Wednesday 24 June 2015


Tingwall is a location in the Shetland Islands, just north of Lerwick on the main road to the northern isles, over the hill from the left turn to Scalloway. Even after having driven past the settlement of Tingwall when travelling to and from Lerwick and Unst for many years, the area is still seen as a sundry aside, a scattering ooze of a non-place, nearly place-less as its identity spreads and sprawls aimlessly around an airport, dotted into sections divided by roads both major and minor.

Historically, Tingwall is known as the site of the Thing in Shetland, the Viking parliament.# It may not have been the first. There is a site above Crussafield in Unst that is said to have been the site of the first Thing on Shetland. Here, so the stories tell, after judgments had been made, those declared guilty would be given the chance to run downhill to the nearby kirk at Baliasta. Along the way, folk could stone the offender. If killed, this individual would be buried at the place of death under stones in the form of a cross - hence the name, Crussafield: field of crosses. There must have been many. If the kirk was reached, the offender would be pardoned. It has been noted by W.P. Livingstone in Shetland and the Shetlanders that the crosses could be seen on the slopes above Baliasta up until the middle of the nineteenth century. They have gone, along with all evidence of the dead. Shetland has acid soils that aggressively erode bones.

Aerial view of Baliasta. The old kirk is centre bottom; Gue top right.

The location of the Thing on Unst is guessed to be somewhere near the place identified on today’s maps as the Giants Grave. This ‘grave’ can be seen as an arrangement of stones, a square array of four large vertical slabs of serpentine. Little more is known about this place that has revealed no secrets in spite of some early excavations. The Baliasta Kirk still exists just over half a kilometer away as a ruin surrounded by its ancient graveyard, located between crofts that slope gently eastwards down to the burn running strong and fast into the Loch of Cliff just below Houlland. The loch is a large, long body of fresh water that meanders into the open sea at Burrafirth on the far north of the island.

The old kirk and graveyard at Baliasta.

The name of the area around the old kirk is interesting, being similar to the name of the Greek/Roman siege machine, the ballista; plural ballistae: (Latin, from Greek βαλλίστρα ballistra and that from βάλλω ballō, "throw"). This contraption could launch a missile at a distant target – see:  Here the throwing of rocks is the common fact and reference: hence the name?#  There seems to be too much of a coincidence in the spelling and activity of both machine and place for there not to be some connection. While many place names across Shetland are repeated, there is only one Baliasta – pronounced locally as ‘ba-las-tee.’ It is a similar sounding to the Roman machine ‘ba-lis-ta,’ and is almost identical to ‘ba-lis-te’ as plural. The early maps name the area as ‘Balliasta,’ a spelling that reproduces the twin ‘l’s of the Greek/Roman machine’s name. Today’s maps and signs use ‘Baliasta’ – just one ‘l’: such is modern efficiency?

The Loch of Tingwall

Tingwall became the location of the Thing that seems to have moved from Unst, perhaps as Shetland became more settled, more Lerwick-centred as it is today.  The Thing was moved from Tingwall to Scalloway in the 1570s by Earl Robert Stewart: see -  This role in the society's parliament suggests some identifiable communal centre, a certain significance of place. It is difficult to envisage this, as Tingwall holds no such quality today. Tucked behind a hill on the road north, the main settlement sits on its slope that overlooks the airport. Wind turbines on the higher hills behind dominate the area with their distracting elevation and movement. But there is more: the Tingwall precinct sprawls. The local community hall is on a track that surprisingly branches north from the main road away from the hotel and its surrounds that cluster on the south of this intersection. To the west there are crofts on the lower hills, and others that sit around the loch that is bordered by a golf course. The road from Scalloway passes this loch to link up with the road west to Weisdale and Walls, and to the main road to the northern isles.

We had decided to take this shortcut after browsing around Scalloway's lovely harbour and driving lazily through the maze of lanes on its high waterside slopes. It is a very pretty place.  We had taken this 'short-cut' route once before, many years ago. Now we had time and drove the route slowly for its picturesque qualities, not to save time. We passed the golf course and crofts as we manoeuvred along a twisting, one-lane track until we reached a T-junction where we turned east. There, on the rise directly in front of us was a church. It was a crude, austere, gabled box form, plain, ordinary and uninteresting. In fact, it could be said to be a little stolid and boring. It was a building that could easily be dismissed as nothing worthy of another look; such was its common, unimaginative, candid presence and form. It was really something to ignore, being ignorant of any obvious concern for its identity and expression. The western facade had an alien, small red door with a semicircular head and a rectangular opening higher above. The kirk was surrounded by a graveyard with a mix of new and old headstones. On the eastern end of the ridge was a simple bell hung high in a small arched void shaped in a projection of the wall that mimicked the larger gabled mass in miniature. The side, south wall of the church facing the road had four small windows, two with semi-circuilar heads. The walls had the appearance of having been harled, that terrible cliché, cover-all finish used on public housing and 1960s refurbishments throughout Britain. The building could be described as bland, carelessly crass. It looked like a rough child's drawing of what a church might be: awkwardly simplistic and naive.

But we paused nearby, then squeezed in to park close to a small gate that led into the precinct. Perhaps the graveyard might be interesting? Then the particular stepped arrangement of the windows on the south elevation was noticed. It reminded one of the church at Whalsay that was similar in plan to that at Lunna  - see and  Was this church yet another like these? The building had the same crude, diagrammatic box form of Whalsay without its sculpted side annex. Was this a 'sideways' church? There was a quiver of excitement. One had to check this out. The passage through the graveyard became less of a curious meander, more of a speedy trek detouring around and between headstones in the most efficient manner. How should one approach this church? Could one see in the windows? The red door looked uninviting, terminal. The south, side path to the east was taken to explore more of this place and to peep in as one had done at Whalsay, just to check. No, one could not see in through the windows. Maybe one might never know how this pace was set out?

A small porch appeared on the eastern facade with a formal path that led to a gate opening up too a large, paved car parking area. Ah, this was the entry side. We should have driven on for a few more metres. The old ceramic knob of the porch door was turned. One expected resistance, but surprisingly the door opened. Gosh, the Whalsay Kirk had been securely locked. The day we went to Lunna we found the kirk open. Workmen were there repairing the entry ramp for a wedding. The disappointment and formidably oppressive warning signs of the 'Hunt' Irish church came to mind. Tingwall Kirk seemed to hold to the old principles of churches, as did the small chapel on Fetlar, being kept open and available to all, for all, always as a public, sacred community place for private refuge and reflection – a sanctuary for prayer. The porch was tiny, with notices pinned to the wall revealing an immediate intimacy that confirmed regular activity. Already one felt the presence of place. There were cloak hooks on the walls. A pull-cord for the bell ringing was slung over one hook and lay coiled on a table stacked with hymnbooks.  One was reminded of Corbusier’s La Tourette Monastery at Eveux in France: see -

The quirky thumb latch of the second, the inner door, was opened. Inside, the access to the vestry on the left of the lobby stood ajar. The walls of this office-like space were covered with an historic array of photographic portraits displaying the image of every minister the congregation has had over the years. There were many. Everyone was there; but no one was there - yet everything was left open. A stair twisted into silent darkness on the right. The knob of the door leading out of this lobby space deeper into the kirk was turned to open the door that revealed the main space for worship, complete with pulpit, communion table and seating for the congregation, all illuminated with a bright haze of southern light. Yes, it was the 'sideways' plan, identical to that of Whalsay and Lunna, both in form, detail and painted finishes. It was a beautiful space.

The western lobby and door

The central pulpit on the southern side wall was surrounded by a U-shaped arrangement of pews tucked under the U-shaped mezzanine that held a similar arrangement of pews above. The void had an ‘arena’ quality, with a sense of gathering that was serene, full, even when empty. Moving quietly across this space, one entered a door that revealed a small kitchen: a functional necessity. Next to this access was another door that opened up to a dim lobby space and to the inner face of the western red door. We had reached the limits of this tiny kirk, its far side. Dark stairs skewed up to the mezzanine, rising invitingly on the right, to the light. The mezzanine space opened up a new perception of place, high up but low with skylights overhead, bright in a different light, with seating enclosing the pulpit void deep below. This preaching podium was the core, the anchor, of this space, located as it was ‘in between,’ higher than the entry level but lower than the mezzanine, addressing both levels with a demanding, commanding authority. Its grand little stair reminded one of the mosque's minbar: see -  One felt an aura of sameness in religions with this similarity.

The northwest stair

Looking down to the western lobby

The northeast stair

The northwest stair

The top of the other turning stair to the mezzanine in the mirrored corner location on the east was soon discovered. This was the stair seen in the first lobby space. There was a matching pair of stairs, one in each corner of the northern wall, that connected the mezzanine to the spaces below. The arrangement was all very personal, intimate, light and bright; clearly very carefully and shrewdly planned, displaying the very qualities of modest frugality that would have been preached from the pulpit. There was no exhibitionism, no self-important display, no waste here. Everything was all carefully efficiently functional, accommodating and respectful, fitting like a hand in a glove; a glove on a hand: modest but firm and comfortable. It was a surprise: the difference between inside and outside was stark. The kirk held the true Shetland characteristic that can be seen in the cottages of the crofters that tell nothing of their private dwelling spaces externally. These ordinary little rustic buildings are rough outside, but beautiful inside - like diamonds. Shetlanders do not like grand, pompous displays. Perhaps the terrible treatment by various earls, lords and lairds over the years has engendered a dislike for any grandiose self-important promotion. Understatement reigns. Maybe the hardships of the past have taught them how to make the best of everything, no matter how insignificant; to use everything appropriately, creatively, without wasteful exuberance.

This little church is much more than the bland, naive exterior suggests. It is a real gem, beautifully and economically planned. Like Whalsay, its southern windows step to let in the sunlight where it is needed, but here only two windows light the central space. One of the other lower rectangular openings provides light for the vestry in the southeast corner of the kirk; the other illuminates the kitchen in the southwest corner. The two higher windows have semi-circular heads with glazing divisions that form twin pointed arches. These openings are located either side of the pulpit, highlighting its centrality with their modest ‘Gothic’ declaration. These are the only windows to be so formed, the only openings to be so decorated. The other two lower windows of the vestry and kitchen on either side of this pulpit arrangement, like most other windows in the kirk, are rectangular. The eastern window of the entry porch has a pointed arch form. Unlike Whalsay, the windows are glazed with a textured, patterned glass and have decorated, cut ruby glass segments. The northern window in the porch opposite the entry door, and the arch opening over the red door on the west have clear glass panes.

The east elevation

In the two central pulpit openings, the decoration is a ruby glass border surround with pretty floral cutting. For all of the other windows, this ornamentation is limited to a textured pink glass frame with square, ruby glass corner panels cut with a star in each piece, reminding one of the typical Victorian decoration of the entrance door surround of a residential hallway. The majority of the windows provide a glowing surface source of light rather than frame views to the distant hills and sky. Only the entry porch offers glimpses out to the landscape that has just been left behind. Whalsay's clear glass windows enliven the interior in the same manner as those in Wrens St. James’s Church in Picadilly do. It was while attending a lunchtime recital in this London church that the man in front of us with his sandwiches spread quaintly on a napkin over his knee, and with a flask of tea propped beside him, turned to chat. After asking about our home, "Do you live in London?", he explained that he was a Londoner and came to the church frequently, adding that he loved its light that flooded in through the large, high clear-glass windows. "You are connected to the outside. You are a part of everyday London, be it sunny, rainy, misty or just dull. The light is always different." Indeed one was, and it is: but not at Tingwall.

At Tingwall, the windows shut one in, they enclosed. This made the interior more essentially secret, inward looking. The openings enfolded one with what could be seen as a basic, crude attempt at the cliché church stained glass that was devoid of the luscious richness of the storyboards in cathedrals. This was a Scottish church - a kirk. Grand decorative displays have no part here. Yet the openings did glow nicely, offering varying qualities of light with an occasional touch of sparkle created by the facets of the cast pattern texturing that was enriched by the soft pink edging and gleaming ruby bands and border squares.

The brightest light came from the windows either side of the pulpit. These were the largest and the most decorated, and allowed south light to stream deep into the central double-height void in and around which folk sat, almost as a metaphor - "I am the light of the world." This interior was a snug space with a very pretty scale, charming, dolls house-like, that offered a friendly welcome and a warm embrace as if at home. The building was an example of how wonder can come from simplicity, from things ordinary, effortlessly, without any self-conscious distortion, bloated boasting or smart cleverness. Architects could/should learn from this. It shows how beauty does not have to be forced; how spirit can be embodied in place, in things commonplace and everyday with a humble nonchalance and a quiet resonance.

The north elevation

The west elevation
Even the staining of the end wall echoes the shape of the tombstones.

It was easy to tarry in this little building, but there were other things to get done. The doors were silently closed on exit. The kirk gently stimulated such care and respect. The route back to the car completed the circuit around the church, passing along the northern wall that had only two rectangular windows, back to the western red door, and led on to a zigzagging through the older areas of the churchyard arrayed with weathered and worn tombstones that were ageing with a solemn dignity as they recorded names, dates, wishes, hopes and emotions of other times. A glimpse back up to the church revealed the match between the traditional semicircular-topped tombstone and the form of the red door. There is always more for the eye to discover in the ordinary that can be surprising, subtle and rich without any entertaining distractions, clever ‘look-at-me’ declarations, alarming screams of difference, or any shrewd games that might manipulate similar simple appearances with stories - 'narratives' is the word used - to highlight a personal brilliance, special insight, MY genius. The search for wonder in the everyday requires humility, love and care. The Tingwall Kirk shows what such an approach can achieve. Its open doors fulfill this intent that rings with a welcome trust rarely seen in our era.

The Tingwall Kirk showing graveyard, eastern porch and manse

The Tingwall Manse

Looking back like Lot's wife further along the road, the kirk could be seen in its full context with the manse opposite, the loch to the south and crofts to the west and north. The bell-crowned vista with its tiny, silhouetted void quietly echoed its full potential as it anticipated the pull of the porch rope that would be the only public declaration of its being there – the announcement of a beautiful sacred place, secreted in the wonderful landscape of Tingwall.


The Voe Kirk

As we drove on to Voe through a surprisingly snow-covered, April landscape, we passed another similar-looking kirk on the northern slopes overlooking the water as we headed north to Brae. Could we be so lucky as to have yet another 'sideways' church? We detoured down a dead end lane. The church was remarkably similar in form to that at Tingwall. The main door was locked; the side door was locked. The windows were gazed in clear glass and displayed no unusual arrangement or decoration. Standing on the side porch stair, one could peep in. No, it was the standard axial layout of the basilica seen in all classic cathedrals, churches and kirks throughout Christendom. Where did the 'sideways' model come from? Why was it used for only certain churches? Who initiated this layout?

Back in Unst a little later, standing looking at St. John's Kirk at Baltasound, the eye wandered, seeking out clues. Could this building have once been a 'sideways' kirk? History had it that this church was originally a two-storied structure that could accommodate 2000 people. The figure is unbelievable, but old photos do show a much larger building, albeit only in the distance, in the hazy black and white photographs of the vista looking west from the end of the waters of Baltasound. The present kirk reveals no evidence that the church had been a 'sideways' kirk. Its set out is the typical cathedral model. The archives will have to be checked to see if there are any better photographs of this building before it was downsized. Why would it not have been a 'sideways' kirk if it had been two stories high? This plan seems to be the most compact for such numbers. It must have been a grand place. The original manse is still on Unst. It is a significant building, with a traditional bookend form and a rear two-storied annex making a 'T' plan, complete with slated out buildings. It is similar in scale to the nearby doctor's residence. Ministers, doctors and lairds were those who held power and respect in older times – religion, health and law. The old school records comprised weekly reports by the teacher that were regularly signed off in dramatic flowing script by both the minister and the Laird who supervised the schooling programme.

# P.P.S.
The parallel in the names and their references is hard to ignore, but the pamphlet Shetland Place Names published by the Shetland Museum and Archives tells us that Tingwall is Old Norse for: 'field of the parliament' -  pingvöllr and that place names ending in -sta help locate early settlement, .e.g. Girlsta: Geirhildr's farm.  Mmmm . . ., is Balliasta, Ballia's farm, or has it a Roman reference? Is it too far fetched to assume a link to ballista/ballistae? Why should it be when the Vikings were known to have reached Constantinople? Who might Ballia be? Was this his farm located next to the Thing?  Why the old kirk in which records tell an exorcism was carried out in the 1600s? What and where was this farm, this -sta? There are many questions that need pondering, research. The important thing is to keep an open mind on matters until they become clear.

9 MARCH 2017
AD 1150 ( approx) St. Magnus Church Tingwall built 1150

(Top photo by Carol Anderson 20:10:2016)
(Middle photo, inside of the crypt mound seen to the left of the Church in Carols photo, thought to contain the remnant of the wall of the original Church, and also contains some very ancient memorial slabs).

[St. Magnus Church in Tingwall was built around 1150, the first of three towered churches in Shetland, the others being built at Papil, Burra and Ireland Bigton. (Details:- Shetland by JR Nicolson. Page 43.)
St Magnus was one of three churches gifted by three Norse sisters to Shetland. All had round towers, and St Magnus Church was said to be the grandest of them. From 1215 St Magnus was the base of the Archdeacon of Tingwall, the senior church official in Shetland.
St Magnus was sadly demolished in 1788, at around the same time as the other two churches gifted by the three Norse sisters. As one Shetland commentator put it: " a principle of barbarous economy to supply stones at a cheap rate for the plain Presbyterian churches which now occupy their places". And you have to admit that, although the interior of the replacement kirk is very attractive, Tingwall would be better known and more visited if the original St Magnus Church had been allowed to stand ] (12)
Tingwall Church took on the importance of being the Head Church in Shetland from around AD 1215 ( see below ).
(12) Undiscovered Scotland. (2000). Tingwall Kirk. Available: Undiscovered Scotland. Last accessed 18/08/2015.

Tingwall 1790
Location: Tingwall
Built: 1790
Notes: Sir Walter Scott visited this Church in July 1814, a plaque commemorating the visit is inside the Church.
The following link gives access to the story of the Turnbull Tragedies of 1836 last accessed 19/09/2015
This story can also be read in ' The Story of the Tingwall Kirk' by G.M. Nelson 1965

Service times: Sun 12noon (winter months)
Sun 9:15 (summer months), alternate Sundays with Weisdale(10am)
Communion: Quarterly.
Mission support: Colin Johnson (mission partner) in Israel (TIBERIUS).
World Mission Committee (very active).
Minister: New minister ordained and inducted to the pastorate of the parish on 9th Oct. 2014 Rev. Deborah Dobby.

Contact: Brenda Scollay Tel: 01595840339
Thelma Robertson Tel: 01595840383
Laureen Slater Tel: 01595840338

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