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heritage

Centenary of St Magnus bones discovery

What is believed to be the bones of St Magnus, including a skull with two visible blows, were discovered in 1919.

Today, Sunday, March 31, marks the 100th anniversary of the discovery of what is believed to be the remains of Orkney’s patron saint, St Magnus.

Magnus Erlendsson, who co-ruled Orkney alongside his cousin Hakon, was martyred on Egilsay on the orders of his jealous cousin in April of 1116, 1117 or 1118.

He was later sainted following miraculous healings around the Earl’s gravesite, with the iconic St Magnus Cathedral later built in his honour.

It was, however, during restorations of the cathedral on March 31, 1919, in which St Magnus’ remains were discovered.

A wooden box buried deep inside one of the pillars contained a quantity of bones.

Photographer Tom Kent was on hand, and he took a number of photographs of the bones, both on the day of discovery and in the months that followed.

The skull was of particular interest, as it has a large split in it, as it if had been struck with an axe or a sword.

The Orkneyinga Saga tells us the story of how Magnus met his death face on, imploring his killer, Lifolf, to strike the blow to the front of his head rather than be beheaded like a common criminal.

The experts who examined the remains in 1925 — Professor R. W. Reid of Aberdeen University and the Rev Dr George Walker of Aberdeen’s East Parish Church, had no doubt as to the identity.

The bones were placed in a new box and re-interred, where they remain to this day.

The wooden box is now on display in the Orkney Museum, along with other important objects related to the St Magnus story.

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