Guizer Jarl - Colin Summers

Thorbjorn of Wast Burrafirt

1998 Guizer Jarl, Colin Summers. The Jarl, Colin Summers, represents Thorbjorn of Wast Burrafirt, who is described in the Orkneyinga Saga as a "man of rank". He owned property in Aith, West Burrafirth and Papa Stour, and was widely known and respected as a firm minded leader, who also possessed a strong sense of humour. He was on friendly terms with the joint Jarls of Orkney and Shetland, Magnus Erlendson and Hakon Paulson. Because his estate was in three districts, Thorbjorn spent part of the year in each. Papa proved to be a somewhat difficult place to govern, for the odallers there made free with the law, and in the absence of their overlord, neglected their work on his farm and frequently made merry. Yet whenever he was in residence they were fawning and subservient enough to his face. Knowing full well what was going on, and well aware that any approach from Aith or Burrafirth would be observed in good time. Thorbjorn resolved to catch the layabouts once and for all. He decided to come at them from a different angle, and when he explained his plan to his followers, they all agreed, with much merriment, to assist.

Accordingly, making use of the numerous lochs between West Burrafirth and Brouster, they drew his ship overland; and passing out through Gruting Voe, they took advantage of a favourable tide which swiftly bore them to Papa Sound. They arrived to take the islanders completely by surprise. But with tact and good humour, he won over their goodwill, and he had no more trouble with them.

It was foretold of Thorbjorn that he would have an enemy one day whom he would kill without bloodshed or violence of any kind; and that this would lead to his own death. Jarl Magnus Erlendson was a mild man, well liked and respected, but somewhat indecisive when it came to taking action. His cousin Jarl Hakon, on the other hand, was fiery tempered and jealous, but quick to act. Always suspicious, he made spies of certain odallers, to report to him the deeds and conduct of men he felt might usurp power. Such a one was Bjarni, who arrived at Thorbjorn's stofa in West Burrafirth with two companions. The latter made him welcome, though they soon came to dislike each other. Thorbjorn quickly guessed that Bjarni was Jarl Hakon's henchman, and tired of being followed and questioned, he decided to playa trick on the shifty eyed one. With a friend he approached the odaller who lived at Bousta in Sandness, and as the three of them were passing a steeply inclining cliff, they put their ruse into action knowing that Bjarni and his men were approaching. Thorbjorn appeared to slide over the edge with a wild yell, but in fact he dived into a narrow cave concealed from above. At the same time he flung his cloak into the sea, and after it emptied the contents of a bucket of sheep's blood. By the time Bjarni and his two men arrived on the scene, it was clear to them that Thorbjorn had perished.

Meanwhile, as Bjarni gloated openly, Thorbjorn slid through the crevice, and emerged from a cleft behind Bjarni. He walked quickly up to him, holding his sword above his head. Suddenly Bjarni turned round, and fell dead of shock at Thorbjorn's feet. Thorbjorn laughed as Bjarni's men ran away, but Thorbjorn's friends feared no good would come of it. Bjarni's men went straight to Jarl Hakon with the story which they altered to suit themselves. Hakon was very angry, and insisted that Jarl Magnus accompany him to Shetland at once, to execute Thorbjorn for manslaughter. He was burned in his stofa with several of his men, in West Burrafirth. A great stone marks the spot to this day.

George P. S. Peterson

© All text copyright, The Shetland Times Ltd, 1997.
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