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The church in Orkney

Long ago the church was the main meeting place in the parish. People gathered every Sunday to worship but this was also a chance to catch up with neighbours, wear their best clothing and have a dedicated day of rest.

The church was part of the culture and to not attend was unheard of! It provided uplifting sermons during periods of poor harvests, words of comfort to those in need, wisdom and advice and helped the poor in times of starvation. The church provided a steady guiding hand for everyone of the flock. It also was the place where a minister told his parishioners how to behave. He could be judge and jury and had the power to punish those who did not toe the line.

Christianity comes to Orkney

The first records of Christianity in Orkney are during the Pictish period. In the middle of the 6th century St Columba visited King Bridei near Inverness and found the Orkney king present at his court. He (Columba) persuaded Bridei to issue instructions that Christian missionaries that were heading to Orkney would not be harmed.  

The disciples of Columba were the first missionaries of whom we have certain accounts. Adaman's Columba tells us that a disciple named Cormac sailed in his coracle in search of a "desert”. He landed in Orkney and preached the Christian faith. Soon afterwards oratories arose, places set aside by the ecclesiastical authority for prayer and the celebration of mass. Huts and other buildings became established at these sites and were inhabited by the missionaries and their followers. Gradually chapels were built around these sites.

In 1990 excavations were undertaken at St Boniface Chruch in Papa Westray in response to the ongoing threat of coastal erosion. Two years later visitors to the island found a fragment of a shrine on the beach below the site.

Fragment of a shrine, St Boniface Church, Papa Westray

Early dedications of this period are found in several of Orkney's islands. There are dedications in Sanday, North Ronaldsay, Stronsay, Papa Stronsay and Papa Westray as well as at South Ronaldsay and Hoy, where there were chapels dedicated to Columba. Orkney also has Damsey (Adaman's Isle) and Eynehallow (Holy Isle) which may date from this period.

It is therefore possible to date the introduction of the Christian faith to around the latter half of the 6th century. It is about this time that the first Christian-related artefacts are found and hermitage sites on isolated locations date from this period.

A resident bishop is thought to have been at St Boniface on the small island of Papa Westray by the 8th century. A number of churches were dedicated to St Peter and these are believed by some historians to be of an early date.

Although there was a religious presence, and no doubt some fine churches, this was overshadowed with the arrival of the Norse. We know there were religious sites in Orkney when the Norse arrived as they gave them the name Papae. Papa, when attached to other names, signifies that the places so named were ecclesiastical settlements. Paplay in South Ronaldsay and Holm are thought to mean Hermit's Cell and are also the names given to the white-robed clergy of the Christian church.

To support this, the Historia Norvegia, written around 1200, tells us the invading Vikings found the islands inhabited by the Picts and the Papar when they came here. There are eight papar place-names in Orkney. The islands of Papa Stronsay and Papa Westray have early churches. Records tell of a third Papa island but its name must have been changed as there is no evidence of it today. There are also fertile areas of Paplay in Holm and South Ronaldsay, Padale in Kirkwall, Papleyhouse in Eday and an offshore rock known as the Steeven of Papy off North Ronaldsay.

The Norse bring their own gods

The Norse brought their own gods when they arrived on Orkney shores with Odin, Thor, Freya and Loki being just a few. The early Viking graves found in Orkney show that they were still buried with grave goods. This adds support to the idea that the incomers arrived and somehow overthrew the Pictish people or at least found them to be submissive and ready to set their own religion aside.

In the late 10th century Christianity came back. In 995 Olaf Trygvesson, a rich, successful and popular leader, had been campaigning in Britain for several years. He had become a Christian the year previously and was on his way back to Norway to bid for the throne when he came upon Earl Sigurd making ready for sea in Osmundwall. 

Sigurd was invited aboard ship and Olaf presented him with an ultimatum: "I want you and all your subjects to be baptised. If you refuse, I’ll have you killed on the spot, and I swear I’ll ravage every island with fire and steel."

Not surprisingly, perhaps, Sigurd agreed to this. For good measure Olaf took Sigurd's son, Hlodver as hostage. The boy died shortly afterwards and Sigurd threw off his allegiance to Olaf.

Christianity, however, remained and by the mid-11th century there was a boom in the building of churches and chapels. This continued into the 12th and 13th centuries with the foundation of parish churches.

Orkney's greatest church, St Magnus Cathedral, was founded in 1137 by Earl Rognvald in memory of his uncle Saint Magnus. Once it had become established it became a place for pilgrims to come and worship. The seat of power moved from the parish of Birsay to Kirkwall.

The Round Church in Orphir

The Round Church at the Bu on Orphir was built in the late 11th or early 12th century. We are told in the Orkneyinga Saga that the church was built under the instruction of Earl Hakon. He was responsible for the murder of his cousin Magnus and the saga tells us that, as a penance for his crime, he undertook a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. When he returned he had the church built on his estate. It is believed that the inspiration for the church came after he saw the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. It is dedicated to St Nicholas.  

The Round Church at the Bu, Orphir is dedicated to St Nicholas

This little church is mentioned in the Orkneyinga Saga, and also tells us that the Earl's drinking hall (bu) stood nearby:

"There was a great drinking-hall at Orphir, with a door in the south wall near the eastern gable, and in front of the hall, just a few paces down from it, stood a fine church. On the left as you came into the hall was a large stone slab, with a lot of big ale vats behind it, and opposite the door was the living room."

Over time more and more land was swallowed up by the clergy. Churches were built by those who could afford them and gradually large new secular estates were carved from the bishopric. The amount of land the church held was far greater than that of the gentry and lairds who at one time had been the main landowners.

The church, it might be suggested, seemed more concerned about power and control than worship and prayer. Eventually almost all the land in Orkney was owned by outsiders. Much of it was owned by just a few people, mostly from Scotland. Tensions were beginning to creep in as the rich pickings of land were fought over.


At the beginning of the 16th century Western Europe had only one religion, Roman Catholicism. The Catholic Church had a great deal of power and was extremely wealthy.

A fee was charged for baptising a child. During this period people believed if they did not get baptised they could not go to heaven, something Christians simply could not contemplate. A fee was also paid when a couple got married and people also had to pay for a plot in the churchyard. According to the church, people had to be buried in Holy Ground so this meant paying for the privilege. The church used all manner of threats such as this to keep the people under their control.

The state of the churches in Orkney before the Reformation was pretty good. However, St Magnus Cathedral flourished at the expense of parishes. The religious needs of the parishioners were met (or not met) by the cathedral clergy.

The Reformation

The Reformation was not an easy transition in Orkney. Trading ships which came into the harbour were bringing news of a revolution occurring within the church. They also brought printed religious books and pamphlets which allowed people to have their own interpretation of the Bible. They listened to preachers who told them that salvation could not be bought and that no amount of praying to the relics of saints would save their souls. They had to have faith in God alone and not in the Pope and the Catholic teaching.

Over a number of years the Reformation brought social, cultural and religious change to Orkney. The intention of the Reformation was to bring power to the people. The state would fund the kirks, people would have a greater say in the running of church affairs, a school would be established in every parish and the state would pay for the tutors, with the wealth being distributed among the kirks.

Landowners were expected to pay for the upkeep of the churches and to pay the salary of the minister. However, in reality, the clergy were not keen to give up their power and landowners bought up land that was confiscated from the church. There was no money left over to pay for the upkeep of the churches, pay the minister or to provide money for teachers. Some landowners took extreme measures to avoid paying and the church suffered as a result.

At first the Reformation made little difference to people's lives, they still had to pay their rents and taxes, although they did notice a change in the way they were allowed to worship. They were no longer permitted to worship idols or saints or to make pilgrimages. Many could not afford a doctor and would visit a well associated with a saint and pray for good health. After the Reformation they were no longer allowed to do this and this small measure of comfort was taken from them. They were also no longer permitted to leave small offerings at Holy wells or lochs.

If you did not toe the line, punishments were severe. In 1660 John Budge from South Ronaldsay was in trouble with the Burwick Kirk Session for going to St Colm's Chapel when he was ill. For this sin he was made to walk from the south of South Ronaldsay to the north kirk (about 10 kilomentres) and to do penance on his knees at the kirk the following Sunday.

People became more involved in the services, shared communion and heard the words of the Bible in English but some of the comforts they had in times of hardship had been taken from them and familiar traditions removed.

The 17th century

Following the Reformation a series of churchmen came to Orkney. These were by turns Presbyterian and Episcopalian, depending on the politics of the day. The 17th century was a time of hardship with failed harvests and hunger on the doorstep. Little comfort was received from the church, whose only aim appeared to be routing out sin and dishing out punishments. This was also the century where thousands of innocent men, women and children were accused of witchcraft and were hunted down.

In the Revolution Settlement of 1690, Presbyterianism was finally recognised as "the only government of Christ’s Church" within Scotland and Commissioners were sent out to make sure that every pulpit was filled with an appropriate minister. Fourteen of the 18 ministers in Orkney refused to accept the settlement and resigned. They were replaced with Presbyterian ministers who were generally hated.

There are many instances of ministers being heckled, abused and barred from entering their church. In some cases the ordination of ministers was postponed due to unruly crowds. In one case soldiers from Caithness had to be brought over to protect the clergy from an angry crowd who tried to prevent the ordination of a minister.

During the 17th and 18th centuries the Episcopalians and the Presbyteries attacked each other at every opportunity. No one could accept that there were differences of opinion and that brimstone and hell fire would not rain down upon them if they had different beliefs. Many of the ministers courted trouble and there was little comfort dished out to their flocks as they continued to put their energies into slandering their opponents.

The 18th century

By the 18th century almost every church in Orkney was in a ruinous condition. The heritors, who were supposed to finance the church, took every means possible to avoid paying, so churches were built cheaply. Absentee landlords ran their estates through factors and felt they did not need to contribute. Many people stopped going to services because of the lack of churches; and those who did, might find themselves listening to sermons in barns or out in the open, as churches were literally falling about their ears.

In 1744 the minister for Orphir complained "that the Breaches in the Roof of the Kirk occasioned so great cold especially when the wind was at the North that neither Minister nor people were able to Abide in it".

After Mr Watson was inducted into his church at St Peter's in South Ronaldsay in 1786 he recalled: "On that day which was rainy, it is Notorious to the Presbytery that owing to the insufficiency of the Roof, the Presbytery, Your Petitioner and the Congregation were wet to the skin." It was 14 years before St Peter's was rebuilt. The old church of St Mary's in Burwick was also in poor condition. 

However, when rebuilding did take place, the churches' walls were lime-washed and the pews and galleries painted in bold colours. The pulpit stood in an elevated position and heritors provided seats for their families, servants and tenants.

Many churches were in very poor conditon © Orkney Library & Archive

As with everything else, the gentry tried to outdo their neighbours and the seating arrangements within the church was no different. Many petty squabbles occurred over the building of pews and the accusations that someone else had invaded their space. In Orphir there was a fist fight between the Taylor brothers who fought for a seat in the Orakirk pew.

There were disagreements, too, on burials. In those days it was common for people of means to be interred in the church itself. George Sinclair of Waulkmill was given ground for a pew in the Orphir Kirk with the stipulation that he could not bury under it, as the Graemsay family were buried there.

Ministers were very dependent on the heritors for the upkeep of their churches, manses and their pay. However, by the end of the century, matters had settled down and ministers were on a more equal footing with the gentry as their social status was about the same. Families were united through marriage with many ministers marrying the daughters of wealthy families. In addition the sons of these families often entered the church.

The end of the 18th century saw a change in the circumstances of the flock, too. Emigration had created a labour shortage so people could demand higher wages. Many now had the security of paid employment. People were learning to read and were becoming educated. The people became a little more confident and, although the church still ruled every aspect of their lives, they did not fear it in quite the same way.

By the 1790s a new type of worship was becoming popular. The new Session church grew rapidly and soon there were many new churches being built. The Seceders immediately set about building churches. Needing only to fund themselves, churches quickly began to populate the landscape. In many cases the people both quarried and carried the stone to the church site for building. This new wave of church building and worship created a real buzz in the island. So keen were the people to hear the word of God that they often attended open-air gatherings.

The 19th century

As soon as the kirks were built work began on the manses and then the schools and, soon, every parish had its church, manse and school. With so many kirks and the divisions within them, the church gradually lost its power. People began to realise that they could pick and choose which kirk they wanted to attend. If they fell foul of their parish minister they could simply go and worship at another kirk. People also realised that they could make their own decision on which church they chose to follow and the ministers now had some competition: if they wanted to keep their flock they had to become a little more civil and forgiving of sin.

By the late 19th century people had long-term leases on their farms and were becoming more independent and a little wealthier, with church buildings reflecting this. Instead of dour, plain buildings, new churches were built with spires, turrets and fancy windows. Inside, the congregation could sit in more comfortable pews and organs even began to make an appearance.  In the 1900s most people still attended the kirk, although it certainly did not hold the same power as it had done.

Window in Flotta Church

The 20th century

A huge change came after an event which occurred in 1900 in Edinburgh. The Free Church Assembly marched from their hall, the men from the United Presbyterian Synod from the Synod Hall and the two groups met at the great hall of Waverley Market. Here, over 1,500 ministers raised their right hand and said: "We are no longer twain, we are one, we are the United Free Church of Scotland." Now that the United Free Church was reunited with the Church of Scotland, there was much rejoicing and celebrations. The men involved believed they were celebrating progress.

Negotiations were hampered by the war but by 1929 these two churches and all but one of the congregations in Orkney accepted and supported the union. This time there were no great celebrations but the union was marked in church services.

Although the churches may have been united, the same could not be said for the people who attended them. They wanted and expected to attend the church that their parents had worshipped in and were in many cases reluctant to attend a different church. There were far too many kirks and not enough worshippers and many kirks sat empty and eventually fell into ruin. In some cases fights broke out between rivals as to which churches should remain in use.

In Holm, when the two United Free congregations were joined in 1913, the Presbytery decided that only one church should be maintained. People refused to attend each other's kirks and smashed each other's church windows. When the decision was made that the East Kirk would be the sole place of worship, an arsonist from the West Kirk made his feelings plain – the kirk was set alight during the night and the building was gutted.

Holm East Church after it was gutted by fire © Orkney Library & Archive

Times were changing and they were hard. Two world wars, the depression, and apathy following it, as well as the lack of jobs, all took their toll. People felt they needed more than the word of God. They needed a job, money, a decent home and standard of living. Fewer people filled the kirk on a Sunday. Many had emigrated to find employment and those that remained had a choice of which kirk they wanted to attend.

Women ordained

Over the years the different kirks managed as well they could to disperse with the old differences of opinion and accept a live-and-let-live attitude. It was more important to serve the flock and community than to score points. In 1968 a huge change occurred – women could become ministers. They could and they did: the first minister was Joyce Collie, a fine woman with a love of life and horses. She had a wonderful, warm nature and she certainly helped to bring a softer edge to the church. More women ministers were ordained and by 1980, almost half the pulpits in Orkney were filled with women.

Finally, people of different faiths could come together. There was an acceptance that everyone could hold their own view and opinion, although this was not a belief held by everyone.

In 1999 the small island of Papa Stronsay was bought by monks who wanted to find a new place to worship. The Transalpine Redemptorists rise at 4am and begin their day of prayers. The group are now well established but it is still a little strange to see them in the streets or in the shops.

The church today

Incredibly, either because of it or despite it, the church has survived. Although it does not hold the power it once did and is no longer the leader in social reform, it is there as a place of worship.

Many people today still choose to marry in a church, they still have their children baptised there and, of course, when we die, we expect to spend a little time in the church before going to our final resting place. The service is still held in the church, giving people a chance to pay their last respects. Somehow, for many, it would seem inappropriate to do this in the centre of a town hall or not at all.

Despite the wars, social changes, economic struggles and intermingling of cultures, the church still stands as a tribute to faith (no matter which faith). For many, it is a place of safety, a place of comfort and a place of security.