Friday, 13 January 2017

September 10, 2016: We explore Kirkwall

From my travel journal dated September 11, 2016:

"Spent yesterday in Kirkwall ... St. Magnus Cathedral ... 

 Work on the Romanesque-style cathedral began in 1137.

They had put the bones of many people, including Robert Stewart, into a common grave just outside the cathedral walls, where there is now a green space. Robert Stewart and all the Stewarts are not well-liked.  

 The unmarked common grave looks spookier through the fence

Lots of references inside to Richens. I photographed the tombstones.

The grave marker of Robert Richen, my 8th great-grandfather.

Stained glass window in St. Magnus Cathedral

Lunch at the cafe across the road from the cathedral... salads! Yay. I bought a tea towel with puffins on it. 

Went to the museum and got the time-line sorted out re settlements, and peoples, and dates. Then to the library archives where I found a book on the Richens, some of which the librarian photocopied(3£).

Then back on the bus to Stromness. He stopped as soon as we rang the bell so we did not have far to walk."

My travel journal doesn't really do justice to our day in Kirkwall. I wanted to go there to investigate my family connection to Orkneyjar, its name when reflecting its Norwegian roots. It was given to Scotland  by the king of Denmark and Norway as part of a dowry for his daughter Margaret, who married James III of Scotland in July 1469. The islands were never redeemed by him. 

Orcadians to this day feel attached to Scandinavia. In fact when we left Orkney Mainland, we were asked if we were going back to Scotland. Gaelic (on the road signs, along with English, in other parts of Scotland) is seen as unnecessary in Orkney; as Carrie of See Orkney told us, "No one speaks it here."

At the time we visited, I thought I was directly related to the notorious Robert Stewart, scion of  James Stewart V of Scotland and his mistress Euphemia Elphinstone, and Robert's equally despised son Patrick. Thankfully, the notorious Robert is merely the second great-grandfather of my seventh great-uncle, Robert Richan (1707-1791), husband to a Stewart descendant, Jane Stewart of Eday.

However, seventh great-uncle Robert Richen and I share another Robert Richen in common, his paternal great-grandfather and my eighth great-grandfather, who is remembered on the gravestone pictured above. Born in 1620, Robert was a well-off merchant in Kirkwall, making his living as a litster or dyer.  In the late 1660s, in addition to other property,  he bought two double dwellings, "two sclaitt ruifed and twa theack ruifed." The inscription on his tombstone refers to him as "Merchand - Burgess of Kirkwall, who departed this lyf 1 Decr 1679." (Source: The Richans of Orkney 1983)

Time passed and vowels changed and my fifth great-grandfather, Captain John Richan, born in Kirkwall in 1756, arrived in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia about 1788. He died there in 1807.  But who is his father? He is named "son of John Richan" in one book about Yarmouth. In another account, his father is said to have been  Captain William Richan, descendant of those nasty Stewarts via his mother's side. 

This Captain William (1741-1829) was a colourful figure (sea captain, decorated naval commander, smuggler and husband of a profligate wife who pretty much bankrupted him). I wish he were my direct relative for the stories about him. Alas, I did some math once we returned from our trip and discovered he would have become John's father at the age of 15, not an impossibility in those days (or any days), but John Richan would have been his fifth consecutive son. Not likely, even with his virile Viking blood (the Richen's originally hailed from Denmark in the mid-900's), would he have been a father before age 10. 

There is another William Richen in Kirkwell, about whom I know very little aside from his date of birth in 1713. I wonder if he is the father of my Yarmouth relative. Did the writer of the family chronicle get the two William Richens confused or did John Richan's descendants intentionally re-write the family history? I shall likely never know.

John Richan ran a pub called variously the Vengeance, the Olive Branch and the Phoenix over the years. He had been a midshipman on board the "Vengeance,"  and outside his tavern, he painted a sign showing the ship with it guns blazing,  "a masterpiece according to his son (yet another William Richan 1797-1875) in a story on oral history in the Yarmouth Herald dated 1902 . The building was later used as a courthouse, jail and public meeting place. It was situated at the corner of Main St. and Marshall Lane, where a plaque was placed by the Yarmouth County Historical Society in 1998 (according to a photo in Africa's Children:a History of Blacks in Yarmouth NS.

So I have come a long way in both time and geography. And taken something of a detour in my account of our trip.It is quite exciting for me to think I walked along streets in Kirwall and Yarmouth traversed by my ancestors.

Anyhow, while we were in Kirkwall, we also walked about inside the ruins of the Bishop's and Earl's palaces, located across the road from the cathedral:

The dreadful Patrick Stewart wanted to build a magnificent complex incorporating the Bishop's palace. Although it is a fine example of renaissance Scottish building, the Earl was not so fine. After a life of apparent unending feuding and general malice, he was executed for treason in 1615. The beheading was apparently delayed for a few days until he learned the Lord's Prayer. (Source:

While I was in Orkney, I did not reveal what I thought was my relationship to the Stewarts and was so relieved after coming home that it was not a direct relationship at all, just one by marriage: dodged a bullet and  possibly hostile stares on that one. 

The Earl's Palace:  Patrick Stewart Earl of Orkney


The much older Bishop's Palace originally looked something like this: 

It was built in the mid-12th century for Bishop William the Old, a friend and crusading companion of the founder of the cathedral.  (Source:

It followed the design for a typical Norwegian palace of the time, with a hall for entertainment and a tower for the bishop's residence.

We spent a couple of hours clambering around the ruins enjoying the lovely sunny day unencumbered by any other visitors.

No comments:

Post a Comment