Go Viking to Scotland: part two

In the Orkney Islands, Vikings left traces in cathedrals, settlements, and humble grains

Viking houses

Photo: Cynthia Elyce Rubin
The outlines of the ancient Viking houses on the Brough of Birsay.

Cynthia Elyce Rubin
The Norwegian American

The imposing St. Magnus Cathedral, in the heart of bustling capital Kirkwall’s town center, dominates the skyline. Its history dates to early Norwegian times when Old Kirkwall was one of the most important towns of the Norse Western Empire. Its earliest mention is in the Orkneyinga Saga, a vivid and detailed document compiled in Iceland about 1200 CE. The cathedral took more than 300 years to build, with construction beginning in 1137, when the Vikings ruled Orkney; today it is considered the best-preserved medieval cathedral in Scotland.

Magnus Erlendsson, Earl of Orkney in the early 1100s, shared the Earldom with his cousin Hakon, but the two men disagreed. To settle the dispute, Magnus and Hakon held a meeting on the island of Egilsay. They agreed to each bring two ships of unarmed men, but Hakon broke the agreement, instead arriving with eight ships of armed men. Rather than kill Magnus himself, Hakon ordered his cook, Lifolf, to do the deed. And so Magnus died praying, killed by an axe blow to his head. He was buried in Birsay, and stories grew of miracles at his grave.

A while later, Magnus’s nephew Rognvald arrived from Norway to claim his uncle’s Earldom. He promised the people of Orkney that he would build a “great stone minster” in honor of Magnus and create a place of pilgrimage. The remains of St. Magnus were brought to Kirkwall, followed a few years later by those of Rognvald, drawing pilgrims to the site where it is said miracles took place. These relics, rediscovered in 1919 during the restoration of the cathedral, lie today within the walls of the choir.

St. Magnus Cathedral

Photo: Cynthia Elyce Rubin
Interior of St. Magnus Cathedral.

This church has been used for worship for more than 900 years. When first built, the cathedral was part of the Archdiocese of Nidaros (Trondheim) in Norway. Orkney became part of Scotland in 1468, and a few years later the cathedral was given to the people of Kirkwall by the Scottish king, James III. After the Scottish Reformation in 1580, the cathedral was used for Protestant worship. Today, the cathedral belongs to the people of Orkney.

Walking through the cathedral is walking through centuries of island life. The chapel dedicated to Rognvald at one end was redesigned in 1965 by Orcadian artist Stanley Cursiter. Local craftsman Reynold Eunson made the communion table and lecterns, incorporating medieval panels; he also carved three statues depicting Rognvald’s father, Kol Kalisson, Rognvald, and William the Old, who was Bishop of Orkney when the cathedral was built. On the south side of the chapel lies a memorial to Dr. John Rae, employee of the Hudson’s Bay Company and explorer of the Canadian Arctic, who is buried outside in the cathedral graveyard.

However, the Brough of Birsay was my most memorable Viking site. Both Brough, referring to a natural fort, and Birsay, indicating an enclosure formed by nature, derive from the Norse word borg, meaning “fortified place.” Located on an island off the northwest coast of mainland Orkney, this important archaeological site is accessible only by foot during the few hours when the tide recedes. It comprises the remains of a Viking Age settlement and 12th century church, along with the remains of a Pictish settlement dating to the 7th and 8th centuries. (The Picts were descendants of the Iron Age population who lived in northern Scotland.)

In the Orkneyinga Saga, Thorfinn Sigurdsson “had his permanent residence at Birsay,” regional center of the Norse Kingdom. He ruled Orkney from about 1014 to 1065, competing with his four half-brothers and later his nephew for rule over the islands. Thorfinn, raised in the court of his grandfather, Malcolm II of Scotland, under the influence of Christianity, traveled to Rome. According to the Saga, after that he devoted his time to “the making of new laws.” At Birsay, he built Christchurch, the seat of the first bishop of Orkney. When King Haakon IV of Norway died in 1263, Norse rule ended.

Today, you see the outlines of the earliest Norse houses, consisting of a single large room and dating from the 9th and 10th centuries. Alongside the houses were barns for storing supplies and produce at one end and livestock at the other. There is a stone-covered drain where the animals were kept, and all of the buildings were aligned downhill to reduce drainage problems. Excavation along the cliff edge has revealed a long sequence of buildings, including houses and a sauna. The remains of a Norse blacksmith’s workshop are visible, along with traces of a smelting hearth, located away from the main settlement to reduce fire risk.


Photo: Cynthia Elyce Rubin
Bere is ground here, at Barony Mills.

For culinary enthusiasts, nearby Barony Mills is a must visit. Built in 1873, little has changed since then, offering visitors a fascinating insight into traditional milling practices. Operated by the Birsay Heritage Trust, passionate volunteers offer free tours to the public during the summer. During a tour, you watch the water wheel going and the millstones and other machinery working. The guide explains the process from drying the grain on the kiln floor, passing through three different sets of millstones, including a pair of French burr stones, to sieving the final product. Grinding and production take place in winter.

This is the only working mill left in Orkney (from about 60 working mills at one time). In addition, it is the only one in the world milling bere, the ancient six-row variety of barley, into traditional Orcadian beremeal. Bere has grown in Orkney for thousands of years. In the old days, it was called bygg, the name given to barley in Norway. It is believed the Vikings brought the grain to Orkney, where it is still popular. Unique, tasty, and healthy too, beremeal is truly living history, used in a range of products from traditional pancake-like bannock and ale to the cookies and oatcakes that tourists consider a favorite souvenir.

Cynthia Elyce Rubin, Ph.D., is a visual culture specialist, travel writer, and author of articles and books on decorative arts, folk art, and postcard history, who collects postcards, ephemera, and early photography. See www.cynthiaelycerubin.com.

This article originally appeared in the November 2, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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Cynthia Elyce Rubin

Cynthia Elyce Rubin, PhD., is a visual culture specialist, travel writer, and author of articles and books on decorative arts, folk art, and postcard history. She collects postcards, ephemera, and early photography. See www.cynthiaelycerubin.com.