17 Jan 2016 — On a still and frosty Sunday morning, I visit the unbuilt cathedral. This is a sandstone quarry, about an hour’s walk out of Kirkwall. It is beautifully situated on a point, with the calm sea as its backdrop, and you can only reach it on foot or a sturdy bike, as the track leading to it is not suited to driving.
The Head of Holland, as the point is called, on the beautiful Bay of Meil, is still in use as the sandstone quarry for St Magnus Cathedral, and has been for as long as anyone remembers. The stone here is not grey, or soapstone blue, or marble white, or any other colour that you would expect from a cathedral – it is pink. Imagine the Norse Earl of Orkney, in 1136, Rognvald Kali Kolsson: He’s a clever politician, he’s a sportsman and a good fighter, he plays music, he writes poetry. His success as Earl of Orkney greatly depends on the reflected popularity of his late uncle, Magnus, who some people have started to say is a saint. Miracles happen at Magnus’s shrine in the old St Olaf’s Church in Kirkwall. Earl Rognvald and his father can see where this is leading. They reveal the great plan to the people of Orkney: We will build a magnificent stone cathedral in Kirkwall to house the shrine of Magnus! And they go for pink!
Well, actually, the calm pink of the sandstone, beautifully patterned against the rich butter yellow stone from Eday, makes the atmosphere of the St Magnus Cathedral unlike any other church. From the first time I stepped in there, I have always felt that this church is alive, it has a heart. It is not just a relic of the past, it is here, alive, now. We got married there, many years ago, on a day of hail showers in July. But as the sun broke through and shone through the stained glass windows, the church itself woke up and thought “well, well, here’s another young couple – I have seen them come and go for close to nine hundred years now, bless them”.
When Earl Rognvald’s hired stonemasons built the cathedral, they wouldn’t have needed to walk the one hour from the building site to the quarry, and then carry the stone back. They would have done all of that by boat. In those days, you could come right up to the front of the cathedral in a boat, but Kirkwall has expanded so much since then and built itself into its old harbour.
Now the quarry lies there, like a calm red landmark which can be seen from miles away, and from Kirkwall itself. Coming over the hilltop, I took a photo of the cathedral spire from a somewhat unusual angle, with snow-topped Hoy towering in the background. I had never before noticed that you can see the cathedral from there, and when you turn around you see the quarry silhouetted against the sea. There it is: The unmade cathedral. The stones that got left behind. The stones that have not yet been used. Even the beach stones are red here. A pink shore.