The pilgrims drew themselves closer together keeping the Mansie Stone to their backs for shelter. They had been walking most of the day retracing the last journey of their beloved St Magnus. Following the route from the shoreline of Birsay to Kirkwall and stopping at each Mansie Stone where in years gone by those who carried the remains of the blessed saint would have rested his casket.
At each stage of their pilgrimage the story teller had recounted another part of the life of this quiet son of Earl Erlend who was to become Orkney’s saint. She had told them of how violent his cousin Hakon was whose father, Paul, had ruled jointly with Earl Erlend. Of the missions with the mighty King Magnus of Norway where the cousins fought side by side except for that one fateful day in Wales when young Magnus refused to fight for he had no quarrel with the people there. The boy had remained on deck, with the clash of a fierce battle around him, unharmed as he sang psalms.
They drew closer as the story teller continued with her tale.
“And so it was that Magnus and Hakan ruled together for 7 years. Again these two strong men fought side by side bringing peace and stability to the islands. But Hakan grew jealous of the popular Magnus who was adored by his people and listened to those who would ferment dissent between the two.
The two Earls met in Hrossey, battle lines drawn, but the fight was averted by wise chiefs who wished no conflict between the cousins. It was decided that the Peace be confirmed on neutral ground, the island of Egilsay. Each Earl would bring with him a small retinue of men in 2 ships. Magnus and Hakan swore that this would be so.
As Magnus sailed forth a huge wave broke through the calm waters and swept over him as he sat on the deck. He knew that this forebode ill tidings of his own death.
Hakan made haste crossing the sea with 8 warships and many warriors. He ransacked the church where Magnus had been at prayer but failed to find him. Frantically he and his warriors searched the island until Magnus himself called out to them.
Magnus turned to Hakan saying “ You did not act well kinsman when you broke your oaths.” Then he made Hakan 3 offers which would spare his life and Hakan’s soul.
The first is to sail to Rome or Jerusalem and never to return.The second is to be held in custody by the Scots . The third is to be maimed, blinded and thrown into a deep dungeon. Earl Hakan rejects the first two but agrees to the third much to the anger of his chiefs who turn on him.
“One of you shall be killed” they say “for we will have but one ruler in Orkney.”
“Slay him” screams Hakan “for I will rather have earldom and lands than instant death.”
And so it was that Earl Magnus was to be slain but Ofeig, Hakan’s banner bearer refused to do so. Then Hakan turned on Lifolf, his cook, and commanded the poor wretch to do the vile deed. Lifolf was a good man and did not wish to do so but Magnus absolved him of all guilt saying
“Be not afraid for you do this against your will, and he who forces you sins more than you.”
“Stand before me and hew me a mighty stroke on the head.”
This the terrified cook does and so our blessed Magnus was martyred. Where he was slain the moss grew to be a rich grassy sward.”
The story teller rose tightening her cloak against the strengthening wind.
And now my fellow pilgrims we must away as the day draws ever colder. We have only one more of the 28 Mansie Stones that mark our way left to rest at. And that is where I will tell of the marvellous miracles that started to occur with the Martyrdom of Magnus.
[You can read more about the Orkney Earls in the Orkneyinga Saga. The bones of St Magnus lie at rest within a pillar in the St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall]
By Fiona Grahame All Art Work By Martin Laird
The St Magnus Way is a pilgrimage route you can follow to this day in Orkney.
This article first appeared in iScot magazine.