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Wednesday, 30 August 2017

900th anniversary of the death of St Magnus, patron saint of Orkney. (AD 1117-2017)



‘Diocesan pilgrimage hailed as historic’ was the headline on page 5 of the ‘Orcadian’ newspaper of 3rd August, which referred to the visit to Orkney the previous weekend, of three Catholic Archbishops and nine Bishops, together with priests and many  Catholic laity, who had travelled to Orkney to commemorate the 900th anniversary of the death of St Magnus, the patron saint of Orkney. 


                      St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall, Orkney.


This unique diocesan pilgrimage involved all of the bishops and archbishops from the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland; also a Scandinavian contingent which included the Bishop of Oslo, Bernt  Eidsvig, and the Bishop of Copenhagen, Czeslaw Kuzo;  also Bishop Nicholas Hudson, auxiliary Bishop of Westminster.



 Hierarchy and priests outside St Magnus Cathedral, 30 July 2017.(ack. Tom O'Brien, 'Orcadian')


On the  Friday, the ‘Magnus 900’ commemorations  included a series of talks in the St Magnus Centre, on the theme of St Magnus, and his legacy, including a talk by Orkney- based Catholic philosopher and musicologist, Dr Ben Whitworth.   

On the Saturday, there was a choice of two local pilgrimages, one  to  St Magnus Kirk, Birsay, along a section of the new St Magnus Way pilgrimage route; the other  a visit by ferry and on foot to St Magnus Kirk, on the isle of Egilsay. 


                 Interior of St Magnus Cathedral  (Expedia)

Probably the highlight of the weekend was on the Sunday, with the celebration of High Mass in St Magnus Cathedral, accompanied  by the Aberdeen Diocesan Choir. Surely never before has there been an occasion when the sanctuary of this great Cathedral accommodated so many Roman Catholic prelates, participating together in the celebration of Holy Mass. In addition to this I would suggest that the last time High Mass was offered in the Cathedral must be prior to the Reformation, some 500 years ago.


 High Mass, St Magnus Cathedral, 30 July 2017.(ack. Tom O'Brien 'Orcadian')

Bishop Hugh Gilbert O.S.B., Bishop of Aberdeen, described the occasion as holy and historic, and a privilege and delight for him. He commented on the friendliness and helpfulness of the people of Orkney, with special mention of those from the Council and the Cathedral, and he emphasized the importance of the  commemoration which underlined  the iconic significance of Saint Magnus, still an inspirational figure 900 years after his death.


Bishop Hugh Gilbert O.S.B.  Bishop of Aberdeen (ack. Tom O'Brien, 'Orcadian')

Father Peter Kelly, the parish priest of Our Lady and St Joseph Church, Kirkwall, afterwards commented, “This has not just been a once-in-a-lifetime event, but an historic event. Never in the history of Orkney has there been an occasion like this.”   The Mass in the Cathedral , he described as  “a very, very moving experience.”

The Cathedral Minister, the Rev. Fraser Macnaughton, also commented on the historic nature of the occasion, describing it as very fitting and appropriate for the Magnus900 festival, and expressing pleasure at the welcome he and other non-Catholics had received from those on the pilgrimage.


Leaving St Magnus Cathedral with processional banner depicting Aberdeen diocese coat-of-arms. (30 July 2017) (ack.Tom O'Brien, 'Orcadian'.)

The commemoration of Saint Magnus, the patron saint of Orkney, was truly an historic and memorable occasion, and a valuable reminder of Orkney's strong Catholic heritage, of which the magnificent Cathedral  is symbolic, as are numerous other early Christian sites around the county.


St Magnus was killed in Egilsay by his cousin Haakon, believed in 1117, and was buried at Birsay. He was canonised about 20 years later, with several miracles being attributed to him. In his memory, his nephew, St Rognvald, then commenced the building of St Magnus Cathedral, where, when consecrated, the relics of St Magnus  were transferred. Several centuries later, in 1919, a casket containing bones and a damaged skull, believed to be the relics of St Magnus, was found hidden in a stone column in the Cathedral, where they remain to this day.

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 Abridged extract from Wikipedia concerning St Magnus.

"According to the 'Orkneyinga Saga', Magnus had a reputation for piety and gentleness. He refused to fight in a Viking raid in AngleseyWales, because of his religious convictions, and instead stayed on board ship singing psalms. He subsequently fled to Scotland, returning to Orkney in 1105 to claim his right of accession to the Earldom of Orkney. His cousin Haakon disputed this, and the matter was settled by King Eystein 1 of Norway, who ruled that he and Haakon should rule jointly, which lasted satisfactorily until 1114, when their respective followers fell out and determined on war.
 Peace was negotiated and the Earls arranged to meet each other on the island of Egilsay at Easter, each bringing only two ships. Magnus arrived with his two ships, but then Haakon treacherously turned up with eight ships.
Magnus took refuge in the island's church overnight, but the following day he was captured and offered to go into exile or prison, but an assembly of chieftains, tired of joint rule, insisted that one earl must die. Haakon's standard bearer, Ofeigr, refused to execute Magnus, and an angry Haakon made his cook Lifolf kill Magnus by striking him on the head with an axe. It was said that Magnus first prayed for the souls of his executioners.

Magnus was first buried on the spot where he died. According to his legend, the rocky area around his grave miraculously became a green field. Later Thora, Magnus' mother, asked Haakon to allow her to bury him in a Church. Haakon gave his permission and Magnus was then buried at Christchurch at Birsay.
The ruins of St Magnus Church, on the island of EgilsayThere were numerous reports of miraculous happenings and healings. William the Old, Bishop of Orkney, warned that it was "heresy to go about with such tales" and was then struck blind at his church but subsequently had his sight restored after praying at the grave of Magnus, not long after visiting Norway (and perhaps meeting Earl Rognvald Kolsson).
In 1136 Bishop William of Orkney sanctified the murdered Earl Magnus, making him Saint Magnus. It is thought probable that St Magnus Church, Egilsay, was constructed on the island shortly afterwards, at or near the supposed site of the murder.This may have replaced an earlier church which could have already been there at the time of the murder of Magnus.
Magnus's nephew, Rognvald Kali Kolsson, laid claim to the Earldom of Orkney, and was advised by his father Kol to promise the islanders to "build a stone minster at Kirkwall" in memory of his uncle the Holy Earl, and this became St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall. When the cathedral, begun in 1137, was ready for consecration the relics of St Magnus were transferred, and in 1919 a hidden cavity was found in a column, containing a box with bones including a damaged skull. These are held without (much) doubt to be the relics of St Magnus, and were replaced in the column where they remain to this day.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    

                                                          Relics of Saint Magnus 

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In composing this post, my thanks to Andrew Stewart 'Orcadian' for much of the information shown therein, and to Tom O'Brien 'Orcadian'  for permission to reproduce several of the photographs. A wider selection of photographs can be found on the Orcadian website, all of which are available for purchase.

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