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
‘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.