News from Lerwick: St Magnus’ is revealing

The Rev’d Canon Neil Brice, Rector of St Magnus’ Church, writes:


For many years now St Magnus Scottish Episcopal Church in Greenfield Place, Lerwick has been well known for a number of reasons. For some it is simply the most beautiful church in town. For others it is the fact that it is always open for private space and contemplation. Many visitors come because of the historic stained glass we have designed by the artist Sir Ninian Comper. There have been a number of people who visit the church who are amazed at the rather “curious” wallpaper that covers the Chancel Walls. Some mischievously describe it as “curry house” flavour.

We have known that under this paper lies an amazing story, and this is now beginning to get told.

In 1864 when the church was built, the Rector of that time was Reverend Robert Walker. He set about designing and then painting the Chancel walls. It would have been a huge task and it is thought he had help from a retired priest who happened to be in the choir at that time Reverend McKay. The wall paintings stretched from floor to roof level and were intricate and interesting, often showing various religious themes such as white lilies which symbolise Jesus’ mother Mary. Evergreens and other symbols were also included.

As time passed some of these paintings probably faded, some plaster may have been damaged by damp, some paint may have fallen away. By 1964 people in the church must have begun to feel that something should be done, and apparently some of the congregation began to restore some of the painting. However, and we do not know yet why, the process came to a halt, it would appear quite abruptly too! The walls were prepared and then papered over with “1970 style flock wallpaper”. (probably at the time it was thought quite welcoming and seemly) The work was completed ahead of a scheduled visit from the then Primus, but the visit did not happen due to fog.

In 2010 in the recent major restoration of the church fabric, some of the paper was removed and some of the East wall was repainted following the designs of Robert Walker. Some other paper was also removed to reveal interesting designs underneath as well as less interesting panels of orange.

In more recent months we have removed other paper from the North and South Chancel walls to reveal quite beautiful lilies and decorations.

Two weeks ago we took a further plunge and removed more paper from the East Wall and have now revealed even more beauty and interest. Now both Robert Walkers work as well as some 1960s hastily finished restoration is revealed and the story literally is unfolding.

We are delighted by what we can now see. It tells a wonderful story stretching down the years. A story of creativity, a story of sadness as the paint faded, a story of how tastes change, and how people work with what they have.

Needless to say we are now taking advice as to what to do next and how to do it! Certainly more can be revealed and the story can continue to unfold.

Do call in a take a look if you are passing.