Earl Sigurd – ‘The Splendid Pagan’

By Fiona Grahame

Earl Sigurd The Stout  straddled the Celtic and Pagan Worlds. The life and death of this powerful Viking ruler of Orkney marks a pivotal point of transition in the culture of the islands. His story is swathed in the mists of legend.

A bloody battle scene with a Viking in armour overlooking the field. ships out at sea and the raven banner being held by a swordsman
Art work by Martin Laird

Under the rule of Earl Sigurd II, Orkney extended her dominions taking in Shetland, the north of Scotland, the Western Isles and parts of Ireland. On his Viking ‘cruises’ south he brought back great wealth to Orkney. His black raven banner struck terror into the hearts of all who beheld it.

After his conquest of the Isle of Man, the Eyrbyggia Saga tells us that Sigurd left behind ‘his agents to collect the tax which was to be paid in refined silver.’ His victories in Wales extracted a penny levied from every person as tribute.

The great hoards of treasure discovered at Skaill, Sandwick and Burray both come from this time of great conquest by the Orkney men. The Burray Hoard consists mostly of silver rings of a standard weight. The Skaill Hoard, said to be the largest find in Scotland, weighs over 8Kg. There are more than 100 items mainly of neck rings, arm rings and bracelets.

Earl Sigurd’s reputation and success brought him warriors from Shetland, the Isles and Iceland. In his New History of Orkney, William P.L. Thomson states:

“Sigurd’s earldom exerted a magnetic attraction for high-born Icelanders”.

Expeditions from Scandinavia were mostly to the wealthy, fertile lands of England. This left Orkney and Earl Sigurd greater scope for independent action, an opportunity Sigurd was not going to waste.

It was not a time to be totally safe. King Olaf Tryggvesson, a powerful Norwegian Viking, stopped off in the Bay of Osmundwall, South Hoy, with his fleet of ships. A year earlier, in 996AD he had been converted to Christianity by the Anglo Saxon King Aethelred. As it happened Earl Sigurd was also anchored at Osmundwall as he prepared to sail on his raids south with 3 ships. Olaf invited Sigurd over to his ship. He then forced Sigurd, at the point of a sword, to convert to Christianity or be killed. He also took as hostage back to Norway Sigurd’s son Hvelp. Given the choice between death and Olaf’s threat to ‘ravage every island with fire and steel’, Sigurd converted. He also had to accept Christian missionaries into Orkney and to build churches.

Unfortunately for Hvelp, he died in Norway, shortly after Sigurd’s forced conversion which he promptly reneged  on returning to his roots in the cult of Odin.

Family ties were crucial in cementing alliances. Sigurd’s mother was a daughter of Kiarval, King of Dublin. His second wife was the daughter of Malcolm, King of Scots. Both these women were Christian, however, his mother wove for him a Raven Banner endowed with magical qualities. The raven was a symbol of the Norse god Odin. The black Raven Banner would bring victory to the warrior whose army followed it, but death to the standard bearer who carried it.

The magical properties of the Raven Banner brought victory to Sigurd at the Battle of Skitten Moor (now the Moss of Killimster, near Wick), but the three standard bearers who carried it were killed.

At Yule time, 1013, a gathering in Orkney took place headed by Earl Sigurd and attended by King Sygtrygg of Dublin, Earl Gilli, Sigurd’s brother-in-law, based in Colonsay, and the most famous warriors in Iceland. They agreed to support the King of Leinster in his campaign against King Brian Boru. The Battle of Clontarf, 1014, was to be one of the most important in the history of Ireland with the King of Leinster supported by the forces of Sygtrygg and a host of warriors led by Orkney’s Earl Sigurd. King Brian Boru would have at his command additional men,  Isle of Man Vikings.

Sigurd arrived in Dublin on Palm Sunday 1014. His army consisted of men from Orkney, Shetland, the Hebrides and Iceland. The most skilled and experienced warriors in Sigurd’s lands.

 The nights leading up to the Battle of Clontarf were marked by signs and portents.

On the first night of encampment the warriors were showered by a rain of boiling blood. The second night swords were said to have leapt from their sheaths. Axes and spears flew about in the air. On the third night, ferocious ravens with claws of iron attacked the ships.

On the morning of the battle, 23rd of April, the Valkyries appeared. The twelve Horsewomen of the Apocalypse were seen riding across the heavens. They were weaving a Web of Fate. The warp was made of the entrails of the slain and the loom weights were of their heads. The blood spattered spears of the fallen warriors formed the heddle rods and arrows made up the weaving batten.

Earl Sigurd ‘The Stout’ led his mighty army into battle, at the head of which was his black raven banner. Three standard bearers were killed before Sigurd approached Rafin the Red to pick up the banner. This he refused to do saying ‘Carry your own fiend.’ Earl Sigurd tore the banner from its staff and wrapped it around his body.

‘But Odin was a fickle god who offered no sure rewards’.

Earl Sigurd was killed, pierced through with a spear. That night Hareck, who had been ordered to remain in Orkney by Sigurd saw the Earl come riding home at the head of his men. Hareck went out to greet them. It is said that they were seen to meet, then the ground opened up and they rode into the hill. Nothing more was ever seen again of Hareck.

It is estimated that between 7,000 and 10,000 men were killed in the Battle of Clontarf, including most of the leaders of both sides.  

oil painting of the battle of Clontarf
Battle of Clontarf, oil on canvas painting by Hugh Frazer, 1826

When Sigurd had sailed for Ireland, he left behind his sons Sumarlidi, Bruisi, Einar, and by his second marriage, Thorfin whom he had sent to be fostered by Malcolm, King of Scots. The death of Sigurd brought about great changes in Orkney. It was the end of raiding as the predominant lifestyle for the Orkney Earls. It was a time when the gods were destroyed as the advance of Christianity carried on apace.

It transformed Orkney ‘from a nest of pirates into a Christian Earldom which aspired to be fully integrated into European Christendom,’ Thomson, The New History of Orkney.

Under  the eventual rule of his son Thorfin ‘The Mighty’, Orkney was to attain its maximum influence in the north.

Earl Sigurd the Stout may have died under his raven banner in the field at Clontarf but his colourful character left behind a legacy in Orkney of the interweaving of Celtic and Norse cultures which remains to this day.

This article was first published in iScot Magazine.

a man in a kilt carrying a saltire being stabbed in the back and passing the banner to a young girl with outstretched hand
Art work by Martin Laird

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