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  Magnus - the Martyr of Orkney

Martyrdom - Illustration by Sigurd Towrie

"Then in the light of the new day, 16 April 1117,
there was a blinding flash of metal in the sun."
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 and Erlend.

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. 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, Magnus refused to participate. Instead, we are told he chose to remain on the ship singing psalms - overtly Christian behaviour that did not please the Norwegian King, who already disliked Magnus, who he regarded a coward, intensely.

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.

We know little about this time in hiding.