Orkney Islands Council
Working together for a better Orkney

Council secures funding to delve into Magnus connections

Council secures funding to delve into Magnus connections
12 May 2017

The Council has secured funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) for a project to delve into the landscapes, seascapes and places where the Magnus story unfolded.

Part of the Orkney-wide ‘Magnus900’ programme to celebrate the life of St Magnus, the Mapping Magnus project will support a wide range of research, workshop and training activities aimed at uncovering new knowledge about the saint, medieval Orkney and the continued significance of this period.

Supported by HLF’s Our Heritage fund, the project will be centred on Palace Village, Birsay, which was the secular and episcopal centre of the earldom at this time. From there, research and investigation will emanate outwards, looking backwards to Egilsay and forwards to Kirkwall, establishing the historical and contemporary connections between these key locations.

Legend has it that the bones of St Magnus were washed in water from the Manse Well, Birsay, and that the coffin containing the body and the shrine containing the bones of St Magnus were placed on a series of flat stones on route to and from Birsay, known locally as the Mansie Stanes. The project will investigate the fragments of these stories in the landscape and the remnants of the St Magnus story through finds, artefacts and folklore.

Antony Mottershead is the Council's Arts Officer. He said: "We are delighted that the Heritage Lottery Fund has chosen to fund this project which will be a significant part of the Magnus 900 programme. The Heritage Lottery Funding will enable people to get hands on with history, through research, fieldwork, survey and modelling. There will also be opportunities for people to learn more about excavation - we will be taking a similar approach to the successful Kirkwall Garden Dig which was run as part of the Kirkwall THI last year.”

In 2017 Orkney is marking the 900th anniversary of the death of St Magnus. Between April and December people from Orkney and beyond will come together through a programme of activity to celebrate the life of St Magnus. The anniversary will play host to a number of one-off projects, whilst many of Orkney’s best known festivals will include special activity and events linked with the St Magnus story.

St Magnus was an Earl of Orkney and his story is told in the great Icelandic Sagas. Born in Orkney in around 1080, Magnus returned to the islands from exile in 1105 to claim his share of the Earldom. Magnus ruled jointly and amicably with his cousin Hakon until 1114.

Orkneyinga Saga tells us that their followers fell out, and the two sides met on Orkney Mainland ready to do battle. Peace was negotiated and the Earls arranged to meet each other on the island of Egilsay at Easter.

Magnus arrived with his two ships, but Hakon treacherously turned up with eight. Magnus took refuge in the island's church overnight. The following day he was captured and offered to go into exile, to prison or to be maimed, but an assembly of chieftains, tired of joint rule, insisted that one earl must die. Hakon's standard bearer, Ofeigr, refused to execute Magnus, and an angry Hakon made his cook Lifolf kill Magnus by striking him on the head with an axe. It was said that Magnus first prayed for the souls of his executioners.

Magnus’ body was ceremonially carried to Birsay and buried in the Bishop’s church there, the episcopal centre of the earldom (Orkney and Shetland) at this time. Following his death there were reports of miraculous happenings and healings, at his grave in the church. His sanctity was tested and proved in Birsay and he was made a saint by the bishop. His shrine was placed above the altar of the church in Birsay and then some time after was transferred to a church in the developing town of Kirkwall.

After Magnus's nephew, Rognvald Kali Kolsson secured his claim to the Earldom of Orkney he built a stone Cathedral in Kirkwall in memory of his uncle the Holy Earl - St Magnus Cathedral. When the cathedral was ready for consecration, in around 1150, the relics of St Magnus were transferred there. In 1919 a hidden cavity was found in a column, containing a box with bones including a damaged skull. These are held without (much) doubt to be the relics of St Magnus.