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Blood, guts & gore: the revenge of the otters at the Knowe of Swandro

Updated: Aug 19, 2018

We’ve been concentrating quite a lot on the Neolithic chambered tomb at Swandro but it’s a multi-period site, and a fair bit of the site is Viking/Norse: not only that, it has close connections with Orkney’s very own 12th century soap opera, the Orkneyinga Saga. As many people will know Orkney’s history is closely entwined with that of Norway’s, and when it comes right down to it we’re only very dubiously part of Scotland at all, over the small matter of an unredeemed 15th century marriage pledge. Anyway cutting a long story short, we have our own Saga which is very keen on battles, bloodshed, fratricide and folk generally getting chopped into small pieces.

Vikings at the Knowe of Swandro, Orkney

The Knowe of Swandro is in Westness in Rousay, noted in the Saga as the home of a very great man called Sigurd of Westness, a great supporter of Earl Paul. Earl Paul was fighting Earl Rognvald for the Earldom, and a notorious character called Sweyn Asleifarson was in league with a rival claimant, Earl Harald.

As the Saga says:

‘Sweyn took a ship and in it 30 men and sailed round the west of the Mainland, and so to Evie Sound, and along the sound to Rousay. At the end of the island was a high headland, and a large heap of stones at the foot of it, and otters often lay among the rocks. Now Earl Paul had been that night at Westness at a feast at Sigurd’s. The Earl had risen early, and he and nineteen men had gone to hunt the otters that lay on the rocks under the headland … Sweyn bade them lie close inshore that they might not be seen from the headland. The Sweyn said they should arm themselves, and suddenly fall on the Earl’s men when they came together. And so they do. There they killed nineteen men, whilst six of Sweyn’s men fell. They took Earl Paul by force, and carried him aboard their ship’

Earl Paul then gets taken away to Scotland & brutally murdered, leaving Earl Rognvald free to claim the Earldom & also build St. Magnus’ Cathedral. (Personally I always feel that Earl Paul got what was coming to him for hunting otters on the shore – Rousay’s a good place to see otters, and I never see an otter there without wondering if they’re descended from the Orkneyinga Saga otters. Do they hand down the tale of the great fight under the headland from an otter's perspective? Were they cheering on Sweyn Asleifarson from the sidelines?)

Anyway, I digress, but there's some dispute about where this all took place in Rousay with various sites suggested for Sigurd of Westness’ great hall, but one strong contender is the site at Swandro. A dig on the shoreward side in the 1970s exposed a massive Viking/Norse period hall 35m long which had been subdivided down the middle and turned into two smaller halls, along with a range of other buildings.

Sadly this site was never published, but there’s some information and photos online,

If you compare the online photo on Canmore of the hall under excavation to the photograph below, the small mound you can see in the background of the black & white online photo is the same is the same as the one that the surveyor is standing on in the background of the photo below – that’s how closely related they are, so some of the Viking/Norse structures eroding on the beach are part of the hall that may have belonged to Sigurd of Westness.

Looking north west across the site at Swandro, the surveyor is standing on top of the chambered tomb
Looking north west across the site at Swandro, the surveyor is standing on top of the chambered tomb

So not only do we have an eroding Maeshowe type chambered tomb, we have a Pictish/Viking/Norse settlement with Orkneyinga Saga connections – how cool is that?



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