By Fiona Grahame Images by Martin Laird
This tale is set at a time when Orkney was ruled by the Norse Earls. The Vikings had long been settled in the islands. Many of them held large areas of land which they farmed. They would spend part of the year in Orkney but during the summer months they would set off on raids down the west coast as far as Ireland or crossing the Pentland Firth into Scotland.
Svein Asleifarson was from one of the wealthy families. His father, Olaf Hrolfsson had a farm in Gairsay, a small island between Mainland and Rousay in Orkney. Olaf also had lands at Duncansby in Caithness.
It was while he was at home at Duncansby that Olaf met his death. A Viking raider, Olvir Brawl and his band of men surrounded Olaf’s house and set it alight. They allowed some of the household to escape but burned to death Olaf and 5 of his men trapped inside.
This horrific news reached his son, Svein, who decided to report what had happened to Earl Paul, who at this time was the sole ruler in Orkney. The Earl was extremely powerful and could mete out justice – or in Viking terms – revenge for wrongs done.
It was Christmas time and Earl Paul had organised a tremendous feast at his impressive drinking hall in Orphir. Feasting and especially drinking were important parts of the culture of the Norse in Orkney. Located next to the drinking hall – or Bu – was a circular church, the remains of which can be seen today. Feasting, heavy drinking and observing Christian religious practices filled the days and nights.
Vikings would travel from all over the islands and from further afield to attend as great a feast as Earl Paul had set up at the Bu to celebrate his own victory over the main challenger to his power – Earl Rognvald.
Svein’s brother, Valthjof Hrolfsson, set off with his men from the island of Stronsay but was drowned along with all his crew on Christmas Eve crossing the Stronsay Firth. Even for such skilled oarsmen as the Norsemen were, the waters of Orkney with strong currents and tides held great dangers.
When news of Valthjof’s drowning reached the feast, Earl Paul cautioned those around him to ca’ canny with Svein, such a tragic loss of first his father and now his brother would clearly hit him hard.
During the feasting and drinking sessions, Earl Paul sat Svein at his side, at his other side he put Svein Breast-rope, a fierce warrior who always kept his sword with him. Prowess in battle and being able to consume large quantities of alcohol were top qualities for these Vikings and the two Sveins were soon engaged in a drinking game.
Svein Breast-rope was convinced that cheating was going on and that the drinking cups were not being filled equally. He was sure his cup was larger and being filled more often. There may have been quite a bit of truth to that as the man keeping the drink flowing was a high ranking kinsman of Svein Asleifarson, Eywind Melbrigdason. More feasting and drinking with breaks in between to take part in religious observance went on over the Christmas Eve and into the next day. By this time Svein Breast-rope had worked himself up into such a temper that the drinking game was not a fair one that he shouted, ‘Svein will kill Svein, and Svein shall kill Svein.’
Overhearing this, Eywind went to Svein Asleifarson and encouraged him to get in the first blow. Eywind had it all worked out how this could be done and explained it all to Svein, handing him an axe to do so.
In Orkney there is not much light in December and so it was that as he left the hall with his kinsman, Jon, Svein Breast-rope, who had been drinking now for several days, could not see clearly. Standing in the shadows was Svein Asleifarson who struck Svein Breast-rope a mighty blow as he approached the outer door. Dazed but not out, this formidable warrior struggled forward and with his sword lashed out at a figure he saw lurking in the half light. Unfortunately that was Jon and the blow cleaved him in half from his head right down to his shoulders.
It was time for Svein Asleifarson to get away which he did by escaping through a skylight helped by Eywind. From there he fled by boat to the small island of Damsay then onwards to Egilsay to seek the help of Bishop William. You might think that a Bishop would condemn such action but he thanked Svein for getting rid of Svein Breast-rope. The Bishop then helped Svein to take a ship and escape south to Tiree where he could winter in safety.
Meanwhile back at the feast Svein Breast-rope had not lasted the night. His death was investigated by Earl Paul but as Svein Asleifarson was now missing from the hall it was assumed that he was the killer. He was given a few days to reappear and face Earl Paul. Svein of course was by that time enjoying a warm welcome in Tiree. For his non appearance before Earl Paul, Svein was outlawed. That was just the start of the adventures of Svein of Gairsay, the last Orkney Seawolf.
This story first appeared in iScot Magazine