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Bishops mark 900th anniversary of martyrdom of St Magnus

Clergy gather in St Magnus Cathedral (photo courtesy of Sabrina Maguire)

A bishop has described St Magnus’s martyrdom as a “Christ-like flash of light in a dark world” on the 900th anniversary of the saint’s death.

Bishop Hugh Gilbert and eleven other bishops and archbishops made the pilgrimage to Kirkwall, Orkney to celebrate St Magnus, who was Earl of Orkney before his violent death, most probably in 1117.

In a homily at St Magnus Cathedral, Bishop Gilbert said: “Magnus’s magnanimous act was a Christ-like flash of spirit in a dark world, and the light still burns.”

St Magnus, Earl of Orkney, was murdered with an axe to his head on the orders of his cousin Haakon.

Bishop Gilbert referred to the words in the Gospel of John: “I tell you most solemnly, unless a grain of wheat falls on the ground and dies, it remains only a single grain; but if it dies, it yields a rich harvest.”

“The harvest of Magnus has been one of peace, of bodily and mental well-being, of artistic creation,” Bishop Gilbert said.

“The first unexpected place of harvest was the heart of his brutal, power-loving cousin. In time, it was he who went on pilgrimage, seeking absolution for his sin from the Pope in Rome, going on to the Holy Land and plunging himself in the River Jordan.”

There were many instances of healing after St Magnus’s death.

“There was a farmer in Orkney called Thorkel, who fell from the top of his barley rick right down to the ground, badly injuring one side of his body. He was carried to the shrine of blessed Earl Magnus and there he recovered his health,” Bishop Gilbert said.

The service included the playing of Ivan Drever’s “Rose of St Magnus” inspired by the rose window of the cathedral, and the singing of the medieval hymn to Magnus “Nobilis humilis”.

The story of St Magnus is recorded in the Orkneyinga Saga, a historical narrative telling of the history of Orkney.

“The Orkneyinga Saga itself is a great work of narrative art, and when it tells the tale of Magnus almost rises to the level of Greek tragedy,” Bishop Gilbert said.

Magnus was declared a saint about 20 years after his death. His nephew, St Rognvald, built St Magnus Cathedral in his memory, starting in 1137.

Bishop Gilbert said: “A culture needs its ‘icons’: many and good. St Magnus is one such: Orkney’s gift to Scotland and beyond.”