Visit any historic church in Britain, and the odds are good that you will find centuries-old graffiti drawn on or carved into the walls, pillars, memorials, or furnishings. Some of these designs are deep, elaborate, and in very visible areas, suggesting that their creators had not been shy about working away in plain sight for some time. It appears that, at least in the medieval period, graffiti was not seen as the social scourge that it is today. But when did this change in attitude – or, at least, in law – occur? In Orkney, we can assign a very precise date: 29 July 1891.
On that day, the Orkney Herald attests, the Sheriff’s Court in Kirkwall heard the case of Henry Hutcheon, a resident of Aberdeen who had been caught using a hammer and chisel to carve his initials into the tower of St Magnus Cathedral. Hutcheon readily admitted the charge, but argued in his defence that the stonework was already so covered with names – including those of such distinguished people as Queen Victoria’s son, Prince Alfred – that ‘I did not think there could be any harm done if I put mine there too’. Sheriff Thoms, however, was unmoved, decrying such inscriptions as ‘an act of vandalism’, sentencing Hutcheon (the July-December 1891 edition of The Antiquary tells us) to a £1 fine or a month in prison, and banning any further graffiti in the cathedral.
To help enforce this last ruling, the cathedral employed its first custodian – Peter Wick, whose grave can still be seen within St Magnus churchyard – and a key part of his job description was to prevent more people from carving their names on walls. More than 130 years later, these markings represent illuminating archaeological evidence – echoes of centuries of pilgrims, congregants, and secular visitors to the site – and the cathedral’s current custodian, Fran Flett Hollinrake, has been working with a host of local volunteers to document hundreds of drawings and inscriptions within the building.
Graffiti surveys have been a particularly productive area of archaeological research in recent years, and periodically feature in the pages of CA – see, for example, the work of the Wiltshire Medieval Graffiti Survey (CA 343) and especially the far-reaching findings of the Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey (CA 256 and 365). It was this latter project, spearheaded by Matthew Champion, that inspired Fran’s own initiative. Speaking during my visit to the cathedral, she said: ‘Someone lent me a copy of Matthew’s book Medieval Graffiti, and I thought “I wonder…?”, and started going around the cathedral with a torch. Since then, Matthew has been a great supporter and source of advice for our work.’
As she began her torchlit search, Fran’s expectations were modest. Although it was already known that there was a lot of graffiti in the cathedral, it had never been surveyed or studied in a systematic way – and most of the markings were thought to post-date the medieval period, due to the impact of historical religious changes.
In Scotland, Fran said, ‘the iconoclasm of the Reformation [which began in 1560] was very thorough. Its followers wanted to obliterate any sign of medieval Catholic devotion, and everything was smashed – windows, furniture, statues.’ The walls of St Magnus, like so many other churches, had originally been plastered and painted with colourful religious motifs, but during the Reformation these were covered over with layer on layer of limewash. At many other sites, this literal whitewashing of their Catholic past had an archaeological silver lining, preserving saintly figures, images of birds and animals, and even entire religious scenes to be rediscovered by researchers working centuries after they had been blotted out (see, for example, CA 265 and 383). At St Magnus, though, it was a very different story: the destruction of the Kirkwall cathedral’s iconography had not stopped with the iconoclastic impulses of the Reformation.
In the 1920s, Fran explained, a well-intentioned and much-needed initiative had seen the building ‘restored’ from top to bottom – using wire brushes and caustic soda to return its interior to bare stone, an appearance that would have been entirely alien to any medieval worshipper. In scouring away the limewash, this undertaking also removed every trace of medieval plaster and any images or more casual markings that may have been left on it. As a result, Fran said, she thought her search was likely to bring to light 19th- and 20th-century graffiti within the cathedral, but she would be ‘really pleased’ to find anything medieval.
Starting the survey
The search soon evolved into a more systematic survey backed by the Orkney Archaeology Society (OAS), who saw Fran’s idea as a great way to get more people involved in investigating the islands’ heritage. ‘In Orkney, the dig season is very short because of the weather, and that can limit opportunities for the public to get involved. Add to that outdoor work, moving across uneven ground, and spending a lot of time kneeling – and excavations are just not accessible for everyone,’ Fran said. ‘But in the cathedral we could work all year round, we were indoors, and as we only set out to record markings made at head height or below – because we thought it was unlikely that mark-makers would have been climbing – we could accommodate volunteers with more limited mobility.’
A successful National Lottery Heritage Fund application followed, and Dr Antonia Thomas of the University of Highlands and Islands (a specialist in mark-making, rock art, and graffiti) came on board to help train volunteers and to write a formal report at the end of the project. In the spring of 2019, the survey was ready to begin, marshalling an army of around 70 volunteers who each signed up for two-hour sessions forensically focused on a specific area of the cathedral’s interior. There, armed with hand-held lights and context sheets, they were tasked with recording any mark they came across, whatever its date – and the team’s discoveries far surpassed expectations.
They were just completing their exploration of the interior when the first 2020 lockdown put a halt to their efforts – but even by that point the volunteers had managed to survey all accessible walls and pillars on the ground floor, recording over 600 marks and inscriptions to send to Antonia, who has since analysed them in detail, and who also undertook some follow-up work in the cathedral last year. With the final report on their findings now written – and a new OAS leaflet highlighting the locations of some of the key inscriptions freely available in the cathedral (and for download at https://orkneyarchaeologysociety.org.uk/the-oas-st-magnus-graffiti-project) – what has the project revealed about how people interacted with the cathedral over the centuries?
In total, the survey recorded 630 marks, some of them incredibly slight and only visible when a torch was held at particular angle, vanishing once more when the light moved. Over a third were masons’ marks, but there were also 28 name-and-date inscriptions, 16 crosses (both scratched and carved), 26 patterns or possible patterns of dots, 21 drawings including ritual protection marks, and two modern votive deposits (broken pieces of silver jewellery tucked into crevices in stonework: one in a pillar and one in the south aisle of the choir). The other 297 marks include those interpreted as natural, damage-related, traces of surface dressing, or the result of restoration, as well as some pencil and crayon marks that may relate to modern maintenance of the building.
To explore these categories in more detail, let’s begin with the initials and dates – for which, by their nature, it is often relatively easy to establish an age. Many of the inscriptions were, as Fran expected, from the 19th century or later, based on the style of their letters and the fact that three included the year that they were made: 1814, 1819, and 1940. One mark-maker, the otherwise anonymous ‘TS’, was particularly prolific, leaving three examples of their initials on the cathedral’s stonework, and their letter forms suggest they too were active in the 19th century.
The most recent initials, though, were not carved but written in pencil on one of the columns, in an inscription reading ‘HD 1940 Wilts’. Whoever their author was, they had travelled a long way from Wiltshire, which lies some 700 miles to the south – given the date, Fran wonders if they might have been in the military, though she has not found any record of a regiment from that county being stationed in Orkney during the Second World War. There was also one set of initials that could be earlier than the rest: the letters RA, spotted on a memorial at the west end of the nave. The monument dates to 1651, so the mark cannot be earlier than this, but as the ‘A’ has an unusual chevron-shaped crossbar, it could be that it pre-dates the other documented initials by some distance.
Other marks representing people’s identities were masons’ marks, and, as mentioned above, these were by far the most common form of carving recorded by the volunteers. They fell into two classes: assembly marks that cut across adjacent stones to guide how they should be joined, and banker marks used by masons to label their own work to ensure fair payment for their contribution to a project. Many had already been documented by a former cathedral custodian, Albert Thomson, who published 114 such marks in the 1950s, but that total has now been expanded to 240 by the more recent survey. They take a variety of forms, ranging from letters and runes to arrows, triangles, and other geometric shapes – including one that looks like an hourglass on its side, which was seen on some of the 12th-century pillars. In a pleasing coincidence, it bears a striking similarity to markings that were already very familiar to Antonia: the ‘Brodgar butterfly’ motif seen on some of the Neolithic stonework at the Ness of Brodgar. Clearly, this particular design has been deemed attractive in appearance and easy to execute on stone for a very long time.
These were not the only markings that drew comparisons with other sites, though: 16 of the masons’ marks represent examples that are also known from Durham Cathedral. While this may have been another coincidence – given the finite repertoire of marks that can easily be made with a chisel – the fact that these buildings are contemporary in date might hint at a genuine connection, perhaps indicating that the same masons were employed in aspects of both constructions.
Protection and pecking
While the marks described in the previous section largely represent people wanting to record their presence in the cathedral, whether from a sense of ‘I was here’, or out of commercial concerns, many of the other graffiti seem to have had a religious motivation (perhaps unsurprisingly, in a building that was for centuries a popular destination for pilgrims visiting the shrines of St Magnus and St Rögnvald).
A large proportion of these fall into a category known as ‘apotropaic’ or protective marks, including several ‘Marian marks’ invoking the Virgin Mary – these take the form of two overlapping V-shapes, which might stand for virgo virginum, ‘Virgin of Virgins’, or represent an inverted letter M. There was also a single hexafoil, a motif also known as a ‘daisy wheel’, which is a compass-drawn design depicting six ‘petals’ in a circle. It had previously been noted by Albert Thomson, and was relocated by the project team on a monument to the Paplay family in the southern aisle of the nave. In secular medieval buildings, such marks are often found near entranceways – hearths, doors, windows – to prevent the entry of evil forces, and Fran wonders if the fact that the Paplay family’s arched memorial bears a certain resemblance to a fireplace might have prompted similar attention.
Even more subtle than these symbolic scratches were the clusters of dots and incised lines observed on many of the pillars, particularly in the crossing but seen throughout the cathedral. These are thought to represent devotional pecking – the act of collecting holy dust from the body of the cathedral itself, which would then be mixed with water and used as medicine – or pilgrims taking a little bit of the stonework home with them.
Some of the marks described above might be easily overlooked, but crosses are religious symbols whose sacred nature is obvious even to the untrained eye. Sixteen in all were recorded during the graffiti survey, comprising some well-known examples (including a Greek cross scored into the south transept), as well as previously undocumented ones. Two more deep carvings, recorded on either side of the door leading to the south choir, may have been left by pilgrims or intended as consecration marks. Above all, what is most striking about these symbols is their prominent locations and how much time had been spent in carving them – highlighting once again that, during the medieval period, creating these motifs was not seen as a clandestine or illicit act of vandalism.
On one of the pillars, a written inscription bore the intriguing words: ‘7’ from pillar, 2.4” down’ – something that Fran suggests might indicate the site of a burial in the central choir aisle. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, a number of graves had been uncovered close to the original location of the shrine and high altar. These were interpreted as the burials of former bishops of the cathedral, and the remains of their occupants were reburied in side chapels; it is possible that the pencilled note was intended to record the position of another important grave. On the subject of bishops, one of the few external marks to be included in the report (it was not part of the official survey, but was spotted by Fran when the sunlight caught it as she was passing) is an angular design resembling a chevron, which was carved on to the 16th-century Bishop’s Door. This specific mark has not been found anywhere else inside the cathedral, and Fran wonders if it might be intended to represent a mitre, or some other personal or heraldic mark relating to the bishop himself.
Leaping forward to the present day, the most recent ‘addition’ to the cathedral’s fabric that the survey uncovered was a Blue Peter sticker that had been attached to the underside of a piece of wood in one of the choir stalls. Proudly declaring ‘I’m a Blue Peter weather beater’, the sticker represents a campaign from 1984, and while it is a rather different form of mark-making from the others documented by the volunteers, it still reflects a moment frozen in time, and another way in which people have interacted with the cathedral in the past.
Tangible traces like these are the most powerful part of the project’s findings. In the case of the earlier graffiti, they are tiny marks left behind by people who lived centuries ago, marks that in some cases now represent the only record of these people’s existence, but which can be so easily swept away, whether by religious reform or more recent restoration. ‘As you walk through the cathedral, you see big marble monuments, memorials to the great and good, the monied classes, but these little markings of devotion are material evidence of the ordinary people who are otherwise invisible,’ Fran said. ‘It feels so precious, having contact with these people, with their hopes, fears, and emotions, and their everyday interactions with this space, coming here to worship or perhaps seeking a cure for themselves or a loved one.’
Although the graffiti survey has now concluded, there are still big questions to explore at St Magnus, Fran said. The project only focused on the ground floor, but cathedral staff are well aware that there are many more markings upstairs – mostly modern, and mainly written in pencil on plaster, rather than carved into the stonework. As well as more mischievous inscriptions like a rather fanciful example claiming to have been left by the Norse explorer Leif Erikson in 1156, there is a significant body of graffiti created by service personnel who were stationed in Orkney during the First and Second World Wars. As these often include the names not only of their authors, but of their regiment or ship, they represent figures who should be easily traceable, offering interesting opportunities for further research, Fran said.
Such a project would be a less straight-forward affair, as the upstairs space is less accessible for volunteer recording, requiring the use of narrow corridors and stairs (public admission is only permitted during supervised tours). However, it is hoped that if funding can be secured, targeted areas known to be rich in graffiti could be examined, and participants with more limited mobility could help with archival research, looking for matches in Commonwealth war-grave and naval records, and recording oral histories from any mark-makers found to still be alive.
Rich insights into the cathedral’s past have already been revealed by tracking down some of the people who left their mark on its walls, Fran said. Decades earlier, movement in the building had prompted the closure of the nave between 1971 and 1974 so that the structure could be reinforced, and these efforts involved eight contractors, many of whose workers wrote their names on nearby stone, wood, and metal structures. One particularly bold example, written in black marker pen and accompanied by the date 24/2/72, caught Fran’s eye, and she posted a photograph of the graffiti on a Facebook page called ‘Orkney Past and Present’, asking if anyone knew who might have written it. To Fran’s delight, information flooded in – the man was described as something of a local legend, the pipe major in the local band and a well-known figure in Kirkwall – and then his daughter got in touch. Fran was able to arrange to meet the man himself, and he was only too happy to share his experiences of working in the cathedral.
While the nave was shut, Fran heard, weddings continued to take place in the smaller St Rögnvald’s chapel. High above these proceedings, workmen were spending entire days up on scaffolding, not even descending to eat, but cooking on a stove that had been installed in their lofty position. To entertain themselves, when wedding parties entered the cathedral, they would lie on the planks to watch – and would make a game of dropping tiny pieces of gravel to see who could get one into the elaborate hats worn by some of the female guests.
This is only a fragment of the cathedral’s history that could be revealed through researching the more recent markings in greater detail, Fran emphasised as we ended our tour: ‘With the medieval graffiti, these are faint echoes of people who lived a long time ago, and whose stories have been lost – but with the modern markings, in many cases we can still find and speak to the people who created them.’
Further information Antonia Thomas’s project report is available online at https://pure.uhi.ac.uk/en/publications/st-magnus-graffiti-project-stage-1-orca-project795. You can also watch a talk that Antonia gave to the Orkney Archaeology Society on YouTube at www.youtube.com/watch?v= pwZq2TmPkSA. The self-guided leaflet is available for download by scanning this QR code with your phone:
ALL IMAGES: Antonia Thomas, unless otherwise stated