Amhlaidh

OG Amlaid, ON Ólafr, St Olaf

The saint commemorated at Cill Amhlaidh on South Uist is almost certainly the royal Norwegian Saint Olaf, who died as King Ólafr Haraldsson in 1030. Canonised in 1031, he became an emblematic royal saint throughout the Scandinavian world, and his rather chequered and violent actual career was recast in hymns and hagiography to make him a strong force for transmitting and consolidating Christianity throughout his realms and beyond. [1] His cult was vigorously pursued by the contemporary English archbishop of Nidaros / Trondheim, Grimkettil, and was early taken up in England, as well as other parts of the Scandinavian world.

DoSH - dedications to St Olaf

There is a considerable medieval literature about St Olaf, in both Latin and Old Norse, primarily deriving from Norway and Iceland. [2] Much of the poetry dedicated to him belongs to the period before his death, and is typical royal praise poetry, but after his death and the transfer of his relics in 1031, this poetry emphasises his sanctity. A good example is  Sigvatr Þórðarson’s Erfidrápa Óláfs Helga, ‘Memorial poem for St Olaf’. In one verse, the poet describes keeping St Olaf’s feast-day--this is the sort of poetry which might well be known to the Norse-speaking ruling class of Uist in the 11th century.

It is proper for us [me] to welcome, sinlessly, the feast day of Óláfr, the father of Magnús, in my house; God strengthens the ruler. I am required to keep, guilelessly, the holy day of the lamented death of the king, who fitted my branches of the arm with red gold.

It is worth mentioning one legend which emerges from the medieval kingdom of Man and the Isles, of which Uist must have been part. In the Chronicle of Man and the Isles under the year 1098, we are told that the king of Norway, Magnus Barelegs, was propelled on his expedition to Britain and Ireland, during which he put the Western Isles and Man more firmly under his jurisdiction, by a miracle involving St Olaf. We are told:

“In the same year Magnus, King of Norway, son of Olaf, the son of Harald Harfager, wishing to ascertain if the body of St. Olaf remained free from corruption, ordered his tomb to be opened. The bishop and clergy resisted the attempt, but the king audaciously came forward, and by royal order had the shrine opened for his inspection. When he had seen with his eyes and touched with his hands the incorrupt body, a great fear suddenly took possession of him, and he departed in great haste. The following night Olaf the martyr king appeared to him in a vision, and said, "Choose, I tell you, one of two things, either to lose your kingdom and life within thirty days, or to retire from Norway and never again to see it." The king, awakening from sleep, summoned his princes and elders, and related to them the vision. But they, in great alarm, advised him to quit Norway as soon as possible. He immediately collected a fleet of 160 ships, and sailed to the Orkney islands, which he subdued, and, passing through all the islands, brought them under his dominion, and arrived at Man.”

While this legend is almost certainly apocryphal, and while Magnus’s western expeditions were probably motivated by raw politics rather than a saintly curse, it is in the context of verses, attributed to the skaldic poet Bjorn Krepphendi (Cripple-hand), on Magnus’s raid that we get one of the earliest mentions of Uist--as one of the isles raided by and made subject to Magnus. In its most recent translation (by Kari Ellen Gade), the relevant verse runs:

‘The generous leader advanced in  … Uist with fire; farmers lost life and wealth; the ruler reddened the battle-beam.’ [i.e., sword].

[Note, the translator has rendered Ívist as ‘North Uist’, but there is no reason to specify North rather than South Uist here.]

The distribution of dedications to St Olaf (shown in the inset, taken from the Saints in Scottish Place-Names resource, see search saint: Olaf) in Scotland brings South Uist into the wider Scandinavian world. Here we should remember the strong Scandinavian influence on the Isles, not only in terms of settlement during the period from 800 on, but in terms of official ecclesiastical jurisdiction, the Western Isles becoming part of the diocese of Sodor, under the archdiocese of Nidaros / Trondheim, from the mid 12th century.

Given all this, the dedication of the church at Cill Amhlaidh, and at a guess its creation as well, can date to no earlier than 1031. Equally, we may well wish to see this church as a product of the first flush of devotion to Olaf in the 11th century; though we shouldn’t rule out the possibility that it is a dedication emblematic of the influence of the 12th-century Nidaros archdiocese.

Head of a crosier from norway 1375-1400 showing St Olaf with his axe.

Raven (2005, 162) suggests that the dedication of Cill Amhlaigh replaced an earlier one to Coinneach, but both churches seem to have been present at the time of Blaeu’s map, and they seem to be in different locations, albeit very close to one another. Perhaps we might see Cill Amhlaigh as a church founded with a different purpose than Cill Chainnich--was it a chapel founded to serve the interests of the Scandinavian rulers of the isles in the 11th century, or the archdiocesan interest of Nidaros in the 12th century?

It is probably worth registering the slight possibility that the Olaf commemorated here is not St Olaf of Norway, after all, but the king of Dublin and the Isles who died, on pilgrimage in Iona, in 980/1, Amlaíb Cuarán, or Olaf Cuaran (on this king, see Woolf 2002 ). This king was a sponsor of parts of the Columban federation of churches, and in particular of Iona, where he died (see Clancy 2011 ). While we don’t have any clear evidence that he was commemorated as a saint, and while there is clear evidence of the cult of St Olaf of Norway in other parts of Scandinavian Scotland, given the importance of Iona and Olaf Cuaran in the tenth century, it is worth retaining an open mind.