How the Arran panels came to be created for Orkney catherdral

The Arran panels in St Magnus Catherdral on Orkney.

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In June the Banner published an article concerning the Arran panels in the St Magnus Catherdral in Kirkwall by Emeritus Profressor Bob Osborne of Belfast. Since then a number of people contacted him as a result of the article and he has been able to produce a definitive account of their creation.

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In the spring of 1980 the head of art in Arran High School, Maureen Farquharson, inspired by the newly instigated St Magnus Festival of the Arts launched in Orkney and based at St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall. The festival was the inspiration of the renowned Orkney poet, George Mackay Brown and the composer Peter Maxwell Davies, and was designed as a celebration of local and international culture.

Mrs Farquarson believed that Arran could contribute to the growth of the festival and that the pupils of the high school had the ability and enthusiasm to make that contribution.

Accordingly she  selected a group of a dozen year two pupils, aged about 13/14, some with an artistic ability, and set about reading and researching about Orkney’s history, culture and its landscape. Reading about the Magnus saga followed and she decided tell the St Magnus story in a series of medieval panels. To do this Maureen adopted a technique used by medieval painters of showing several events in one picture where chronology is ignored.

The story of the painting of the panels required the acquisition of new skills by the pupils. Working during lunch breaks, after normal school hours and at the weekends involved learning how to apply oils to canvass and the drawing of figures. Pupils were taken to the Glasgow School of Art to learn how to apply gold leaf. Drawing figures was helped by enlisting volunteers from across the island to pose as Bishop William, Hakon or St Magnus. As Neil Currie, one of the pupils involved, these volunteers enlivened the working sessions by depicting praying, fighting and executions! David Oakes, then the principal of the high school, recalls that the exercise created a ‘buzz’ in the school and that he was delighted to support the project, including financially.

Most of the pupils, with Mrs Farquharson, travelled to Kirkwall where the presentation of the panels was made. The then  Lord Lieutenant, Col Macrae, suggested the presentation take place in the cathedral where he accepted the gift on behalf of the people of Orkney and Peter Maxwell Davies accepted them on behalf of the St Magnus Festival.

Anyone who travels to Orkney and visits St Magnus Cathedral cannot fail to be impressed by the sight of the panels located on the organ screen in the choir of the cathedral. It is a visual reminder of the story of St Magnus and complements the music and culture of the Festival. It is a lasting testimony of the inspiration of Maureen Farquharson, the industry and skill of the dozen pupils of Arran and the link between Arran and Orkney. Surely, there should be a special event to celebrate the 40th anniversary of presentation of the Arran gift in 2020?

Mrs Farquharson, who retired a number of years ago, still lives in Brodick.

Acknowledgements: thanks to Neil Currie of Shiskine and Fran Hollinrake and Sarah Sutherland of Orkney for their help in producing this article.

One side of the Arran panels in St Magnus Cathedral. NO_B42murals01

The other side of the Arran panels. NO_B42murals02

An inset of the Arran panels. NO_B42murals03