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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The Ghosts of Duntulm Castle

Apr 20, 2014 by

Atop a rocky seaside cliff on the Trotternish peninsula of Skye sits the ruins of Duntulm Castle, former seat of the Clan MacDonald of Sleat.  It is thought that an Iron age broch or dun, known as Dun Dhaibhidh, perhaps used by Viking raiders along the coast, once stood on the site, but there is no conclusive evidence.   The castle was built in the 14th or 15th century, most likely by the MacLeod clan, but by the 17th century the area was in the control of the MacDonalds, led by Sir Donald MacDonald of Sleat, “Donald Gorm Og”, the 9th chief of the clan.   The MacDonalds maintained Duntulm until 1732, when Sir Alexander MacDonald built a new residence, Monkstadt House, about 5 miles away  and abandoned the castle.   Duntulm has lain in ruins ever since, an empty shell of its former self, and peopled only by the ghosts said to haunt the castle.

Locals say there are several ghosts at Duntulm, including the specter of Hugh MacDonald (a cousin of the laird, Donald Gorm) who was starved to death in the castle’s dungeon, allegedly for coveting the lands of the clan. The gruesome tale contends Hugh went mad from lack of food and water and tried to eat his own hands before he died. His screaming ghost now walks the castle, howling his pain to whoever can hear it.


Panoramic view from Duntulm Castle. Photo by John Lees

Panoramic view from Duntulm Castle. Photo by John Lees


Another ghost story says the castle is haunted by Donald Gorm, the laird who starved Hugh MacDonald; legend has it that Donald fights with the other ghosts, perhaps just to keep things lively in the spectral realm.



The saddest ghost story involves the nursemaid to the chieftain’s son, who apparently dropped the poor babe out of a castle window onto the rocks below, killing the child. The chieftain (the story isn’t clear as to which laird was the father) was so enraged, he had the nursemaid put into a small boat and set adrift in the cold Atlantic. This woman, along with another whose husband shunned her after she was disfigured, weep as they walk the former halls of Duntulm.

Local lore says it was the combined activities of all the restless ghosts that drove the MacDonald clan to abandon the castle forever in 1732. The clan laird did scavenge stones from the castle to build the new home, an admirable bit of recycling, but one that might give Duntulm’s lively spirits a free ride to the new place. Personally, if I had to flee my home because it was so haunted, I don’t think I’d take ANY of the stones with me, no matter how much money or time it saved.

Night falls on Duntulm Castle

Night falls on Duntulm Castle Photo by Bruce Stokes


Duntulm, perched high atop  basalt cliffs beside the turbulent waves of the Atlantic,  is almost constantly buffeted by strong winds. It could be that all those spooky sounds are merely wind whistling through the stones of the castle. This is Scotland, however, a land filled with myth, mystery and the lasting echoes of its own turbulent and deadly history.   Who can say for sure that the sad, mad and angry spirits of Duntulm aren’t still walking the ruins of their former lives?



Duntulm Site Record, Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland

Duntulm castle, by David Ross, Britain Express

Duntulm Castle, Wikipedia

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Vikings and Celts in Northern Scotland: The Govan Stones

Jan 29, 2014 by

The town of Govan (Baile a’ Ghobhainn in Scots Gaelic), now a part of Glasgow, Scotland, is an ancient city with origins dating back to at least the 5th century AD.   The site of the earliest known Christian church in the area,  Govan also was part of the Kingdom of Strathclyde, an early medieval kingdom of the Celtic people called the Britons in the Hen Ogledd, the Brittonic-speaking parts of what is now southern Scotland and northern England.   After the sack of Dumbarton Rock (the chief fortress of the kingdom) by a Viking army from Dublin in 870, Govan rose to prominence as the seat of the warrior chieftains, particularly Constantine, a 7th-century king of Strathclyde who founded a monastery at Govan, where he was buried in 876 AD.   One of the most outstanding legacies of this ancient Celtic kingdom is a collection of 31 early medieval sculptures known as the Govan Stones, one of which will be featured in a new Viking exhibition opening soon at the British Museum.

Tim Clarkson, historian and author of several books about ancient Scotland, including The Men of the North: the Britons of Southern Scotland has noted that

“The thirty-one carved stones at Govan Old Parish Church represent one of the largest collections of early medieval sculpture in Scotland. These remarkable examples of Celtic art were produced between the 9th and 11th centuries AD at a time when Govan was a focus of royal power and religious ritual in the kingdom of Strathclyde. The artwork includes crosses, interlace patterns and figures of humans and animals, while the shapes of the stones themselves range from simple rectangular slabs to the enigmatic hogbacks. Common stylistic features indicate that Govan was the centre of a distinctive local ‘school’ of stonecarving whose craftsmen drew inspiration from Pictland, Ireland and Anglo-Saxon England. The artistic traditions of the Govan School spread outward across Strathclyde and can still be seen today in Renfrewshire, North Ayrshire and other parts of the old kingdom.” source



The most unusual and rare sculptures found amongst the Govan stones are the five Hogback stones, huge sandstone blocks carved with interlacing Scandinavian patterns and shaped like Viking houses. These stones are found only in areas of northern Britain that were settled by the Vikings:

“My feeling is that this is meant to represent a lord’s hall or a chieftain’s hall. This type of monument, these hogback monuments, you only find them in Britain. You don’t get them in Scandinavia and you don’t get them before the Vikings come here. So somehow the Vikings come here and see they are in this world where people carve stones all the time and they think ‘let’s carve us a suitable stone that resonates with us’.” Stephen Driscoll, Professor of Historical Archaeology at Glasgow University.

The British Museum is opening a major new exhibit called Vikings: Life and Legend, which will include one of the giant Hogback stones from Govan,  the first time a hogback stone from Govan has ever left Scotland.  Read more about the exhibit and the role of this unusual stone in telling the story of Vikings in ancient Scotland in this story from the BBChere at The Scotsman,  and at the British Museum’s site here.

If you travel to Glasgow, you can see the Govan Stones (minus one hogback gravestone) at Old Govan Church.  Admission is free for the public, although you might need to call for an appointment time.   Learn more about the location and amazing history of these early Celtic sculptures by visiting the Govan Stones online site  here.  
Short video on the Govan stones:

Time Team video with loads of info on Govan Stones:

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