URC Daily Devotion Wednesday 19th April 2023 St Magnus

Wednesday 19 April 2023 St  Rǫgnvaldr (Ronald)
Carving of Rǫgnvaldr in Kirkwall Cathedral


It was through his mother, Gunnhildr, that Rǫgnvaldr had a claim on the Orkney earldom.  He grew up in Norway and, at the age of 29, was appointed Earl of Orkney and Shetland by the Norwegian King Sigurd I.  The title wasn’t too accurate and it was anticipated he’d rule half of Orkney – just as the previous Earl had – with his second cousin, Paul Haakonsson, ruling the other half.  However, following the death of the previous Earl, Rǫgnvaldr’s uncle, Haakonsson claimed all of the Earldom.  Rǫgnvaldr seems to have remained in Norway until 1136 when, after his second cousin’s death, he became joint Earl of Orkney.  He built St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall.   In 1151, Earl Rǫgnvaldr set out on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. This celebrated enterprise takes up five complete chapters of the Orkneyinga saga. Details of his stay in the Holy Land are sparse; it seems that the journey is the important part and the description of the voyage is dominated more by stories about fighting and feasting!  In August 1158, Rǫgnvaldr was cut down with his company of eight men by Thorbjorn Klerk who he had been made an outlaw for a murder committed in Kirkwall, following a series of acts of violence. Rǫgnvaldr’s body was taken to Kirkwall and buried in St. Magnus Cathedral.  Miracles were believed to have happened at his grave as well as on the stone where he died and so Rǫgnvaldr was venerated as a martyr.  He was canonized 1192 by Pope Celestine III.


Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.” [1 Corinthians 1:31]

May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. [Galatians 6:14]


Orkney might at times, from the Roman writers to the Victorians and beyond, have been thought to lie at or close to the northern reaches.  It is to the north that we turn for this saint, whom we might see as being at an “edge”; yet the northern isles were once (and are perhaps anew) crossroads in a busy cultural and political centre of a Nordic world.  There, we find Rǫgnvaldr Kali Kolsson, Norwegian and Orcadian by ancestry, and an Earl of Orkney.

Old Norse literature was scarcely short of boastful self-references and Rǫgnvaldr lives up to this reputation, though he focuses more on his cultural gifts than the Viking accomplishments of his ancestors:

I am quick at playing chess, I have nine skills. I hardly forget runes, I am often at either a book or writing. I am skilled at skiing and shooting and sculling and more! I have mastery in music and in verse. [Orkneyinga Saga c.58)

And he took pride not only in his achievements but also his appearance: he was something of a dandy and was stylishly dressed … He had a high opinion of himself [c.60]. Even his pilgrimage to Jerusalem has been thought to be a desire for prestige.

It is said that “No-one likes a clever clogs”. We tend to be irritated by anyone who thinks too highly of their own abilities, who flaunts their cleverness and is boastful.


Lord Jesus, wise yet humble,
Grant to us who are called to service 
a modest mind 
that we may use the gifts you have developed in each of us, 
not that we might be admired 
but that we might be useful for the sake of others. Amen.


Today’s writer

The Rev’d Dr Jack Dyce is Emeritus Professor of Nordic Theology at the Scottish College and a member of Port Glasgow URC


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