Roots of faith and identity


A parish priest from Edinburgh reflects on what we might learn from two iconic places of worship on the Orkney Islands as we approach the referendum on Scottish independence.

St. Magnus Cathedral stands in the middle of Kirkwall, the main town of the Orkney Islands. Its gentle beauty and atmosphere call those who enter to a spirit of prayer and reflection. In 1137 the building was begun in memory of St. Magnus (Erlendsson), who gave his life in 1116 that the earldom of Orkney might not degenerate into civil war; he offered no resistance to his cousin and fellow earl Haakon Paulson who wanted to rule alone. At the command of Haakon, Magnus was killed by Haakon’s cook. Within a short time his sacrifice was known throughout Western Europe.

The Italian Chapel is on the island of Lamb Holm, on the Orkneys. In 1943-45, it was built by Italian prisoners of war working on the Churchill Barriers, causeways linking islands to the mainland which served as defences for ships at anchor in Scapa Flow. The imagination, artistic skill and ingenuity of those who built the chapel are cause for amazement; whoever would guess the sanctuary lamp is made of bully beef tins? It is a symbol, as one of the prisoners wrote, that, in spite of the physical and moral deprivation of these men, many hundreds of miles from their own country, the power of human creativity could not be crushed.

These are two very different places of worship. Working from impression and without statistical proof, I suspect that the Italian Chapel is much better known in Scotland than the Cathedral. Why is this so? The Chapel draws from us a sense of admiration for prisoners who were undefeated by their situation; it would have been so easy to sink into despair. It is much more recent than the Cathedral; the war in which it was built is still within living memory. It gives hope for reconciliation. Yet are these sufficient reasons as to why the Cathedral is now less known?

We might wonder why St. Magnus is not recognised as one of the major Scottish saints. It struck me during a recent recitation of the Litany of the Saints that Columba and Ninian were there, but Magnus was not.1 Secular and ecclesiastical reasons played a part. Some would argue that Orkney did not feel part of Scotland until as late the 16th century. Does it feel Scottish today? The word Scotland for many Orcadians today means the land across the Pentland Firth.

Magnus, who was canonised as a martyr in 1137, is still little recognised outside of Orkney. Within the Catholic Church it may be because the Cathedral is now and has been for hundreds of years a parish church of the Church of Scotland. Given the fact that the Catholic Church virtually disappeared from Orkney, there may have been few who would have wanted to encourage devotion to him. Perhaps there was concern about his military past. There may have been no sufficiently powerful political or cultural group to support his cult.

As we continue our preparation for the referendum on independence in September next year, and as we reflect on how as Christians we can form our conscience and contribute to the national debate, it would be good to look to parts of Scotland and their saints which can teach us something about the nation as a whole. Scotland sometimes feels at the periphery, and perceives this as a negative experience. For those in the more populated parts of Scotland there is an opportunity to evaluate how we too sometimes look at our country with too narrow a perspective.

St. Magnus calls us to be clear as to what basic values we want to be at the heart of our nation. He was someone who saw the situation the people of his earldom were in due to others’ desire for power and to a system of inheritance that often led to conflict between those with legitimate and equal claims. He calls us to be clear as to how all of us are to live for others. Implicitly his death calls us to examine the political structures of our day and ask whether they are life-giving to all or only for particular groups. He teaches that a just society cannot be built on good wishes but on loving sacrifice.

At the same time we can look to the Italian Chapel both to inspire and perplex us. As the prisoners, technically enemies of the Allies, summoned up their creative spirit to build within a Nissan hut a ‘basilica’ that proclaims God’s love not only to the people of the Orkneys but to the rest of Scotland and beyond, their ‘cousins’ in Scotland were either in the British army, interned in the Isle of Man or in Canada (some being drowned in the sinking of the Arandora Star), or were in internal exile in the UK. Yet out of this complexity came a community that would contribute to all walks of Scottish and UK life: Italian families contributing to parish life, to catering in towns and villages, and to Scottish and international culture through the work of people like Eduardo Paolozzi and Ricky Demarco. Our country would be poorer today without these immigrants, whether voluntary or forced.

St. Magnus Cathedral and the Italian Chapel lay down a challenge from Orkney to Scotland today. How are we going to let the God-given spirit of sacrifice and reconciliation be a full part of the referendum debate and what happens afterwards?

The Cathedral took several hundred years to build and is still in use as a place of worship. The Italian Chapel took two years to build and after completion was used by the prisoners for only a few months. Were they worth it? Both still inspire people to pray, reflect on life and God, and try and live the Christian life. The question for us now is how we might let the values they proclaim become a foundation for praying and thinking about the referendum.

As the churches look to their role in the debate and in the future of the nation beyond the referendum, it is demanded of us that we immerse ourselves in our roots of faith and identity so that we are renewed in our capacity to discern God’s will for our country. Like St. Magnus, those who erected the Cathedral and the Italian prisoners erecting their church, we are to make our judgements and carry them out in a spirit of faith and commitment to what flows from the Cross of Jesus. George Mackay Brown in Magnus linked Magnus’ death to the death of the Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the Flossenburg concentration camp in 1945.2 We are being asked to decide where and how we want to stand today with Magnus and Bonhoeffer in their faith, goodness and self-sacrifice.

1. It was included in the litany at Fr. Andrew Garden’s ordination this year. Magnus also features in the stained glass in the Scots College, Rome.
2. Isobel Murray in the introduction to George Mackay Brown, Magnus, Canongate Classics,

Fr Gerard Hand is parish priest of St Paul’s and St Mary’s, Glenrothes, and the Chapel Royal, Falkland. He taught moral theology for a number of years in the St Andrew’s and Edinburgh Diocesan Seminary.

Feb/Mar 2020

In June 2019 Open House held a conference exploring possible new directions for the Catholic Church in Scotland. See conference papers.

Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.