He was born in Caithness, son of Olaf, who was murdered in 1135 by Olvir Rosta, who a year previously had lost a minor sea battle and carried a grudge. Olvir’s method of restoring his self esteem was the burning Olaf’s house down while Olaf was still in it. This is how cycles of violence start, and neglecting to take out the nineteen year old Sweyn was an oversight that was going to cost Olvir.
That would come later. In the meantime, the boy (who, curiously, took his surname from his mother Aslief) gets his first mention at the 1135 yuletide revels at the household of the earl of Orkney. It seem the Earl’s cup-bearer had grabbed some of Sweyn’s holiday grog, an act that Sweyn did not take in the spirit of the season. He stewed for a day or so, then brained the fellow.
The cup-bearer must have been fairly irritating as even the local bishop said it was good riddance. Nevertheless, murder is murder, and for form’s sake, Sweyn had to leave town. For him it proved an opportunity, for then as now, a man with that kind of moxie could always find a job anyplace some muscle was required.
So how does a young man on the make make friends and influence people? Get them something they really want. Hoping to curry favor with Rögnvald Kali Kolsson, Sweyn returned to the scene of the crime, kidnapped the Earl of Orkney, thus providing a vacuum on that island for Rögnvald to fill. (Technically the earldom was a gift of the king of Norway and theoretically already belonged to Rögnvald, but he had not bothered to take it up- Sweyn simply finessed the possession being nine tenth of the law problem for him. As to the kidnappee, there are murky stories about his fate, none of them very pleasant.)
In gratitude for Sweyn’s dirty work, Rögnvald lent Sweyn two boats to take care of some personal business, specifically, to get some revenge on Olvir Rosta. Clever tactics (hit the enemy from behind!) got Sweyn his victory, if not total revenge. Rosta fled, never to be seen again, and Sweyn had to content himself with pillaging the land and burned Rosta’s house. With Rosta’s mother Frakkok inside.
(Rögnvald meanwhile covered his own spiritual backside by building a church for the locals. Eventually it would get him a sainthood, which is more than Sweyn would ever get – there was a matter of some pillaged monestaries, for one thing.)
Sweyn did have his softer side. After a band of Welshman attacked the Western island of Tiree and killed a local chieftain, Sweyn offered himself to the widow Ingrid. She was game enough but wanted her dead husband avenged first, which charge Sweyn was happy enough to take up, and although he couldn’t quite deliver all she asked (the perpetrators by chance or by fear had gone missing), he was able to spend the summer raiding the Welsh coast, which seemed good enough enough for Ingrid. One likes to think it was a happy marriage.
The history begins to become repetitive as sagas do, the usual of run of raids and revenge killing and broken peace treaties and shifting alliance and more raids with a bit of time out for more mundane pursuits. A typical year for Sweyn, according to the Orkneyinga Saga, involved planting crops in spring, going raiding, returning to harvest the crop, going raiding, returning home to spend the long winter nights with drinking, board games, and presumably trying to avoid lethal arguments.
To vary the routine he had a number of halls and castles, most hard to place, all in ruins. Principle among them is Lambaborg, as bleak a looking place as one can imagine, and it is mostly famous for the incident of Sweyn’s escaping his enemies by rappelling down the cliffside to a hidden boat.
His end came suitably enough in battle. In 1171 he went parading one last time in Ireland where the last of the Scandinavian kings Hasculf Thorgillsson failed to retake Dublin from the Normans. Both Thorgillsson and Sweyn were among the dead.
The fellow would be of only slight interest to me were it not for his being the grand-father of Gunni (whose wife was a descendant of the aforementioned Rögnvald and who brought with her some serious real estate in Caithness). From Gunni we get Clan Gunn, of which, as noted last time, the Nelson family is a sept, which fact entitles us to the tartan and all other privileges of the clan. How much the strain is Viking, how much Celt, I’ve no idea.
But then, until I read about Sweyn, I had no idea that the Vikings were such a large part of the highlanders in the first place.