Sunday, April 20, 2008

St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall

Vikings don't enjoy a great reputation as Christians or as builders. However in the 12th century, the Norse Earl Rognvald of Orkney brought master masons up from Durham to build a cathedral in honour of St Magnus, his uncle.

Magnus gives his name to Kirkwall's impressive cathedral and his spirit presumably inhabits the building; as does, at least in part, his body since during some renovation work in 1919, his skull, famously cleft by an axe for reasons too long to recount here, was found and still lies in a pillar of the building.

I was there on Friday and once again marvelled at this Romanesque masterpiece, where local red sandstone often alternates impressively with yellow stone from the isle of Eday. But my eye was taken by something else (well, it was pointed out by our excellent guide, Steve Nottage): a 'Mort Bord', in memory of a Robert Nicolsone.

I wonder if Robert was a rather 21st century person who thought gravestones to be grotesque, and preferred the idea of a wooden memorial which would return to dust in due course of time. If so it would be a shock that his 'bord' is still hanging there 400 years later. Mind you, it also seems a bit hard on St Magnus to have his skull still stuck in a pillar 800 years on. I'm sure he deserves better.

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