A rouge Viking at Swanbister, Orphir

On Christmas Eve we went to explore at Swanbister bay in Orphir. Our first stop was by a remarkable mound in the landscape, known as the Hillock of Breakna. It seems to contain an Iron Age broch, and a depression in the middle seems to indicate that it has been dug at some point in the past. I find the history of its exploration just as interesting as the place itself. What makes this one so fascinating is that a hundred or so years ago, in the Victorian period when people were very interested in all things Viking and were keenly reading Old Norse sagas in newly available English translations, folk got very excited by going out to look for the places mentioned in the saga. Actually, this interest started even earlier than that, for it is mentioned already in the Old Statistical Account made by ministers in Orkney between 1795-98 (republished by J. Storer Clouston, 1927). In the Orkneyinga Saga, there is a character called Sveinn Breast-Rope (don’t ask me how he got his by-name) who shows up in a scene set in Orphir. He is said to be among the last in Orkney to practice the pagan rite of “sitting out” – That is, to sit out by a burial mound at night in order to communicate with the dead within. The scene in set in the 12th Century, in other words well into the Christian period, but old beliefs and old practices took a long time to eradicate.

In the Victorian period, the reading audience were keen to identify sites mentioned in the Orkneyinga Saga. But this was before J. Storer Clouston and his team had excavated the site now known as the Earl’s Bu next to the Round Kirk in Orphir, a short distance further along the coast from Swanbister. Nowadays everyone agrees that the Earl’s Bu is more likely to be the site described, where Sveinn Breast-Rope is murdered by the notorious pirate and troublemaker Sveinn Asleifarson. When faced with the Breakna mound at Swanbister bay, people put place-name and saga together and speculated that this mound in fact contained the abode of Sveinn Breast-Rope. This is mentioned in the Old Statistical Account (page 83) as “the ruins of an ancient tower, of a circular form (…) probably the residence of Sueno Boerstrop”. And why not? After all, a different green mound, on the island of Wyre, known as Cubbie Roo’s Castle turned out on excavation to contain a Norse castle once belonging to the Orkneyinga Saga personality Kolbeinn Hruga. In hindsight, one can’t blame the Victorians for believing in Sveinn Breast-Rope’s castle, or whatever he might have had, at Swanbister. When we were there, I almost felt like I was standing on top of the mound that Sveinn “sat out” by.

I enjoyed seeing the oil rig sheltering in Scapa Flow in the background, too. It was as if time somehow had looped back on itself, made a curl or knot of some sort, and captured the Iron Age, Norse period, Victorian period and the 21st century in one moment.

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