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Gairsay Island and the Orkneyinga Saga

The small island of Gairsay in the Orkney Islands features prominently in the Orkneyinga Saga as the home of famed ‘Viking’ chieftain Svein Asleifsson .  Made infamous in the Orkneyinga Saga, spent his life on Gairsay, a small island (0.93 sq mi) located roughly in the middle of the archipelago.  Due to the fact that he lived nearly a century after the end of the Viking period, his lifestyle was that of a Viking from a previous age.  The saga records him as…

“This was how Svein used to live. Winter he would spend at home on Gairsay, where he entertained some eighty men at his own expense. His drinking-hall was so big, there was nothing in Orkney to compare with it. In the spring he had more than enough to occupy him, with a great deal of seed to sow which he saw to carefully himself. Then when that job was done, he would go off plundering in the Hebrides and in Ireland on what he called his ‘spring trip’, then back home just after mid-summer, where he stayed till the cornfields had been reaped and the grain was safely in. After that he would go off raiding again, and never came back till the first month of winter was ended. This he used to call his ‘autumn-trip’” (Orkneyinga Saga, ch. 105, reproduced from Barrett, 2005).

Svein’s wealth and power brought him to the attention of the Earl of Orkney, the most powerful man in the islands (Palsson et al. 1978).  It is recorded that:

“After he had been home for a short while

[Svein] invited Earl Harld to a feat, welcoming him with a magnificent banquet at which people had plenty to say about Svein’s high style of life.

‘I’d like you to stop your raiding, Svein,’ said the Earl. ‘It’s always better to be safe back home, and you know well enough that you’re only able ot keep yourself and your men on what you steal. Most troublemakers are doomed to be killed unless they stop of their own free will.’

Svein looked at the Earl and there was a smile on his face.

‘Fine and friendly words, my lord,’ he said. ‘I’ll take your excellent advice, though there are people who might say you yourself are hardly the most peaceful of men.’

‘I’m responsible for my own actions,’ said the Earl, ‘but I must say what I think.’

‘I’m sure you’ve the very best of intentions, sire,’ said Sveing, ‘so this is the way it’s going to be: I’ll give up raiding. I’m getting on in years and not up to all the hardships of war, but I’m going on ne more trip in the autumn and I want it to be as glorious as my spring-trip. When that’s over, I’ll give up raiding.’

‘Hard to tell which comes first, old fellow,’ said the Earl, ‘death or glory’” (Orkneyinga Saga,  ch. 105, reproduced from Barrett, 2005).

Svein died shortly thereafter, in that last raiding trip that he mentioned to the earl.  Upon his death, the saga records that “The summer after his death, [his sons] set up partition walls in the great drinking hall he had built on Gairsay. (Ch. 108)”  Svein was one of the last of his type – the raiding Viking – in many sense he was an anomaly of a past age.  With his death, there was no need for the great hall to house his many fellow Vikings who traveled with him.  It was far more expedient for his sons to build walls and use the space for something more useful (Palsson 1978).

Since Svein’s time, the island has had very limited occupation.   Laingskaill House was built near the presumed site of Svien’s hall in the 17th century.  19th century census records indicate a population fluctuating between 40 and 70 people throughout that century, which was the highest on record in the history of the island.  It decreased throughout the century until the population stabilized around 3 people, which it is currently at today.

The Orkneyinga Saga in Context

The late 12th century AD saw a generation of Icelandic writers dedicated to recording both the history of their country and of their original homeland – Norway. Not all of their works have survived, but those that have show many similarities. As with the Orkneyinga Saga, they are often texts that tell the story of a country through an exploration of the lives and deeds of their nation’s leaders over a period of time. The stories tend to focus on not on the politics of the time, but rather on the personality and deeds of the leader whose life is being written about. In particular, the Orkneyinga Saga is similar in structure to the Knytlinga Saga (Hisory of the Kings of Denmark) and the Heimskringla (History of the Kings of Norway) (Palsson 1978). Even in the titles of these historical texts can one see the focus on the people rather than the politics of the place in question.

The Orkneyinga Saga: It’s purpose and accuracy

The Orkneyinga Saga, written around 1230 AD by an unknown individual in Iceland, is the only medieval text in written specifically about Norse and Viking history in the Orkney Islands (Palsson et al. 1978; Anderson 1873).  It tells the story of the earls of Orkney and other famous Vikings, focusing primarily on their character and deeds (Anderson 1873).  What is essentially a history text was written several hundred years after the event occurred in order “to explore the history of a country through its rulers” (Palsson et al. 1978).  Due to the amount of text dedicated to northern Scotland (that is, not Orkney) and the focus on the earls, the possible earlier name of the saga, Jarla Saga (Earl’s Saga)may be a more accurate title (Cowan 1973).

Much of the history that the saga relates is hundreds of years old, so where did the saga-writer get the information and how accurate is it?  In some cases, contemporary skalds would share historical songs and oral recitations that had been passed down for generations.  The saga-writer then expounded upon these stories (Anderson 1973).

With this in mind, there are at several areas in which accuracy of the historical account is at risk, both in terms of production of the story, transfer of the story orally and eventually to writing, and in interpretation.

    • (1) The original skald who composed the story after of the deed was accomplished may have elaborated or changed elements for dramatic style.
    • (2) There may have been changes to the story during the transition of the account from skald to skald over the generations.
    • (3) The extent of elaboration provided by the writer of the Orkneyinga Saga, as well as the creators’ biases, whether they be known or unknown.
    • (4) Preconceived notions about Scandinavians (“Vikings”, in particular) on the part of the reader, which influences the interpretation of the source (Cowan 1973).  This could include the translation into other languages.

(1) Similar to other Icelandic sagas, the Orkneyinga Saga was composed with a noticeable sense of the “dramatic movement” of the narrative.  Because of this and the subject matter, the final text that the saga writer created contains two important components of a good saga: a story that illustrates the social and historical continuity of a place that is made memorable by “inventive narrative skill” (Palsson 1978).

Joseph Anderson, whose translation of the Saga was published in 1873, provides an interesting glimpse into the construction of the oral histories of the Scandinavians and what this means for their accuracy:

“When great events and mighty deeds were preserved for posterity by oral recitation alone, it was necessary that the memory should be enabled to retain its hold of the elements of the story by some extraneous artistic aid, and therefore they were welded by thewordsmith’s rhymes into a compact and homogenous “lay”. Thus, worked into the poetical setting (as the jeweler mounts his gems to enhance their value and ensure their preservation), they passed as heirlooms from generation to generation, floating on the oral tradition of the people” (Anderson 1873).

Accuracy of the skalds who originally composed the oral recitations was a concern of saga writers. Anderson records the words of famed Icelandic saga-writer Snorri Sturluson:

““These songs,” he says, “which were sung in the presence of kings and chiefs, or of their sons, are the materials of our history; what they tell of their deeds and battles we take for truth; for though the skalds did no doubt praise those in whose presence they stood, yet no one would dare to relate to a chief what he and those who heard it knew to be wholly imaginary or false, as that would not be praise but mockery.””

In order to write the Orkneyinga Saga, the author relied upon several types of sources, including poetry, oral tradition, and written material (Palsson 1978).

(3) As for the saga-writers’ biases that may have influenced the construction of the saga, it should be kept into account that the writer recorded the history several hundred years after it occurred.  It was done at a time when changes in law and culture were occurring.  As Cowen states “However much of the saga originated in Orkney, the version which now exists was put together in Iceland, by an Icelander who detected in medieval Orkney a chronicle of internal strife and external aggression similar to that which threatened his own country in the Age of the Sturlings” (Cowan 1973).

(4) In terms of misinterpreting the saga due to preconceived and strongly held misconceptions about Vikings, according to a paper by Edward J. Cohen, these issues can most strongly be seen in the sections about Earl Rognvald and Sweyn Asliefsson.  As Sweyn Asliefsson is the subject of part of this survey, it will be particularly important to keep this in mind.  Cohen calls Sweyn “a man persistently romanticized by commentators as one who epitomizes the Viking way of life.  Sweyn is an anachronism, his values decadent, in a twelfth century context” (Cowan 1973).


Click here to learn about the Orkneyinga Saga in context

HMAS Pallas

HMS Pallas 

As built: 135ft ½ in, 112ft 8½in x 36ft ¼in x 12ft 6in. 777 81/94 bm

Draught: 9ft 8in / 14ft 5in

Ord: 9th Dec 1790.   K: May 1792.   L: 19th Dec 1793.   Completed fitting: 5th May 1794

First cost: £20,455 including fitting

Men: 257 (254 from 1796).

GunsUD: 26 x 18pdrs; QD: 4 x 6pdrs + 4 x 32pdr carronades;  Fc: 2 x 6pdrs + 2 x 32pdr carronades.

(Winfield 2005)

 HMS Pallas was one of three ships ordered on 9th December 1790 to John Henslow’s first frigate design, the others being HMS Stag and HMS Unicorn. Originally to be built at Portsmouth, the order was transferred to Woolwich Dockyard in July 1791 and her keel was laid in May 1792. She was launched on 19th December 1793 and commissioned in January 1794 under The Hon. Capt. Henry Curzon.

On 16th June 1795, Pallas was one of the ships involved in Cornwallis’s Retreat. Over the next two years, she saw service in the Mediterranean, capturing the 16 gun privateer Santa Jose y Nuestra Senora de Begoyna on 16th July 1795 (Winfield 2005)

On Tuesday 3rd April 1798, HMS Pallas put into Plymouth Sound. Captain Curzon was due to sit at Court Martial hearings to be held in Cawsand Bay that week and spent part of the day officiating at one.  He returned to the Pallas in the afternoon and left directions for the security of the ship before apparently leaving once more. The weather was squally with fresh south-westerly gales and at 21:00, Pallas’s position was shifted to ensure a suitable berth.  Her position was recorded as lying in 6 ½ fathoms (an hour and a half after high water), being due west of Whithy Hedge, with Drakes Island to the north and an open view of The Tower on Devil’s Point.

That evening the Master and William Holland, the 1st Lieutenant, noted that the best bower anchor appeared to be slack, an observation also made by the 3rd Lieutenant at about 22:30. As the wind had dropped and the small anchor was holding, the decision was made to heave it to early the next day.

By morning the south-westerly winds were strengthening and the tide was rising. The order was given to heave the slack bower anchor in and it became clear that the shank of the anchor had broken. The bower cable was cut and attached to the spare anchor.  Meanwhile, the small anchor continued to take the full strain of the ship. The cutter was launched in order to range the spare cable and, as the weather continued to worsen, orders were given for the top masts to be struck and the top gallant masts to be brought down on deck. At 08:30 it was “blowing very stormy” (Court Martial Minutes) and the tide was on the turn. Before the spare anchor could be dropped, the small anchor cable parted and the ship began to drive.  She drove eastwards for “some considerable distance” (Court Martial Minutes) before the spare and sheet anchors brought her up in 4 ½ fathoms, a position that would see her strike at low water. There Pallas rode for about twenty minutes before slowly continuing to move eastwards into even shallower waters.

The order was given to cut down the masts in an attempt to bring the ship up. In the course of this action, a seaman named Peter Charlock was killed. The Signal of Distress and In Want of Assistance was made by firing the fore guns. HMS Canada, moored in the Hamoze, responded to the signal by sending a boat with six seamen and an officer.  As they left the Hamoze, the conditions were so extreme that they were forced to turn back, in the course of which, their boat over-turned and acting Lieutenant Massey and three of the seamen were drowned. The other seamen were picked up by a gunboat which was moored in the vicinity. Other ships noted Pallas’s plight but were unable to send assistance due to the weather conditions.

After the masts were cut, Pallas brought up for a while but before long, the spare anchor cable had parted and the ship came broadside to the shore and struck in 2 ½ fathoms. The sheet anchor cable also parted and at about 10:00, Pallas was driven onto the shore with her bow seawards. Over the next hour, her bow was gradually forced around to face the shore by the constant buffeting of the surf; it was so severe that those on land feared the whole crew would be lost. As the tide ebbed, the ship heeled over towards the shore, offering some protection to the crew and preventing too much water entering the ship. At some point, the cutter was launched with Mr Bissell, the 3rd Lieutenant and five seaman and they managed to bring a hawser to shore. By 12:00, the crew were able to leave the ship.

The gale abated at about 13:00. With low water at about 14:00, there was a window of opportunity for the removal of all personal effects and most of the stores. The ship remained on the rocks, badly broken up. Over the next few days, the last stores were apparently removed and the copper sheeting was stripped off by shipwrights. It was suggested that the government would sell off what was left but whether the remains of the broken vessel were ever salvaged or whether they were left to break up and disperse in the vicinity of the wrecking remains unclear.

As a matter of course, Court Martial proceedings were begun to enquire into the circumstances of the loss of the ship and the conduct of the Captain, officers and crew. The immediate consequence of this was that Captain Curzon was deemed ineligible to sit at the Court Martial of a seaman by name of W Kerr, which was due to take place on Friday 6th April 1798.

A Court Martial for the loss of HMS Pallas took place on HMS Cambridge on Saturday 26th May 1798. HMS Cambridge under her captain, Richard Boger, had been moored in the Hamoze on the day of Pallas’s wrecking and her own records refer to the dreadful weather conditions which prevented Cambridge from sending assistance. The court convened at 09:00 and by noon, the Captain, officers and crew had been fully acquitted.  The wrecking was ascribed to, “a violent gale of wind, one of her anchors breaking and three cables parting” (Court Martial Minutes).

Primary References:

Minutes of the proceedings of a Court Martial to try the Hon. Henry Curzon, the officers and company for the loss of the Pallas, 26th May 1798, National Archives ref: ADM1/5344

Ship’s Log for HMS Boston, National Archives ref: ADM51/1224

Ship’s Log for HMS Calypso, National Archives ref: ADM51/1241

Ship’s Log for HMS Cambridge, National Archives ref: ADM51/1231

Ship’s Log for HMS Canada, National Archives ref: ADM51/1224

Ship’s Log for HMS Pallas, National Archives ref: ADM51/1217

Ship’s Log for HMS Phoebe, National Archives ref: ADM51/1237

Secondary References:

Gossett, W.P., 1986, Lost Ships of the Royal Navy 1793-1900, Mansell, London

Grocott, T., 1997, Shipwrecks of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Eras, Chatham Publishing, London

Winfield, R., 2005, British Warships in the Age of Sail 1793 – 1817: Design, Construction, Careers and Fates, Chatham Publishing, London

Volunteer Projects

ProMare welcomes contributions of everyone interested in help advancing our projects.  Volunteers often join us during our fieldwork, and work in conjunction with ProMare staff members. Many contributors lead their independent projects under the umbrella of ProMare mission, researching, surveying and studying sites that they choose or are assigned by ProMare staff scientists. ProMare coordinates the volunteer projects and provides feedback when needed, as well as helping with the dissemination of the project results.

Tresco Channel

The presence of medieval pottery in Tresco Channel has been known for some time. In 2011 a local diver (Dave McBride) recovered a quantity of medieval pottery from around yacht moorings in the channel and brought it to the attention of CISMAS. This pottery was of French origin and dated to 1350-1450 AD. Later that year a combined CISMAS and ProMare undertook a survey of the seabed in this area and recovered over 250 sherds of pottery. This again was mainly French (Saintonge) and was also dated 1350-1450 AD. The pottery distribution was mapped and shows a distinct concentration around two of the mooring buoys.

It seems likely that this pottery is being removed from the seabed sediments by the action of the mooring chains scouring the surface of the seabed. The narrow date range, restricted origin and confined geographical location of this pottery suggest a single event leading to its deposition. The most likely event would seem to be a medieval shipwreck.

Given the fourteenth-century date assigned to the pottery recovered, any associated wreck material would be of great importance to our understanding of maritime Scilly, and any surviving hull structure would be of national importance given the scarcity of wrecks of this period in the UK.
This project will undertake small exploratory excavations in the areas scoured by the two mooring chains. The aim is to establish the source of the pottery and to determine if there is any surviving associated wreck structure.

The further investigation of the site will take place 28 September – 12 October 2013 – This stage of the project will be funded by English Heritage


If you would like to know more the 2011 Survey Report can be downloaded here:  Tresco_Channel_2011_Final_Report

HMS Whiting


Padstow Harbour, Cornwall

On the 15th September 1816, the 12 gun Baltimore pilot schooner HMS Whiting set a course to enter Padstow harbour with Lieutenant Jackson R.N in command. In bad weather and without a pilot on board she ran into the infamous Doom Bar that guards the entrance to the harbour. All attempts to refloat the ship failed and she was abandoned as a wreck, later to be covered by the deep sands of the Bar. This is the story of the American schooner Arrow that was captured by the Royal Navy and became HMS Whiting, her sinking, and the joint USA-UK project set up to search for the remains of the ship

The project was the inspiration of Michael P. Higgins, Camden County (Georgia) War of 1812 Historical Commission, as a way to mark the bicentennial of the War of 1812.  The project was taken up by the Nautical Archaeology Society (NAS) who approached ProMare for help.

Research was undertaken in the US and the UK into the history of the pilot schooner Arrow, which subsequently became HMS Whiting when she was captured by the Royal Navy in 1812.  The research provided a detailed account of the fate of Whiting and some clues about her location on the Doom Bar.  A search for the remains of the ship was planned usingh the research along with historical charts of the area and more information provided by the residents of Padstow in Cornwall.  The geophysical survey using side scan sonar and magnetometer found six significant targets in the area with one only 25m from the estimated position of the wreck.  Four of the targets were investigated by a dive team of volunteers from the Nautical Archaeology Society but for three of them, including the most promising target, all that was found was flat, bare sand as the targets were buried.  The fourth and largets target was found to be a small wooden wreck approximately 18m long, but as the frames were made of pine this could not have been the Whiting.  The shifting sands of the Doom Bar may once again reveal what lies under the seabed in the area of the three targets so this is not the end of this particular story.

The Whiting Project is funded by ProMare UK and the Nautical Archaeology Society and supported by Geosa Ltd., CISMAS and the Padstow Museum.

Liberty 70


Whitsand Bay, Plymouth, England

March 2015 is the 70th anniversary of the sinking of the US Liberty ship James Eagan Layne. The ship was beached near Plymouth, England, in March 1945 after being torpedoed by a U-boat.  To celebrate the anniversary the Liberty 70 Project aims to document all aspects of the life of this vessel – wartime transport, shipwreck, commercial salvage job, the classic UK wreck dive and artificial reef.

The Liberty 70 Project will record the history of the ship from the time the keel was laid to the present day.  The story includes the part she played in the Battle of the Atlantic, her sinking, beaching and early attempts at salvage.  The results of this history project will be published in a book and a web site about the James Eagan Layne, with other events planned for the anniversary itself. The work is being done by a mixed team of amateurs and professionals as a community archaeology and history project so offers of help are welcome.

The Liberty ship James Eagan Layne was launched at the Delta Shipbuilding Company’s yard in New Orleans on 2nd December 1944. By the beginning of March 1945 she had crossed the Atlantic, eventually joining the convoy BTC-103 on heading up the English Channel.  The final destination for the James Eagan Layne was Ghent in Belgium where she would deliver 4,500 tons of equipment for General Patton’s third army.  On 21st March the convoy was sighted off Plymouth by the U-boat U-399, which then fired a torpedo into the ship on her starboard side.  The ship stayed afloat and was towed toward Plymouth and finally beached in Whitsand Bay where she was abandoned and remains to this day.

The James Eagan Layne was first visited by recreational divers in the early 1950’s when the sport of SCUBA diving started in the UK. The Eagan Layne soon became ‘the’ iconic UK wreck dive as it was largely intact and easily accessible, introducing thousands of divers to wreck diving and is now an intrinsic part of the history of the sport. Over time the wreck has become a noted artificial reef in an otherwise featureless seabed and provides a valuable habitat for marine life.

The Liberty 70 Project is organised by ProMare UK and the Nautical Archaeology Society.

Visit the Liberty 70 Site

SHIPS Project

Shipwrecks and History in Plymouth Sound

Plymouth, England

Plymouth in Devon has a long and varied maritime history that stretches back to the arrival of the first humans in the south-west of England.  The evidence of this can be seen on land in its buildings, monuments, docks and harbours but there is also much to be found on the shoreline and underwater.  The waters of Plymouth Sound and the adjoining rivers have seen hundreds of maritime events, accidents and disasters; some witnessed and recorded but many more happened unseen and undocumented.  In 2009 the SHIPS Project (Shipwrecks and History in Plymouth Sound) was started by a group of shipwreck enthusiasts and divers in Plymouth with the aim of recording the maritime history of the area.

The SHIPS Project is the flagship project for ProMare UK; already it has helped with a number of shipwreck investigations by local dive teams, historical research and geophysical surveys undertaken with local companies and the University of Plymouth.

A significant aspect of the SHIPS project has been in recording and identifying finds recovered by divers from the waters around Plymouth, already this has unearthed two Greco-Roman anchors, ancient stone anchors, Roman pottery as well as some artefacts recovered from some of the historically significant shipwrecks in the area.

Much the work used to collect information for the SHIPS Project is done by local dive groups so providing advice and training are important parts of the SHIPS Project.  The project team provides informal advice and guidance about shipwrecks but also provides formal training using the Nautical Archaeology Society (NAS) training scheme.

The SHIPS Project raising awareness within the local community of the rich and diverse maritime heritage in the area and is providing a focus for the divers and researchers who are already working here.  The SHIPS Project is supported by the Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery, the Universities of Plymouth and Exeter, the Nautical Archaeology Society and the South-West Maritime History Society.

Visit the SHIPS Project Site

Promare UK

ProMare UK was set up in 2010 to promote maritime history and archaeology in the United Kingdom, concentrating on the waters around Plymouth in the south-west of England.

The flagship SHIPS Project (Shipwrecks and History in Plymouth Sound) was the first project to be started. The city of Plymouth has a long maritime history that dates back to the arrival of the first humans in the south-west of England. Since that time the waters of Plymouth Sound and the adjoining rivers have seen hundreds of maritime events, accidents and disasters; some witnessed and recorded but many more happened unseen and undocumented. Despite the passing of time the seabed and shoreline around Plymouth still contains evidence of these events, so the aim of the SHIPS Project is to record the maritime history of Plymouth by recording the remains of these events. The first phase of this work involves documentary research backed up by geophysical surveys and this is to be followed by target identification and site recording. The project is supported by a number of museums, academic organizations and avocational groups in the region.

Geophysical research forms another significant aspect of the work done by ProMare UK. Research into the use of marine magnetometers is being done in collaboration with CISMAS, the University of Plymouth and the University of Bradford. Other areas of research include buried shipwreck detection using sonar and developing optimum methods of processing and representing geophysical data.

ProMare UK supports the Nautical Archaeology Society training scheme and now co-ordinates NAS training in the region. This work includes providing introductory and basic courses in maritime archaeology to volunteers and divers as well as arranging advanced Part III courses in specialised subjects.

Other projects supported by ProMare UK include the search for HMS Whiting off Padstow in north Cornwall, consultancy for the Mary Rose Trust, survey work on the hulks at Purton in Gloucestershire, as well as providing advice to a number of licensees of the UK’s designated shipwrecks.

Visit SHIPS project for detailed information about our projects in the UK.