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Sketch of the Civil and Traditional History of Caithness from the Tenth Century
Chapter III


While the Earls of Orkney possessed Caithness, they chiefly managed the affairs of the county by deputies. These deputies or governors resided at Duncansbay, in the parish of Canisbay, under the title of "Prefecturae de Dungaldsbeis." About the beginning of the twelfth century, the name of the resident governor was Olaus Rolfi. He belonged to the island of Gairsay, in Orkney, and from his bravery, and other estimable qualities, was a chief in high estimation with the Earl, who had selected him particularly for that office. His wife, whose maiden name was Asleif, was descended of a noble Norwegian family. Frakirk, the relict of a powerful chieftain in Sutherland, had, it would appear, conceived a mortal grudge against Olaus, and she determined to destroy him. For this purpose she sent her grandson, Aulver Rosti, with a party of men to Duncansbay about Christmas, a season which the Norsemen— from whom the festival of Yule has its origin—particularly devoted to festivity. On their arrival there, they surrounded the governor's house at midnight, and after plundering it of everything that was valuable, they barbarously set fire to the building, and burnt him with the most of his attendants. His wife, with her two sons Sweyn and Gunn, happened to be from home that evening on a visit at a friend's house in the neighbourhood, and thus fortunately escaped the fate that befell her husband. As soon as she heard of the shocking event, she took boat and hurried across with her sons to Orkney.

Frakirk, the instigator of this atrocious outrage, was a singularly daring and wicked woman; and her history, as related in the Norse chronicle, of which we can give only a few particulars, is a strange one. She was the daughter of Maddan, a Norwegian nobleman, who resided in that part of the parish of Bower which is supposed to be named after himself—Bowermadden. This chief had another daughter, Helga, who in wickedness, at least, perfectly resembled her sister, and was married to Haco Earl of Orkney. Frakirk, at this time, was living with them at Orphir. The Earl had by Helga a son called Harold, and by a former marriage a son whose name was Paul. The two brothers were of opposite dispositions; and, it might be said, never agreed from their boyhood. On the death of their father, the earldom (a thing quite customary at the period) was partitioned between them. But this served only to embitter their animosity. From the moment that the government and property of the islands, etc., came into their hands, they began to quarrel about their respective plans and interests. Helga, an ambitious woman, and a genuine stepdame, did all she could—in which she was seconded by her sister—to widen the breach between them. She naturally wished her own son to have the whole earldom, and she never ceased urging him to use every means in his power to wrest his brother's half from him. To avert the pernicious consequences to be apprehended from an open rupture between the two brothers, their best and most judicious friends, on both sides, strongly advised them to drop all their differences, and to live on terms of amity befitting such near relations. They both acknowledged the salutariness of the advice; and with a view to confirm a bond of mutual reconciliation, Harold agreed to give a splendid entertainment to his brother at the approaching Christmas. Accordingly, at the time appointed, a sumptuous banquet was got up in his palace at Orphir, and everything seemed to betoken the dawn of an era of much future concord and happiness. But these brilliant anticipations were destined to be clouded by an occurrence of an extraordinary and tragical character. About the conclusion of the feast, Harold having entered his mother's apartment, found his aunt Frakirk in the act of finishing an exquisitely embroidered shirt of fine linen, spangled with gold thread. He was greatly struck with its beauty, and on inquiring for whom this splendid article of dress was intended, Helga, his mother, with some reluctance told him that it was for his brother Paul. Harold, who was naturally hasty, and now flushed with wine, keenly upbraided his mother for her supposed partiality, and demanded to have the shirt for himself. Helga on her bended knees implored him not to touch it, assuring him that if he did so it would cost him his life. But all her entreaties and tears were to no purpose. Harold forcibly wrested it from her hands, and put it on. No sooner, however, did the fatal garment—for it was impregnated with the most deadly poison—come into contact with his body, than he was seized with a trembling fit, which was succeeded by the most excruciating pain. He was carried to bed, and soon after died in extreme agony. This story, which is entitled the "Tale of the Poisoned Shirt," when divested of the marvellous, simply resolves itself into the fact, that Harold was unintentionally poisoned by his mother and aunt. Paul, who saw that his own death was intended, immediately banished them from Orkney. They went over to Caithness, and thence to Kildonan in Sutherlandshire, where Frakirk's castle and property were situated. After the death of Harold, the earldom of Orkney and Caithness was jointly ruled over by his half-brother Paul, and by Ronald, nephew of Magnus, who was assassinated in the isle of Eaglesay in 1115.

I have mentioned that on the death of Olaus Rolfi, the late governor at Duncansbay, his widow, with her two sons Sweyn and Gunn, who were both born, it is believed, in Canisbay, had retired to Orkney. Sweyn took his mother's name, and was afterwards called Sweyn Asleifson. He turned out a celebrated pirate, and was, altogether, one of the most extraordinary characters of the time in which he lived. He had two castles—one in the island of Gairsay, lying about four miles to the north of Kirkwall, and the other in Freswick, in the county of Caithness. A part of the ruins of his castle at Freswick, consisting of a small dilapidated tower, grey and ghastly-looking with age, is still to be seen on a wild peninsular rock rising abruptly from the sea, about fifty or sixty yards from the main line of precipices which runs along the shore. A more gloomy and solitary place to have lived in it is hardly possible to conceive, with nothing but the bare rugged rocks on the one hand, and the monotonous prospect of a seemingly interminable ocean on the other. In the winter season, and particularly during a storm from the east, when the winds and the waves battled in tremendous fury around it, it must have been a frightful residence. Mrs Radcliffe herself could not have imagined anything wilder. Torfaeus gives it the strange name of "Lambaburgum," and says that the building was strong and well executed, and from its peculiar situation could not be easily taken. It was, in fact, a regular pirate's keep; and there is little doubt that it was originally built by Sweyn, or some one who followed his unhallowed profession. Sweyn spent the winter sometimes in it, and sometimes in his other castle in the island of Gairsay, with a retinue of about eighty followers, during which time there was nothing but one continued round of revelry and wassail. As soon, however, as spring arrived, he equipped his galleys and set out on his marauding expeditions. At the period in question, piracy among the Norsemen was quite a common and fashionable employment. "The occupation of a pirate," says Crichton in his history of Scandinavia, "like that of a robber among the Arabs, was not only lawful, but honourable. As the mechanical arts were despised, and the learned professions unknown, the practice of sea-roving became the favourite pursuit. It possessed the interest of romance, and was surrounded with all the lustre of chivalry, so that it might be said to form not only the most lucrative, but the most graceful accomplishment of the princes and chieftains of that heroic age." Haco, the Earl of Orkney's son, used to accompany Sweyn as an amateur in his piratical expeditions, and the young nobleman could not have been placed under an abler and more skilful leader. To a thorough knowledge of his business, Sweyn added a most daring and adventurous spirit. He not only exercised his calling along the coast of Scotland, but he went in quest of plunder as far as Cornwall, the Isle of Man, [His devastations in the Isle of Man are confirmed by the Manx Chronicle.] and even Ireland. Sweyn was on intimate and friendly terms with Earl Paul; but having slain in a drunken quarrel at Christmas one of his favourite retainers, he fled for safety to Perthshire, where he remained for some time with the Earl and Countess of Athole. Margaret, the countess— a half-sister of Paul—was a beautiful woman, but notorious for her inordinate ambition, want of principle, and profligacy. At her instigation a plot was hatched to seize Paul, and convey him to Athole. Her object in this was to put him out of the way, and get her own son made Earl of Orkney in his stead. Sweyn, who was ready for any plot, however mischievous or perilous, whether against friend or foe, at once agreed to execute her intention. Accordingly, being furnished with a large galley and a crew of thirty desperate vagabonds, he set sail for Orkney, and landing on the island of Rousay, where the Earl was at the time amusing himself with catching seals, he instantly seized him and carried him off to the residence of his sister in Perthshire. There he was closely confined, and forced to convey to young Harold, his nephew, all his rights and titles to the earldom of Orkney. Paul never returned to that county; and it is believed that he was put to death by the orders of his wicked and unnatural sister.

Young Harold, the protege of Sweyn, was brought to Orkney, where, under the superintendence of Ronald, he received a suitable education, and as soon as he became of age, was admitted to a share of the earldom. Not long after this, Ronald set out on a pious pilgrimage to Jerusalem; and, being left to his own guidance, Harold discovered all those bad qualities of his nature which afterwards procured him the appellation of Harold the Wicked. During the absence of his colleague he ruled like an independent sovereign, and oppressed the people to such a degree, that Eistein, King of Norway, set sail for Orkney with the determination to bring down his lofty pretensions, and put a check to his tyranny. As soon as Harold heard of his arrival in St Margaret's Hope, he fled to Thurso in a war galley of forty oars with eighty men. Eistein crossed over in pursuit of him with three smaller vessels, captured his war galley in Scrabster [The term Scrabster, like the names of most of the places in the neighbourhood, is of Icelandic derivation. By the old Norse writers it was called Skarabolstad.] Roads, seized Harold himself in the town and threw him into prison. When he had enjoyed the pleasures of solitude for a few days, the king ordered the delinquent to appear before him, and after obliging him to pay a fine of seven marks of gold, and to declare upon oath that he held Orkney as a fief of Norway, and would continue so to hold it, he set him at liberty. There was no alternative for Harold but to submit to these stringent measures. It is possible, however, that if he had had at this juncture the able counsel and assistance of his friend Sweyn, he might have escaped this humiliation. But that ingenious gentleman was absent at the time on a piratical excursion.

Torfaeus gives a long and minute account of the different adventures of this famous pirate. As illustrative of the singular and daring character of the man, I will briefly glance at one or two of his more notable exploits, subsequent to his kidnapping the Earl of Orkney. Not long after this he inflicted a summary vengeance on Frakirk for the part which she had in the death of his father at Duncansbay. Having landed in Sutherlandshire with a select band of associates, he first plundered her house, then set it on fire, and burnt her, with her sister Helga and all their domestics. This is said to have been done with the concurrence of Margaret, Countess of Athole, who furnished Sweyn with guides to the particular locality in Sutherland where Frakirk resided. History is full of crime] but there are few instances of such unnatural and shocking barbarity as that of which this woman appears to have been guilty—namely, first putting her brother, Earl Paul, to death, and next consenting to make an auto da fe of her mother and aunt.

Sweyn was not very steady in his friendships; and it happened that he and Earl Harold had a temporary difference. "While this misunderstanding lasted, he one day sallied out from his castle at Freswick, attacked and robbed, in the Pentland Firth, a vessel with the Earl's rents from Shetland. The vessel was on her way to Wick, where Harold was sojourning at the time.

On another occasion, while cruising in the Irish Channel, he attacked two merchant ships bound for the Isle of Man, having on board a large quantity of scarlet cloth and other commodities of great value, the whole of which he seized. On his way home he played off a singular freak. "When near the Orkney Islands with his fleet," says Torfaeus, "he caused sew some of the cloth on the sails, so that they appeared like sails of scarlet, for which reason that expedition was called the "scarlet cruise."

To great courage and presence of mind, Sweyn united all the instinctive cunning of the fox, of which the following story affords an amusing instance. Along the east side of Elwick Bay, in the island of Shapinshay, lies an uninhabited islet called Elgarholm, forming a natural breakwater to it in that direction. It happened that while the parties were on bad terms, the Earl of Orkney, one forenoon, with a large and well-manned galley, gave chase to Sweyn, who at the time was cruising about Shapinshay in a small boat, with only two or three of his followers. As soon as he saw that he was pursued, the oars were plied with the utmost vigour; and on his side it might be said to be a run for personal liberty, if not for life. Fortunately for him he was near Elgarholm, and turning one of the points of the islet, he ran his skiff into a cave. On rounding the same point a few minutes afterwards, the Earl was amazed to see nothing of Sweyn or his boat, and he could

not imagine in the wide world what had become of the vagabond. The Earl and his men, it would seem, were but slightly acquainted with the natural features of the spot; and the full tide had so effectually concealed the entrance of the cave, that its existence was not suspected by them. The wily pirate enjoyed their perplexity, and lay secure in his hiding-place until the coast was clear.

As the pirate was seldom at home, especially in the summer season, he had appointed one Margad Grimson, a native of Swana, manager over some property which belonged to him in Duncansbay. Margad was a regular tyrant, and his usage of the people was so harsh and oppressive that they complained to Roald, a Norwegian of some note in Wick, who promised that he would lay their grievances before Earl Ronald, an upright and compassionate nobleman, and endeavour to procure them some redress. The factor was incensed at Roald's interference in a matter with which he thought he had no concern. He went to Wick with a party of ruffians, managed to get access to Roald, and killed him, with several of his attendants, in his own house. Sweyn, who was absent at the time, instead of dismissing his factor for the atrocious act, with characteristic inconsistency and laxity of principle, approved of his conduct. Roald's son repaired to the Earl, complained of the horrible outrage committed in Wick, and prayed that he would avenge his father's death. On this Ronald collected a body of troops, marched to Freswick and attacked the castle to which Sweyn and Margad had betaken themselves with sixty retainers, and which they resolved to defend to the last extremity. Finding that he could not take it by force, the Earl determined to cut off all supplies, and accomplish his purpose by famine. The garrison was, in consequence, soon reduced to great straits, and began to exhibit symptoms of discontent and insubordination. In this unpleasant dilemma, when their provisions were nearly spent, Sweyn assembled his retainers, and in a short speech advised them to surrender at once, and throw themselves on the generosity of the Earl, who, he was confident, would do them no injury. It was only himself and his agent that the Earl wished to seize, but that he would disappoint him in this, and devise for themselves some means of escape. He then ordered a long rope to be got, and by means of it he and Margad were let down from the brow of the rock on which the castle stands, into the sea; and though they were both clad in armour, they swam safely ashore. They then pursued their way southward until they came to Banff, where they found an Orkney pirate boat with ten men on board. Sweyn engaged the crew, and set sail on a piratical expedition. He landed on the Isle of May, in which there was at the time a monastery, presided over by an abbot whose name was Baldwin. Sweyn at first pretended that he was an ambassador from the Earl of Orkney and Caithness to the King, and was in consequence entertained with all due respect and hospitality by the holy brotherhood. He professed, too, to be an ardent devotee of the Church; but somehow he manifested a much greater predilection for good cheer and the wine-cup than for the religious exercises and vigils prescribed by the rules of the order. After he had been a week in the island, the monks began to suspect that the pretended ambassador and his attendants were but a band of pirates, and despatched a boat to the mainland for men to protect them. As soon as Sweyn understood this, he robbed the monastery of everything valuable it contained, and set sail on another cruise.

Sweyn at length terminated his worldly career in Dublin, which he had surprised and plundered. Having carried off to his ships some of the principal men of the city, they agreed to purchase their ransom at a high price. Next day, when he went ashore to receive his money, or "Danegelt," as it was called, he fell into an ambuscade which the inhabitants had laid for him; and he and the whole party that accompanied him were slain. This event happened in the autumn of the year 1160.

Much about the same time Earl Ronald was basely murdered at North Calder, in the parish of Halkirk, by a villain of the name of Thiorbiorn Klairke, whom he had banished for his misdeeds from Orkney. He and Harold, his colleague in the earldom, had come over, as was their usual practice, on a hunting excursion to Caithness. It was this Ronald who, in conjunction with his father Koll, founded the cathedral of Kirkwall. He was a nobleman of many excellent qualities; and on account of his eminent piety, and the share which he had in erecting that splendid edifice, was canonized by the Pope. Klairke, the assassin of Ronald, did not escape with impunity. After committing the murder, he fled to a place in the neighbourhood called Assary, where he was overtaken and put to death by some of the Earl's retainers.


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