St. Magnus Cathedral, Orkney Islands, Scotland

Sitting atop the misty headlands of Northern Scotland, St. Magnus Cathedral towers over the surrounding village. Its red and yellow sandstone exterior is unusual for a cathedral in the United Kingdom. The cathedral also breaks the norm in other ways including being a church that is owned by the town – not by any religious body. Yet even more unusual is finding a cathedral with a dungeon.

kirkwall orkney scotland


St. Magnus’s history dates back before there are even written records and much of its origins are based on lore. The Cathedral began as a promise made to the Orkney people in 1137 by the Viking, Earl Rognvold. In order to gain favor with the locals in a dispute over the rights to the land, he promised to build a cathedral in honor of his martyred uncle, St. Magnus, who was a locally venerated saint. He set about building the cathedral, although he never saw it completed. He was killed in 1158 and his bones are buried within one of the columns inside the cathedral – and his uncle, St. Magnus are in another. The cathedral took 300 years to complete, making it likely he never would have seen it to completion regardless of his fate.

In 1486 the Orkney Islands were transferred to Scottish rule from the kingdom of Denmark as part of a dowry for King Christian I’s daughter’s marriage to King James III. The King issued a Royal Charter granting the cathedral’s ownership to the Kirkwall community. Normally, a cathedral is built and owned by a church, but St. Magnus was never owned by the Catholic church or the Church of England. It has held several different denominations over the years – depending upon which way the religious and political leanings were blowing at the time. The cathedral has several ties to the Scandinavian countries, including the cathedral bells. They are rung using a Norwegian technique known as “clocking” in which they can be rung by just one person using both hand and foot pedals.

orkney st magnus cathedral

Once completed, the cathedral had a relatively short period of peace. The Reformation brought destruction and ruin to many cathedrals and abbeys throughout Britain in the 16th century, and St. Magnus was not left unscathed. Although mild by comparison, St. Magnus had its organ, treasures, and vestments taken from them, and the plaques on the walls were whitewashed over. The Saint’s bones, buried within the massive columns had to be left in place.  During Oliver Cromwell’s siege of the cathedral in 1651, the building was damaged and in an act of contempt, used by his soldiers as barracks and to stable their horses.

Victorians were fond of their old buildings, and many restorations of old churches and cathedrals occurred in the 1800s. It was not until the late 1800s when St. Magnus had stained glass windows installed to replace the clear glass that had been in place.


One of the more unique designs of the church involves the use of a dungeon. The dungeon is called Marwick’s Hole. The cathedral did not always have a dungeon. It is thought that the dungeon was added as a prisoner holding cell at some point – possibly around 1540 and was in use into the 18th century. The chamber is found between the south wall of the choir and the south transept chapel and is the only cathedral in the British Isles with a dungeon. Originally the chamber was accessed from an upper chamber where prisoners would be deposited via a chute, although a more humane ladder was added later.

The Dungeon’s most famous inmate tells of a terrible time in history. Janet Forsyth lived in nearby Westray in the 17th century. The story is told of Janet who had a dream that her sweetheart Benjamin would perish at sea. The following day, Benjamin and several other men were set to head out fishing. The day was fine and he scoffed at her claims he would meet his end if he sailed. Ignoring her pleas, the men headed out. Before long a thick fog descended and Benjamin and the men never returned. The people of Westray blamed Janet for the loss of the fishermen and Janet was branded a witch. Janet retreated to live in solitude as her tarnished reputation grew. A few years later, a ship was spotted in trouble off Westray’s coastline. As the storm raged, islanders waited for the ship to capsize and break up, hoping to find a windfall of treasures wash ashore.  Janet tried to rally them to go and offer assistance but no one stepped forward. So Janet launched her own small boat into the storm to help the stricken ship. Despite the storm, she managed to get to the ship and guided it safely to the shelter of Pierowall Bay. This act of bravery sealed her fate. No woman could go up against a storm like that and survive? Surely she was a witch! A trial was held in 1629 in Kirkwall. She was found guilty of witchcraft and sentenced to death. As the sentence was read out, she looked out across the gathered crowd. There she saw Benjamin standing in a naval uniform. He had not perished at sea – but had been press-ganged into the navy. On seeing him, she allegedly screamed out “Save me, Ben!” before being dragged from the trial and tossed into the dungeon at Marwick’s Hole. However, when they went to retrieve her from the dungeon the next day for her execution, the dungeon was empty. Local tradition says she was rescued by her love, Benjamin.

Photo credit: Flickr/Sethoscope


With its dungeon, its red striped exterior, and being owned by a city, not a church, makes St. Magnus Cathedral most unique. It also happens to be Britain’s most northerly cathedral. St. Magnus is an ancient building, and in constant need of repair having been crafted from soft local sandstone. It shows its age, yet this building is far from a relic. Being owned by the community, it is also an active hub of activity for the entire area, full of life and growth. Visiting this unique cathedral is a pilgrimage for some, a curiosity for others. But go for the stories, as this building has many stories to tell.

st magnus window
Photo credit: St. Magnus Cathedral

Visit Orkney Island on magical visit to the land of the ancient Vikings and Celts, visiting Bergen, Norway, Orkney, and Ireland on a trip you won’t soon forget:

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