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The Friends of St Ninian’s: preserving Deerness’ local heritage

It would be only too easy for the historic St Ninian’s church to have fallen into disrepair and be lost, a common fate for older buildings across Scotland. The Friends of St Ninian’s have not only managed to preserve this fascinating building and its history, but are continuing to use it for the benefit of the community. Here's how they did it.

St Ninians Church Deerness, Orkney. Courtesy of @OrkneyNewsLtd

Reusing church buildings for the wider community supports their preservation and provides a space where events can be held. In Deerness, Orkney, community organisation The Friends of St Ninian’s is able to achieve both of these important aims in a building with a fascinating history. 

Deerness, which its residents describe as  ‘almost an island’, is joined to Mainland  by a narrow stretch of land, and like all Orkney’s parishes has its own distinctive character. The Friends of St Ninian’s formed in 2008 and successfully purchased the Deerness Church building. In 2012 it became a Company Limited by Guarantee with 12 Directors and is registered as a Charity. It hosts a wide range of events both in St Ninian’s and in the nearby Deerness Community Hall as fundraising is essential to pay for the £3000 annual upkeep costs of St Ninian’s. 

The building is used for musical concerts, exhibitions and is an important resource for the community. Amongst its aims is “to advance the education of the public in Orkney and elsewhere in the history of St Ninian’s Kirk and the historical, cultural and social development of the local community.”

St Ninian’s Church, Deerness, does not take its name, as might be expected, from Scotland’s first saint who worked to bring Christianity to the Picts in the 4th century. In 1903 the Leith built Steam Ship, St Ninian, had a narrow escape when it ran aground at Sandside Bay at 4am on a foggy February morning. Word was immediately sent to Kirkwall where, with the assistance of the Steamer Orcadia, she was refloated. All passengers were unhurt and able to resume their journey, first to Kirkwall, then onward to Aberdeen and Leith. 

The ship had only just missed the nearby rocks. The grateful passengers were encouraged by Deerness Minister, Rev Ramsay, to fund the payment of a bell for the church. Firstly as thanks for their escape, and secondly for the purpose of warning other vessels of the nearby rocks. 

Sandside Bay Deerness. Courtesy of @OrkneyNewsLtd

The Deerness Church, located close to where the vessel beached, took on the name of the SS St Ninian. The building dates back to the late 18th century and is Category B listed. In 1829 and again in 1924 its interior was altered  as the Church of Scotland itself adapted to different ways of worshiping. 

St Ninian’s was constructed close to an earlier medieval church,  St Mary’s. Nothing now remains of St Mary’s, however, it was described and sketched  by the Rev George Low of Birsay in 1774. St Mary’s had two round towers at its west end capped with small cupolas and was described by Low as ‘the most remarkable country kirk in these isles’. Low was able to explore inside the Church, even climbing its twin towers. His description published in ‘Tour Through Orkney and Shetland’ is a hugely important record of this building.  The roof of the church was blown off in the late 18th century and the building became very ruinous, despite still being used by its congregation.

The medieval St Mary’s church had been built very close to the home of a powerful 11th century Orkney Norse landowner, Thorkel Amundson, also known as Thorkel Fóstri (Thorkel the Fosterer), foster father of Thorfinn the Mighty. It was customary to locate Medieval churches close to the homes of important Norse landowners. In Orphir, next to what was the Earls’ Bu and large drinking hall, there are the remains of the round church dedicated to St Nicholas. On the tidal island, The Brough of Birsay, once the home of Thorfinn the Mighty, are the remains of the 11th century Church of St Peter and a Monastery.    

When the last foundations of St Mary’s  church were being removed, two coins dating to Edward I of England c1280 were discovered. In the churchyard a well preserved hogback tombstone of the late 11th/early 12th century was found. This would have marked the grave of an important individual of Norse heritage. In the mid 20th Century this valuable example of its kind was moved and is now located within the Session House of today’s St Ninian’s Church. 

In 1774 Rev George Low wrote “In the churchyard observed a coffin-shaped stone without any inscription.”  This rare example of a hogback grave marker has four rows carved like roof tiles which increase in size towards the base. Most importantly it remains in Deerness and not located in some far off museum. 

Orkney boasts an abundance of archaeological sites and it would be only too easy for St Ninian’s, with its notable interior of a corbelled bird cage bellcote, to have fallen into disrepair and be lost as the earlier Medieval church of St Mary’s was.  The Friends of St Ninian’s have not only managed to preserve this fascinating building and its history, but are continuing to use it for the benefit of the community.  At the  renowned St Magnus International Festival this year St Ninian’s is the venue on June 25th for ‘Invocations and Improvisations’. The concert features the chamber ensemble, the Edinburgh  Quartet and one of the world’s finest mandolin players, Alon Sariel. 

And of course it is still used for both weddings and funerals bringing the community together at those times of celebration and remembrance.

You can find out more on the Friends of St Ninian’s website and Facebook page Deerness Orkney

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