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Svein Asleifarson – Orkney’s Last Sea Wolf

Publication: The Orkney News

A child in front of the remains of the round church in Orphir
The remains of the round church in Orphir| Photo by Martin Laird| Licensed for use on Scottish Beacon | All rights reserved.

Written in the 13th century by an Icelandic monk, The Orkneyinga Saga tells of the exploits of the Viking Earls of Orkney. The most colourful character of all in the stories, however, is not an Earl at all. Described in the Saga as: ‘the greatest man the western world has ever seen in ancient and modern times’- this is part of his story.

Svein Asleifarson, was born in Caithness to Olaf Hrolfsson and Asleif. Olaf farmed lands in Gairsay and Stronsay in Orkney as well as in Duncansby, Caithness. This was not unusual, for there were strong links between Orkney and Caithness at this time through the Norse Earls.

With his father burned to death in his Caithness home by Olvir Brawl and Earl Paul declaring him an outlaw for the killing of Swein Breast-rope, Svein had already become infamous whilst still a young man.

He must have had charm, wit, and cunning, for it did not take Svein long to overcome the outlaw tag and return from refuge in Tiree to his lands in Orkney.

Gairsay is a small island located between Mainland and Rousay. In Gairsay, Svein built the largest drinking hall in Orkney where he could entertain his retinue of 80 warriors.  His lifestyle was that of a Viking Chief. The year was divided up into farming and raiding.

In Spring, the crops would be sown, and once that was completed, he would sail west or south, raiding. Returning in autumn, the harvest would be gathered in before he would depart again on more raiding trips. Winter was spent at home: feasting and drinking.

A landscape image showing the sea and a land
Gairsay scaled| Photo by Martin Laird| Licensed for use on Scottish Beacon | All rights reserved.

He must have had charm, wit, and cunning, for it did not take Svein long to overcome the outlaw tag and return from refuge in Tiree to his lands in Orkney.

His success at raiding and plundering was essential to keep up a lifestyle that, by the 12th century, had passed into Viking legend. He amassed wealth and prestige from these trips beyond that of the Orkney Earls. But there was much more to Svein of Gairsay than raiding and farming.

He was a man with connections who could act as a power broker between rival interests, including those of Kings. The side he chose to be on would be the one that served his interests best. This meant it could change at any given time. During the war of the Three Earls (1152 – 1154), he supported each of them depending on how it suited him.

The men of power (and some women) exploited his almost mythical reputation as a Viking warrior to do dirty deeds for them whilst keeping their hands clean, but Svein could play that game as well as anyone.

In 1137 he captured Earl Paul. The story goes that he sailed into Eynhallow Sound in a cargo boat and got 20 of his warriors to lie low in sleeping bags so that only ten men would be seen rowing.

Earl Paul’s men who saw them assumed they were just a small group of traders, and they were instructed where to find Earl Paul and give him whatever they had on board. Meanwhile, the Earl, unaware of his danger, had gone out hunting. The ‘traders’ landed the concealed warriors ashore where they could not be spotted. Taken completely by surprise, the Earl was captured and his men killed.

Svein delivered Earl Paul to Earl Maddad and Paul’s sister, Margaret, at Atholl in Scotland. There he was blinded, maimed and eventually murdered. 

Image in black and white of Svein the Trickster
Svein the Trickster| Illustration by Martin Laird | Licensed for use on Scottish Beacon | All rights reserved.

Svein’s use of surprise also came into play when he took revenge on the murderer of his father, Olvir Brawl and his grandmother, Frakkok, a woman of some considerable influence. Olvir and Frakkok were expecting trouble and so had lookouts posted in the direction they assumed an attack from Orkney would be made, by sea, on their home at Helmsdale. 

Coming in from the North West and the hills of Sutherland, Svein surrounded the farmhouse, looted it and set fire to it with Frakkok inside. Olvir managed to escape to the river, into the mountains and eventually found his way to The Hebrides.

It was also at this time that the Scots were encroaching ever more into the affairs of Orkney. Firstly, through the church’s influence and, secondly, their Kings.

David, I had his eyes on the north of Scotland and the islands of Orkney. David had encountered Svein at his court in Edinburgh and knew this was the man to broker his deal in getting a foothold in the islands. An agreement was made in 1139 that the 5-year-old Harald Maddadarson (Earl Maddad and Margaret’s son)  would share the Earldom with Earl Rognvald. It was not unusual for the Earldom to be divided up, but it was unprecedented that a child should be named co-Earl. This arrangement suited the Scots King.

Svein of Gairsay, like his Viking forebears, was a superb seaman, travelling extensively down the west coast, even as far as the Scilly Isles. His reputation always ran before him and produced great alarm in the populace.

 In 1171 he captured Dublin. Perhaps he was losing his touch, or his run of luck had just ended, but it was here that he made a fatal mistake. Instead of remaining in the captured town, he returned to his ships with his men. The town’s people took this opportunity to dig deep pits in the place they covered with straw. Svein was surprised when the returning warriors fell into the traps this time. Floundering in the pits, he and many of his men were slaughtered by the town’s people. It is said that, in true Viking fashion, Svein was the last to die.