathedral was founded in 1137, and is of international significance. Built from local red and yellow sandstone, the cathedral is mostly Romanesque in style. It is dedicated to St Magnus, Earl of Orkney in the 12th century, at a time when Orkney was part of the Kingdom of Norway. He was killed on the orders of his cousin and rival Hakon, and many miracles were reported after this death. In 1137 Magnus’s nephew Rognvald began construction of the ‘fine minster’ in honour of his saintly uncle; Magnus’s relics remain interred in a pillar of the choir. The cathedral has stood firm against Reformers, Cromwellian troops and wartime danger, and is the most complete medieval cathedral in Scotland.

Visit the Orkney Museums website for more information:

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