The story of St Magnus sits at the heart of Orcadian history. It’s one of power, betrayal and miracles, and ensures the legacy of Orkney’s patron saint lives on to this day.
Every year on April 16th, Orkney celebrates St Magnus Day. It’s the date that marks the martyrdom of Magnus Erlendsson, the former Viking Earl of the islands, in 1117.
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.
The island of 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 website contains a detailed look at how Magnus continued to influence life in the islands even after his death. Today you can see references to him throughout Orkney – he lends his name to Kirkwall’s magnificent cathedral, and even Orkney’s world-famous midsummer festival.
There are plenty of opportunities to immerse yourself in the saga of St Magnus when you’re in Orkney. Here are five ways you can explore his story.
These days Egilsay is a quiet and peaceful island, so it’s hard to imagine its central role in the death of St Magnus. He was murdered here more than 900 years ago, and a small cenotaph marks the actual spot of his execution. Nearby you’ll find this ancient Norse kirk bearing his name, standing in testimony to the wealth and power of Orkney’s Viking rulers. The 12th century St Magnus Kirk is one of the finest surviving Norse churches in Scotland, and is set amongst beautiful island scenery and wildlife. Please note, due to Historic Environment Scotland masonry inspections, there is no access to the church but the majority of the graveyard is accessible.
The Orkney Museum is a treasure trove of artefacts telling the story of the islands, from the Stone Age right through to the present day. Its Viking collection is particularly special, with the Scar Plaque taking pride of place. This incredible whalebone carving was discovered at a Viking boat burial excavation in Sanday in the early 1990s, alongside a host of other items and the remains of three people. The collection gives a stunning insight into life in Orkney during the era of Norse rule.
This beautiful building in the historic heart of Kirkwall really showcases the importance of St Magnus to the story of Orkney. Known as the ‘light in the north’, it has been the spiritual heart of the islands since it was founded in 1137. If you’re visiting then don’t miss the chance to explore inside, where you can see the pillar that holds the remains of St Magnus. You can also book a space on tours of the upper levels, offering a fascinating behind the scenes look at the cathedral and its history.
This 58-mile walking route across Egilsay and the Orkney mainland is the perfect way to explore the local landscape and the story of St Magnus. The six sections follow the route the body of Magnus was taken on before his remains were interred at St Magnus Cathedral. The Way offers stunning coastal scenery, inland trails, and even a short walk through woodland. The aim is for those taking part to get time and space for reflection during their journey. There's also a new cycle route available too.
Birsay was the centre of Viking rule in Orkney for many years, and the body of Magnus was taken here after his murder. He was buried at Christchurch and soon after there were stories of visions and miracles surrounding his grave. The current St Magnus Church stands on the same site and was restored in the 1980s, with the beautiful stained glass east window honouring the life of Orkney's patron saint.