Tempus fugit memento mori – time flies, remember death – is a sentiment found in every historic, Scottish graveyard through graphic renditions of skulls and crossbones. In fact, you could be forgiven for thinking that here lies the remains of pirates. This photo shows an example of this, a 17th century gravestone located at St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, Orkney.
The man that became St. Magnus had a reputation for piety and gentleness. King Eystein II of Norway granted him a shared earldom of Orkney together with his cousin Håkon, and they ruled amicably from 1105 to 1114. However, their followers fell out. So the two Earls arranged to meet each other on the small island of Egilsay, each bringing only two ships. Magnus arrived with his two ships, but then Håkon treacherously turned up with eight ships. Magnus was captured and offered to go into exile or prison, but an assembly of chieftains insisted that he must die. Håkon’s standard bearer refused to execute him, and an angry Håkon made his cook Lifolf kill Magnus by striking him on the head with an axe.
The plot thickens
Magnus was first buried at the Christchurch at Birsay. But then something extraordinary happened: The rocky area around his grave miraculously became a green field, and there were numerous reports of miraculous happenings and healings. When William the Old, Bishop of Orkney, warned that it was “heresy to go about with such tales”, he was struck blind but subsequently had his sight restored after praying at the grave of Magnus.
Once St Magnus Cathedral was built, the saint’s relics were moved to it but later hidden for safety. Nonetheless, in 1917, a secret cavity in a stone column at the Cathedral was found to contain a box of bones that included a skull with a wound consistent with a blow from an axe. Since then it has been generally accepted that these are indeed the remains of St Magnus.