Orkney Day (Feast Day of Saint Magnus of Orkney) Date in the current year: April 16, 2024

Orkney Day (Feast Day of Saint Magnus of Orkney) In some historic counties in the United Kingdom, county days celebrating their cultural heritage traditionally coincide with the feast days of their respective patron saints. For example, Orkney Day is celebrated on the same day as the feast day of Saint Magnus.

Orkney, also referred to as the Orkney Islands, is an archipelago in the North Atlantic, situated off the north coast of mainland Scotland. It is a council area of Scotland and a historic county (shire). Before being absorbed by Scotland, Orkney and the neighboring Shetland Islands were under Norwegian rule.

Saint Magnus Erlendsson, also known as Saint Magnus of Orkney or Magnus the Martyr, was one of the most famous rulers of Norwegian Orkney. The story of his life is told in three Norse sagas: the “History of the Earls of Orkney” (Orkneyinga saga), the “Longer Saga of Magnus” (Magnús saga lengri) and the “Shorter Saga of Magnus” (Magnús saga skemmri).

Magnus was the eldest son of Erlend Thorfinnsson, Earl of Orkney who ruled together with his brother Paul. The brothers originally had a good relationship until their sons grew up and became rivals. Both Haakon Paulsson and Aerling Erlendsson were bright, but arrogant young men who wanted to be seen as the foremost amongst their kin. Magnus, however, was a gentle and pious young man who stayed away from family conflicts.

When Paul and Erlend failed to mediate a reconciliation between Haakong and Aerling, King Magnus Barefoot of Norway took possession of Orkney and installed his 8-year-old son Sigurd as the nominal earl. King Magnus exiled Paul and Erlend and took their sons, including Magnus Erlendsson, as hostages. Magnus refused to participate in the king’s raids and eventually fled and took refuge in Scotland.

After Magnus Barefoot’s death in 1103, his son returned to Norway, and Haakon Paulsson became Earl of Orkney (his cousin and rival Aerling Erlendsson had died in battle by then). This prompted Magnus Erlendsson to return to Orkney and dispute the succession with his cousin with the help from King Eystein Magnusson of Norway, who granted him the earldom of Orkney.

The cousins ruled Orkney jointly and amicably for about a decade, but eventually their followers fell out. During a reconciliation attempt, Haakon treacherously took Magnus hostage and executed him at the insistence of chieftans who opposed joint rule. The martyrdom of Magnus took place on April 16; the exact year of his death is unclear, but the 900th anniversary of his martyrdom was commemorated in 2017.

Magnus Erlendsson was canonized in 1136 by the bishop of Orkney. Bishop William the Old arranged for the saint’s relics to be moved to Kirkwall, where a new cathedral was built in honor of Saint Magnus. The feast day of Saint Magnus Erlendsson is now celebrated as Orkney Day.

In addition to the celebration of Saint Magnus Day, Orkney hosts the annual St Magnus International Festival every June. It is a week-long arts festival that encompasses music, dance, drama, literature, and the visual arts.

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