The most obvious feature on the island of Egilsay is the magnificent church of St Magnus, a unique survivor of a group of churches of a type marked by a single or double tower, that once stood in the islands. The church consists of a rectangular nave with a square ended chancel, and a round tower at the western end standing about 15 metres tall. It is thought that the tower may have originally stood 20 metres high before being partially dismantled for safety in the last century.


St Magnus Church
(C) Richard Welsby

Egilsay is chiefly famous for the Martyrdom of St Magnus in 1115. Magnus and his cousin Hakon succeeded to the Earldom of Orkney in 1103 and ruled peacefully and successfully for ten years. Eventually, Hakon became jealous of Magnus' popularity and a meeting was arrranged on Egilsay in April 1115 to settle matters between the men. It was agreed that each would take only two ships and an equal number of men to the island, but Hakon betrayed the agreement and arrived after Magnus with eight ships. The following morning Magnus refused to let his men defend him and was in the church praying when Hakon and his men came upon him. Magnus made three offers to Hakon, to leave for Jerusalem or Rome and never return, to go to Scotland and be taken into custody, or to be maimed and imprisoned. Hakon wanted to accept the last offer, but the chiefs refused to allow this and wanted Magnus dead. Hakon's standard bearer refused to kill Magnus, and so Hakon ordered his cook, Lifolf, to kill him. Before his death, Magnus forgave his murderers, and instructed the cook to 'hew him a mighty blow to the head that he was killed as a lord and not a thief'.


Photograph courtesy of Richard Welsby


Copyright Orknet 1996