Kirkwall THI ORCA

Lost cathedral buildings found during roadworks in Kirkwall

Sections of wall that were part of St Magnus Cathedral were discovered last week during a watching brief for an Orkney Islands Council infrastructure project in the heart of historic Kirkwall.
Part of the wall of the sub deans manse looking towards St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall, Orkney.

A team from ORCA discovered sections of wall that were part of St Magnus Cathedral last week while undertaking a watching brief for an Orkney Islands Council infrastructure project in the heart of historic Kirkwall. 

A series of walls, pottery and animal bones were unearthed only inches under the surface of the road near the entrance to Victoria Street. Archaeologists know from previous work that remains of structures dating back to the Iron Age exist in this area, but this is the first time that structures directly relating to the cathedral precinct have been identified in this particular area.

Comparing the walls to the 1882 map, the structure appears to be part of the Chaplain’s Chamber and Sub-Deans Manse, which were demolished in the 1930s to make way for a car park and to allow vehicle access to Victoria Street.

In common with many cathedral precincts in the British Isles these imposing buildings would have been part of a large complex used to welcome pilgrims and house ecclesiastic staff associated with the cathedral. 

The gable wall of the Chaplain’s Chamber and Sub-Dean’s Manse was recorded standing to more than 0.9m in height directly beneath the present road surface. It was aligned east-west, running from near the top of Tankerness Lane towards the entrance to the current Daily Scoop Cafe, directly underneath the new kerb line. The gable wall which was 1.35 metres thick was built with very large flagstone slabs bonded with clay. 

Part of the sub deans manse wall.

​Interestingly, although the walls appeared to be the actual house walls rather than foundations there was no sign of the gable door visible in the old pictures. The western end of the wall appears to have been demolished earlier and the door may have been lost then. There is a possibility, therefore, that the building demolished in the 1930s was built on top of the earlier walls of the Chaplain’s Chamber and Sub-dean’s Manse.

What was the Cathedral Precinct, why was it there and who lived in it?

All the buildings from the site of the Kirkwall Community Centre south to the top of Victoria Street and east up to the Bishop’s Palace formed the cathedral precinct. Although there would have been earlier buildings to house cathedral staff, most of the buildings, including the Chaplain’s chamber and Sub-dean’s Manse were built by Bishop Robert Reid as part of a grand piece of town planning in the 1540s, shortly after he became bishop of Orkney.

At this time Orkney and the rest of Scotland were still predominantly Roman Catholic. Reid had previously studied law in Paris, worked as an ambassador and was the president of the Scottish College of Justice. 

On his arrival in Orkney, he found the Bishop’s Palace partly ruined and the diocese in some disorder.

To rectify this he appointed seven new top staff members – known as dignitaries in the church – to take responsibility for aspects of its running, along with thirteen chaplains. It was within the cathedral precinct that these and other staff members lived and worked.

The Sub-dean, who lived in the manse, had the responsibility of the cathedral provost when he was unavailable. This involved the management of the canons, prebends and chaplains as well as having responsibility for the vicarage of South Ronaldsay and the maintenance of the Burwick Kirk. The Sub-dean also worked as butler to the bishop and had the parsonage of Hoy and the vicarage of Walls.

The site of the St Magnus Cathedral precinct today.

Along with the construction of the cathedral precinct bishop, Robert Reid also built the Moosie Toor and rebuilt St Olaf’s Kirk, of which the archway in Olaf’s Wynd is a part.

Several of the precinct buidings still existing today. The old Kirkwall Grammar School, part of a “large court of houses to be a colledge for instructing of the youth of this country in grammar and phylosophy”, is on the north east side of the Daily Scoop cafe.

The Sub-chantry, Arch-deanery and residence of the chancellor are standing as parts of the Orkney Museum. 

The old name for Tankerness Lane was School Wynd, where you would have seen and heard the scholars of the cathedral’s Grammar School running down to the shore of the Peedie Sea to play after lessons. 

Chris Gee, project manager at ORCA said: “Kirkwall was quite different then from the town we know today. In the area of Bridge Street and Albert Street lay the old Royal Burgh and secular trading centre.

“As we have seen previously, the castle stood around the southern limit of the Burgh at this time backing out onto the Peedie Sea and the main harbour of Kirkwall. It was much larger and deeper then, with the plots on the west of the street backing onto its shore. There were slips and piers for unloading and loading goods from lands around the North Sea.

“The reformation was to come, though, within a couple of decades and see an end to this sacred centre with many of the manses being acquired by wealthy merchants. Some of the rivalry between these two centres may still be seen played out between the Uppies and Doonies on Christmas and New Year’s Day.”


​Dr Sarah Jane Gibbon, a lecturer at the UHI Archaeology Institute specialising in medieval ecclesiastic research, added: “We know from written sources that buildings extended from the cathedral in the direction of present day Victoria Street.

“To see the physical evidence of cathedral precinct structures so close to the surface of Broad Street is very exciting and reminds us of the importance of Kirkwall being at the centre of the cult of St Magnus in the medieval period. We can imagine pilgrims journeying from all over the medieval North Atlantic area to venerate the remains of St Magnus at his cathedral.”

The archaeology has now been recorded and the site carefully covered over to preserve for future generations.