‘A magnificent church’
In the Orkneyinga Saga, under the year 1136, is an account of a great Yule feast given by Earl Paul at his bú, or residence, at Orphir. It runs: ‘There was a large drinking-hall; the door was near the east gable on the southern wall, and a magnificent church stood before the hall door, and one had to go down to the church from the hall.’ The remains of that ‘magnificent church’, dedicated to St Nicholas, survive to this day.
A circular church
The church was circular, which was highly unusual. So far as we know, the only other round church built in medieval Scotland was at Roxburgh near the English Border, but that no longer exists.
The circular line of the nave wall at Orphir may still be seen, whilst the semi-circular, stone-vaulted apse is still intact. A round-arched window in the east wall of the apse brought light onto the altar, the seating of which remains. The nave would also have had a vaulted ceiling with a central skylight.
Circular churches were inspired by the rotunda of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. That church was visited by many Western pilgrims and crusaders after the First Crusade of 1099. They included Earl Hakon Paulsson of Orkney, who travelled to Jerusalem to atone for ordering the death of Earl Magnus on Egilsay in about 1116.
St Nicholas Church, at Orphir, was probably built by him soon after his return.
The earl’s bú
Beside the church lie the excavated remains of a large building. It cannot be dated with certainty, but it may have been Earl Paul’s ‘drinking hall’, which the saga writer describes as having ‘many large ale vessels’. He adds that ‘opposite the outer door was the stofa [heated sitting room]’.
Beside one of the modern farm buildings are the foundations of a horizontal (Norse) watermill with its lade – the earliest evidence in the Northern Isles for a type of mill that later became very common (see, for example, the Click Mill
- The complex – as close as you can get to understanding how a Norse earl’s residence may have looked in the 12th century.
Region – Orkney
8m West of Kirkwall on the A964 to Houton and Orphir.
Grid reference - HY 334 043.
Tel: 01856 841815 (Skara Brae).