St Magnus Cathedral is very much at the heart of Kirkwall. It sits proudly on Broad Street in the historic centre of the town and dominates the surrounding skyline.
It is a building that has played an important role in Orcadian history since it was founded in 1137. Known as the ‘Light of the North’, it was built by Earl Rognvald in memory of his uncle Magnus, who was murdered on the Orkney island of Egilsay 900 years ago.
It’s a fascinating place to visit and welcomes thousands of people every year. You walk towards the imposing wooden front door across a great stone concourse before climbing the small sandstone steps into the cool and quiet interior. You’re greeted with examples of Romanesque architecture, huge pillars and columns, and Norman arches.
Although much of the design is from the 12th Century, the cathedral took 250 years to build, so different influences are visible everywhere.
It’s easy to get absorbed in the building and its plaques, memorial stones, and especially when the sunlight streams in through the many stained glass windows. But take a look up, and you’ll see plenty more to capture the imagination.
The upper levels of the cathedral are full of mystery. You can see ancient passageways, corridors and windows. If only you could sneak away up there for a look…
‘I think people stand down on the ground floor and they look up and it really captures their imagination. They think ‘what goes on up there, I really want to see’,’ said Fran Flett Hollinrake, the Cathedral Custodian. ‘And that is one of the reasons we run the upper level tours of the building, so people can get a real sense of behind the scenes activity.’
That’s right, the upper levels of the cathedral are accessible and guided tours have become one of the real hot tickets in Orkney. Groups are led up the narrow, spiral, stone staircases, passing galleries and collections of artefacts, the cathedral clock mechanism, the huge bells and the base of the spire, before getting the chance to take in a bird’s eye view of Kirkwall.
‘You really get that personal feel with the tours, and you get into some of the really little spaces too,’ said Fran. ‘It’s never the same tour twice either. We always find something new to talk about or you might have noticed something in a book that’s worth highlighting, we really do love it!’
The cathedral is one of the most popular attractions in Orkney. In 2016 alone around 175,000 people stepped inside. Visitors from around the world have taken part in the tours, which run twice a day on Tuesdays and Thursdays all year round. But the tour groups are kept very small to ensure that everyone gets that special experience – something Fran says is very important.
‘The people who come on these tours absolutely love them. They love the fact they get to creep around in the upper levels, they love the stories, and the response we get it is very positive. We have a little book upstairs in the tower that people can sign and just reading the comments you can see how much people enjoy it.’
The tours add a different dimension to visiting the cathedral. You have to be twelve years old or over, reasonably fit and able to handle some tight spots, but tick those boxes and you’ll be rewarded with one of the truly unique Orkney experiences.
All those years ago, Earl Rognvald had a vision to make the cathedral the most impressive and important building in Orkney. To his credit, nine centuries later, it still is.
Tours of the upper levels of the cathedral are available on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 11am and 2pm. They cost £8 and must be booked by phoning the Custodian on 01856 874894.
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