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Swein Asleifsson was not a person with whom anyone would wish to fall out. He punched above his weight. He literally put the fear of death into his nominal overlords, the Earls of Orkney. Unlike Earls Magnus and Rognvald, who also lived in the 12th Century, Swein was never a candidate for sainthood.

We learn virtually all we know of Swein from the Orkneyinga Saga, written around 1200 by an unknown Icelandic scribe. The Saga described Swein as being, among his peers, “the greatest man in the Western Lands, either in olden times or present day”.

The Sagas are long on action and short on analysis of personal traits and utterances, however, so to a great extent any assessment of Swein must be by deduction from his actions.

Swein was the son of Olaf, a Viking Chief, and his wife, Asleif. He was born about 1116 in Caithness some three centuries after, in the words of Edinburgh University lecturer Bill Ritchie, ‘the Vikings started to create a stushie all over Europe’.

Swein displayed all of the characteristics expected of a Viking. He was acquisitive, ruthless and daring and he died a Viking death, with his sword in his hand.

He had all of the Viking characteristics to excess so in a sense he was not typical, he was over the top. That is why the distinguished Orcadian writer Eric Linklater described him as ‘The Ultimate Viking’. He has also been described as ‘The Last Great Viking’.

Swein is significant as examination of his life sheds light on the life of leading Vikings based in the North of Scotland in the 12th Century - on their exploits, power struggles, politics and shifting relationships.

Swein was so charismatic and influential that he even seemed to be able to swan into the presence of the Kings of Scotland wherever they happened to be at the time and was accepted by them as a friend.

In 1135 Swein’s father was burned to death by Olvir Rosta, whose grandmother Frakork was one of Olaf's greatest enemies.

Around this time Earl Paul dominated in Orkney while Earl Rognvald resided in Shetland.

In 1136 Swein captured Earl Paul in Orkney and took him to Perthshire, from where Paul never returned. Some two years later Swein showed his influence by being involved in reaching an agreement whereby Harald, son of Earl Maddad, would share Orkney with Rognvald.

Swein was by then one of the most powerful men in the North, as he had inherited the estates of his father and his late brother, Valthiof. He had a stronghold at Lambaborg Castle, thought to have been at Freswick in Caithness. He also had a castle on Gairsay in Orkney.

About four years after his father’s death, Swein again demonstrated his influence by getting ships and men from Earl Rognvald, which enabled him to wreak vengeance by killing Frakork and causing Olvir to flee.

Swein’s exploits took him the length and breadth of Britain. In 1140 he received a message from Holbodi in the Hebrides asking him to help as Hold from Wales had attacked him. Swein and Holbodi plundered Wales, unsuccessfully besieging Hold on the Island of Lundy in the Bristol Channel.

After going to the Isle of Man, Swein married Ingirid, widow of a local chieftain, and settled for a period. By the spring of 1141 Holbodi had made a secret pact with Hold and unsuccessfully attacked Swein in the Isle of Man. Swein then moved to Lewis in the Hebrides until he returned to Gairsay in 1143.

Swein subsequently procured five ships from Earl Rognvald and caused Holbodi, by now back in the Hebrides, to flee.

After their return to Caithness Thorbiorn Klerk, one of Swein’s commanders, told Earl Rognvald that Swein had deprived his commanders of some of the spoils of raids in the Hebrides. Rather than make an enemy of Swein, Rognvald compensated them for Swein's cheating.

During Swein’s absence his lieutenant Margad had treated the people of Caithness roughly. They complained to Hroald, a friend of Rognvald’s, in Wick. Shortly afterwards Margad killed Hroald and several followers. Swein and Margad then ransacked Caithness.

In response Earl Rognvald besieged Lambaborg but Swein and Margad made a daring escape via high cliffs. They then journeyed to Duffus in Morayshire where they met some Orkneymen in a trading vessel. From there they all sailed south to the Isle of May where they plundered a monastery.

Swein then visited David I, King of the Scots, in Edinburgh. He was well received and the King even compensated a number of people who had been robbed by the Viking.

Swein persuaded the King to facilitate his reconciliation with Earl Rognvald and so was able to return to his estates. One can imagine the King preempting the excuse which British Prime Minister Tony Blair used to justify his deputy’s unruly behaviour – “It’s just Swein being Swein”.

Many years later, about 1154, Swein captured two vessels of Earl Harald, who was living in Wick at the time. Swein then sailed to Aberdeen where he visited King Malcolm and again was well received.

On returning to Orkney, Swein arranged a truce with his enemy Earl Erlend. Erlend reported that the King of Norway wanted the part of Orkney held by Earl Harald. After a skirmish with Swein and Erlend near Stromness, Harald agreed to give Erlend his share of Orkney and returned to Caithness.

Some time later Swein and Erlend sailed to Berwick where they seized a vessel with a valuable cargo. Afterwards Swein put into the Island of May and sent men to Edinburgh to tell the King of Scots about his plunder. The King had heard that Swein had been captured and was planning to pay a ransom for his release.

When Swein and Erlend returned to Orkney, Earls Rognvald and Erlend agreed that each should have half of Orkney but Rognvald later reneged on the agreement and aligned himself with Earl Harald.

Swein was with Earl Erlend in South Ronaldsay when Rognvald and Harald landed with large forces. Swein and Erlend sailed to Caithness leaving word that they intended to escape to the Hebrides. They set off but cunningly exploited a change in wind direction and headed back to Orkney where, although heavily outnumbered, they killed many of Rognald’s and Harald’s men, although the Earls escaped.

About 1156, when Swein was absent, Rognald and Harald attacked and killed Earl Erlend and most of his men. Swein and his men then sailed to Rousay where he killed Erlend (brother-in-law of Thorfinn) after overhearing him boasting of how he had killed Earl Erlend.

Swein, Rognvald and Harald then negotiated a peace, which was immediately broken by Harald occupying Swein’s estate at Gairsay. Swein’s utter ruthlessness was demonstrated by him having to be dissuaded from burning down his own house with his wife and daughter inside, only because he was not certain that Harald was there at the time.

When later pursued by Harald, Swein cunningly hauled his boat inside a cave and waited. By the time Harald reached the cave the mouth was flooded and there was no sign of Swein. Swein then faked a shipwreck to make Harald think he had drowned.

Some time later, however, Swein finally made peace with Earls Rognvald and Harald.

Every summer Earls Rognvald and Harald visited Caithness to hunt reindeer. About 1158 Thorbiorn Klerk made a surprise fatal attack on Rognvald at Halkirk after which Harald took sole possession of the islands. Swein and his wife Ingirid fostered Harald’s son Hakon when he was very young. When Hakon grew up, Swein took him on all his raids.

Each spring Swein would sow his crops and then go off on a raid with his ships, returning after midsummer. He called this raid his "spring viking". After the harvest was gathered he went off on another raid, his “autumn viking”. These raids took him as far south as the Scilly Isles.

In winter Swein would host much feasting and drinking and would perhaps have applied his cunning to chess or other popular board games requiring skill and strategy.

Swein finally decided about 1171 that he was going to hang up his sword. He wanted to end on a high note so he sailed from Orkney to Dublin and captured the city. Swein made the fatal mistake, however, of returning with his crew to their ships for the night. When they returned to Dublin the next day they fell into pits which had been dug by the citizens overnight and many were slain after a valiant fight, Swein being the last to die.

So for once Swein was outfoxed and he paid for it with his life. He had survived to the relatively old age of 55 and probably wouldn’t have enjoyed retirement anyway.

We look back in horror today at some of his exploits but he was very much a man of his time who did appear to have certain standards in relation, for example, to keeping his word.

During his turbulent life Swein gained the respect of Kings, Earls and commoners but it is difficult to see how he made a worthwhile contribution to Scottish life, lasting or otherwise. There are not even obvious traces remaining of his two castles.

Swein’s grandson Gunni is thought to have been the progenitor of the Gunn clan, whose heartland is in Caithness. In the 1920’s Swein’s much diluted blood ran in the veins of his Caithnessian descendant Neil M. Gunn as he became a world famous author of imaginative novels about life in the Highlands, a far cry from his philistine ancestor.

Most Caithnessians know that their county was once part of the Viking empire but it is not clear how many of them know much about Swein Asleifsson, a fellow Caithnessian and the ‘Ultimate Viking’. The author certainly didn’t before undertaking this project!

1. “SWEIN ASLEIFSON – A Northern Pirate”. Robert P. Gunn. Whittles Publishing, 1990.
2. “THE ULTIMATE VIKING”. Eric Linklater. MacMillan & Co., 1955.
3. “HISTORY OF CAITHNESS”. James T. Calder. William Rae, 1887.
4. “THE ORKNEYINGA SAGA”. Translated from the Icelandic by Jon. A. Hjaltalin and Gilbert Goudie, Edited by Joseph Anderson. Mercat Press, 1999 from a facsimile of the text of the 1873 edition published by Edmonston and Douglas.
5. ORKNEYJAR.COM web site.
6. CAITHNESS.ORG web site.

David J Mackay,
Comiston House (East Wing),
62 Camus Avenue,
Edinburgh EH10 6QX
Tel. 0131 445 7008
E-mail :- davemackay@bigfoot.com

Edinburgh University,
Office of Lifelong Learning,
Scottish History Year 1 / Term 1

21st January, 2002