More Vikings! The mystery of the Swandro Sword

Updated: Jan 30, 2019

Now the year has turned we can start to look forward to the 2019 dig at Swandro. We're concentrating on the Neolithic chambered tomb and overlying Iron Age buildings for the next two years but as you may already know we also have Viking and Norse remains on the site. Since today's the day our Shetland cousins celebrate their Viking fire festival of Up Helly Aa (not Viking at all but invented in the 1880's, but that doesn't stop it being a great idea especially on a day like this when we're snowed in!) I thought focussing on the Vikings might be fun. Just 300m around  the bay from Swandro is the Viking cemetery at Westness, excavated in the late 1960s/early 1970s, best known for the two boat burials with their Viking warriors suitably equipped for battle: 


Sadly this excavation, by Norwegian archaeologist Sigrid Kaland, has never been published, although there is a report on the burials which may be downloaded for free. Kaland also excavated at Swandro itself as part of the same excavation – which was also never published – and she concentrated on the Norse long hall which sits a little way back from the edge of the shore. There are a few photographs available of her excavation, the best one of which is this which is taken looking roughly north – the mound in the background is the chambered tomb, and if you know the site you can see there has been a fair bit of coastal erosion since the photo was taken:



The Norse hall itself had been previously excavated by Ralegh Radford (who also worked at the Brough of Birsay) but sadly didn't publish his excavation. Walter Grant also did something at Swandro, but exactly what and where remains a mystery as again – you've guessed it – Grant's excavations were never published.

The first mention of Swandro, or rather 'Sweindrow' comes in 1805, in the Rev. George Barry's History of Orkney, referencing the Orkneyinga Saga accounts of the famous Swein: 'A plain on the shore, about a quarter of a mile to the west of this place [i.e. of Westness farm], has on it immense piles of stones, evidently the ruins of some ancient structures, around which are to be seen graves formed with stones set on edge, as in some other places; and the name of Sweindrow, which it bears, points it out, with great probability, as the scene of the capture of Earl Paul, by Swein, the son of Asleif, and the slaughter of his attendants'. Now it's not exactly clear where Barry meant – the upstanding mound at the Knowe of Swandro is around half a mile north west of Westness Farm, whilst Moaness point, where the Westness burials were later excavated, is just under half a mile north west of Westness. Estimates of distance in antiquarian accounts are notoriously chancy, and it's not certain that Barry had even visited the site, since it's very likely that an awful lot of Barry's History of Orkney was plagiarised from a much better work by Rev George Low, written in the late 18thcentury but not published until 1879 (by which time much of Low's work had been plagiarised by unscrupulous authors - his manuscripts did the rounds of a lot of people). The most interesting early note about Swandro comes in 1834, when a Viking sword ploughed up in a field near 'Sweindrow' in 1826 was exhibited by Professor Thomas Traill, and a drawing was made at the time but not published until 1874, when the sword was gifted to the National Museum in Edinburgh and written up by Joseph Anderson:

A question remains of where exactly this sword was 'ploughed up' – as far as we know the actual area of the Knowe of Swandro, and the adjacent Norse Hall, have never been ploughed – if they had then they wouldn't be there, because you have to remove all that nasty stone work (i.e. the archaeology) to plough, so if it had been ploughed then we wouldn't have a lot left to dig. We do know that the just beyond the Knowe there was a ploughed field, close to the chambered tomb at Rowiegar – was this where they were ploughing, or did they mean the field behind Swandro on the landward side?   Although by the time the sword made it to the museum it had deteriorated quite a bit, Anderson had access to Traill's notebooks and reproduced a detailed description and measurements: Extreme length of the sword: 3 foot 3 ¼ inches (1m)           

Length of the blade: 2 foot 8 inches (82cm)

Breadth of the blade at 22 inches from the point:  2 1/8 inches (5.4cm)

Length of the cross-guard: 5 inches (12.7cm)

Length of grip:  3 ¼ inches (8.3cm)

Width of pommel: 4 ¼ inches (10.8cm)

Height of pommel: 3 inches (7.6cm) Traill noted that: 'The blade has been two-edged. There are remains of a wooden scabbard adhering to it, and the hilt has been of bone or horn, ornamented with a metal which appears to be an alloy of copper and silver. The sword was broken by the plough into four pieces'. 

The best photo of the sword was published in 1940 (In Shetelig, H (ed) 1940 Viking Antiquities in Great Britain and Ireland Part II Viking Antiquities in Scotland by Sigurd Grieg Oslo: H Aschehoug & Co):


Anderson notes that: 'the scabbard has been made of thin laths of wood, covered with some substance, probably leather. There are now but slight remains of the plates of bone or horn which covered the grip of the handle; but the metallic mounting, which adorned both ends of the grip, still remains. It looks like brass gilt; but it is so much altered by oxidation that it is difficult to determine the character of the metal. The form of the ornament is a series of animals' heads, having some resemblance to the dog or fox'

Not that you can see any of the detail now, It was on display at the NMS to delegates at the Vikings in Scotland conference last December and I managed to get a photo – sorry it's not great quality but it doesn't look much better in the flesh:


Prof. Traill says that the Sweindrow sword was found 'near the spot where the unfortunate Earl Paul Hakonson, of Orkney, was seized by the famous Orkney Viking, Swein Asleifson, and carried off by him to Athol. On this field there are many graves, in one of which the fragments of an iron helmet were found several years ago.' Traill's description doesn't get us very much further forward in pinpointing the location, since he's basically paraphrasing Barry, who was plagiarising Low.  (On a side note - it's actually not a helmet, but a shield boss – I didn't know that we had no finds of Viking helmets in Scotland (what can I say – I'm a prehistorian) but it was mentioned in passing at the Viking Conference by James Graham-Campbell: even though lots of antiquarian reports mention helmets, they're all shield bosses mistaken for helmets). 

There is a much more interesting snippet in Anderson's paper, where he quotes a letter addressed to Professor Traill by William Traill, Esq. of Woodwick, dated October 17, 1836, in which the latter refers to the satisfaction which he had felt in the anticipated visit of Professor Traill to Orkney, with the view of opening some of the tumuli at Sweindrow, and adds: 'the place where the sword was found I have not yet touched, as I intend to reserve it for your appearance. The sword cannot be better than in your possession'. This clearly indicates that it was Prof Traill's intention to excavate in and around 'Sweindrow' but whether he did or not remains to be seen – there's no published account of any other excavations there. Prof. Traill's papers and notebooks are in the NLS (National Library Scotland) in Edinburgh and there are three catalogued as: 'Notebooks of Professor Thomas Stewart Traill relating to Orkney, with illustrated accounts of Orcadian history and geography'. Do these unpublished notebooks detail previously unrecorded work at Swandro? I don't know, but I feel a trip to NLS Edinburgh coming on – watch this space! 


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Swandro - Orkney Coastal Archaeology Trust 

Scottish Charitable Incorporated Organisation No: SC047002 

Patron: His Royal Highness The Prince Charles, the Duke of Rothesay

Registered office: Bayview Birsay Orkney KW17 2LR   email: info@swandro.co.uk