The Legend of Goturm's Hole

by Steve Mathieson

Being the first landfall for any ship venturing out from the west coast of Norway, Shetland has always played an integral part in the Viking story. The first Norsemen arrived in the islands in the early ninth century and legends hold that Unst was where the first longship beached.

Burrafirth in Unst. Photo: Kim Rendall. Zoom Burrafirth in Unst. Photo: Kim Rendall. One of the best known legends is that of Goturm. The tale is set in Burrafirth, whose entrance is dominated by the two hills of Hermaness and Saxavord. Around the year 870 the Vikings were established as the rulers of Burrafirth, the current Jarl, Thorbjorn Hrollaugsson, having founded this new Norse community in Unst. He and his fellows had displaced the local Picts, who had been moved south to the sloping ground at Petester.

Thorbjorn’s longhouse was at Stackahoull and from here he had watched his son Anlaf and other young men sail out in their longship Seasnake in search of plunder. A week later the ship limped back; Anlaf was dead along with eighteen of his crew. A survivor, Einar, told of plundering a Frisian merchant ship, only to find themselves hunted down by a warship bearing a yellow sail emblazoned with a red serpent. The Burrafirth crew were overpowered and Anlaf killed in single combat with the enemy leader, who said “Give Anlaf’s sword to Anlaf’s father with Goturm’s greeting!”

A Pictish thrall, Glam, appeared before Thorbjorn at this time with the news that a warship bearing a yellow sail with red serpent had struck a rock in the mist and sunk close to the high cliffs of Tonga. Only one man had survived, managing to swim to the base of the high cliffs of Tonga, climb part-way up and drag himself into a small cave (marked now on maps as “Goturm’s Hole”). From Glam’s description Einar and Ivar recognised the survivor as Goturm himself. With his son’s slayer trapped in the cave, Thorbjorn would soon avenge Anlaf.

As the men of Burrafirth planned their revenge, Auslag, Thorbjorn’s daughter, decided on a different course. She was determined to prevent another round of bloodshed by helping him escape. Goturm, meanwhile, had tried to bribe local youths with his golden arm-ring but found no-one would help. The day of his death was set for the day after Anlaf’s funeral, so Auslag set off for Tonga that night, carrying rope and a bag containing food and drink.

After Goturm had used the rope to pull himself up, Auslag gave him more food and directions to Woodwick where he could find a boat. He offered her his golden arm-ring and when Auslag refused the gift he swore an oath to one day reward her for her help. Thorbjorn and his men duly arrived the next day and found the cave empty.

The Viking longship, Skidbladner, at Haroldswick, Unst. Zoom The Viking longship, Skidbladner, at Haroldswick, Unst. At this stage Goturm heads south and sails from legend into history, reappearing as Guthrum (as recorded by the Anglo Saxon Chronicles), at the head of the Great Summer Army in East Anglia in 871, the year of Alfred’s accession to the throne of Wessex and known as the Year of Battles. Guthrum’s army ranged over southern England for a number of years before in January 878 attacking King Alfred at Chippenham, Wiltshire, forcing Alfred to flee for his life into the fens until late springtime, during which time he famously burned the cakes and also raised a levy of local fighting men. Guthrum was finally defeated at the Battle of Edginton, leading to a peace treaty, Guthrum’s conversion to Christianity and the formation of the Danelaw.

Guthrum then spent the next ten years establishing his English kingdom, but he never forgot his oath to Auslag. Around the year 888 his yellow sail with the red serpent was seen once more on a huge longship, heading into Burrafirth at the head of six warships. By this time Auslag had married Einar, who was then killed resisting Harald Fairhair’s invasion, after which she and her children were ousted from Stackahoull by Harald’s man Erik Olafsson, to live in reduced circumstances nearby.

When Guthrum’s ship sailed into Burrafirth only Auslag had the nerve to confront the strangers, meeting Sweyn Ormsson, the emissary of “King Goturm of Engelland”, who bore a fortune for her in gold, silver and jewels. There was also another pile of treasure brought ashore that was to be divided up amongst Auslag’s friends. Goturm had repaid his debt.

This is an abridged version of the story from the book of Unst folk tales called Told Round the Peat Fire by Andrew T. Cluness and I would recommend reading the complete tale if you ever have the chance. 

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