Orkney Day is on the 16th April – the feast day of Saint Magnus,
one time Earl of Orkney whose attributes banner of a red offset cross on yellow
was previously used as the county flag and was inspiration for the current one.
The son of Erlend Thorfinsson, joint Earl of Orkney, Magnus was taken hostage by the King of Norway, who seized possession of the archipelago
for himself. The king then raided along the west coast of Scotland and attacked Anglesey. Professing religious convictions. Magnus refused to participate in the raid and is reported to have sung psalms on board ship!
The king having met his death Magnus returned to Orkney in 1105 and disputed the lordship with his cousin Haakon. He sought the intervention of King Eystein I of Norway, who granted him the earldom of Orkney and he ruled jointly and amicably with his cousin Haakon until 1114. The amicable arrangement did not last however and the followers of the two cousins determined that there should be only one ruler; at an arranged meeting between the two sides, Magnus was captured. Offering to go into exile or prison, an assembly of chieftains, insisted that one earl must die and his cousin Haakon obliged his cook to kill Magnus by striking him on the head with an axe,
Magnus having first prayed for the souls of his executioners.
The sagas recount that the martyrdom occurred after Easter, on 16 April and it is estimated that this was probably in 1117. Magnus was first buried on the spot where he died which rocky area, legend holds, miraculously became a green field! His mother Thora, later asked Haakon to allow her to bury him in a church and his remains were interred at Christchurch at Birsay.
Tales of miracles began to be associated with Magnus, which “William the Old”, Bishop of Orkney, warned against repeating but was himself said to have been struck blind at his church, subsequently regaining his sight after praying at Magnus’s grave! In 1136 he sanctified the murdered Earl Magnus, making him Saint Magnus and it is believed that Saint Magnus Church in Egilsay,
was constructed shortly afterwards, at or near the supposed site of the murder.
Magnus’s nephew, laying claim to the Earldom of Orkney, was advised by his father to promise the islanders to “build a stone minster at Kirkwall” in memory of his uncle, the “Holy Earl”, and this became St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall
The saint’s bones were subsequently transferred to the cathedral.
On 31st March 1919, a box containing bones, including a damaged skull, was discovered in a hidden cavity in a column, during restoration work. These are believed to be the bones of the murdered saint. They were replaced in the pillar in 1926, with the site marked with a cross.