Egilsay: Unveiling the Historical Tapestry

Egilsay, located to the east of Rousay in the Orkney archipelago. Spanning approximately 5 km by 2 km, this largely farmland island is known for its cultural heritage and natural features. Egilsay's landscape includes a beautiful shoreline and rolling farmlands, providing a serene retreat for nature enthusiasts.

The origin of Egilsay's name has piqued the curiosity of researchers. While the island's name may initially seem derived from the Norse personal name "Egil," there is speculation that the first element could have roots in the Gaelic language. It has been suggested that "Egilsay" may have a Gaelic influence, possibly connected to the Gaelic word "eaglais," meaning church. This linguistic speculation adds an intriguing layer to the island's history.

Egilsay is adorned with several archaeological sites that provide glimpses into its ancient past. At the southern end of the island, near Onziebust, stands a remarkable Neolithic chambered tomb reminiscent of the Maeshowe type. Additionally, remnants of burnt mounds and a potential medieval harbor at The Hubbet further contribute to Egilsay's archaeological significance.

On the west coast of Egilsay are a number of structures shaped like small fishing boats and made of stones, could potentially be remnants of temporary harbours or boat shelters. Such structures were commonly used in coastal areas to provide shelter for fishing boats or to facilitate small-scale fishing operations.

These types of structures, sometimes called "boat nausts" or "boat nousts," were constructed using dry-stone wall techniques, where stones are fitted together without the use of mortar. They were typically built close to the water's edge to provide easy access to the boats. Boat nausts served as protective enclosures for fishing boats, offering shelter from the elements and providing a secure place to store the vessels when they were not in use. There are one of two remains of what may be winches on the shore which may have been used to haul the boats into the noust (or naust) They were often constructed using local materials, such as stones found in the immediate vicinity, making them a practical and accessible solution for coastal communities.


Egilsay: Tracing the Transition from Paganism to Christianity

Among its notable sites, St Magnus Kirk holds a prominent place. This historic church, known as St Magnus Kirk, stands as a testament to Egilsay's rich history.

The island's history takes on unique significance with the presence of St Magnus, whose full name is Magnus Erlendsson. St Magnus, a prominent figure in Orkney's history, was an Earl of Orkney who lived during the 12th century. He played a significant role in the transition from paganism to Christianity on Egilsay.

Earl Magnus Erlendsson, was duped by his rival cousin Hakon Paulsson and killed on Egilsay around 1117. “Following his murder, the mission to regain Earl Magnus’ lands was planned by his surviving siblings and their families. One path they took in achieving this aim was to build up a cult for the murdered Earl Magnus, stressing his good Christian values and devoutness.”

“Magnus’s sainthood was eventually achieved through the best efforts of his nephew Earl Rognvald who systematically ticked off all the necessary elements for a successful cult: the veneration of local people; the support of the local bishop (William of Orkney); proof of miracles at the dead person’s tomb; and evidence of the incorruptibility of the saint’s relics (see Shetland Museum and Archives).”

The Orkneyinga Saga records life during this period and stories of miracles following the death of Magnus, including the field turning green around the rocky and barren spot where he died. Twenty years after his murder, and numerous miracles being recounted, Bishop William of Orkney sanctified Earl Magnus and work on the cathedral, built to house his relics, began in 1137. It was commissioned by his nephew Rognvald Kali Kolsson who had much to gain from the emerging cult surrounding his uncle as church and power went hand-in hand.

The death of St Magnus on Egilsay marked a turning point in the island's history, solidifying its connection to the spread of Christianity in the region. The event led to the arrival of Christian settlers and the subsequent establishment of St Magnus Kirk. St Magnus became a revered figure, and his martyrdom contributed to the Christianization of the Orkney Islands.


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