The Journal Of Antiquities

Ancient Sites In Great Britain & Southern Ireland

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St Nicholas’ Round Church, Orphir, Orkney Isles.

St Nicholas’ Round Church at Orphir, Orkney Isles. (Photo by T. Kent).

   OS Grid Reference: HY 33494 04429. On Gyre Road at Orphir Bay and a few hundred metres or so north of the shoreline of Scapa Flow, Orkney, are the remains of an early 12th century round church (kirk) of St Nicholas. It was probably originally dedicated to Saint Magnus. Beside the old church are a burial ground and the scant ruins of the Earls Bu, a Viking hall or palace, and also a farmstead and mill. The famous round church was built by Earl Hakon, who had a few years earlier (1111) murdered Earl Magnus (St Magnus). There is the Orkneyinga Saga Centre on the site; while in the burial ground there is an early medieval graveslab, and from the Dark Ages a Pictish symbol stone. The site is best reached from the A964 at the south-side of the island near Houton, then on Gyre Road for a short distance; the Orkneyinga Saga Centre entrance is on the right-hand side of the road.

   The author J. Gunn (1941) says of the round church: “At the churchyard near the shore we may stop to visit as pilgrims the pathetic little ruin at the east door of the church (now demolished). This is the semicircular apse and a fragment of the wall of a circular church, the remainder of which was unfortunately used as material for building the present church. This fragment is older than the cathedral of St. Magnus. It was built by Earl Hakon, the murderer of St. Magnus after his penitential pilgrimage to Jerusalem. 

   Mr Gunn goes on to say that after murdering Earl Magnus he: “……endeavoured to expiate his crime, as the manner then was, by going on a pilgrimage first to Rome and thereafter to Jerusalem. A small but deeply interesting fragment of masonry, still to be seen in Orphir churchyard, is regarded as a memorial of that penitential journey. At the east end of the present church (now demolished) is a vaulted semicircular apse of what was once the Round Church of Orphir, one of the very few churches in Britain built on the model of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. It seems certain that this was erected by Hakon on his return to Orkney, and it is therefore the oldest piece of ecclesiastical building in Orkney, except, perhaps, some of the ruins of little Celtic chapels. After his pilgrimage we read that Hakon proved a good ruler, made better laws, and became so popular that “”the Orkneymen desired no other ruler than Hakon and his issue.”” 

   The site entry for Orphir: St. Nicholas’ Church in ‘Ancient Monuments – Scotland’ adds that: “Only the chancel and a small part of the nave remain of this, the single example of a round church known to have been built in the Middle Ages in Scotland. The structure dates from the twelfth century, and appears to have been modeled on Scandinavian prototypes, derived ultimately from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem.” Also we have Charles Tait writing in 1999. He adds some more information saying: “The Round Kirk is thought to be the church built by Earl Haakon Paulson, to the plan  of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, on his return  from Jerusalem about 1120, in atonement for the murder of Earl Magnus. Previously known as the Girth House from the Norse grid for sanctuary, or peace, the church was largely demolished in the 18th century (about 1757) to build a new church, itself now gone.”

   Standing close by the round church are the foundation walls of some buildings, many now covered over by grass turf, of the Earl’s Bu or the drinking hall (palace or mansion), which was probably built by Earl Hakon Paulson between 1120-23. The place was mentioned in the famous Orkneyinga Saga. There are also some remains of a farmstead and watermill from the 10th century. The site was excavated three times in the 19th century, and continues today. At the entrance to the site is the Orkneyinga Saga Centre which is run by The Orkney Islands Council. This has displays celebrating the famous Viking Saga, and telling the story of the Norse Earls of Orkney through interpretation boards and audiovisual displays etc. In the burial ground there are stones from the early Medieval and Dark Age periods; one in particular being a 7th century Pictish symbol stone with crescent and V-rod, and an interesting carved graveslab from the 11th century. An inscribed runic stone was found here, but is now on display in the Orkney Museum, Tankerness House, Kirkwall. The Canmore ID number is: 1962. 

Sources and related websites:-

Gunn, J., Orkney – The Magnetic North, Thomas Nelson And Sons. Ltd., London, 1941.

H. M. S. O.,  Ancient Monuments – Scotland, (Volume VI),  H. M. Stationary Office, Edinburgh, 1959.

Tait, Charles, The Orkney Guide Book, (Edition 2.1), Charles Tait Photographic, Kelton, St Ola, Orkney, 1999.

                                                                                  © Ray Spencer, The Journal of Antiquities, 2017.