The Scapa Flow Landscape Partnership Scheme

Some churches around Scapa Flow

Orkney has many interesting early churches which, in some cases, have been used as the foundation for later buildings. Sometimes all that can be seen of older churches are vague outlines of stones which have become overgrown. For other churches it is only the remaining place names that give a hint of what used to be in the area.

This page of the website looks at just a few of the churches around Scapa Flow, some with interesting histories, while others have revealed wonderful symbol stones and artefacts. Almost all were built in rich, fertile areas and were central to the life of the parish in which they stood.

The old church on Flotta

The old church on Flotta stood for many years without a roof but, when it was roofed in, it was thatched with heather and furnished with new seats and windows.

One old trustworthy parishioner remembered that when he was a child the church was on the shore side of the road and there was only an earthen floor and a primitive pulpit. The adults came carrying their 'creepies' (stools) as there were no pews or seats in the church. As for the children, they squatted on the ground and grouped around the pulpit and their parents.

Today the only evidence that a church once stood here is a slight rise in the ground and a cross slab which was found in the area. The stone has a highly ornamented Celtic cross with interlaced work on it. Rectangular, it is of grey sandstone and has two vertical grooves on the back which suggests it may have been one side of a sarcophagus. A war memorial now stands in its place.

 Cross slab found near the site of a chapel on Flotta


A chapel dedicated to St Colum or Columba once existed in the churchyard at Osmondwall, but it was removed in 1887 and the foundations were thrown out on to the beach. It stood a little to the west of a small 17th century vault with crow-stepped gables. There is no trace of this chapel today apart from a vague platform, which is now mutilated by graves.

A cross-slab found at the demolition of the chapel is now in the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland. It bears an incised cross of Celtic design and is a little over three feet long, 21 inches wide and five inches thick. It is believed this stone dates from 500 AD. There are heraldic monuments of late 16th century date on the gable of the 17th century vault, and an 18th century tombstone lies in the churchyard.

Holm Parish Church

This church was built in 1814 as a meeting house of one of the Secession Churches. Following the formation of the United Free Church in 1900, it became known as the Holm East Church.

When the United Free Church Presbytery of Orkney decided to make it the parish church, they were met with fierce opposition. Protests began with the church windows being broken and, when the Presbytery stuck to their decision, the church was burned down in the early hours of 29 February 1920.

This act of vandalism only hardened opinion and the building was rebuilt. The cost was greatly reduced by the people of the parish giving their time freely, including the architect. It was rededicated as the parish church in August 1924. The manse also dates from the same period.

 The church in Holm

St Colm's Chapel

A report to Bishop Graham mentions St Colm’s Chapel at the Loch of Burwick. The chapel is said to have stood on a small knoll and was one of the seven Pre-Reformation chapels that once existed on the island of South Ronaldsay. According to the book, an old History of Orkney, it was originally established by a disciple of St Columba named Cormac, who arrived from Iona about the beginning of the 7th century.

This chapel and burial ground occupied an oval islet in Burwick Loch, which is now drained. The perimeter of the island is occupied by a grassy scarp, probably the overgrown burial ground wall. There is a slight grassy ridge, which probably represents the overgrown foundation of the south wall of the chapel. There is no trace of grave markers.

It is said that this was the only place of worship in the Lady's parish prior to the erection of St Mary's Church. There is no record of when it fell into decay.

Excavations carried out in 1871 uncovered several pieces of red and yellow pigment, which suggests that the chapel may have stood on an even earlier site. A piece of bone comb, a bone pin and a hammer stone were also found.

St Mary’s Kirk, South Ronaldsay

The original church is believed to have been built around the 11th century and had sittings for 413 people. It is described in the Object Name Book of the Ordnance Survey as "quoad sacra parish", ie a parish created and functioning for ecclesiastical purposes only.

It was re-built around 1790 and has a slated roof and crow steps on the gable ends. There is a bellcote, which still has a bell in place. The interior of the chapel is plain with memorial plaques on the wall, two of which are dedicated to past ministers.

This church contains the Ladykirk stone, a rounded grey stone with two carved footprints, believed to be a Pictish coronation stone.

 St Mary's Kirk, South Ronaldsay

The Name Book of 1880 states that both the chapel and the burial ground were supposed locally to be of 12th century date. The surrounding kirkyard has a gabled gateway, which was built in 1830. It contains a number of 17th century gravestones and there are several burials of people from the island of Swona.

St Peter's Kirk

There are two dated stones over the door of this kirk. One is 1642 when the kirk was built, the other is 1801 when it was renovated and re-roofed. It has arched windows and an Orkney slate roof.

When the kirk was renovated, a Pictish symbol stone was discovered. It was being used as one of the window sills and depicts a rectangle, crescent and V-rod. The slab is large, five feet long by 1ft 7in wide. It is now in the National Museum of Scotland.

 St Peter's Kirk

St Andrew's, Windwick

The Names Book of 1879 mentions an ancient Pre-Reformation church, which is thought to be early 14th century in date. It survives as a vague grass-covered foundation. The burial ground is enclosed by an almost circular bank, which is around 30 yards in diameter. The wall at the west of the church survives as a turf bank, but the rest was destroyed by coastal erosion. There is no evidence of burials on the surface.

St Nicholas Church, Holm

The Church of St Nicholas is mentioned in 15th century documents. Until the 19th century it was the sole parish kirk of Holm and Paplay.

Through the centuries there have been several buildings on the site, and the present one was renovated in 1818.

The last service of worship was held here in 1939, and then it was commissioned by the Army for use during World War II.

 St Nicholas Church, Holm

It is thought the church stands on a much earlier site. The church and burial ground stand near the shore and the surrounding area, formerly known as Paplay. It is a fertile area and may once have been inhabited by the Papae, white-robed clergy of pre-Norse times. It was in this area that Thora, the mother of Earl Magnus, served a feast for Earl Hakon in 1117. At the feast she begged that the body of her son be allowed to be moved from the island of Eday to the church in Birsay.

During grave digging three dry-stone walls were discovered as well as a large collection of animal bone and shells. A rectangular cross-slab bearing Celtic ornament was found in the floor and a small sepulchral slab bearing a very rare sculpture of three swords was found in the churchyard. These two stone slabs are now in the private chapel at Graemeshall. Some red clay barrel-shaped beads were also found, but these have since been lost.

As well as these finds, a local man removed at least 40 trailer-loads of stone from the site and found a red sandstone block bearing around six cup marks, as well as a large quantity of shell. Unfortunately, these were dumped on the shore and, although the stone has been looked for, there is no trace of it.

When it was put on the open market by The Church of Scotland in 2009, there was a public meeting at which a management committee was formed to take responsibility for raising funds and acquiring the building. After a public appeal for funds, it was bought by The Friends of St Nicholas in December 2009.

St Lawrence Kirk, Burray

The kirk, which was built in 1621, lies close to the shore at the Bu Sands in Burray. It sits on a much earlier site and this is very obvious on approach because there is a definite rise. It is a small church, 50 feet long and a little over 21 feet wide. The date is incised on the north-west skewput.

 St Lawrence Kirk, Burray

It is now a roofless ruin but, in a report dated 17 June 1627, we are told that around 100 people who attended this kirk. This is remarkable as it is out of the way, so worshippers would have had to travel quite a distance to say their prayers.

Burray, of course, was an island when this church was in use and the minister had to be ferried over to deliver his sermon. Records show that on 3 March 1661 there was no service as the minister had contracted sciatica after a trip to Swona the previous week. Records also show that he had preached to just a couple of people on 6 December 1668 when wild weather kept them from "a diet of worship". 

The first recorded marriage took place on 26 November 1657 between Robert Scottry and Marrione Aschen. This is interesting, as these are not typical Orcadian surnames. The gravestones in the kirkyard however do show typical Orcadian surnames such as Thomson, Park, Laird, Budge and Annal.

St Nicholas Church, Orphir

A reference under the year 1136 in the Orkneyinga Saga mentions this church. It is believed to have been built under the orders of Earl Hakon, the man responsible for the death of Saint Magnus. After returning home from a visit to Jerusalem, he had the church built after the model of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Sadly, this church remained almost complete until the middle of the 18th century when stone was removed to build a new parish church on an adjacent plot. The only reason that any of the old church remains is that is was so well built and the men removing the stone had trouble taking it down.

The replacement parish church did not survive long and there is no evidence of it today.

St Nicholas Church, The Bu, Orphir

A gravel path now illustrates where the course of the original church walls used to be.