The Pageant of St Magnus

Pageant type

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Place: Brandyquoy Park (Kirkwall) (Kirkwall, Orkney Islands, Scotland)

Year: 1937

Indoors/outdoors: Outdoors

Number of performances: 2


29 July 1937

The pageant took place at 2.30pm and 7 pm. There was a dress rehearsal on the afternoon of 28 July in front of 'school children and invalids' (Scotsman 29 July 1937, 9). It is unlikely that there was a charge for this. The pageant was an initiative of the local burgh council, but given that it celebrated a church centenary, this body was also closely involved.

Name of pageant master and other named staff

  • Pageant Master: Sinclair, Ronald
  • Assistant PM: Rodney L. Shearer
  • Director of Music: Mrs McClure
  • Dancing Mistress: Mrs R.L. Shearer
  • Dancing Mistress: Miss Violet Firth
  • Producer: D.B. Pearce (scene I)
  • Producer: D. McInnes (scene II)
  • Producer: W.B. Hourston (scenes III and IV)
  • Producer: I. Paterson (scene V)
  • Producer: Karl Holter (scene VI)
  • Producer: Eric Linklater (scene VII)
  • Producer: Sir Ronald Sinclair (scene VIII)
  • Cathedral Bellringer: John Wick
  • First Aid Station: Dr W.A. Sinclair
  • First Aid Station: District Nurse Mowat
  • First Aid Station: District Nurse Mackay
  • Messengers: detachments of Boys' Brigade and Boy Scouts
  • Catering: Ladies of St. Ola S.W.R.I.
  • Seat Reservations: Highland Airways, Kirkwall Office
  • Costume Hire: Messrs R. Sheldon Bamber, Ltd., Glasgow


The pageant master is named as Sir Ronald Sinclair, Bart. He succeeded to a baronetcy in 1926 but was more widely known as plain Ronald Sinclair in his capacity as a theatre producer and actor. Sinclair owned a house near Wick in Caithness (Dundee Courier, 26 July 1930, 12).

Names of executive committee or equivalent

Octocentenary Committee

  • Chairman: Provost J.M. Slater
  • Secretary: William J. Heddle (Town Clerk)

Other members:

  • Bailie P. McCullie
  • Bailie H. Garrioch (Dean of Guild)
  • Robert Slater (Treasurer of the Corporation)
  • Rev. William Barclay
  • Councillor Alex Leask
  • Councillor John A. Ballantyne
  • J. Storer Clouston 
  • Dr Hugh Marwick (Orkney Antiquarian Society)
  • John Mooney (Orkney Antiquarian Society)
  • Co-opted members:   
  • Sir Francis Grant (Lyon King of Arms)
  • G. Mackie Watson (architect)
  • Stanley Cursiter (Director of the National Gallery of Art, Edinburgh)                       
  • David B. Pearce
  • Rev. Dr A.J. Campbell
  • James G. McEwen
  • Eric Linklater
  • Rodney Shearer
  • Lady Wallace of Holodyke
  • Sir Ronald and Lady Sinclair of Dunbeath
  • Henry Smith (Depute Town Clerk-appointed assistant secretary to the committee)

Pageant Committee

  • Convenor: J. Storer Clouston
  • Secretary: Henry Smith

Other members:

  • Provost J.M. Slater
  • Stanley Cursiter
  • Alex Leask
  • Eric Linklater
  • H. Marwick
  • D.B. Peace
  • Jas. C. Robertson
  • Rodney Shearer
  • Sir Ronald Sinclair, Bart.
  • Staging Committee
  • J. Donaldson
  • R. Eunson
  • J. Flett
  • J. Kirkness
  • W. Merriman
  • D. Tinch
  • D. Turfus

Wardrobe Committee

  • Convenor: Roderick Low
  • Secretary: Miss E. Mooney

Other members:

  • Mrs P. Thomson
  • Miss W. Cook
  • Miss I. Shearer
  • Miss H. Sinclair
  • Miss M. Tait
  • R. Cromarty
  • R. Cheyne
  • P. Gorie
  • D. Gorn
  • T. Kelday
  • A. Kemp
  • C. McGillivray
  • J. Marwick

Properties Committee

  • James Tait (Properties Master)
  • James G. Barron
  • Mrs James G. Barron
  • Master R. Craigie
  • Master E. Hourston
  • Master I. Mackay
  • Master G. Miller
  • Master J. Stephen
  • 'A. Harcus and Kirkwall Grammar School Boys—Armourers'

Grounds and Seating Committee

  • Convenor: A. Leask
  • Other members:
  • James Robertson
  • A. McDonald
  • D. Oddie

Loud Speakers, etc. Committee

  • Colin Park
  • John Rendall
  • John Twatt


One of the pageant's scriptwriters—J. Storer Clouston—headed the pageant committee; the pageant master and his assistant were also members of this body. It is notable that almost all of the main octocentenary committee's members, and all of the pageant committee members, were men. Smaller committees do not have named office holders.

Names of script-writer(s) and other credited author(s)

  • Clouston, J. Storer
  • Linklater, Eric


Both of the pageant's scriptwriters were well-known authors from an Orcadian background. Storer Clouston was a prolific novelist and writer of historical works. Linklater was the author of novels, children's works of fiction, plays, essays and journalism; he is commonly associated with the Scottish literary renaissance of the mid-twentieth century.

Names of composers

  • Grieg, Edvard

Numbers of performers

580 - 620

Many performers took more than one role in the pageant. Newspaper reports generally quote a smaller number of players, but the total figure of 600 is stated in the pageant souvenir. This number likely includes musicians and around sixty girl dancers who performed as a 'living curtain' between each episode. [Octocentenary of St Magnus Cathedral Kirkwall compiled by John Mooney, F.S.A.Scot (Kendal, 1938), 24, 33; and—for mention of the ‘living curtain’—see Scotsman, 29 July 1937]. Aside from the dancers, most performers were adults, although a small number of children took part as onlookers in some of the scenes. Horses featured in scenes VI and VIII, and a variety of livestock in scene VIII.

Financial information

  • Income from Admissions and Programmes £851
  • Total income (after donations): £1122. 15s. 9d.
  • Total Expenditure: £1219. 5s. 5 1/2d.
  • Total Loss (Debit Balance): £96. 9s. 8 1/2d.

(Source Aberdeen Press and Journal, 15 October 1937, 5). Initially, there was a larger deficit incurred by this pageant; this was remedied in the first instance by several donations—including £20 from the Kirk session of St Magnus Cathedral, £25 received from 'Mr Gilbert Archer of Leith', and the proceeds of the motor tour (amount not specified). When these extra donations were taken into account, the remaining deficit of £96. 9s. 8 1/2d. was recovered by levying a charge of 2s. 9d in the pound on the sums returned to guarantors. [See Octocentenary of St Magnus Cathedral Kirkwall compiled by John Mooney, F.S.A.Scot (Kendal, 1938), 43]. 

Object of any funds raised

There was no dedicated object for funds in respect of this pageant, but proceeds of the sale of the pageant handbook were given to the Balfour Hospital in Orkney.

Linked occasion

800th anniversary of the foundation of St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, Orkney.

Audience information

  • Grandstand: Yes
  • Grandstand capacity: n/a
  • Total audience: 4500 - 3500


It is clear from photographic evidence that seating was provided; this appears to have been arranged in tiered galleries of benches around the arena rather than in a single high-level grandstand. The Spectator magazine reported that the pageant attracted 'large audiences' at both performances, while the Times mentioned that two thousand people attended the first showing (Spectator, 12 August 1937, 8; The Times, 30 July 1937, 11). It is possible that even greater numbers attended the second performance in the evening but precise figures have not been recovered.

Prices of admission and seats: highest–lowest

Associated events

The centenary celebrations ran over the course of four days; in addition to the pageant, events that took place included the following:

Thursday 29 July:

  • Beginning at 10.45 am, a procession of town council members and invited guests through Kirkwall to St Magnus Cathedral
  • A commemoration service in the Cathedral, commencing at 11.15am (attended by 1500 people)
  • At 9.30pm, a BBC broadcast of speeches by Provost Slater, J. Storer Clouston (pageant scriptwriter), Karl Holter and Sir Ronald Sinclair (pageant master).
  • An official reception in Kirkwall Town Hall.

Friday 30 July:

  • Organized motor tour of the island for invited guests taking in 'the principal places of antiquarian interest in the West Mainland'; with lunch at the Stenness Hotel
  • A dance in the town hall in the evening
  • A broadcast talk on the BBC by Eric Linklater (author and pageant scriptwriter)

Saturday 31 July:

  • An excursion by steamboat to Egilsay (scene of the murder of Magnus) and a religious service there

Sunday 1 August:

  • Three cathedral services, each held in the morning, afternoon and evening.

[For full details of associated events, see See Octocentenary of St Magnus Cathedral Kirkwall compiled by John Mooney, F.S.A.Scot (Kendal, 1938), 37-42; and 'St Magnus Cathedral: Octocentenary Celebrations', Scotsman, 5 July 1937, 9.]

Pageant outline


The pageant author—Eric Linklater—in the guise of the 'Recorder', welcomed the audience and delivered an introductory prologue which explained that for a time the earls of Orkney who had 'come out of Norway' ruled over 'much of Scotland and the Southern Isles'. Linklater went on to speak about the arrival of Christianity and about the figure of St Magnus.

Scene I [no date]

This episode is untitled and was produced by D.B. Pearce. It involved around one hundred performers in the roles of pagan priests, warriors, pagans and missionaries. In addition, there were four individual roles: the 'maiden' (played by Thora Bain), the maiden's parents (Robert Milne, Mrs James Smith) and the maiden's lover (William Hewison). Most of the performers were male but around thirty players in the roles of pagans were women and children. The pageant handbook gives the following description of the drama:

[H]eathen priests [are] about to offer a sacrifice to their Gods. A maiden has been doomed, the priests are waiting till the rays of the rising sun shall strike the altar on which she lies, and round the heavy stone circle are people standing, mute and fearful, in the heavy sadness of heathendom... a boat has landed, in which were certain Christian missionaries, and they, walking over the fields, approach the Stone Circle... Their leader carries a great Cross. he challenges the heathen arch-priest, and forbids the shedding of blood. Before the might and mercy of the Cross the heathen are powerless, and the rising sun illumines—not sacrifice but the victory of Christ and the first coming of the Faith to these islands.

[Unless otherwise stated, all quotations in synopses taken from Handbook of the St. Magnus Cathedral Octocentenary Celebrations, City and Royal Burgh of Kirkwall, July, 1937 (Kirkwall, 1937), 27].

There was no dialogue; instead, voiceover narration was provided by the 'Recorder' (Eric Linklater).

Scene II, c1060 AD

Produced by D. McInnes, who was assisted by I. Paterson and J. Taylor, this untitled episode involved around 130 performers. Once again, the majority of players were men but a number of women and girls took part in the roles of acolytes and in crowd scenes. The scene is set at Birsay [in the north west of the Orkney mainland] in the early eleventh century. The pageant handbook states that ‘Earl Thorfinn the Second has returned from pilgrimage to Rome, and with heart now turned away from war' is arrived on Birsay to dedicate a church, which will be the first Orkney Bishopric. Thorfinn arrives accompanied by his wife Ingibjorg, his sons Paul and Erland, a standard-bearer and a bodyguard. Chiefs and vassals from Scotland, the 'Southern Isles' and Ireland pay homage to the earl. The scene concludes with a 'solemn procession of clergy' leading the way to the dedication ceremony; the earl's party and each of the groups follow the clerics 'while in the distance the sound of a church bell is heard tolling faintly'. A crowd of around forty performers made up of women, children and a smaller number of men take part as local onlookers to the scene. Eric Linklater again delivered narration.

Scene III [Easter Week 1115 AD]

The untitled scene is set on the Orkney island of Egilsay and involves a meeting between 'joint-earls, Hakon and Magnus'. The two have come by previous arrangement in order to 'settle peacefully their bitter disputes of long standing'. Magnus (played by J.W. Flett) arrives first with two longboats as agreed; his friends Thorstein, Arkell, Grim, Helgi and Holdbodi accompany him. Islanders greet Magnus enthusiastically. Then Hakon (J. Smith) appears; in defiance of the arrangement he has brought eight longships and a much bigger party of supporters. This 'black treachery arouses horror' and Magnus is persuaded to go into hiding. Hakon lands and is accompanied by his chieftains including Sigurd and his standard-bearer Sigvat Sock. They seek out Magnus and he is brought before Hakon whose chieftains persuade him to execute Magnus. One of Hakon's party—Ofeig—is charged with performing the execution, but indignantly refuses. In the end, Hakon's cook (Lifolf) is commanded to perform the killing and 'weepingly' undertakes this task. Magnus's followers ask to take away his body for Christian burial but Hakon refuses to allow this. The producer of the episode was W.B. Hourston and it involved around forty-five performers; most were men but four women took the roles of islanders. Eric Linklater provided the narration.

Scene IV, [Easter Week 1115 AD]

W.B. Hourston also produced this episode, once again untitled, set at Paplay [on the south of the mainland] in the house of Sigurd of Paplay who was second husband to Magnus's mother, Lady Thora. A feast has been prepared in anticipation of reconciliation between Magnus and Hakon. The celebrations begin but only Hakon arrives, and the news gradually spreads that Magnus has been murdered. When Lady Thora eventually learns of her son's death, her 'scream of horror brings the feast suddenly to an end'. Hakon is so moved by Thora's grief that he 'repents himself somewhat of his deed' and grants her wish that Magnus be allowed a Christian burial. Around 115 performers, about forty of whom were women, took part.


The Kirkwall Pipe Band performed, followed by a 'dance interlude' and music provided by Kirkwall Town Band.

Scene V, midsummer 1136 AD

The pageant handbook explains that the ruler of Orkney, Earl Paul Hakonsson (also called Paul the Silent, played by James Gardiner) has received news of an impending attack by Earl Rognvald (the heir of Magnus). In addition, it is expected that 'an unruly Caithness chief called Olvir Rosta will later join with Rognvald. Hakonsson has mustered a fleet and the untitled scene opens as he awaits Rognvald's arrival at the pier at Tankerness, attended by his chiefs Olaf Rolfson (William Johnston) of Gairsay and Sigurd of Westness (James McDonald), together with their followers. While they wait, Erling of Tankerness (William Gunn), his four sons and their followers are seen busily gathering stones to use as ammunition. The news then arrives that a fleet is at hand: unexpectedly, this is Rosta's fleet rather than Rognvald's. Hakonsson calls 'All Aboard' and all rush to the ships. An ancient, lame warrior called Thorgrim (played by assistant producer D. McInnes) is annoyed when Hakonsson prevents him from boarding and goes to a mound in order to watch the fight. Rosta is defeated and his fleet flees. Thorgrim and an assembled crowd rush forward to greet the retuning victors. Ian Paterson, assisted by James Taylor and D. McInnes, produced the episode. Eric Linklater once again delivered narration and around 150 performers took part. The majority of these were men; but around thirty women and children played the parts of 'peasants' who are onlookers to the scene.

Scene VI, 1136 AD

This episode is set in Norway, and as with previous episodes there is no title. The Swedish actor Karl Holter, who also took the role of Earl Rognvald, was producer. George Barclay was assistant producer. It had a small cast of twenty-five men and six women. King Harald Gilli of Norway is seen returning from a hunting expedition. With him are some chiefs and ladies, and the baron Kol, who is Rognvald's father. Rognvald, who is dejected following the abortive raid on Orkney, meets the hunting party. Kol advises his son that he should make a vow to Magnus (now a saint) that if his Orkney inheritance is recovered to him, he will build 'a stately minster in the isles'. This idea is met with general approval and Rognvald makes the vow. King Harald promises to assist with a new expedition by providing a longship, and the attendant chiefs all volunteer to accompany this with their own longships. The king and his party ride off, while Kol and the others go in the other direction.

Scene VII, early summer 1137 AD

The scriptwriter and narrator's wife (named in the pageant handbook as Mrs Eric Linklater) produced this untitled episode. It is set in Fair Isle [part of the Shetland isles] and had a large cast of around ninety players: about half of these were women with most playing the roles of 'peasants'. The pageant handbook explains that a 'beacon stands, ready to be lit as soon as Rognvald's expected fleet is sighted so that a warning can be flashed to anxious watchers on Orkney'. The scene opens with a wedding procession. In this are Erik (guardian of the beacon, played by D. Towers) and an outsider called Uni (W. Oag). Uni has told everyone that Rognvald's men recently robbed when him when they landed in Shetland. When he and Erik are first seen, they have been drinking together and appear to be slightly drunk. Erik's wife intervenes to remind Erik of his duty to the beacon; at this, Uni offers to take his place guarding it—so allowing Erik to continue enjoying the wedding celebrations. Erik agrees happily and goes off with his wife. At this, 'Uni's tipsiness instantly vanishes' for he is in fact a spy sent by Kol. Two more men join Uni: together they drench the beacon with water before running off. Shouts are then heard that a fleet is approaching and 'there is a rush to the beacon, which of course cannot be lit'. Rognvald (once again played by Karl Holter) and his men arrive; following faint resistance, Rognvald is 'tumultuously greeted' by onlookers. Dialogue was part of this scene, but it is unclear if this was acted out by the narrator, or delivered by individual players.

Scene VIII, 1151 AD

This episode was collaboratively produced by the pageant master, Sir Ronald Sinclair, assisted by J. Ross, J. Ollason and by all of the producers of previous scenes. It had a very large number of players as many from previous scenes joined the main cast in the roles of 'men-at-arms, crusaders, townspeople, country people, boothkeepers etc'. The scene is set in Kirkwall some fourteen years following the founding of the cathedral by Rognvald. Bishop William (played by Archdeacon E.V. Kissack) is about to consecrate 'the stately new building that has been erected' and the 'great annual fair' is due to take place. The scene opens with the town guard passing on their early morning rounds. Time then moves forward 'with dramatic license' and the scene 'becomes quickly busier'. People come thronging into the town for these great events and there is general bustle around the booths; 'pedlars, musicians, acrobats etc., solicit notice'; taverns open and animals for market are driven across the stage'. Some wrestlers are also in view and one performer with a 'rich, powerful voice' sang a Norwegian song. Then the cathedral bell begins to ring.

With the bishop, local dignitaries make their way to the church in a procession. These include Earl Harald Maddadson (played by A. Tait) and his chiefs—including Thorbjorn Klerk (W. Gunn) and the 'gigantic Kolbein Hruga' (A. Chalmers). Then comes Rognvald accompanied by his daughter Ingirith. Rognvald is due to sail on crusade to the Holy Land and a party of Orkney chiefs and Norwegian barons who will accompany him are also in the parade. Lastly, 'bringing up the rear' and accompanied by his 'henchmen' is Sweyn Asleifson of Gairsay (J. Smith): he is described as 'a bye-word in the isles for deeds of incredible recklessness and audacity'. The scene ends with the entire company returning, the consecration ceremony over. Earl Rognvald bids farewell and amid 'loud cheering and pealing of bells the Crusaders march off to join their ships'.


The audience are invited to join with singing the hymn 'O God Our Help in Ages Past'; followed by singing of the national anthem.

Key historical figures mentioned

  • Thorfinn (II) Sigurdson [Þorfinnr Sigurðarson, Þorfinnr inn Ríki] (c.1009–c.1065) earl of Orkney
  • Ingibjorg (d. c.1067) first consort of Malcolm III, c.1060–c.1067
  • Magnús Erlendsson, earl of Orkney [St Magnus] (1075/6–1116?) patron saint of Orkney
  • Hákon Paulsson [Hákon Pálsson] (d. c.1126)
  • Rögnvald Kali Kolsson [Rögnvaldr Kali Kolsson] (c.1103–1158)
  • Paul the Silent [Páll inn Ómálgi] (d. c.1137)
  • Harald Maddadson [Haraldr Maddaðarson], earl of Caithness and earl of Orkney (1133/4–1206) magnate  

Musical production

Music was live and involved a small orchestral group. Details of the music have not been recovered, but an essay on the pageant indicates that most of this was by Grieg in order to accord with the Norwegian theme of the event. [See Patricia Long, 'Octocentenary Pageant' at  the website, About Orkney, accessed 17 January 2017 at:]

The Kirkwall Pipe Band and the Kirkwall Town Band played during the interval.

Trumpeters took part in scenes II and III.

  • The 'Foula Reel' was played (during the wedding procession, scene VII).
  • An unnamed vocal piece in Norwegian was delivered by the Herre Keider Kaas (scene VIII).
  • Hymn 'O God Our Help in Ages Past' (Conclusion of pageant).
  • The national anthem (Conclusion of pageant).

Newspaper coverage of pageant

Aberdeen Press and Journal
Orkney Herald
Shetland Times
The Times

Book of words


A book of words was not produced, but copies of the original script are available to consult at the Orkney Archives.

Other primary published materials

  • Handbook of the St. Magnus Cathedral Octocentenary Celebrations, City and Royal Burgh of Kirkwall, July, 1937. Kirkwall, 1937.
  • Octocentenary of St Magnus Cathedral Kirkwall compiled by John Mooney, F.S.A.Scot. Kendal, 1938.
  • St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall: An Octocentenary Souvenir. Kirkwall, 1937.

References in secondary literature

  • Alistair and Anne Cormack. St Magnus Cathedral 850 years: a Celebration. Orkney, 1987.
  • James Fergusson. 'Islands of the North', Spectator 12 August 1937, 8.
    John Mooney's booklet was a specially published account of the centenary celebrations prepared at the behest of the Viking Society for Northern Research based at the University of London and published in 1938. There is short, but informative and entertaining retrospective piece on the pageant available at the Orkney local interest website About Orkney; the article entitled 'Octocentenary Pageant' is reproduced from the original which appeared in the magazine, Living Orkney in July 2012 (

Archival holdings connected to pageant

  • The Orkney Archives holds a large collection of original material produced in relation to the Octocentenary celebrations, including audio and film as well as documentary sources. The following are examples: Original script, refs: D23/28/22 and D23/28/26; Miscellaneous papers related to pageant finance, ref: D23/20/4 and D23/20/6; >Copies of correspondence, refs: D23/20/7/1; D23/20/8; D23/28/29; D23/28/30; Original souvenir postcards: ref: D30; Examples of invitations to the pageant, ref: D1/1095/1; Newscuttings relating to the pageant, ref: D31/85; Essay by Molly Cant written 2015 about the pageant, copy at ref: D70/19/25; Film footage of the octocentenary pageant on DVD, ref: OSA/AV/34; Audio recordings of radio discussion and interview material with various speakers [presently on 5 inch reels], refs: OSA/RO5/60; OSA/RO5/61; OSA/RO5/62; OSA/RO5/380; Audio recordings of oral histories [held on cassette], which include discussion of the pageant, refs: OSA/231 and OSA/232
  • Copies of the various souvenir programmes and handbook are held under the title of 'St. Magnus Octo-centenary pamphlet' within the Orkney Collection at the Local Studies section of Orkney Archives and library, shelfmark: 274.1Y.
  • The educational website, SCRAN has images of the pageant; available to search and view online at:

Sources used in preparation of pageant

  • It is certain that the pageant authors usedscholarly sources in their preparation of the pageant but details of these are not specified in pageant literature. Stourer was himself the author of several works of history, including Records of the Earldom of Orkney, 1299-1614 (Edinburgh, 1914) and A History of Orkney (Kirkwall, 1932). The foundational text for most of the narrative covered in the pageant is the Orkneyinga Saga—an element within the better known Icelandic Sagas—and first compiled between 1192 and 1206.


The St Magnus pageant, which took place in 1937 in Kirkwall, Orkney, has the distinction of being the most northerly historical pageant performed in the British Isles. Holding a pageant in these remote islands required considerable organizational zeal. In Orkney, communities were dispersed, with some being separated from the archipelago's main island by the unpredictable North Sea. Costumes and props, if they had to be imported, needed to come a long way by boat; and then there was the prospective audience—would visitors make such a journey to see a pageant? The pageant organizers evidently thought they would, and that the event would demonstrate that the logistical obstacles could be overcome. For Orkney did have some things in its favour.    

To begin with, it was able to call on the services of some well-known names from the theatrical and literary worlds. First among these was the actor and theatre producer Ronald Sinclair, who just happened also to be the inheritor of a baronetcy in Caithness—the part of the Scottish mainland most closely connected to Orkney both geographically and historically. Sinclair's local loyalties evidently encouraged him to take on this difficult job, though he had ample help from many locals. Orkney also boasted no shortage of professional writers living locally who had an interest in their own history, and, moreover, that history was no run-of-the-mill stuff—it had romance and excitement in plenty. The Orkneys relished their Norse legacy, and a pageant allowed Orcadians to both bask in this inheritance and tell the story of this singular place to a large audience. For those who could not make the journey, the BBC set up a temporary recording studio and broadcast items on the pageant across Scotland: remote or no, this was to be a local event with national significance. 

The occasion that encouraged the islanders to jump enthusiastically upon the pageant bandwagon was the 800th anniversary of the foundation of their cathedral. This building was another example of Orcadian pre-eminence, being the most northerly cathedral in the British Isles and a place of uninterrupted public worship for eight hundred years. Unlike other ancient church buildings in Scotland, it had not been brought to ruin during the Reformation and so was a prominent and potent reminder of the past within this community. From the beginning, a pageant seems always to have been considered integral to the anniversary celebrations—surely a measure of how widespread enthusiasm for pageants had become. Although the anniversary was primarily a local celebration, it was also hoped that is commemoration by means of a pageant would encourageme tourism. The saint's day for St Magnus falls on 16 April. This early time of year, however, was deemed as being 'inconvenient for many who wished to be present at an event of such outstanding importance'. St Olav's day on 29 July, on the other hand, fell 'during the holiday season' and was clearly preferable in terms of prospective commercial success.

The royal burgh of Kirkwall was described by one of the pageant's organisers as a highly 'appropriate place for staging scenes of a great historical pageant... Norwegian and Scottish kings have walked its narrow thoroughfares, famous earls and bishops have lived there'. Planning for the anniversary began early in 1936 when a specially convened meeting of local councillors was held on 16 January. A few months afterwards, a pageant committee was set up, a site for the enactment was chosen, invitations were sent out to many Norwegian and British dignitaries, and acclaimed writers were engaged on the task.1 The promised arrival of many of the great and the good at the pageant created an extra air of anticipation. Accordingly, King Haakon of Norway prepared to send representatives to the pageant, and a plethora of Scottish churchmen, nobility and politicians received an invitation. It was perhaps a little too far away for it to be probable that a member of the British royal family would grace the event, but in any case this was something of an unusual pageant within the British context, for despite Kirkwall’s claim to Scottish historical relevance, the history celebrated did not include a single Scottish or British monarch, or indeed, many representatives of the past as lived on the Scottish mainland. Indeed, the most ‘Scottish’ display involved in the whole production was the Pipe Band that played during the half-time interval.

The story told in this pageant ranged over a compact period: aside from episode I which used a familiar narrative formula to tell of the coming of Christianity, all of the remaining episodes were centred on the foundation of the cathedral and thus set within a timespan of less than 150 years. The decision to take this approach must have been a choice exercised by the scriptwriters. Two were involved: the writers Joseph Storer Clouston (1870-1944) and Eric Linklater (1899-1974). Both were born, raised and educated elsewhere in the UK, but both also came from Orcadian families and chose to return to their roots in later life. At the time of the pageant, both were living in Orkney. Although principally fiction writers, it was well known that each had a strong interest in history. Nonetheless, the instinct these writers had for an action-packed story informed the particular narrative they produced just as much as did documented history. Influencing their narrative choices, no doubt, was the fact that in Orkney the period between the early eleventh and mid-twelfth century was one replete with heroic leaders, political intrigue and legend—all grist to the pageant mill. In addition, by remaining solely with the cathedral's early history, the authors were able to concentrate on a time when the islands had strategic importance under Norwegian rule. British pageants are not short of a Viking or two, but the St Magnus pageant is unique in its straightforward celebration of Norse dominion, and provides a clear example of a part of the British Isles where this aspect of the past remained a powerful influence on the contemporary identity of a community. The pageant authors consciously elected to broadcast this aspect of Orkney heritage through the pageant, yet they did so by concentrating on a timr when the islands were also firmly part of a wider culture of Christendom. In this way, the pageant stayed true to the long Christian legacy that was writ large in the cathedral itself.

If, aware of the involvement of two celebrated authors, spectators had hoped to see some innovative deviation from the workaday pageant formula, they would have been disappointed. Certainly, the St Magnus pageant eschewed much of the usual narrative of Scottish history, but at the same time it deviated little from other elements of the tradition invented by Louis Napoleon Parker in 1905. The pageant begins with a druidic sacrifice and ends with a traditional fair; and it took place on a site that had the 800-year old cathedral as a backdrop. Episode I, which in keeping with standard pageant tradition recalls the arrival of Christianity, is undated. In this, 'heathen priests' are preparing the predictable human sacrifice when along come some missionaries—and local beliefs are instantly transformed. Unless one counts some stage scenery representing a stone circle, no celebration of early civilisation on the islands is included in the drama, although it had long been known that Orkney was an archaeological site of international importance; instead, all culture is presented as dating from the (unknown) years during which the arrival of  'Faith' rendered paganism 'powerless'. Everything prior to this is dismissed as 'the heavy sadness of heathendom'.2 This approach allowed the authors to fudge the issue of whether the pagans in question were Norse or a mixture of Norwegians and indigenous Picts. For this was, and remains, a thorny issue, with some believing that invading Vikings exercised genocide on native Orcadians.3

From these beginnings, time moves forward to the early eleventh century. By this point, Norse rule was firmly established, not only the northern isles but also in some of the western isles and mainland of northern Scotland. Again, the central theme is the development of Christianity: Magnus's grandfather Earl Thorfinn, newly returned from pilgrimage to Rome, builds a church at Birsay. This edifice would go on to become the first resting place of Magnus's relics before their removal to the cathedral at Kirkwall. In one of the few nods to historical characters and events outwith Norse society in the period, Thorfinn's wife, Ingibjorg, is also acknowledged as the woman who later became the first consort of King Malcolm III of Scotland.4 Malcolm's more famous second wife was Queen Margaret—one of the most popular female figures in Scottish historical pageants. Ingibjorg, on the other hand, had her first and only outing as a pageant character at Orkney.5 The 'keynote of the scene' was later described as being delivered through the colourful representations of 'richly arrayed' churchmen.6 In this way, the ecclesiastical sophistication of Orkney at this early time was underlined.

Appearing in between episodes II and I, and thereafter in the intervals between scenes were sixty girl dancers dressed in 'long yellow dresses with wings, which they used to form a continuous screen as they danced slowly on either side of the arena'.7 This 'living curtain' distracted from scene shifting and the removal and arrival of pageant players onto what was evidently an open site without any form of natural screening—the maritime landscape of the Northern Isles being famously lacking in trees. Much of the stage props were elaborate, so this kind of diversion was probably thought necessary. The props required for episode III, for example, included 'picturesque prows' suggestive of Viking longboats on the horizon.8 This scene was the central element of the pageant, for it depicted the martyrdom of Magnus at the hands of his long-time enemy and cousin, Earl Hakon. This tale of royal treachery, first told in the Orkneyinga Saga, was tailor-made to provide exciting pageant material, even though its grisly outcome—Magnus’s skull being caved in with an axe—was more than likely widely known among the audience. Episode IV was more of a continuation of the story of Magnus's terrible demise than a separate narrative: in this, the dastardly Hakon repents—though only slightly—and allows Magnus a Christian burial. The drama of this episode is punctuated by the piercing scream delivered by Magnus's Icelandic mother, Lady Thora, when she learns of the death of her son.

Following an interval, during which entertainment was provided, episode V moved the tale forwards to the year 1136 when the popular ruler Paul Hakonsson first came under attack by Rognvald. The episode relates that Paul manages to repel an attack made by Rognvald's Caithness-based ally Olvir Rosta. Narration in this scene was given by a character called Thorgrim, who upon being denied the opportunity to take part in the conflict because of his age and infirmity, stands on high ground in order to able to view the sea battle. From this vantage-poin, Thorgrim relates what he sees to the audience. This was a clever conceit, removing the need for an elaborate stage set to depict the battle. Despite Paul’s victory in this battle, the threat does not go away, however, and Rognvald himself makes his first appearance in episode VI, played by a then-famous Norwegian actor called Karl Holter (who had come over with a group of Norwegian thespians esspecially to take part). In this scene, Rognvald is persuaded to carry on with the fight to recover his Orkney inheritance; as the nephew of Magnus he is encouraged to make a vow to the saint that when Orkney is returned to him he will build a great church in Magnus's honour. This vow leads to support from the Norwegian monarch Harald Gilli. The growing cult of St Magnus is thus hinted at in an episode that compared to others has a much smaller cast and was likely short, but was designed to impart this pivotal message about the status of the saint.

Set on Fair Isle (part of the Shetlands), Episode VII by contrast had a large cast and was full of drama. Its subject was a wedding, which on the island would have involved the entire population. The activities of the wedding procession allowed for some comedy drunkenness and a lively dialogue between a merry drunk, his wife, and a man who turns out to be a spy from Rognvald's camp. According to a later account, the action was said to have led to much laughter and 'prolonged applause'.9 Linklater probably wrote the scene especially for the actors who took part, as they were well known as talented amateur actors with comic flair.10 The spy camouflages himself among the wedding party, gets the guardian of a warning beacon drunk and thus manages to sabotage the system that would have warned Orcadians when Rognvald's fleet was on its way.

The final episode is said to have been 'a masterpiece of production, combining all the elements of realism and pageantry'.11 It incorporated a favourite plot device within pageantry, depicting a traditional fair. Part of the celebrations, in addition, was the consecration of St Magnus Cathedral, which was dramatized by means of a great procession that included Bishop William and Earl Rognvald: thus the pageant was brought to a close with the central reason behind the celebratory pageant also a central point of the drama. This kind of attention to narrative structure demonstrated the talent of the scriptwriters—both experienced literary men—from which this pageant benefited. Final resolution of the plot comes with the departure of the earl to the Crusades, once again underlining the essential running theme of Christian religious piety among Orcadians.

Scandinavian arrivals to British shores are rarely treated with much sympathy in UK pageants (although see Ramsgate 1949); often they are depicted as savage, uncouth, war-mongering invaders. However, the St Magnus pageant reversed this trend by showing the Scandinavian influence as in the vanguard of Christian civilisation. In this pageant, the entire narrative is concentrated on the Norwegian inheritance of Orkney islanders. This bid to publicise the uniqueness of a remote place and the continuing significance of the Nordic past for twentieth-century Orcadians is the central meaning delivered by the pageant. Moreover, these incomers are not heathen despoilers: far from it. Through the saintly character of Magnus, Orkney is shown as a crucible for Christianity long before the annexation of the islands into the kingdom of Scotland.

The organizers of this pageant faced one particular difficulty: the recruitment of a cast of players. Elizabeth Linklater, who produced episode VII and was heavily involved with the pageant, recalled that locals were, at least inititially, very reluctant to take part.12 The knowledge that many rehearsals would be needed and problems of travelling to these was probably a significant disincentive. In the face of this, Eric Linklater published an appeal in the Orcadian newspaper:

Now it is the essence of a pageant that people of all kinds should take part in it. It is not like a theatrical performance in which the performers are either professional actors or gifted amateurs. A pageant is a people's play, and draws on the whole community... Boys and girls, men and women, are all wanted, especially those stalwart of build; you do not need to be an actor to play in a pageant; all you need is good will, good legs; and good company will be there for you pleasure.13

As often the case with pageants, however, the enthusiasm of a few was infectious, and over time several hundred islanders duly agreed to become pageanteers. Predictably, because of travel constraints, most came from the Kirkwall district, but smaller numbers hailed from other parts. The need to have physically powerful players to play Viking warriors was tackled through an attempt to recruit police officers who happened to be taking their furlough at the end of July!14 Unfortunately, we have no record of whether or not this stratagem proved successful. Geography also meant that rehearsals were dispersed and a rehearsal of the full cast did not take place until well into July.

The change of heart by islanders towards the pageant was just as well, for many high-profile guests had already accepted invitations to attend. Among these were many well-known Scottish clergy and politicians including the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland (Rev. Dr Macfarlane) and the Under Secretary of State for Scotland (P.J.G. Rose). Senior clergymen from Norway were also invited, as were representatives from the Viking Society for Northern Research (based at University College London), the rector of St Magnus Church in London, the Lord Lieutenants of both Orkney and Shetland and 'other distinguished men in Iceland, Faroe and Scotland'.15

Costs were high for the pageant. The elaborate costumes required were beyond the means of most individuals, to either make or hire, especially since a great deal of the necessary components may have had to be imported. In the end, a Norwegian theatre company helped with the loan of some costumes,16 but £400 was also spent on lease of these from a Glasgow costumier.17 The cost of constructing stage sets, including Druid monuments and a facsimile of a pier—'hundreds of yards of scenery, specially built and painted'—drained resources.18 This expenditure was offset in some ways. For example, much of the organisational labour involved was given free of cost by the local council. Voluntary and commercial organisations also helped: the Women’s Rural Institute took responsibility for catering, and a Kirkwall firm allowed the use of their lorries for transporting material to and from the pageant site. 'Leading Orkney families' welcomed the invited guests into their homes and provided hospitality during their stay, thus relieving the council of much of the expense that might have been associated with the VIP list.19 Even so, the pageant made a loss, though perhaps one smaller than anticipated. But the pageant's organizers 'cheerfully' accepted this outcome.20 For regardless of the financial deficit, the pageant had been a success: the weather was excellent, Kirkwall looked its best for the celebrations with the streets 'gaily beflagged' and audience turnout was high.21  An article in the Spectator reviewed the pageant in glowing terms concluding that:

This great and memorable festival was carried out in a burgh whose population, 3,500, is not much more-than that of a good-sized English village. We knew before that the people of Orkney were hospitable, industrious, prosperous, and contented. We know something more about them now: that they have a lively appreciation of their history and traditions, a spirit of dignity worthy of their great past, an artistic fertility out of all proportion to their numbers, and a welcome incapacity to conceive that inferiority has any relation to size.22

Overall, the example of the St Magnus pageant demonstrates the way in which the pageant movement was able not only to reflect the high level of interest in local history in this period, but also stimulate this to greater heights. John Mooney, author of the retrospective booklet commemorating the octocentenary events, remarked that 'the pageant gave to the youth of Orkney... more instruction regarding twelfth century inhabitants of the islands, and the stirring events that took place there, than could have been obtained from a course of lectures or from the study of books of history'.23


1. ^ Octocentenary of St Magnus Cathedral, 1.
2. ^ Handbook of the St. Magnus Cathedral Octocentenary Celebrations, 27.
3. ^ See Brian Smith, The Picts and the Martyrs or Did Vikings Kill the Native Population of Orkney and Shetland?  Text of a lecture (original date unknown), available online, accessed 17 January 2017 at: Smith is archivist at the Shetland Museum and Archives and an honorary research fellow at the University of the Highlands and Islands.
4. ^ Handbook of the St. Magnus Cathedral Octocentenary Celebrations, 28.
5. ^ Ingibjorg is depicted as Thorfinn's wife in the pageant, and her later marriage to Malcolm is acknowledged in the pageant handbook; however, according to the medieval historian G.W.S. Barrow, the Ingibjorg who married Malcolm may well have been Thorfinn's daughter rather than his widow. See G.W.S. Barrow, ‘Malcolm III (d. 1093)’:, accessed 17 January 2017.
6. ^ Octocentenary of St Magnus Cathedral, 25.
7. ^ Ibid., 22.
8. ^ 'St Magnus Pageant: Sale of Properties', Aberdeen Press and Journal, 11 August 1937, 8.
9. ^ Octocentenary of St Magnus Cathedral Kirkwall, 33.
10. ^ Patricia Long, 'Octocentenary Pageant': (accessed 17 Jan. 2017).
11. ^ Octocentenary of St Magnus Cathedral, 33.
12. ^ Elizabeth Linklater, cited in Long, 'Octocentenary Pageant':
13. ^ 'The Pageant of St Magnus: Call for 400 Helpers', Orcadian, 28 January 1937 [information kindly provided by the Orkney Archives, page number not available].
14. ^ 'Norse Warriors Wanted', Scotsman, 18 March 1937, 17.
15. ^ Octocentenary of St Magnus Cathedral, 8.
16. ^ Ibid., 13.
17. ^ 'St Magnus Cathedral: Octocentenary Celebrations', Scotsman, 5 July 1937, 9.
18. ^ 'Pageant of St Magnus', Scotsman, 11 August 1937, 9.
19. ^ Octocentenary of St Magnus Cathedral, 13.
20. ^ 'Octocentenary of Kirkwall' , Aberdeen Press and Journal, 15 October 1937, 5.
21. ^ Octocentenary of St Magnus Cathedral, 14.
22. ^ James Fergusson, 'Islands of the North', Spectator 12 August 1937, 8.
23. ^ Octocentenary of St Magnus Cathedral, 34.

How to cite this entry

Angela Bartie, Linda Fleming, Mark Freeman, Tom Hulme, Alex Hutton, Paul Readman, ‘The Pageant of St Magnus’, The Redress of the Past,