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  The Orphir Round Kirk

The Orphir Roud Kirk: Sigurd TowrieDuring the early period of Norse rule, the Mainland parish of Orphir was a centre of power.

Today, the parish contains the remains of Scotland's only surviving circular medieval church.

Built in the late 11th, or early 12th century, the Orphir Round Kirk is thought to have been built by Earl Hakon. Dedicated to Saint Nicholas, its design was inspired by the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.

At the time of the kirk's construction, the Great Crusades were in full swing and the circular church had become a popular design with returning crusaders attempting to copy the famous structure in the Holy Land.

Originally, the Round Kirk consisted of a circular nave just over six metres in diameter and an apse. The apse remains today, along with a small section of the nave's eastern section.

It is sad to note that the church survived, almost complete, until the middle of the 18th century when sections were pulled down and the stone used to construct the new parish church. The replacement parish kirk did not last and no trace survives today. The only evidence of its construction is the kirkyard that still surrounds its ancient predecessor.

Orphir Round Kirk. Picture by Sigurd TowrieAccording to the Orkneyinga saga, after the slaying of Saint Magnus in Egilsay, Earl Hakon assumed complete power - seizing control of all Orkney.

It is perhaps not surprising that the man responsible for the murder of the beloved Magnus - around whose remains strange tales of miraculous happenings were already beginning to circulate - was having trouble with his conscience.

The saga explains that as a penance for his terrible crime, Hakon decided to undertake a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. On his return to Orkney, he is said to have instigated the construction of the little church on his estate.

The church is mentioned in the Orkneyinga saga, which also tells us that the Earl's drinking hall (or "Bu") stood nearby:

"There was a great drinking-hall at Orphir, with a door in the south wall near the eastern gable, and in front of the hall, just a few paces down from it, stood a fine church. On the left as you came into the hall was a large stone slab, with a lot of big ale vats behind it, and opposite the door was the living room."
The Orkneyinga Saga - Chapter 66

Earl's Bu, OrphirThe foundations of the Bu were discovered in 1859 (see picture right), although there is some doubt as to whether the kirk and the Bu were in use in the same period.

The saga goes on to recount a number of violent incidents and deaths that took place within this drinking hall. It would appear that these savage bouts of drinking were often interrupted for brief visits to the church.

"They kept drinking till Vespers and when the Earl went out Svein Asleifson walked ahead of him, but Svein Breast-Rope stayed behind, still drinking."
The Orkneyinga Saga
Chapter 66