St Magnus Cathedral

St Magnus Cathedral known as the Light in the North and founded in 1137 by the Viking, Earl Rognvald, in honour of his uncle St Magnus, dominates Kirkwall on Orkney.

About this church

St Magnus Cathedral was founded as a final resting place for the relics of St Magnus. Work on its construction started in 1137. Towering above the Kirkwall landscape, with its distinctive sandstone hues, it is one of Orkney's most significant landmarks. Parts of this impressive building have stood for more than 850 years and its attractive appearance owes much to the polychromatic effect of the alternating stonework, comprising red sandstone quarried from Head of Holland, north of Kirkwall, and yellow sandstone which is believed to have been quarried on Eday, one of Orkney's northern isles. Sandstone is extremely soft and the weathering effects of Orcadian wind and rain over the course of time have helped create pleasing, almost sculptured effects that add to the Cathedrals charm. Sir Henry Dryden considered the stonework to be the finest example in Great Britain of the use of stones in two different colours and few visitors today would disagree.

The Reformation brought ruin to many cathedrals but St Magnus Cathedral seems to have emerged relatively unscathed, although the organ, treasures and rich vestments were removed and the wall decorations were covered in whitewash. Despite restoration in the mid 19th century the Cathedral slowly deteriorated until the early 20th century when The Thoms Bequest made further major restoration possible. Between 1913 and 1930, the main alteration to the exterior of the Cathedral was the erection of a tall steeple which replaced the low pyramidal roof of the bell tower. Internally, the screen separating the choir from the nave was removed, along with the pews and galleries. Stained glass windows replaced the formerly plain windows, much of the floor was tiled and the warm red sandstone was revealed by the removal of plaster and whitewash.

Key Features

  • Captivating architecture
  • Spectacular stained glass
  • Magnificent memorials
  • Glorious furnishings
  • Enchanting atmosphere
  • Fascinating churchyard
  • Social heritage stories
  • National heritage here
  • Famous connections

Visitors information

  • Bus stop within 100m
  • Ramp or level access available on request
  • On street parking at church
  • Parking within 250m
  • Accessible toilets in church
  • Café within 500m
  • Church shop or souvenirs

Other nearby churches


Italian Chapel

Today the chapel stands after seventy years, as a reminder of a faith that flourished in adversity, and as a memorial to the genius of its Italian prisoner of war builders.


St Peter

Today, the Brough of Birsay is a small tidal island off the Orkney mainland. Between the 600s and 1200s AD, the area was settled by the Picts and Norse.

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