Spade & the Grave

death and burial through an archaeological lens

Post-Medieval Coffin Depictions at St. Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall, Orkney


A watercolour I did of the cathedral (2022)

Last September 2022, My husband Ian and I went on our very-belated honeymoon to Edinburgh and the Orkney Islands. One of the sites that we visited that we were totally in awe of was St. Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, the largest town on Mainland Orkney. The original cathedral was constructed in the 12th century, when the islands were under Norse rule, and was named for Magnus Erlendsson, Earl of Orkney. It was constructed in the Romanesque style with examples of Norman architecture as well, and was built with local red sandstone from Kirkwall and yellow sandstone from the island of Eday (where the memoir ‘Close to Where the Heart Gives Out’ is set. Here is an interview with the author!).

We had the chance to visit the cathedral twice, and I still don’t think we saw everything! There were amazing examples of late and post-medieval funerary sculpture throughout the church, with beautiful memento mori designs throughout. On our second visit, I noticed that some of the ledgers that had been set upright against the walls of the church had coffins as part of the designs, and that not all of the coffin styles were the same. I pulled out my sketchbook and raced around the cathedral as it was about to close, quickly writing down the dates and coffin styles on all the ledgers that had one, to conduct a quick survey on coffin styles depicted in 17th-century Orkney funerary monuments!

I am currently writing one of the background chapters for me dissertation, and have spent a lot of time reading about medieval and post-medieval coffin styles in the UK and the Netherlands. It reminded me of the little survey I did in Orkney months ago, so here we are! Lead coffins were popular through the late medieval period in England, and into the 17th and 18th centuries, but were only available among the rich and powerful. There were some very interesting anthropoid coffins with moulded faces and arms, and if you’re interested in learning more about those, I highly recommend starting with Julian Litten’s ‘The English Way of Death’. For a lot of the medieval period, the common person was not buried in a coffin but could be carried to their grave in a communal ‘parish coffin’. They would have been buried in a winding sheet or shroud, and the parish coffin reused. As coffins became more affordable and more common through the post-medieval period, we start to see a lot more wood coffins being buried. (I realize much of my knowledge on this subject is English related, so if you have any Scottish references to share, I’d be very interested!)

1681 Ledger at St. Magnus Cathedral with memento mori imagery at the bottom (photo by author 2022).

Wood coffins have been found in many styles: rectangular, hexagonal, or trapezoidal, which has a wider portion at the top for the shoulders and tapering to the feet, which went out of style in favour for the hexagonal coffins in 1660s-1675, typically with flat lids (Litten 1992:99). Sometimes these coffins would have a name plate or other coffin furniture attached to the exterior such as decorative nails, plates, hinges, and handles. Coffin furniture made advances through the 17th century, as mass-production made them more affordable to everyone! Because of the numerous post-medieval burial ground and vault excavations have been documented, we know how common coffins became throughout this period (Boyle 2015).

I didn’t have the opportunity to observe actual coffins in Orkney, but through the depictions of coffins on ledgers in the cathedral, we can get a small sense of what was popular in this area at the time, among those who could afford to have their burials within the cathedral. I recorded ten ledgers that included coffins as part of their memento mori. Here are those data:

  • no date, post 1652, hexagonal, central gable
  • 1673, trapezoidal, flat top
  • 1680, hexagonal, central gable
  • 1683, hexagonal, central gable
  • 1684, hexagonal, central gable
  • 1681, hexagonal, central gable
  • 1682, hexagonal, central gable
  • 1682, hexagonal, central gable
  • 1692, hexagonal, central gable
  • 1681, hexagonal, central gable

All examples I recorded, as you can see, are hexagonal with a central gable on the lid, except for one. You can see that detail on the picture above! One example from 1673, below, has a trapezoidal coffin with a flat lit on the left of the ledger, along with many other memento mori images such as shovels, a coffin, an hourglass, and other symbols (possibly Sailor Moon’s sceptre?). The checkerboard pattern is reminiscent to the limestone pattern on the exterior of the cathedral! As I stated above, archaeological evidence has shown that the trapezoidal coffins went out of style in the 1660s-1670s. The examples I surveyed showed all examples of hexagonal coffins from 1680-1692 with one unknown, and one trapezoidal in 1673. Hexagonal coffins are what we are more familiar with today as the stereotypical coffin design, gabled lid and all, and it is clear that the patrons of St. Magnus’ Cathedral favoured the style from the 1680s onwards.

And there you have it, the results of my small survey! I scribbled the notes for this post in my watercolour sketchbook, which means they will be travelling around with me for a while, since I bring sketchbooks on all trips with me! It’s really cool to see the stylistic changes in coffin construction that I’ve been reading about reflected in the styles of coffins carved into gravestones on Orkney. This also demonstrates that there were some similarities in trends of coffin styles between England and northern Scotland during the later 17th century!

This was just a short post of data I wanted to share with you all, while my mind is on coffins! Thank you for reading, and I hope you’ll come back again. I’m writing a little ‘progress in my PhD program’ blog post soon, and I’m also planning a little more fieldwork in New Perlican that I’m excited to share with you all too…it includes a GPR!

1673 ledger with a trapezoidal coffin with a flat lid on the far left (photo by author 2022).

Author: Robyn S. Lacy

Archaeologist / Cultural Heritage / Burial Ground Restoration

3 thoughts on “Post-Medieval Coffin Depictions at St. Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall, Orkney

  1. Robyn ….. I just stumbled onto your site by accident as I was looking at hexfoils in an old barn in Whitehead maybe . These signs simply fascinate me. Because I am not young in numbers finding interesting information is somewhat challenging for me so my question is how can I keep track of your writings as your information gives me such joy and your watercolours are LOVELY . I now live in Martock Nova Scotia and have a small home on OULTON’S Farm my daughter married into this crowd. I lived in St George’s NL for many years and had to be dragged back to NS after my husband died, me and my old cat Jiggs, a new puppy Barnaby, two Newfoundland ponies, and the “Group of Seven “ hens . Look forward from hearing from you ….. Jessie Nova brewer, Whiffletree Cottage my cell 709 721 0265


    • Hi Jessie, thank you so much for your lovely message! I’d love to see photos of the hexfoils you found in the barn! I’ve heard of a couple of them in historic properties in Nova Scotia, so it’s very likely that you found some! If you have pics, would you email them to me? My email is rsl714 @ (without the spaces 🙂


    • Hi Jessie, thanks so much for your lovely message! The easiest way to keep track of my writing is to follow this blog! I always post about projects or update my digital CV with new publications and stuff. Your gaggle of pets sounds amazing too. I’m originally from Halifax, NS, and have loved visiting the province a few times in the last few years!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s