Our Very Own Viking!

By Bernie Bell

Pics by McB

It’s Viking Week  https://archaeologyorkney.com/2021/08/24/orkney-viking-week-is-back-and-on-the-horizon/

….and I thought I’d add my, not very knowledgeable, tuppenceworth in honour of our neighbour – Sweyn Asleifsson of Gairsay.

When we go for a walk out from our house, standing at the T-junction of the paths we are presented with a striking view of our neighbouring islands. We look straight across to Gairsay, once the home of Viking Sweyn Asleifsson from where he headed out, rampaging.  We like to think of Sweyn as our neighbour – though I don’t generally approve of the Vikings – don’t like their attitude, still, he’s an interesting neighbour to have. Better to have him near than marauding from afar!


Gairsay has a sheltered inlet, Millburn Bay, and I remembered reading of research which was carried out there some years ago by ORCA Marine – UHI Archaeology Institute, and Sula Diving. As luck would have it, we’d kept the 2016 copy of the Orkney Archaeology Review containing an article by Paul Sharman entitled ‘Prospecting for Orkney’s Maritime Heritage’, which gives details of the field work and surveys used to attempt to determine whether some mounds of stones in the Bay could be the remains of a jetty used by Sweyn and other resident Vikings for mooring their boats.  I hope that Paul Sharman doesn’t mind my quoting extensively from his article, but it is the most straight forward way to present the information…

“The Orkneyinga Saga, written in the early 13th century, records that Gairsay was the residence of notable Norse chieftains, such as Olaf Hrolfsson (Orkneyingo Saga chapter 56), and in the 12th century was the location of the great hall of the  ’Old School Viking’ chieftain, Svein Asleifsson, where he feasted his 89 strong retinue ( who must also have had boats).  He is recorded as farming Gairsay, using it as a base from which to conduct ‘viking-cruises’ to the Hebrides and Ireland ( Orkneyings Saga chapter 105).  He captured two English ships c. 1171, which yielded a large amount of cloth, and he sailed back to Gairsay with the ships and goods, having the cloth sewn onto the sails to make a great show.  Plunder included wine and English mead, unloaded at Gairsay and used for feasting Earl Harald.”

That’s when he might have been a good neighbour to know – as long as he liked you!

The mounds of stones found in the Bay were initially thought to be ballast, but a more extensive survey by Kevin Heath of Sula Diving indicated that they could represent the foundations of a jetty or quay.

I’ll now quote from Paul Sharman’s article again…

“Brit Solli’s work in Romsdal, Norway, has discovered the wooden foundations of a medieval jetty with a similar configuration.  Her report (2014) also refers to the work of various eminent archaeologists that shows that jetties in medieval Oslo and Bergen were founded on timber caissons filled with stones.  After the timber has decayed, the collapse of the stone filling could well resemble our heaps of stone.”

The stones which were used to support the posts for the Gairsay jetty are mostly sea-rounded cobbles.  The stones on the beaches around here are mostly flat, angular ones.  Good for finding flat ones for building, but not for finding roundy ones. So, were the stones for the jetty brought from elsewhere? And if so, where?  I don’t know!  You’d need to ask the archaeologists!

Picture it – the seed is sown or the harvest is in – they make sure the ships are seaworthy – stock them with supplies, and – pulling on the oars – they leave Millburn Bay……

I don’t know if the Orkney Archaeology Society still has copies of the 2016 Review – if so, you could read the whole article and get more details.  I am mainly aiming to present my neighbour, Sweyn, to you for Viking Week as one of the old style Sea-wolves of Orkney.


Related article: A Tale of Two Sveins

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