Love Your Local Church – A visit to Orkney

Annette Brydone

Trustee, Scotland’s Churches Trust

In a slight change to our ongoing series of “Love Your Local Church” blogs, where guest bloggers share with readers what makes their favourite nearby churches so special to them, Annette Brydone has written about three beautiful and distinctly different churches that left a lasting impression upon her during a recent stay on Orkney. 

St Magnus Cathedral, founded in 1137, dominates the skyline of Kirkwall.

It has been known to generations of Orcadians as the ‘Light of the North’ and is one of the best-known surviving buildings in Scotland to be in use continuously since medieval times.

It is dedicated to St Magnus, an Earl of Orkney, who was martyred in Egilsay in 1117.  He was a very pious and gentle man and was canonised in 1135 after which his nephew, Rӧgnwald, had the cathedral built in his memory.

The remains of both Magnus and Rӧgnwald are to be found on either side of the entrance to the sanctuary.

James III of Scotland gave the cathedral to the burgh of Kirkwall, which owns it to this day.

The cathedral is built of a pattern of red and yellow sandstone, and the church has wonderful proportions.  It suffered minimal damage during the Reformation and it is now used largely by the Church of Scotland, though also from time to time by other denominations. 

There are memorials to the explorer Sir John Rae and writers such as George Mackay Brown, Eric Linklater and Edwin Muir as well as a monument to HMS Royal Oak which was torpedoed off Orkney during the Second World War. It also contains some beautiful stained glass that was installed in the twentieth century. 

The Cathedral is open every day and a warm welcome awaits visitors.

The church of Our Lady and St Joseph in Kirkwall was the first Catholic church to be founded in Orkney since the Reformation. 

Built in 1877, it was constructed shortly before the restoration of the Scottish Roman Catholic hierarchy in 1878, and it has been in constant use ever since. 

Presently, the congregation is served by a priest from the mainland, and Mass is celebrated on Sunday evenings and Monday mornings. 

Constructed from two Nissan Huts by Italian prisoners of war between 1943 and 1944, the A-listed Italian Chapel on Lamb Holm is one of the most moving churches to visit. 

The main artist responsible was Giovanni Chiochetti,  who started with the statue of St George, the patron saint of soldiers.

Everything inside the chapel is dedicated to peace. His inspiration for the altarpiece came from a prayer card his mother had given him before he went to war. It depicts the Madonna of the Olives by Nicolo Barabino.  She is depicted carrying the Christ Child who is holding out an olive branch.

“Everything inside the chapel is dedicated to peace…”

Chiochetti painted her with a halo and surrounded by light and angels.   On either side he painted St Francis of Assisi and St Catherine of Siena, the patron saints of Italy.

Chiochetti was assisted by several fellow prisoners, particularly Giuseppe Palumbo, who created its magnificent wrought iron work. 

Most Italian prisoners of war left in 1945, but some would eventually come back, most notably Domenico Chiochetti himself who returned to Orkney to restore the artwork in the 1960s.

The chapel was very nearly demolished after the war, but happily it was saved by a local joiner, Thomas Thomson, who was a devout elder of the Church of Scotland and resisted the task of demolishing the Chapel and managed to get a reprieve!

The Italian Chapel is open every day and is visited by many tourists from all over the world. There is a monthly Sunday afternoon Mass still and it is occasionally a venue for weddings. It is truly worth visiting! 

Our thanks to Annette for contributing this blog and for the images that accompany it. If you would like to write a blog for us about your favourite Scottish church do please get in touch.