St Magnus Church, Egilsay

St Magnus Church, Egilsay, Orkney

This evening, I am focusing on St. Magnus Church on the island of Egilsay which has importance from both an architectural and historical perspective. The building may date from 1135-8 and if so may qualify the church as the oldest extant building in Orkney.

Firstly, the name Egilsay may be derived from the domain of a Norseman named Egil. Alternatively, the name may derive from the Celtic name for a church-eaglais-in turn from the Latin ecclesia.

The history of the church dates to the death/execution of St Magnus on the site in 1117 AD, a story which features in both the Magnus Saga and Orkneyinga Saga. In essence, during the 12th century Orkney was split into two with each half ruled by two cousins, Hakon and Magnus. Enduring friction between the two rulers culminated in a meeting between the two opposing forces on Egilsay. This was not a battle but an occasion where the pious and subservient Magnus was executed by Hakon’s side with an axe.

After the death of Magnus, stories of miracles attributed to Magnus began circulating which culminated in sainthood sponsored by Bishop William and may have been influenced by the promise of Rognvald Kali Kolsson to build a new minster (cathedral) in the Orkney capital of Kirkwall. ( See this post for more information on St Magnus Cathedral.)

The relatively obscure island of Egilsay may have been chosen for the historic meeting because of its central location and/or a power base arising from the island being the seat of Orkney’s first Norse Bishop, William.

St Magnus Church was used for worship until the early 19th century and is the only remaining round-towered church in the Northern Isles. Particular features:

  • A chancel which once extended to  two stories.
  • Door and window arches may have been influenced by Greek and and Roman styles.
  • The circular tower was once much taller than its current 15 meters.


Elsewhere today, I have completed detailed work on a self-drive itinerary and firmed up a Mackintosh architecture tour. Temperature has cooled down somewhat.