The Song of St Magnus

‘So Magnus Erlendson, when he came up from the shore that Easter Monday, towards noon, to the stone in the centre of the island, saw against the sun eleven men and a boy and a man with an axe in his hand who was weeping … Then in the light of the new day, 16 April 1117, there was a blinding flash of metal in the sun’. – George Mackay Brown

Magnus‘The Orkney Isles, off the northern coast of Scotland, were ruled by the Viking king of Norway in the 13th century, and Magnus was the rightful heir to the Earldom of the archipelago. He was a bit of an odd one. Once he’d joined the King on a raiding party, but he’d stayed back on the ship and sung psalms. He’d refused to fight. It would be something of a theme in his short life. The King wasn’t sure about a ruler who wouldn’t fight, and so he also recognised the claim to the Earldom by Magnus’ cousin, and the two ruled jointly for some years. It worked pretty well, until some of their followers felt things would be better if their respective Earl had the job to himself. Things started to shape up for war. It seemed inevitable. Inevitable, that is, until Magnus insisted that he and his cousin try and talk their way to a peaceful solution. He suggested that they meet on a deserted island where the only building was an ancient stone chapel. They agreed to meet, each bringing only two ships of men, enough for protection but not enough for serious aggression. Magnus arrived the night before with his two ships. He spent the night in prayer.

In the light of the dawn, however, he saw his cousin’s treachery. Eight ships were entering the harbour. Too many for peace. Too many for truce. Not too many for war.

What would Magnus do? He could run, flee and gather his supporters on the mainland and fight this out. Or he could appeal to the King of Norway to deal with his scoundrel cousin. Instead, he turned quietly and went back into the small stone chapel to pray, as if the chapel were his Garden of Gethsemane. The war party surrounded the chapel and demanded Magnus surrender himself. He did, once the cousin had agreed to leave his men unharmed. The gathered chiefs demanded that the Earl’s duel in order to bring an end to the division that threatened to tear the islands apart. But the cousin wasn’t willing to give up his advantage, and Magnus refused to fight, so the cousin decided to execute Magnus. Magnus tried to talk his cousin out of this course of action so as to save his cousin’s soul. Lest we think that Magnus was acting out of self preservation, however, his alternative suggestion was that he be mercilessly tortured and disfigured, left alive but ruined, so as to protect his cousin from committing murder. But the cousin wanted no rival, however broken. He ordered his finest warrior to kill Magnus. The warrior refused. In fact, none of the cousin’s soldiers would meet his eyes or his demands. Finally, under the threat of death, the cousin’s poor cook, weeping and pleading for Magnus’ forgiveness was chosen for the task. Magnus spoke quietly and calmly to him, telling him the sin was not his, that Magnus held nothing against him, that he should do what he must do, and think no more of it.

So he did, and Magnus was killed. And there was peace, for there was no one left for the cousin to fight. But there was also grief, such grief among the people that Magnus’ body was shortly recovered and buried with honour. A church was built to mark the place and his death, the cross of Magnus became their flag, and the sacrifice of Magnus their pride and their shame.

Could this be what faith looks like, when the beloved ones of God  love peace more than themselves, that even the wicked moments of human cruelty might, in the mysterious grace of God, be made to tell the story of love which covers all and conquers all?’

These (lightly edited) words, and the wonderful song that follows, were penned and recorded recently by my dear friend Malcolm GordonThose, like myself, who consider themselves fans of the work of George Mackay Brown, from whose pen many of us first heard of Magnus, will enjoy this:

The Song of St MagnusThe northern miles
Hold the Orkney Isles
Lands of windswept vale.
And from this place
Comes a tale of grace
Of love amidst betrayal.

Magnus ruled
With his brother too
And peace shone out like dawn.
But rumours spread
That blood would be shed
As battle lines were drawn.

Before we fight
Let’s see if we might
Find ways to live together.
We’ll each bring two boats
See if peace might float
Even in this stormy weather.

For he went to war
But he would not fight
Yet peace he won undying,
For his hands were tied
But his heart on fire
Saint Magnus Earl of Orkney Isles.

Eight ships appeared
And the trick he feared
This truce became betrayal.
Would he run away?
No, he stayed to pray
To find the strength to fail.

‘One chief we’ll have’,
The brother said,
‘And that chief will be me’.
But he could not find
Someone of his kind
To kill this saint to-be.

For he went to war
But he would not fight
Yet peace he won undying,
For his hands were tied
But his heart on fire
Saint Magnus Earl of Orkney Isles.

No soldier would
And the brother stood
Alone with death’s desire.
But he found his one
And the sin was done
For fear of him, a murder.

But Magnus swore
This sin is not yours
Your tears will count for something,
So do this deed
And find God’s peace
I’ll hold against you nothing.

For he went to war
But he would not fight
Yet peace he won undying,
For his hands were tied
But his heart on fire
Saint Magnus Earl of Orkney Isles.

The blow fell sharp
And the saint fell hard
Truce was bought with his blood.
The people wept
But this peace they kept
They kept the peace of Magnus;
Yes, they kept the peace of Magnus.

For he went to war
But he would not fight
Yet peace he won undying,
For his hands were tied
But his heart on fire
Saint Magnus Earl of Orkney Isles.

Martyrdom of St Magnus


You can access more of Malcolm’s music here and here.

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