David Gifford Photography

Earl Rognvald Sunlight

Photo: Earl Rognvald Sunlight

Shafts of sunlight shining on Horse Island. I read the Orkneyinga Saga over the Christmas holidays and the islet was mentioned in a story:

Earl Rognvald and the Dunrossness Man

It so happened one day south in the Dunrossness sea in Hjaltland [Shetland] that an old and poor country man (bóndi) was waiting long for his boatmen, while all the other boats that were ready rowed off. Then came a man with a white cowl to the old country man, and asked him why he did not row off to the fishing as the other men did. The country man replied that his mates had not come. ‘Bondi,’ said the man of the cowl, ‘would you like me to row with you?’ ‘That will I,’ says the country man, ‘but I must have a share for my boat, for I have many children (bairns) at home, and I must work for them as much as I can.’ So they rowed out in front of Dynraust-head [Sumburgh Head] and inside Hundholm [Horse Island]. There was a great stream of tide where they were, and great whirling eddies; and they were to keep in the eddy, but to fish outside the raust [the Sumburgh Roost tideway].

The cowl-man sat in the front part of the boat and pulled [andowed] and the country man was to fish. The country man bade him take care not to be borne into the raust; and he said that he was quite alive to the danger. But the cowl-man did not attend to what he said to him, and did not take care though the country man should come into some danger. So a little after this they bore into the raust, and the country man was much frightened, and said, ‘Miserable was I and unlucky when I took thee to-day to row, for here I must die, and my folk are at home helpless and in poverty if I am lost.’ And the country man was so frightened that he wept (grét) and feared his end was come. The cowl-man answered, ‘Be cheery, man, and don't cry, for we must find our way out of the raust as we got into it.’ Then the cowl-man rowed out of the raust, and the country man was very glad. Then they rowed to the land, and pulled up the boat. And the country man bade the cowl-man to go and part the fish. But the cowl-man bade the country man part it as he liked, and said he would have no more than his third. There were many people come to the shore, both men and women, and a number of poor folk. The cowl-man gave to the poor men all the fish that had fallen to his share that day, and prepared to go on his way. At that place the way was up a cliff, and a number of women were sitting there. As he went up the cliff he slipped his foot, for it was slippery with rain, and fell down the cliff. A woman saw that first, and laughed much at him, and then so did the other folk. And when the cowl-man heard that, said he:—

The girl mocks my dress,
And laughs more than becomes a maid.
I put to sea early this morning
Few would know an earl in a fisher's weeds.

Then the cowl-man went his way, and afterwards men became aware that this cowl-man had been Earl Rognvald.

And it thereafter became known to many men, that these were great tricks of his, creditable before God, and interesting to men. And men knew it for a proverb, as it stood in the stanza, ‘Few know an earl in fisher's weeds.’

— Translation by Gilbert Goudie, published in 1889 in an appendix to The Diary of the Reverend John Mill. I've added notes in square brackets.

Brian Smith has an excellent article 'Shetland in Saga-time: Rereading the Orkneyinga Saga' in Northern Studies Vol 25 (1988) which examines Shetland's part in the Orkneyinga saga, including a telling of the story above. [Edit - PDF link currently unavailable]

The version of the Orkneyinga Saga I read over the holidays was the 1978 translation by Pálsson and Edwards, published by Penguin, which I found very readable.


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