The church was built in the 1130s, about twenty years after the death of Earl Magnus at the hands of his cousin Hakon. Magnus was later sanctified and the cathedral in Kirkwall built to commemorate him. The Egilsay church’s tall round tower may be a bell-tower. The main body of the building is its nave, rectangular with a door in each side; at the eastern end there is a barrel-vaulted chancel with a chamber above, which may have been a bishop’s treasury.
Many churches with this design can be seen today in East Anglia, and church design there seems to have influences from north Germany and southern Denmark. It’s been suggested that the design may have spread to Egilsay at a time when Orkney came under the archbishopric of Hamburg-Bremen.
Before this there was an older church, where Magnus prayed the night before he died, and it may have been quite an important one, because one interpretation of the island’s name is that it comes from a Celtic word for ‘church’. The word is eglwys in Welsh and eaglais in Gaelic, and it appears in French today as église.