History & Heritage

The Early Story of Christianity in Deerness

The Friends of St Ninian’s now own the Kirk of St Ninian’s situated on the east coast of Deerness, at Skaill. It sits in the Deerness Kirkyard, owned and maintained by Orkney Islands Council.

Drawings of the twin-towered kirk, drawn by George Low in 1774, by kind permission of Orkney Library and Archive Drawings of the twin-towered kirk, drawn by George Low in 1774, by kind permission of Orkney Library and ArchiveThe current building is the 20th Century remodelling of a building completed in 1798 and the story of that 1798 structure and its subsequent renovation is a separate tale. Its predecessor was sketched by the Reverend George Low in 1774 and was, in his view, "the most remarkable country kirk in these isles" 

It had twin round towers at its east end, facing out to the sea. At least one of the towers had a bell, reputedly stolen away by Cromwell’s soldiers during their stay in Orkney in the 1650s. Low records also that the towers commemorated the two sons of Lady Howitt, drowned in a sea accident. She lived somewhere at Skaill or  Sandside but the story is vague - who was she, when did the tragedy take place, where exactly did she live, who was her husband?

There were three other towered kirks in Orkney with that on Egilsay the single survivor, roofless now with the top of its tower fallen in. The others were the Tammaskirk in Rendall and the semicircular towered kirk in Stenness. Deerness was, as far as is known, unique in Orkney in having two towers. That uniqueness suggests a role of special significance at some point in the ecclesiastical history of Orkney.

Towered kirks exist along the east coast of Britain with more than a hundred in East Anglia. Raymond Lamb tells us there were three in Shetland, at Dunrossness, Papil and Tingwall. They occur also on the eastern periphery of the North Sea in southern Scandinavia and North Germany. Were these kirks, with their towers pointing to Heaven, a common design spread from place to place by traders and marauders moving across and around the North Sea?

St Ninian's Kirk in a gale St Ninian's Kirk in a galeIt is not known when the kirk drawn by Low was built but when its foundations were removed in the late 19th Century, two coins of Edward 1 dating to around 1280 were uncovered, suggesting that this manifestation of Deerness’s place of worship was in situ around 1280. It was also clear that the towers were more strongly built than the body of the kirk, and likely of later date, added on either as an act of commemoration to the Lady Howitt’s sons, or more likely given their impressiveness and the expense and skill required to build them, to make the Kirk remarkable for some important ecclesiastical purpose.

The Hogback monument, now in the session room of the kirk but found originally in the kirkyard , is roughly dated to the late 1000s/early 1100s, pushing the use of the site back to the Orkneyinga Saga and its tales of Earl Thorfinn and his foster father Thorkell Fostri whose Hall was at Skaill. Dr Sarah Jane Gibbon believes the Kirk at Deerness will have originated as a private chapel, and dates such chapels in Orkney to between 1050 and 1150. This fits neatly with the Hogback’s creation as a grave marker for a prominent Norseman – Thorkell perhaps?

Pushing back again in time, Dr James Barrett suggests also that Deerness may have seen Orkney’s earliest Norse conversion to Christianity with coins found on the Brough of Deerness and at Newark dating back into the mid 900s both at sites with chapels and Christian burials which date to the 900s at Newark.

Drawing of a cross-slab found at Skaill Drawing of a cross-slab found at SkaillDr Gibbon also highlights the fact that Norse chapels/ later kirks in Orkney often sit by earlier Pictish/Iron Age sites – sometimes brochs, sometimes large farmsteads as at Skaill in Deerness. Whether this was for the prosaic re-use of the stone already on site, or for much more spiritual reasons is not known but the excavations at Skaill uncovered one carved stone which is clearly part of a cross and was found, face down in a path leading to an early Norse building. It is suggested that the stone came from a nearby Christian cemetery. Perhaps it was  torn down and reused by some pagan early Viking settler at Skaill? Whatever – this single broken cross–slab pushes the story of Christianity in Deerness further back again.

Dr Barrett’s studies of human remains from Newark also suggest strongly that Pictish Christian burials were made there and remains have been dated to the mid 600s – perhaps contemporary with a cemetery at Skaill and the broken cross-slab found there.

The story of Christian practice in Deerness therefore goes back some 1350 years, to at least 650 AD. Those first believers were listening to a story brought north and east from Northumbria and Iona and Findhorn and Ireland, travelling up across the Mediterranean and Europe, bringing with it ideas of statehood and kingship, of monks and monasteries and an ordering of society based around the central power of the Church, Rome and the Pope. It also brought the story of the life of Christ and the intrinsic Christian message. Which would have made the biggest  impact on Deerness? It’s an interesting question, a subject for separate debate.

For further reading see:

  • Barrett J  2003 ‘Christian and Pagan Practice during the Conversion of Viking Age Orkney and Shetland’ in Martin Carver(ed) The Cross Goes North The Boydell Press
  • Gibbon S J 2006 The Origins and Early Development of the Parochial System in the Orkney Earldom. Unpublished PhD thesis. Copy held at Orkney Library & Archive
  • Rendall J 2009 Steering the Stone Ships St Andrew Press
  • Site Record for Skaill, St Mary's Church Deerness, Old Parish Church Details.