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Published: 28 September 2019

By Andy Ross

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Remembering St Magnus

Warping the altarcloth

We have been involved in a fascinating project, all to do with medieval Christianity...

Over the past few months we have been working with Shetland Museum and Archive on a project to do with St Magnus,  he of Orkneyinga saga fame. St Magnus is highly regarded in both Orkney and Shetland with churches dedicated to him in both places and of course, the Cathedral in Orkney. 

A few years ago a small piece of red sandstone was discovered which bore a cross incised on its surface. The red stone looked unusual for the area in which it was found and a chance conversation about it led to a connection with three churches in Shetland. These three churches were unusual in that they had towers included in the structure, at least one of which was built of red sandstone. 

Jenny Murray from the Shetland Museum and Allen Fraser, a local geologist, have been uncovering the story of the stone. It turned out that the rock actually comes from Orkney and is the same rock that is found in the Cathedral dedicated to St Magnus. You can read more about St Magnus here and more about the research project here

This fascinating turn of events led to our involvement and gradually over the last few months I have been designing and then making an altarcloth for a display of various religious artefacts in the Museum. We have also made scarves to go in the shop, designed with the same colours of the altarcloth and created as a Limited Edition of fifty pieces entitled "Remembering St Magnus". 

The completed altarcloth ready for pressing and inspection

It has been a real challenge to keep this secret. On Thursday night, Shona, from The Shetland Gallery, and I went down to Lerwick for a talk about the project and to launch the scarves. A packed auditorium at the Museum listened to the story from both Jenny and Allen, and what an interesting evening it turned out to be. This whole project has become a saga in itself, with many twists and turns, discoveries and uncoverings. Happenstance has played a part, and so far the story involves rivalry, family feuds, love and hate, tectonic shifts (both real and virtual) and of course, religion. The project is rewriting the history of these islands in the medieval period, dramatically revising the received knowledge, and it is all thanks to a little piece of red sandstone and an eagle-eyed spotter. This is far from over!

Scarves with the rock that inspired them

Thank you to the Shetland Museum for asking us to be part of this project and for allowing us freedom to make both the altarcloth and the scarves. Jamieson's Spinning donated the yarn for the former; thank you for that too. Our next stage is to make a Limited Edition of blankets - thirteen of them to represent the thirteen disciples - and one of the blankets has already been bagged! This is A Very Special Project to be involved with indeed.