The Wey Hid Wis

Octocentenary Pageant

In 1937, Orkney celebrated the 800th anniversary of the founding of the cathedral with all the ceremony it could devise. As The Orkney Herald wrote,

"Distinguished men from near and far, from Scotland and from Norway and Iceland, the Viking lands of a former age, assembled to join with Orcadians in commemorating this great occasion. Seldom has anything fired the imagination of the Orkney people as did these Octocentenary celebrations. Thousands thronged Kirkwall from every corner of the mainland, from the extremes of the North and South Isles. From the south and abroad many exiles returned to their homeland to be present at this great event. In this amazing pilgrimage to Kirkwall was reflected the Orkney people's fierce pride in their Viking ancestry and their devotion to the ancient and beautiful shrine of St Magnus."

The main event of the four days of celebration, and still remembered today, was the Pageant. It was staged in Brandyquoy Park on St Olaf's Day, 29th July, with a cast of more than six hundred and watched over its two performances by an estimated audience of almost 7000. The Orkney Herald may have been justified in describing it as "the most magnificent dramatic event Orkney or the North had ever seen" and claiming that "not for another 100 years was such an event likely to be seen again".

The script for the eight scenes was written by Eric Linklater and Storer Clouston. It told the story of the arrival of Christianity in Orkney, the death of Magnus, the winning back of Orkney by Rognvald and the building of the Cathedral.

The scenes were shared between casts from Kirkwall, Stromness, Dounby and South Ronaldsay. The producers, each with responsibility for particular scenes, were D B Peace, Donald McInnes, W B Hourston, Ian Paterson, Marjorie Linklater and a professional actor, Karl Holter, who had come over from Norway especially to be Earl Rognvald.

In overall charge was the Pageant Master, Sir Ronald Sinclair of Dunbeath, a professional actor and theatre producer, with Rodney Shearer as his assistant. Also on the Pageant Committee were Stanley Cursiter, Dr Hugh Marwick, Alexander Leask, the Rector of KGS, Provost J Slater, JC Robertson and the three Dancing Mistresses, Mrs McClure, Mrs R L Shearer and Violet Firth.

Eric Linklater sent out the initial call for cast members in the Orcadian of 28 January 1937. He said, "Players of all ages are needed: well-grown boys and girls, men and women, and old men who are still hale and hearty. Tall and stalwart men are especially needed, and women who, being stout of body, will look stout of heart as the Vikings were".

There was not an immediate rush of volunteers. As Marjorie Linklater wrote in the booklet published by Alistair and Anne Cormack in 1987, 'St Magnus Cathedral 850 years - a celebration', there was little enthusiasm shown at the public meeting she and Eric held in Harray. "I'm no gaun tae mak a fule o' mesel'" was the immediate reaction".

However, numbers grew slowly and by March the Orcadian reported that more than three-quarters of the 400 performers had been talked into it. Despite enrolling almost all the available six-footers, the organisers were still short of convincing Vikings and a call was being sent out to police stations up and down the country, asking Orcadian exiles to volunteer.

As the performers were recruited and trained, hundreds of Orcadians were hard at work behind the scenes. Fortunately for the sanity of the organisers, the proposal that the costumes should be made locally had fallen on deaf ears. Six hundred costumes at 10/- each were ordered from a firm in Glasgow, who provided the wigs as well. The carpentry section of KGS provided shields, helmets and some of the battle-axes.

The eight scenes were rehearsed locally but the first full rehearsal in Kirkwall was only on 1 July. Four weeks later, all of Wednesday 28th was devoted to the dress rehearsal. Marjorie Linklater wrote, "For the first time the Pageant Master was confronted by hundreds of performers and accessories - stage-managers, technicians, ushers, orchestra (a round dozen musicians, myself one of two cellists) all of whom had worked in isolation.

There was no time to waste, with only four weeks to go, but it all came together in the end. Eric Linklater wrote to Compton Mackenzie,

"It was after weeks of utter chaos, a great triumph … We didn't bother to proclaim our independence, we just realised it. I wish you had been here. It was extraordinary, the way Orkney suddenly perceived the reality of its history."

Thursday's celebrations began with a service in the Cathedral. The 1500 strong congregation included Herr Jon Baldvinsson, President of the Iceland Althing, representatives of the King of Norway and the Secretary of State for Scotland, the Moderator of the General Assembly, the Bishop of Nidaros in Norway and the Rector of the church of St Magnus the Martyr in London.

The service was broadcast to an audience of over 800 in Broad Street and recorded by the BBC, to be broadcast on the Home Service on Sunday.

Then, in the afternoon, came the Pageant. All the hard work came together in a spectacular triumph that lingers in the memory still.

Eric Linklater read the prologue to each scene and the small specially formed orchestra provided the accompanying music, mainly by Greig, to honour the Norse connection. The problem of how to mark the change of scenes was solved beautifully. Seventy-two teenage girls danced across the park in a living curtain. Their yellow dresses had wide skirts with canes fixed to the sides so that they could be held out.

Detailed descriptions of every scene, and the entire cast lists, can be found in the Orcadian and Orkney Herald of the following week, as well as in John Mooney's booklet and the Handbook but four scenes in particular show the scale of the achievement.

Kirkwall was responsible for Scene III, the murder of St Magnus. James Flett's portrayal of Magnus was described as one of the most outstanding of the pageant, "a performance which will be long remembered by those who saw it". The Orkney Herald thought this scene was the one that gripped the audience most.

James Flett's son John says that a Kirkwall lady got so caught up in the emotion of the scene that she got actor and character confused and sobbed as Magnus' body was carried off, "Mercy, I kent that Jim Flett right weel"

Kirkwall may have got the most dramatic scene but Stromness had a challenge of its own: staging a sea battle in Brandyquoy Park. Scene V was the Battle of Tankerness and John Mooney described how it was done.

"Skilful stage arrangements enabled the spectators to see the masts, sails and high prows of the longships; and an old crippled warrior named Thorgrim (Donald McInnes) whom the Earl would not allow on board watched the fight from the top of a mound, giving a running commentary, in exciting and graphic language, of incidents in the fight."

The action wasn't all off-stage. The cast of 133 warriors and peasants included Robert Shaw, whose acting career was to go on to greater things and very different sea battles.

Scene VII had a cast of over one hundred, drawn from Dounby and district. Although Marjorie Linklater is credited as producer, it seems to have been a co-production. In Eric's letter to Compton Mackenzie, he wrote,

"We had, in our scene, a force of sixty Vikings, fine fellows, old and young, and half of them over six feet. They - our lot - were all farmers, and a bit contemptuous of the urban players. During the dress rehearsal, to everyone's consternation, they disappeared; and then we found their leaders, two ex-sergeants, were marching them through Kirkwall, just to show them off. With three words, they'd have sacked the place."

It didn't stop there. Marjorie wrote, "The crusaders who accompanied Earl Rognvald (in the last scene) were the redoubtable warriors of Scene VII. By this time they were right "into" their parts. At the end of the second performance nothing could stop them. Marching away with the thunderous applause of the huge audience in their ears they marched on - and -on - round Kirkwall, stopping here and there for a drink on the way. History does not relate how or when they were transported back home."

Scene VII, set on Fair Isle, showed the sabotage of the beacon, which would have warned of Rognvald's approach, followed by his landing on the island. Their rehearsals on the Market Green had drawn crowds and helped generate interest in the pageant locally.

Part of the scene provided some light relief in the skilled hands of Davie Towers as the guardian of the beacon, Mrs Sinclair as his wife and Willie Oag as the spy sent by Kol, who gets Davie Towers drunk, to the disgust of his wife. They were well-known as gifted comic actors and Eric Linklater probably wrote the scene especially for them. It was received with loud laughter and prolonged applause.

The final scene brought all the cast into the arena at once and showed the cathedral being consecrated before Earl Rognvald set of on his pilgrimage to the Holy Land. It was the day of the Lammas Market and there were men on horseback, soldiers, pedlars, acrobats, musicians, children running through the crowds and cattle being sold. A large and powerful Norwegian singer, Reidar Kaas, sang at one end of the arena and Jack Tait from Dounby, who had been a cup-winning wrestler in Canada, took on all-comers at the other end.

The leading figures of the time, Earl Rognvald, Earl Harald Maddadson, Sweyn Asleifson, Kolbein Hruga, Bishop William and the Norwegian barons and Orkney chiefs who were to sail with Rognvald on his crusade made their way through the crowd on the way to the cathedral.

The Orkney Herald wrote, "At length the blast of trumpets rang out again, and the Cathedral bells resumed their pealing. The entry of the Crusaders, their progress across the scene and the tableau they formed at the pier, where could be seen the prows and masts of the waiting ships, was the most magnificent spectacle in the pageant.

There was a solemn silence while the Crusaders received Bishop William's blessing, and the scene closed with Earl Rognvald's superbly spoken farewell.

Thus concluded one of the most wonderful events the north has ever seen".

After the evening performance, the BBC broadcast from a temporary studio in the Kirkwall Hotel, getting in before the transmission of the service on Sunday, to be the first ever radio broadcast from Orkney.

Provost Slater, Eric Linklater and Pageant Master Sir Ronald Sinclair gave short talks on aspects of the pageant and two members of the Dounby cast got the chance to say a few words: Mrs John Sinclair and my great-grandfather, John Kirkness.

Professor Brogger, attending as representative of the King of Norway, broadcast an account of the pageant to Norway.

The stamina of the Council and their guests almost defies belief. At 10pm that night they had a Civic Reception in the Town Hall for 250 guests. Herra Baldvinsson presented a bound address; Karl Holter announced the gift of 250 volumes of Norse literature to Kirkwall; greetings were conveyed from Norway, Scotland, Shetland and Caithness.

They were off again the following day, to lunch at the Stenness Hotel, followed by a motor tour of the West Mainland, to the 'principal places of antiquarian interest'. In the evening there was a dance in the Town Hall for everyone involved with the pageant.

There was an excursion to Egilsay on Saturday, and a service in the churchyard there. The Kirkwall Town Band played and Rev G Arthur Fryer of the church of St Magnus the Martyr in London offered to present a stone from his congregation to be erected as a memorial. He unveiled the stone at a service on Egilsay in September 1938.

There were three services in the Cathedral on Sunday. In the morning, Professor Dr Olav Kolsrud made the formal presentation of the statue of St Olaf, as a gift from the Church of Norway and the celebrations ended with a service for young people in the evening.

There was widespread interest in the event and John Mooney quotes from the Spectator, "It was incontestably a notable event… There has been nothing like it within living memory in Scotland." The many non-Orcadian visitors to Orkney's capital, who had come merely to take snapshots and be entertained and amused, found themselves drawn into the spirit of the occasion, were given a clearer picture of the splendour of Orkney's history, of the greatnes of the people who once inhabited these islands, and realised the significance of the Cathedral to present-day Orcadians, embodying as it does, all that splendour, dignity, and greatness of the past.

The above article appeared in Living Orkney July 2012