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The Mystery of the Three Kirks

Monday December 3, 12:01 PM

A small sandstone altar found recently at Eshaness has sparked a mystery at the Shetland Museum and Archives.  Shetland Amenity Trust staff were preparing the altar for exhibition at the Museum when they discovered that the sandstone was not in fact from Shetland. At this point Jenny Murray, one of the curators at the museum, and local geologist Allen Fraser turned detectives and the mystery of the three kirks began to unravel.

Jenny explains, “I was preparing this small cross-inscribed piece for exhibition when Allen called along to the museum store and looked at it – pointing out to me that the altar piece was not made from local geology and so the spark of interest was ignited!”

Within the museum collection are two pieces of church furniture made from stone that is not local. This includes a block from the former St Mary’s Kirk in Ireland, Bigton. Non local stone has also been found in the Kirks of St Laurence in Papil, Burra and St Magnus in Tingwall.  Both these kirks have red sandstone in their fabric, remnants of the older kirks which were demolished in the 18th century.  Folklore surrounding the three kirks suggests they were gifted to the islands by three Norwegian sisters.

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Shetland Amenity Trust have now been awarded a £5000 grant for a small research project to investigate the possible use of red Orcadian sandstone in the building of these three 12th century towered kirks.  Shetland Museum’s archaeology collection gained National Recognition in 2014 which has helped to draw in the funding for this project.

The kirks were constructed around the same time as St Magnus Cathedral was built in Kirkwall, to house the saintly relics of Earl Magnus Erlendsson, who was duped by his rival cousin Hakon Paulsson and killed in Egilsay, Orkney around 1117.  The Orkneyinga Saga records life during this period and stories of miracles following the death of Magnus, including the field turning green around the rocky and barren spot where he died. A similar towered church on Egilsay, which still survives, was built to commemorate his place of death. 

Twenty years after his murder, and numerous miracles being recounted, Bishop William of Orkney sanctified Earl Magnus and work on the cathedral, built to house his relics, began in 1137. It was commissioned by his nephew Rognvald Kali Kolsson who had much to gain from the emerging cult surrounding his uncle as church and power went hand-in hand. It is recorded in Orkneyings Saga that many Shetlanders travelled to Orkney to seek a cure at the shrine of Saint Magnus, which leads us to one theory that Rognvald also ordered the three towered kirks to be constructed in Shetland using the same masonry, being used by stonemasons building the cathedral. This would have furthered the cult of St Magnus here in Shetland, especially if relics of the saint were accessible to the community housed within the three kirks. 

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Jenny explains what the research hopes to prove: “We don’t know if it was just the towers that were built using the red sandstone, perhaps even just the top section, which would have acted as a beacon, both physically and spiritually within the community. This is a joint project with our local geologist Allen Fraser, who has been out documenting and measuring the red sandstone carved blocks both here and in Orkney to establish a similarity in size. Samples have been collected from surviving rubble from all three churches and this has been sent to the British Geological Survey to be analysed. We are hoping to scientifically prove the Shetland link to the cathedral in Kirkwall, and that the stone would have been quarried in Orkney and brought to Shetland during the 12th century.”

Jenny and Allen are keen to engage the community in their research and would be happy to hear from anyone who has pieces of the distinctive red sandstone that may have been used to build these kirks.

Jenny adds: “When we were in Orkney we spotted red sandstone being recycled in later churches, and the walls built around the kirkyards, in areas that are not near the quarry sites so these would have had to be transported to these areas. We are asking the Shetland public to look around existing and ruinous kirks and kirkyard walls within their parishes to see if they identify any bright red sandstone in the masonry. We would be delighted to hear from you. Don’t remove stones if you find them but photograph and record where they are and get in touch.”

Get in touch my calling the Museum Store 01595 692741 or emailing info@shetlandmuseumandarchives.org.uk