"Then in the light of the new day,
16 April 1117,
there was a blinding flash of metal in the
George Mackay Brown
The story of Magnus Erlendsson - Orkney's Saint Magnus - begins in 1098 - a time when
the Orkney earldom was divided between two brothers, the earls Paul
Magnus was the eldest son of Earl Erlend, while his
cousin, Hakon, was the son of Paul.
In 1098, the Norwegian king, Magnus "Barelegs", arrived suddenly in Orkney, where he unseated both earls and made his illegitimate son, Sigurd, overlord of the islands.
Earls Paul and Erlend were instructed to go to Norway, where they both died before winter's end.
With Sigurd in place as "king" of Orkney, King Magnus left
Orkney on a raiding expedition, making sure he took Hakon and the
18-year-old Magnus with him.
Heading down the west coast of Scotland,
the raiders travelled as far south as Anglesey.
The raid on Anglesey
According to the sagas, on the voyage south young Magnus would
not fight during the raids.
When the Vikings
attacked the Welsh rulers of Anglesey, for example, Magnus refused to participate. Instead, we are told he chose to remain on the ship singing psalms.
Christian behaviour did not please the Norwegian King, who already disliked
Magnus intensely and regarded him a coward.
This episode, although perfectly setting up the saintly
image of Magnus, could have a number of explanations.
Firstly, it is highly possible that the account is a later addition, specifically
introduced to emphasise Magnus' piety. The lack of references to
Magnus in other historical accounts of the raiding voyage has prompted suggestions
that his inclusion in the Orkneyinga saga version of events was purely fictional.
However, if we assume that Magnus was part of the
raiding party, his refusal to fight could have been for purely political
reasons rather than spiritual.
The historian William Thomson points
out in his New History of Orkney, that Magnus had a "surprisingly
frequent involvment in Welsh affairs".
Whatever the truth, the Orkneyinga saga
goes on to explain that Magnus escaped from the king's ship. Slipping overboard one night, he swam to the shore of Scotland, where he "disappeared"
until the death of King Magnus in Ireland in 1102.
know little about this time in hiding.