The story of a national instrument

The legend of Prillar Guri and her lur comes back to life

Image: Wikimedia
“The Landing of Sinclair in Romsdal” by National Romantic painters Adolph Tidemand and Morten Müller depicts the landing of the Scottish party in Gudbrandsdal.

Eric Stavney
Mukilteo, Wash.

On Aug. 16, 1612, a young woman stood on a promontory above the Laagen River in Norway. This promontory was close to Sel, which is in turn near Otta, in Gudbrandsdalen. She had with her a white scarf and a long-tube “birch trumpet,” called a lur. She was anxiously looking downriver because of the important task given to her.

So says the legend of Prillar Guri, a story that arose in Gudbrandsdalen, and, indeed, that day in August when she stood on the mountaintop, now called Prillarguritoppen, is celebrated annually every year. The lur features prominently in that legend.

The lur as we know it today has been known in Norway and Sweden since at least the Middle Ages. The lur is essentially an over 3-foot-long tube with a mouthpiece at one end and a slightly flaring “bell” at the other. Different pitches can be achieved by blowing at different velocities into the mouthpiece of the open tube.

“The lur plays notes in the harmonic scale,” says Professor Joan Paddock of Linfield University in McMinnville, Ore. She is one the most vocal proponents of demonstrating the lur in the United States. Paddock is a music professor and educator who plays brass instruments, specifically the cornet, trumpet, and lur.

Photo: Atle Råsberg / Wikipedia
A statue of Prillar Guri and her lur is found in the town of Otta in Gudbrandsdalen.

“Lurs were used by girls and women who go up to the mountains in the summertime, to the seter, where they took care of animals,” says Paddock. “The sound would carry for long distances. They could sound the lur to scare away a lynx or bear or a wolf. The sound would carry down to the valley where menfolk could come to help.”

But how did Prillar Guri come to stand on this mountaintop, where there were no sheep nor cattle nor any threat of wolves or lynx?

The legend of Prillar Guri is remembered in the Romsdal and Gudbrandsdal valleys, and, in fact, it was written down and published in serial form, by a newspaper based in Romsdal.

A man named Arthur Stavig Sorflaten learned of this serial story in 1968, and he and Marvel DeSordi published an English version of the legend in the United States called Prillar-Guri: A Heroine of Old Norway.

Since the lur is so closely associated with Prillar Guri, it’s not surprising that Paddock enthusiastically tells Guri’s story while talking about the instrument.

The backdrop to the Prillar Guri legend is the Kalmar War, which began in 1611.

Norway-Denmark, a kingdom under Christian IV, was at war with Sweden. The Danes had been charging every trade ship a toll for going to or from the Baltic Sea through the narrow band of ocean between Sweden and Denmark. King Charles IX of Sweden was unhappy with having to pay this toll, so he pronounced himself “King of the Lapps in Nordland,” so Swedish goods could be shipped without entering the Baltic. This circumvented the Danish toll. But Charles’ move led to a declaration of war against Sweden by Norway-Denmark.

About a year into the Kalmar War, as it was called, Charles of Sweden needed more soldiers to conclusively win the war against the Dano-Norwegian troops. He asked King John of Scotland to send mercenaries across the North Sea to engage the Dano-Norwegian forces. John allegedly refused.

But Scottish Col. George Sinclair heard about the request. He was a man who loved a good fight. He and a man named Ramsay collected a band of Scottish mercenaries, crossed North Sea, and proceeded to march eastward up to Romsdal.

According to legend, this march did not go well for the Norwegian farmers and families along the way. The Scottish party allegedly raped, murdered, and pillaged as they passed through, although official reports later written about the invasion said the Scots did nothing of the kind, and in fact were courteous.

Early on, the Scottish party realized they needed a navigator, so they coerced a Norwegian fisherman to serve as their guide. But the guide secretly passed a message to those in Romsdal that the Scottish force was on its way up the valley.

When the sheriff of Romsdal got wind of the eastward marching Scots, he is said to have interrupted a church service, dramatically burying his axe into the church’s floor, and announcing that an enemy was on its way there.

The sheriff mustered a group of farmers and soldiers to meet the Scots but realized they might be outnumbered and outgunned, so they concocted a plan to even the odds. Because the Scots were headed to Gudbrandsdalen, the sheriff knew the party would pass through a narrow part of a road, bordered by a steep hillside on one side and the Laagen River on the other. It was here they planned to ambush the Scottish party.

The legend says the Norwegians set up piles of logs and rocks on the high bank, above the road, where they could be released and fall on the passing enemy. But releasing the logs and attacking from hiding places at just the right moment required careful timing.

Image: Georg Nielsen Strømdal / public domain
The Scots were ambushed where the road ran
along a steep hillside bordering the Laagen River.

That’s where Prillar Guri comes in. Positioned high up on a mountain promontory, on the other side of the river, she had a sweeping view of the Laagen River valley, including the road to where the ambush was set. But if she could see the Scottish party approaching, it was possible they could see her on the mountain and get suspicious.

To distract the invaders, an old man was placed on a horse on an island in the river. He was sitting backward, with a sorry-looking rifle in hand. The Scots were so amused that this pathetic one-man “army” was the force sent to meet them that they forgot to look up.

The legend says that Prillar Guri then played a signal on her lur and waved a white scarf, triggering the ambush. First, George Sinclair was shot and killed by a Norwegian rifleman. Between the falling logs, rocks, and the Norwegians jumping out of hiding to begin the fight, the battle lasted only a few hours.

“Some sources say there were about 400 mercenaries, and some sources say that there were more, but of those in the Scottish party, there were very few to survive. Historians don’t know if it was because the Scottish party had done so many awful things to the people of western Norway, but of the men that they did capture, they murdered most of them, except for 16,” says Paddock.

After the battle, farmers and soldiers went through the bodies of the fallen Scots and salvaged the woolen kilts and capes they were wearing. Some sources speculate that the Scottish tartan later influenced the use of plaid fabric in designing the Gudbrandsdal man’s bunad vest some 300 years later.

A memorial now stands on the hillside commemorating the Battle of Kringen, and a stone marker sits at the top of Prillarguritoppen where she supposedly stood on Aug. 26, 1612.

Yet, official reports of the invading force and the Battle of Kringen, as it came to be called, don’t mention Prillar Guri. Perhaps this isn’t a surprise, as women are rarely mentioned in historical or military accounts.

But Prillar Guri appears to be a cherished exception, because of her role in the Battle of Kringen.

When Paddock finishes her presentation of the Prillar Guri story she tilts her lur skyward and plays a melody possibly like what Guri played. She also plays a lur fanfare at the annual opening of Norsk Høstfest in Minot, N.D. In that large festival hall in Minot, the music that echoes and lingers long after Paddock the last note, it’s not hard to imagine she’s Prillar Guri on the mountaintop, blowing her horn.

Photo courtesy of Joan Paddock
Each year, Joan Paddock play a lur fanfare at the opening of Norsk Høstfest in Minot, N.D. Paddock teaches brass instruments at Linfield University in McMinnville, Ore., and is one the most vocal proponents of demonstrating the lur in the United States.

This article conveys a very abbreviated version of the Prillar Guri legend. To hear more about both the lur and Prillar Guri, you can listen to the podcast interview of Paddock at nordicontap.com. Paddock has videos online, including one associated with Norsk Høstfest.

One of the most detailed accounts of the Scottish party and the Battle of Kringen can be found online through the Sel Historical Society, at kringen1612.no. Click on the small British flag under the title for an English translation.

Finally, the memorial stone for the battle, which is found on the  St. Olav’s Way, is described in the article “Progress along St. Olav’s Way: A walk along Gudbrandsdalslågen” by Christine Foster Meloni, published in the July 3, 2015, edition of The Norwegian American.

This article originally appeared in the May 2023 issue of The Norwegian American.

Avatar photo

Eric Stavney

Eric Stavney is a graduate of the University of Washington Department of Scandinavian Studies and hosts the interviews and music podcast “Nordic on Tap” at NordicOnTap.podbean.com.