Beginning her work on Echoes and Traces, Savourna soon turned to the musical text within the original Orcadian plainchant for inspiration. Instead of utilising the Latin lyrics, Savourna has chosen to collaborate with her song-writing partner of over thirty years Les Barker. Together they have written songs for artists and organisations including June Tabor, Eddie Reader and the National Youth Choirs of Scotland. Les also wrote the lyrics for Savourna’s most recent choral commission The Dream which will be performed as part of the St. Giles at Six series by the Scottish Vocal Ensemble conducted by Mark Hindley) on the 21 st of August this year. This blog has been provided by Les and
discusses the story behind Saint Magnus and Magnus Barelegs who feature in the lyrics he has written For this project.
SAINT MAGNUS and MAGNUS BARELEGS
When the call came back in January I quickly found the original words and music and, almost as quickly, discarded the words. I went in search of St Magnus's life in English translations of various Norse and Orcadian Sagas, and almost immediately fell over Magnus Barelegs (King Magnus III of Norway to his friends).
He arrived in Orkney in 1098 with an enormous fleet and held discussions about the ownership and governance of the islands (which back then Included Shetland). They were obviously lively and rather one-sided discussions as two of the three earls of Orkney, Paul and Erlend Thorfinnson, were sent as prisoners to Norway and never seen again. Erlend was father to the future St Magnus, and Paul was father to Hakon Paulsson. Barelegs took the two sons as hostages and set off to pillage the Hebrides. Having done so, he was then able to write to King Edgar of Scotland and say “You can't look after these islands properly; you'd better let me have them”. Edgar had to agree, though in fairness the islands hadn't exactly benefitted from Barelegs'; protection either.
It's likely that he landed on Galloway before going on to Ulster, and lost 3 ships and 120 men during his discussions there. Following that, he went to the Isle of Man, built several forts and organised immigration from Norway. He then set out southwards and arrived at Ynys Siriol (Puffin Island) just as the Norman armies of Hugh de Montgomery and Hugh D'Avranches – Fat Hugh of Chester as we Welsh call him – were having a party to celebrate kicking Gruffudd ap Cynan's Welsh army off Anglesey. Thus Barelegs gained an easy victory, and when he and the Normans went away, Gruffudd ap Cynon quietly returned to Anglesey. We've been invading Afghanistan since 1839, and every time we leave it's still full of Afghans. Funny how we've never noticed.
So there was enough story there to write about. I then went to the wonderful map collection of the National Library of Scotland and worked out a possible route based on the sagas, using Norse names, Brythonic ones (such as Manaw for the Isle of Man) and Scots and English ones based on the Norse. When they arrived at Ynys Siriol, St Magnus stayed on board and sang Psalms rather than join in the battle – perhaps he did the same all the way through the journey; it's not made clear - I went through the book of Psalms looking for suitably peaceable lines, but King David wasn't a peaceable soul. In Psalm 133, I found “Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity.” That would have been a bit ironic. In the end I adapted a line of Psalm 88 to read “Would the dead arise and join me as I sang of God and kindness,” and the penultimate verse suddenly and unexpectedly led me to where we are today.
I'm busy working on my blog posts. Watch this space!