With uncanny timing, a certain astute archivist brought the following obscure poem to my attention at the most opportune moment. It was published in Peace’s Orkney Almanac Companion in 1927.


We are indebted to Mr Wm. Traill, surveyor, Kirkwall, for bringing to our notice the following elegy which was written in St Magnus Cathedral in January 1773, and which afterwards appeared in “The Weekly Magazine or Edinburgh Amusement” (an octavo newspaper) of March 25, 1778. We have no knowledge of who the author is, no name being appended to the poem.

WITHIN these walls a solemn silence dwells,
More awful now that midnight shade prevails.
No light save what the wand’ring moon displays,
Whose image on yon spacious window strays.
What place more fit for Contemplation’s pow’r!
What time more proper than the midnight hour!
All nature now in pleasing sleep is laid
(Sweet to the weary, to the lab’rer aid 🙂
All but the drunkard or th’ insatiable rake;
Those brutes in all things but the human make!
Perhaps too, some this blessing can’t obtain,
And now lie stretch’d on sick-beds rack’d with pain;
Whose eyes for sweet repose are clos’d in vain,
O health! thou chiefest gift bestow’d by heav’n,
In vain all others without thee are giv’n.
Who have thee know thee not; but when thour’t gone,
All sigh and pant for thee, and thee alone.
What folly then, for such as health possess,
To court disease by every wild excess.
Is life too long, unthinking mortals, say,
That you to ev’ry passion must give way,
Provoking death to come in his most dread array?
Alas, come hither, see the fate of man,
And learn this truth, that “Life is but a span.”

How many generations lie below—
All one promiscuous heap of matter now!
O Death! how much thy subjects have increas’d,
Since first these venerable walls were rais’d!
Were rais’d! By whom? where are the architects
Who rear’d so grand a structure, that reflects
Such honour on the art? Where are ye now,
Who rang’d these columns in a double row;
Those arches one above another laid;
The vast stupendous vault above our head;
and all the Gothic wonders here display’d?
Perhaps you lie, unknowing and unknown,
Beneath the work by which your skill is shown.

Frail mortal man; thy labour’d work appears
To triumph o’er the shortness of thy years!
But still, O pious Rognvald! still thy name
Remains, and shall remain for future fame.
At thy expense, with zeal and taste betow’d,
This sacred temple here was raised to God:
A work which hath now stood (which all admire!)
For more than twice three centuries intire!
And yet for many ages more might stand,
Its frame majestic low’ring o’er the land
Were our rich nobles now like thee inclin’d;
With as much wealth had they thy zealous mind;
Then might this stately fabric claim their care,
Nor left a prey to time without repair.

Peace to thy manes, Rognvald! may’st thou rest
In the celestial regions of the blest-
But ah! what’s that- A ghost!- It moves-who’st there?
But yet, methinks, I need not tremble here.
What evil dare these sacred courts invade!
It moves- Perhaps ’tis some unquiet shade
That wanders here at this late hour of night-
Ah! It approaches-now ’tis more in sight!
What are you? good or evil spirit, say?
If good, you’re welcome; evil, hence- away!

“Be not afraid, nor fancy harm is near;
No evil dare within this house appear.
I am the soul that once did animate
Saint Magnus’ body in its transient state.
I am the guardian of this holy place,
Tho’ seldom visible to mortal race.

When Scotia’s sons, with warlike Bruce their head,
O’erthrew the numerous band by Edward led,
At Bannockburn, and thence their country sav’d,
Which Anglia’s haughty monarch would enslav’d;
That day in shining armour I appear’d *
To Aberdonia’s drooping sons and cheer’d
Their minds with news of victory obtain’d;
Then so divinely favour’d, they ordain’d
An annual support for this hallow’d place,
Tho now with-held by their less pious race.

I now appear in these degenerate days,
When Virtue’s fled, and Vice triumphant sways!
No more religion now by men is priz’d;
God altars and temples are despis’d;
The rich such lengths in luxury have gone,
They seem to hasten to oblivion;
Then, while their shades shall wander near their graves,
Shoot o’er the lawn, or dwell in gloomy caves,
No trace of them shall be left behind,
And scare their names posterity shall find!
How much more nobly might their fame be known,
Their taste admir’d, their piety be shown,
In after ages, would they but bestow
On domes like this, that wealth they squander now!
This pile was raised in a more virtuous age!
It since escaped the wreck, the cruel rage
Of zeal mistaken! Now ’tis left to fall
By Time’s unsparing hand, which crushes all-
Adieu- I haste to seats of endless bliss,
Which none but virtuous souls can e’er possess.”

O happy spirit!- Now it soars away
To scenes of rapture in eternal day?
O thou! whose mighty pow’r didst first create;
Whose wisdom, and whose goodness regulate
All that exists: whose works aloud proclaim
The hand that fashioned, and preserves their wond’rous frame,
O teach thou me, an atom in thy sight,
To act the part prescrib’d for me alright;
And, when ’tis finish’d, may the soul thou gave
Rejoin its fountain, and its rest receive:
Let virtue and true piety descend,
And their joint empire o’er the earth extend,
Then might some wealthy man, or gen’rous mind,
To save this pile from ruin be inclined.


Elegy in St Magnus Cathedral

One thought on “Elegy in St Magnus Cathedral

  1. Pingback: Elegy in St Magnus Cathedral | fionamoragrahame

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