Forensic artist reconstructs face of Orkney’s St Magnus

Forensic reconstruction of Orkney's Saint Magnus, martyred by his jealous cousin 900 years ago. Picture: UNS
Forensic reconstruction of Orkney's Saint Magnus, martyred by his jealous cousin 900 years ago. Picture: UNS
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He was a compassionate leader whose rule was cut short by the axe of his cousin. Now, nine centuries after his death, the benevolent face of St Magnus is to be seen on Orkney once again.

In a fusion of Norse legends and cutting edge forensic technology, a facial reconstruction has been created of the archipelago’s former earl.

Magnus Erllendsson ruled the islands for just over a decade at the start of the 12th century.

A man with strong religious convictions, he refused to take part in Viking raids in the Battle of Anglesey Sound, instead staying on board his ship to sing psalms.

His demeanour won him the support of Orcadians, but the earldom he shared with his cousin, Haakon Paulsson, was short lived. Jealous of Magnus’ popularity, Haakon put his relative to death.

According to the Orkneyinga Saga, written between the late 12th and early 13 centuries, Magnus was martyred by his nephew, Rognvald Kali Kolsson, and his relics laid as the foundations of what would become St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall.

Although the exact date of the martyrdom is uncertain, it is believed to have taken place between 1115 and 1118.

Organisers of Orkney’s annual St Magnus International Festival have chosen this year to mark the 900th anniversary, with a special project forming part of the celebrations.

Hew Morrison, a forensic artist from Inverness, has created a likeness of Magnus which it is hoped will go on display during the festival this summer. His recreation is based on photographs of a skull and bones discovered inside the cathedral during renovation work in 1919 – the remains were deemed to be those of Magnus by academics and theologians.

Using specialist software, he was able to enlarge the image of the skull and draw on tissue data to gauge the murdered earl’s appearance.

He explained: “The photographs were fortunately of a good quality, but most importantly a scale ruler was photographed alongside these photographs, which allowed me to scale the skull up to life size. The missing jaw was re-created using a formula from the fields of anthropology and orthodontics.

“Although there were no visual records such as illustrations or paintings of St Magnus created during the time of his life, there are depictions of him in the form of stained glass windows and statues, but these were created many years after his death.

“Taking into regard St Magnus’s Scandinavian ancestry, light-coloured hair and blue eyes were added to the face.”