Orkney Odyssey 3: Time Tells

Feeling the need to return.

City Jackdaw

There is a romanticism and a melancholy to the islands.

An echo of times past. A hint of meaning that lies just beyond the wind. Meaning whose origin is adorned by labels: Norse, Pictish, Neolithic. A procession of markers that will outlive us all.

I wonder if living here day after day, year after year, causes you to be blasé about it all? Do the markers become invisible, blending in with the rest of the storm-shaped landscape?

I remember seeing a documentary a few years back about people living in the Scottish Highlands. Among all that natural beauty and dramatic vistas, the young ones were bored to death. They said that visitors would tell them how lucky they were to be living there. They would reply that there was never anything to do. They would amuse themselves by sending travelling tourists in the opposite direction of the landmarks that they…

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Orkney Odyssey #2: From The Air

Two flights take me there: Manchester to Aberdeen and then Aberdeen to Kirkwall. From the Rainy City, to the Granite City, to Kirkjugavr (Norse meaning Church Bay).

This takes me back to the school bus, once more the backseat boy.

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A sudden flash of the sun catches me unawares.

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Didn’t last long, back to surfing the shadows of the north.

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Somewhere below lies the Orkney archipelago, a scattering of around seventy islands.

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“Beyond Britannia, where the endless ocean opens, lies Orkney.” Orosius,  5th Century.

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I have just started reading a book by Adam Nicholson called Sea Room. Aged just 21, Nicholson inherited three islands, the Shiants, five miles off Harris. He describes his book as a love letter to them. On the front cover it says ‘the story of one man, three islands and half a million puffins.’

I showed it to my wife. I cannot begin to tell you how excited she looked.

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Nicholson described his book as an attempt to tell the whole story in as many dimensions as possible:

geologically, spiritually, botanically, historically, culturally, aesthetically, ornithologically, etymologically, emotionally, politically, socially, archaeologically, and personally.

 

I can relate to all of this when I think of Orkney.

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And so we descend, as though through differing strata of time.

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In a great expanse of sea, the islands rear up, green, yellow, and moated.

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This is my core place-the place where, in my absence, I often return. Picking up a George Mackey Brown novel, I am transported back, walking again the besieged coast, reconnecting with the remnants of unknown lives. When I see the weather forecast, I see the tiny marks off the coast of Northern Scotland, and feel once again the wind on my face, hear the whisper of a long dead tongue.

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When I think of Orkney, there is a particular feel that goes with it. It is not a foreign country, with a strange culture or alien way of life. It is not that far away, in travel time.

But somehow, it is different.

For my first visit, I packed my thermals and my waterproofs, expecting to have to brave the elements to get the most out of my time there. I got sunburnt in the first few hours. Locals assured me that this was not the norm.

Returning to Kirkwall airport, after three days, to depart once again for home, an ominous bank of fog followed in our wake.

Blind to omens and portents, I did not know then that I would be returning later that year, in the depths of dark December.

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Orkney Odyssey #1: Of Vikings and Saints

I think that I may have mentioned once or twice before that Orkney is my favourite place. It is the remoteness, the history, the wildlife, everything. Even the weather.

In 2011 I visited twice, but I have not posted about it before as I lost all of the photographs that I had saved onto the memory card of my phone. Grrr!!! However, though I went there alone the second time, on the first visit a friend accompanied me, and I have only recently acquired copies of some of his photographs that I can use. It seems that he too has lost some of his photographs. Conspiracy theories, please?

Intending to do an intermittent series of Orkney themed posts, I thought it would be appropriate to start with St.Magnus. I love reading all the old stories connected to the British Isles, be they history or folklore, Christian or Pagan, and today is the feast day of St.Magnus.

Sometimes it’s all about the timing.

St.Magnus

St.Magnus’ story is recorded in Orkneyinga Saga, beginning in 1098.

The Orkney earldom was divided between two brothers, the Earls Paul and Erland.

The King of Norway, also named Magnus but more memorably known as Magnus ‘Barelegs’, arrived unannounced in Orkney and unseated the two joint-ruling earls, making his own illegitimate son Sigurd as overlord of the islands. Paul and Erland were sent to Norway, where both would die before the winter had ended.

Leaving Sigurd to rule, the King then left on a raiding expedition, taking with him 18 year old Magnus, the eldest son of Earl Erland, and also Haakon, the son of Earl Paul, two cousins who often disagreed. Raiding down the west coast of Scotland, as far south as Anglesey, the story goes that Magnus would not join in the fighting with the Welsh. He chose instead to remain on the ship, singing psalms, as arrows passed overhead. The angry King already disliked Magnus, considering him a coward.

Magnus was said to have later left the ship, one night slipping overboard, to stay somewhere in Scotland, remaining there until the death of King Magnus in Ireland in 1102.

Back in Orkney, Sigurd Magnusson had returned to Norway to become joint ruler there, and here in the islands  Magnus’ cousin Haakon was now the Earl. After some representations to the Norwegian throne, Magnus was granted his Earldom, both cousins ruling, as their fathers had done before them, in an apparent period of peace between 1105 and 1114.

But all good things come to an end.

Magnus was said to be the more popular of the two earls, being pious and a man of peace and authority, while Haakon was warlike and no doubt envious of his cousin’s popularity among the people.

Discord grew between them to the extent that, around 1117, followers of the respective leaders arranged a reconciliatory meeting at Easter, bringing them together on the island of Egilsay.

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The agreement was that both men would bring two ships with a limited, and equal, number of men.

Magnus arrived first, awaiting for his cousin in prayer. When he spied his arrival, complete with eight ships, he must have known what this betrayal of their agreement must have meant. Magnus refused to allow his men to defend him, trying to settle the matter peacefully. Wanting to avoid his cousin being saddled with the guilt of killing him, he made him three offers. He would make a pilgrimage to Rome or Jerusalem, pledging never to return to the Orkney Isles; he would be imprisoned for the rest of his life; or he would be blinded, maimed, and caged forever in a dungeon.

It is said that Haakon was willing to accept the final one of the three offers, but his advisors insisted that his cousin had to be put to death.  Rather than carry out the act himself, Haakon ordered his standard bearer, Ofeig, to kill Magnus, but the warrior refused. Haakon angrily then ordered his cook, Lifolf, to do the deed. Lifolf wept, but Magnus comforted him:

Be not afraid for you do this against your will and he who forces you sins more than you do.”

Magnus knelt before him. Not wanting to suffer a beheading like a common criminal, he asked that he be struck hard on the head, and told the cook that he had prayed to God for him to be forgiven for this act.

Magnus’ skull was cleaved in two by the blow.

A man stands before you, Magnus.

He is poor. He’s in tears.

The axe shakes in his hands.

The spring morning is very cold.

Put your coat-of-state about him, Magnus.

 

Quick-let the silver cord be loosed.

 

The dark waters rise up into my soul.

Here’s your ship of death, Magnus.

Those bright ones? They ferry you over to the Feast.

 

-from Tryst on Egilsay,

George Mackay Brown

Initially buried on the spot, in what would be the first of three resting places for him, and denied a Christian burial, his corpse was later taken to be buried at Birsay after pleading from his mother.

Then the usual phenomena associated with saints began to occur-miraculous events and  healings , a light appearing above the grave. A cult soon developed among the islanders, and as he grew in popularity soon Magnus was declared a saint by the Bishop of Orkney.

Earl Haakon, now sole ruler, went on to make pilgrimages to Rome and Jerusalem, becoming a peaceful and popular earl.

In 1129 Haakon’s son Paul, was overthrown by the nephew of St.Magnus, Kali Kolson. This new Orkney earl took the name of Rognvald. No doubt politically savvy, he sought the divine assistance of St.Magnus, and promised the people that if he succeeded in his attempt to regain the earldom he would build a great stone church in Kirkwall, on the mainland, and dedicate it to his uncle-the now revered St.Magnus.

This was how St.Magnus Cathedral was founded.

This is a carving, found within the Cathedral, of Rognvald holding the model of the building in his hands.

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I have visited St.Magnus Cathedral, which now holds the remains, or as they like to put it-  the relics, of both St.Magnus and the (now) St.Rognvald.  I will include surviving (!) photographs in a later post. For now I will leave you with this photograph taken of the red coloured cathedral rooted in the distant heart of Kirkwall.

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Kirkwall photograph by D.Bates