Magnus Barefoot, Viking King of Scotland and Ireland

Jun 5, 2014 by

Viking influence in the Celtic lands goes back to the very beginning of the Viking Age, when bold and brave men from Scandinavia decided to make the perilous journey across the seas to take what treasures they could from the British Isles.  One of the boldest of these Viking raiders was Magnus Olaffson (Magnús Óláfsson) , better known as Magnus Barelegs or Barefoot (Old Norse: Magnús berfœttr) , the king of Norway from 1093 until his death in 1103. His aggressive military campaigns during his kingship would leave his mark on the Celtic countries of Scotland, Ireland, the Isle of Man and Wales.



After consolidating his rule in Norway upon the death of his father, Magnus immediately began a campaign in the Irish seas, intent on taking control of parts of Scotland and Ireland.  Historians are undecided as to whether King Magnus intended to create his own Scottish and Irish empire, or simply take control of the territories in Scotland and Ireland that were already under some form of Norse influence. He arrived in Orkney in 1098, and began negotiating with Scottish and Irish kings of the lands he sought, while also killing or imprisoning any Viking nobles in control of those lands. Interestingly, Magnus adopted the attire of the Scottish locals, essentially a short tunic that was the forerunner of what we now call the kilt. His new tunic exposed his legs (as kilts do), earning him the nickname “Magnus the Bareleg, (or Barefoot)”.
After establishing his son, Sigurd, on the throne of Orkney, Magnus began raids on Scotland, the Southern Isles, Lewis, the Hebridean isles of Uist, Skye, Tyree, Mull and Islay, the peninsula of Kintyre and Iona.
In 1098, Magnus may have received a call for help from Welsh nobility fighting against the Normans. The king sailed for Anglesey, and at Puffin Island, joined in what would become known as the Battle of Anglesey Sound. It was during this battle that Magnus shot an arrow through the eye slit of the helmet of Norman earl Hugh of Montgomery, killing him and ultimately routing the Normans. Wales was thence considered a territory of Norway under Magnus’ rule, but it was essentially governed by Welsh lords. Magnus returned to the Isle of Man with his ships and men immediately after the battle.




King Magnus in the marsh at Downpatrick, by Meridith Williams, circa 1911

King Magnus in the marsh at Downpatrick, by Morris Meridith Williams, circa 1911


In 1101 or 1102, Magnus returned to Ireland, intent on securing rule over the territory and obtaining provisions for his men. He and his men were ambushed near the River Quiole by the Ulaid (men from Ulster); during the battle, Magnus had a spear pierce his upper thighs, but was not killed until an axe-wielding Irishman struck a fatal blow to the king’s head. Magnus was the last Norwegian king to die in battle abroad. According to the Chronicles of the Kings of Mann and the Isles, Magnus was “buried near the Church of St Patrick, in Down”.  The grave site is today marked with a runestone monument, erected in 2003 to commemorate the 900th anniversary of his death.  It is believed that his soldiers are also buried in the area.




The Grave of King Magnus Barefoot in Northern Ireland; image by Johnathan Wilcox

The Grave of King Magnus Barefoot in Northern Ireland; image by Johnathan Wilcox



Downpatrick and County Down Railway

The Vikings in Ireland

The Grave of Magnus Barelegs, Finbar McCormick; Ulster Journal of Archaeology, Volume 68, 2009

National Tartan Day Society of Washington

Chronicles of the Kings of Mann and the Isles



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Ringing In the New Year, Orkney Style

Dec 27, 2013 by

One of my favorite Celtic songs for celebrating the New Year is a little Scottish ditty from the Isle of Orkney, An Orkney New Year’s Carol.

There’s no better way to ring in the New Year than with a group of rowdy Scotsmen bound and determined to have a party–with you!

Do a little dance, make a little love
Get down tonight!


A traditional song sung in Orkney and the Shetland Islands, this Scottish carol demands hospitality from the home the revelers have chosen, else “we’ll lay [your door] flat on the floor” .  The origins and author of the song are unknown, but the lyrics reference Catholic Queen Mary and the Blessed Virgin, so it was likely composed before the 16th century separation of the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church.  So, get out your ale and your ham, lads and lasses–the gang’s all here:

This is New Year’s Even Night,
We are all Queen Mary’s Men,

And we’ve come here to claim our right:
And that’s before our lady.

The morning, it is New Year’s Day,
And we’ve come here to sport and play:

And if you don’t open up your door,
We’ll lay it flat upon the floor:

Master, get your ale vat,
And give us a couple of pints of that:

Mistress, get your pork ham,
And cut it large, and cut it round,
Be sure you don’t cut off your thumb:

We wish your cattle all may thrive,
To every one, a goodly calf:

We wish your mares, well fare they all,
To every one, a stag foal:

We wish your hens all well may thrive,
And every one lay three times five:

We wish your geese may all do well,
And every one, twelve at her heel:

God bless the mistress and her man,
Dish and table, pot and pan:

Here’s to the one with yellow hair,
She’s hiding underneath the stair:

Be you maids or be you none,
Although our time may not be long,

You’ll all be kissed ere we go home…


All’s well that end’s well in a Scottish song,  and this tune does end on a happy note.  The carolers confer New Year’s Day blessings upon the (perhaps reluctant) hostess and host, wishing them, their animals and their home much prosperity and good luck in the coming year.

Of course, no Scotsman worth his salt would think of leaving without first also paying honor to the lasses present.  In typical Scottish fashion, the men boastfully promise that ALL the women, old and young,  will get soundly kissed “ere we go home”, even if the time is short.

Quite the way to usher in a Happy New Year and, as they (most likely a Scotsman) say,  it’s not bragging if it’s true, aye?


To hear a sample of the tune and purchase the MP3 download, click HERE.

Nowell Sing We Clear  is a four musician group who have recorded several albums of traditional Celtic and British folk songs. An Orkney New Year’s Carol was originally released on their eponymous first album in 1977, then re-released on their 1989 Best Of Nowell Sing We Clear album. I don’t think their original album is still in print.

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Feb 22, 2013 by


Dwarfie Stane is a megalithic chambered tomb carved out of a titanic block of Devonian Old Red Sandstone that was deposited in the area by a glacier. It is the only chambered tomb in Orkney that is cut from stone rather than built from stones and may be the only example of a Neolithic rock-cut tomb in Britain. A stone slab originally blocked the entrance to the tomb on its west side, but now lies on the ground in front of it.

The name is derived from local legends which say the dwarf “Trollid” lived there, although, ironically, it has also been considered the work of giants. The tomb was popularized in Walter Scott’s novel The Pirate published in 1821.

There is a variety of 18th and 19th century graffiti on the rock-cut tomb. One is an inscription in Persian calligraphy that states “I have sat two nights and so learnt patience” left by Major William Mounsey, who camped here in 1850. Above the Persian is his own name written backwards in Latin.

The tomb is located in a  glaciated valley of peat between the settlements of Quoys and Rackwick on Hoy, an island in Orkney, Scotland.

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Jan 29, 2013 by

Selkies (also known as silkies or selchies) are mythological creatures in Faroese, Irish, Icelandic, and Scottish mythology. They can transform themselves from seals to humans. The legend apparently originated on the Orkney Islands, where selch or selk(ie) is the Scots word for seal (from Old English seolh).

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May 2, 2012 by

The Tomb of the Eagles This Neolithic chambered tomb is situated on a clifftop at Isbister, South Ronaldsay, in the Orkneys. The grave dates to c 3000 BC and contains the remains of perhaps 300 people buried over a period of 800 years. Beside the human remains, the talons and bones of around 14 white-tailed sea eagles were found. The bird remains date to c 2450-2000 BC. Once common on Orkney, white-tailed sea eagles became extinct in Britain in 1918, but in recent years a few of these magnificent birds have been reintroduced; they feed on fish, water birds and carrion. The Tomb of the Eagles was discovered by accident in 1958 by local farmer, Ronnie Simison. The site has now been excavated and Neolithic artefacts and stone tools dated.

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