The Swelchie and Why the Sea is Salt

Published 17th Jul 2007

When sailing to Kirkwall and then beyond to the north-west of Scotland, I assume that the Sea Stallion will be avoiding the treacherous waters of the Pentland Firth, especially the ‘Swelchie’ near the small island Stroma. This was called Svelgr (meaning ‘whirlpool, tidal race’) in Old Norse and is not only recorded in Orkneyinga saga (and several other sagas) but also has an ancient Norse legend attached to it.

In the 1130s, after the kidnapping in Rousay of the Orcadian earl Páll Hákonarson, Orkneyinga saga (chapter 74) describes the route taken by the rogue Sveinn Ásleifarson as he removes his captive to mainland Scotland:

Þeir … fóru aptr ina sömu leið fyrir vestan Hrossey ok viku á milli Háeyjar ok Grímseyjar ok svá fyrir austan Svelg, þaðan til Breiðafjarðar ok eptir honum til Ekkjalsbakka.

‘They … sailed back the same way, along the west coast of Mainland and they turned to sail between Hoy and Graemsay and so to the east of the Swelchie, from there to the Moray Firth and into Oykell.’

It is clear that Sveinn took the route through the centre of Orkney, despite the dangers of being seen, and therefore caught, to avoid the greater danger of the Swelchie.

An explanation for the origin of the Swelchie is found in the legend of the magic hand-mill Grótti, as told for instance by Snorri in his Edda. There is a shorter version in a manuscript known as Litla Skálda, which specifically associates it with the Pentland Firth:

Kvern heitir Grótti, er átti Fróði konungr; hon mól hvetvetna þat er hann vildi, gull ok frið. Fenja ok Menja hétu ambáttir þær, er mólu. Þá tók Mýsingr sækonungr Gróttu ok lét mála hvítasalt á skip sín, þar til er þau sukku á Péttlandsfirði. Þar er svelgr síðan, er sær fellr í auga Gróttu. Þá gnýr sær, er hon gnýr, ok þá varð sjórinn saltr.

There is a quern called Grótti, which was owned by King Fróði [of Denmark]; it ground whatever he wanted it to, gold and peace. The slave-women who did the grinding were called Fenja and Menja. Then the sea-king Mýsingr took Grótta and made it grind white salt on his ships, until they sank in the Pentland Firth. Since then there has been a whirlpool there, where the sea falls into the ‘eye’ of Grótta. When it grinds, the sea does too, and then the sea becomes salt.

Here, two old legends have been combined (as indicated by the two forms of Grótti/Grótta), that of the Danish king’s magic mill that grinds gold and peace, and an aetiological tale that explains why the sea is salt. 

This legend was widely known as it served the dual function of explaining a natural phenomenon and reminding sailors of the particular dangers of the Pentland Firth. Several other texts record shipwrecks in the Svelgr. Chapter 184 of Óláfs saga helga in Heimskringla mentions the disappearance of the Norwegian earl Hákon Eiríksson attempting to return to Norway from England in 1030. Snorri reports that it was the belief of some that skipi myni hafa rekit í Svelginn ‘the ship must have been wrecked in the Swelchie’. This event is also recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and in Theodoricus monachus’ Historia de Antiquitate Regum Norwagiensium, whose Latin text equates the spot with the classical Charybdis. Likewise, the Historia Norwegie also mentions omnium maxima uorago ‘the most gigantic of all whirlpools’ in the Pentland Firth. Chapter 327 of Hákonar saga Hákonarsonar records the loss of one ship and the near loss of another í Svelginn ‘in the Swelchie’ late in 1263 when King Hákon of Norway returned to Orkney after his inconclusive battle at Largs. 

Although not recorded in any Norse texts, another treacherous stretch of water in Britain may also have the same origin in Old Norse svelgr. The Swellies are strong tidal streams in the Menai Strait, which divides Anglesey from the Welsh mainland. The Vikings were of course also familiar with this area, as the Norse origin of the name Anglesey (Öngulsey) attests; it was also the location of a very famous sea-battle of the Norwegian king Magnús berfœttr in 1098. 

As the brave sailors of the Sea Stallion cross the salt waters, may they successfully avoid all such dangers!

Dr Judith Jesch

Created by Judith Jesch, professor of Viking Studies, University of Nottingham