The Scapa Flow Landscape Partnership Scheme

Harold and the poison shirt

The Earldom of Orkney was jointly ruled by brothers Paul and Harald until an unfortunate incident at a Christmas feast held at Harald’s estate at Orphir (probably the Bu).

Harald was the host, so was busy with the festive preparations. Helga, the mother of the Earls, was there too, along with her sister Frakokk.

Harald found them in a small room busy at their needlework and saw a newly-made linen garment lying between them. It was white as snow with gold thread running through it.

"Whose is this treasure?" he wanted to know.

He was not pleased when his mother replied that it was for his brother Paul, and wanted to know why they had taken such care in making a shirt for Paul when they did not expend the same energy in making his.

They explained that he had no reason to be envious just because his brother had some fine clothes, but Harald grabbed hold of it and made to put it on.

Frakokk and Helga pulled off their bonnets and tore at their hair and told him that if he were to put the garment on his life would be at risk.

Their tears had no effect and he put it on. Immediately the shirt was upon his back, he began to quiver and suffered terrible agony. He had to take to his bed and died shortly afterwards.

After Harald’s death, Paul became the sole ruler of Orkney with the approval of every farmer in the islands.

He realised that the shirt Harald had worn had been made for him and, for that reason, he would not allow Helga and Frakokk to remain in Orkney. These witches and all their dependants were first banished to Caithness and then to Sutherland where Frakokk had estates.

Here Frakokk reared powerful and trouble-making characters, all of whom believed they had a legitimate claim on the Orkney earldom.

There are many more tales of revenge and men who also thought they had a claim on Orkney, and you can read about them in the Orkneyinga Saga. It is available as a Puffin paperback.