Have you ever found yourself on a trip with the wrong Coinneach? It happened to me last Wednesday. I thought I was going to Harris with Coinneach Mòr, in a reliable, BBC car whose satnav would use RP English, probably even pronouncing our destination as Roe-dell. Instead, in a flagrant abuse of licence fee payers’ money, I was issued with Coinneach Beag, ‘driving’ an automatic Yaris, and taking his good time about it.
We were bound for St Clement’s church to do that which no Wee Free ever does in a place of worship: look at art. I fretted all the way there, and almost welcomed the frequent violent stalling as a distraction. When your head keeps coming into contact with the dashboard it’s hard to think about anything else – even heresy.
The exhibition was a visual exploration of the poem cycle by Orcadian George Mackay Brown, entitled ‘Tryst on Egilsay’, describing the death of St Magnus. Yes, art AND saints all in one day. But an Orcadian saint, whose story the late poet regarded as one of the most precious in Orkney’s heritage.
It was so appropriate to have this in Harris for a number of reasons. For one, it is believed that the account of Magnus’s death was preserved for posterity by one Hebridean eyewitness – Holdbodi, of the farming class, and loyal ally of Magnus.
Magnus was meeting on Egilsay with his cousin, Hakon, to discuss which of them should rule Orkney. The former brought with him two boats and the corresponding number of men, as had been agreed. Much less honourable, the latter brought eight boats, packed with followers. When Magnus saw them approach, he knew what his fate would be.
It is almost unbearably moving to read the account, in Orkneyinga Saga, of Magnus’s steadfast faith in the face of such threat. Instead of fleeing, he went to church and prayed, forbidding his men to defend him.
And then, he bargained in a way that every Christian hopes they would too in the same situation. He didn’t beg to have his life spared. Instead, he asked Hakon to do anything – even putting out his eyes – short of murder. ‘God knows that I think more of your soul than my own life’, he told his cousin, and because this was true, he wanted to spare Hakon the guilt of his blood.
He was persuasive, and would have got his way, but for Hakon’s men. They said that they wanted a single ruler for Orkney and that, therefore, one of the two earls must die. Thus, Magnus’s fate was sealed, and he prayed forgiveness for the perpetrators before being put to death.
Hakon had opted for political power and the death of his soul; but Magnus chose the good portion.
It might seem strange in one way to be marking this Norse-Orcadian earl’s death in a mediaeval church in Harris. But not when you think about it. St Clement’s was probably built a couple of centuries after the magnificent St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, yet it is part of God’s real estate. In that very church, I felt all manner of hope was represented.
Gaelic culture, so apparently subsumed by the political might of the Vikings flowered when their age was done. St Clement’s testifies to that, belonging as it does to that most Gaelic of eras in our history. A minority language, oppressed by the major language can still be resurgent; and, as the Norse example shows, official status does not make any language the one of your heart.
Magnus, though, and St Clement’s, and the people who visit there to read of his martyrdom, speak the greatest hope of all into the world. Some may choose political power, progress and popularity here in this life; but if you are a Christian, you surely wish to identify with Magnus who, at the hour of his death prayed for his friends, but also his enemies, forgiving their sins against himself.
In the end, it didn’t matter which Coinneach took me to Harris; I needed to go in order to be reminded of something. When even those you have called friends hate you for Christ’s sake, it’s easy and natural to feel bitter, but it is better to remember the lesson of this mediaeval Orcadian Saint: their souls are worth more to Him than my life.
Hakon appeared to have walked away with all the prizes – his life; the exclusive rights to the Earldom of Orkney; and even forgiveness from the man he had put to death. But his cousin, in fact, was the winner, able to discern which were the true riches and, in complete faith, to choose Christ over against everything else.
We have, all of us, to answer for ourselves, but I hope I can continue to say with Magnus, and with Job, ‘though He slay me, I will trust in Him’.
That will meet any deficiencies in myself, in my friendships, and in my journey through this world. Even if part of it has to be in a hybrid automatic driven by the wrong Coinneach.