He was not the sort of man any self-respecting girl could take home to meet the parents. And he was probably the sort of neighbour who, if he moved in next door, your lawn would die overnight.
But, to be fair, it wasn’t for nothing that Sweyn Asliefsson was known as the ‘ultimate’ Viking. For many he was simply the ‘skullcrusher’. He was the classic swashbuckler who dominated the Viking Age. His marauding 12th-century exploits are vividly detailed in the Nordic sagas, including the Saga of the Icelanders and the Orkneyinga Saga.
Egil’s Saga describes him as a sea king who wintered in Gairsay along with his retinue of eighty men. “His drinking hall was so big,” it noted, “that there was nothing in Orkney to compare with it”.
Come spring time, after months of carousing and once their crops were sown – because they were also farmer types – they would set off on their notorious plundering trips. They always returned at harvest time to reap their crops and plan their next escapade.
No-one was safe when Sweyn Asliefsson and his dastardly cronies were on the high seas. Amongst his motley crew were vile felons with names like Harold the Wicked, Thorstein the Red, Aud the Deep Minded, Skinver the Stout and Ljot the Renegade… These were no jaunty sea cadets but were essentially ruthless robbers who used grievous bodily harm to make a living.
It’s not as widely known, as I believe it should be, that their story is also intrinsically part of the heritage of Caithness.
During the Viking Age, a period of 300 years from say the ninth to the 13th centuries, our county’s story was inextricably interlinked with that of Orkney especially, and Shetland. The Earls of Orkney, whose province we were part of, were the proxy rulers acting on behalf of the kings of Norway.
Not only were they in the very thick of it but we were all, back then, at the centre of unfolding events. It is not for nothing that our neighbouring county is called Sutherland, the souther lands…
How different nowadays that we often get referred to as the far north, as if we are some sort of remote outpost of the empire. But in the good old medieval days this is where it all happened and from where other events radiated.
Sweyn also had his own pad in Caithness. It has the remarkable name of Lambaborg, although modernity prefers to call it Buchollie castle. It is located on the wild and forbidding coastline just south of Freswick bay.
Calder’s History of Caithness describes the setting as “a more gloomy and solitary place to have been lived in is hardly possible to conceive, with nothing but bare rugged rocks on the one hand, and the monotonous prospect of a seemingly interminable ocean on the other. In the winter season, and particularly during a storm from the East, when the wind and waves battled in tremendous fury around it, it must have been a frightful residence”.
A frightful residence! I like that. Which is more than can be said of the locals’ viewpoint at the time…. The Orkneyinga Saga considered Lambaborg as a ‘safe stronghold, stoutly built’. It noted that the ultimate Viking “committed many a robbery in Caithness, taking the loot into their stronghold, and so became thoroughly unpopular”.
SOURCE: John O’Groat Jounal
“The Viking skullcrusher – Sweyn Asliefsson – had a Caithness place of his own”. John O’Groat Jounal. Cape Town. 16 may 2021. 17 may 2021. <https://www.johnogroat-journal.co.uk/news/the-viking-skullcrusher-sweyn-asliefsson-had-a-caithness-237566/>.
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