Orkney gets set to mark St Magnus Day Orkney gets set to mark St Magnus Day

Orkney gets set to mark St Magnus Day

The 16th of April is St Magnus Day in Orkney and you can often see Orkney flags fluttering in the Spring breeze to commemorate the day. Magnus was a Viking Earl and, alongside his cousin Hakon, ruled over the islands in the early 12th Century, before a power struggle and betrayal changed Orcadian history forever. Read on to find out what the legacy of St Magnus means in Orkney today...

The Orkney flag, making a connection with our younger generations.
The Orkney flag, making a connection with our younger generations.

As far as most people are concerned, today is simply just the 16th of April. A Thursday.

But, to plenty of folk in Orkney, it’s also St Magnus Day, the date that marks the martyrdom of Magnus Erlendsson, former Viking Earl of the islands.

His story is one that has passed into legend since his brutal death on the island of Egilsay nearly nine hundred years ago. It’s a tale of power, betrayal, miracles and a lasting legacy that lends its name to Kirkwall’s magnificent Cathedral, and even Orkney’s world famous midsummer festival.

Magnus reigned in Orkney alongside his cousin Hakon in the early 12th Century. After a relatively peaceful period, relationships between the two men and their followers fell apart and brought both parties to the brink of battle. That was eventually averted, and both Magnus and Hakon were encouraged to meet to bring peace to Orkney.

What are thought to be the remains of St Magnus were found inside a pillar in St Magnus Cathedral in 1919.
What are thought to be the remains of St Magnus were found inside a pillar in St Magnus Cathedral in 1919.

Egilsay was the chosen location for the meeting, and both Earls were instructed to bring only two ships and an agreed number of men. But Hakon arrived with eight vessels, and it was clear he had more than peace talks in mind. Magnus was eventually executed after Hakon instructed his cook to deliver a fatal axe blow to his cousin’s head.

The story of St Magnus doesn’t end there, and the excellent Orkneyjar site contains a detailed look at how Magnus continued to influence life in the islands even after his death.

St Magnus is nowadays perhaps less celebrated than his Irish counterpart, Patrick. We don’t colour the Peedie Sea red and yellow and the pubs aren’t full of Orkney beer drinkers toasting his memory. But Tom Muir from the Orkney Museum thinks St Magnus Day still means something to Orcadians.

St Magnus Cathedral, built in his honour by his nephew, Earl Rognvald Kolsson
St Magnus Cathedral, built in his honour by his nephew, Earl Rognvald Kolsson

‘For most people, the connection between the Church and everyday life is not as strong as it used to be, but the story of St Magnus is still a hugely important part of Orkney’s history’ he said.

‘Regardless of the merits of the man himself, the magnificent Cathedral built in his honour is an iconic monument in Orkney’s built heritage’.

The Orkney flag will be flown from a number of local buildings today.
The Orkney flag will be flown from a number of local buildings today.

Although schools across Orkney don’t formally focus their curriculums on local heritage and folklore, many pupils will still be learning about St Magnus and his role in local Viking history. Every year, children from Papdale Primary School visit St Magnus Cathedral and the St Magnus Centre to explore the story, and, this morning, P3 pupils will raise an Orkney flag to commemorate the day.

Other local buildings will do the same – a simple act to mark a special day in Orkney’s long, and sometimes turbulent, history.

If you want to soak up the story of St Magnus for yourself, have a look at Visit Orkney to book your stay.