The Burial Mound of Olaf Guthfrithsson


 On Hacking out the Gododdin Heritage Trail

O for a walk along a printed line!
Remove the vagueries of random paths,
For when we from the city disincline,
Soul-peace in reach away from public baths!

There’s so much pleasure in a trodden route
That stays unhidden in the memory
Of generations, perrennial fruit
Ripens afresh, ever-exemplary.

With each footstep a sort of hypnosis
Descends like manna on the pacing host
That enters into cute symbiosis
With nature, rills & forest, hills & coast,

And history! The ghosts go with us too,
Enacting deeds, phantasma in the dew.


I quite like that sonnet – my most recent composition. It concerns my 2019 mission to create a heritage trail around the centre of East Lothian, which I am currently serialising in my Walking East Lothian blog. Not so long ago I found myself in an area called Papple, whose steading is currently being renovated as a historical site. As I was passing thro’ Papple, I couldn’t help but notice what could well be a Viking ship burial in a field to the west. Its one thing to say that looks like a Viking ship burial, but before we start digging or hiring georadar technology, it is prudent to examine the why.


1: They’ve done it before.

The Vikings sited a boat burial at Ardnamurchan, West Highlands, thought to be more than 1,000 years old. Artefacts buried alongside the Viking in his boat suggest he was a high-ranking warrior. Others have been excavated at sites on Orkney.


2: Papple was a Viking centre

A study of the immediate area around Papple proves it was definitely settled by Vikings. The oldest form of Stenton was Steinton, after the Norse word for stone, ‘stein.’ Just outside Stenton, we find Meiklerig Wood, from the Norse, Mikill = ‘great, tall, large size’, & hryggr, meaning ‘ridge’. In Timothy Pont’s 16th. c. map can be seen a place in Pressmennan Wood named Fattlipps XE “Fattlipps”, with Fatt being Norse for ‘upturned or bent backwards.’ lipps, may come from Old Scots lippie, ‘flax or corn seed measure’. A bit above Pressmennan is Rammer Wood, from the Norse, Ram(m)r, ‘strong, mighty’. Others include the two Hailes – Nether & Over – evolved from Neðar = ‘lower’ & ofarr = over, & Hedderwick near Dunbar, which derives from Heðarvík = ‘heather or moorland bay’.

3: Papple was a religious centre

The name Papple is similar to the ‘Papil’ of West Burra, in the Shetlands. This site was a pre-norse Christian centre, with the name Papil coming from ‘papar’ – a Nordic word for priests. Papple farmhouse & steading are connected to a very old site called the ‘Convent.’ All that now remains is a small part of the walls, covered with ivy and now forming the SE end of a cow house in Papple farmyard. Though both the Cistercian nuns of Haddington and the nuns of St Bothan’s of the same order held lands in ‘Popil’, there is no evidence to support the existence of a convent here.

4: Papple connected to Viking royalty

Papple, or rather Whittinghame of which it neighbours, was the home of king Guthred before he was crowned king of Viking Northumbria in 883. His path to power is unusual, as given by Symeon of Durham in two sources.  In his History of the Kings, Symeon simply states, “Guthred, from a slave, was made king”, but in his History of the Church of Durham he gives a longer account.

During this time the Viking army, and such of the inhabitants as survived, being without a king, were insecure; whereupon the blessed Cuthbert himself appeared in a vision to abbot Eadred… & addressed him in the following words:—”Go to the army of the Danes,” he said, “and announce to them that you are come as my messenger; and ask where you can find a lad named Guthred, the son of Hardacnut, whom they sold to a certain widow at Whittinghame. Having found him, and paid the widow the price of his liberty, let him be brought forward before the whole aforesaid army; and my will and pleasure is, that he be elected and appointed king at Oswiesdune, and let the bracelet be placed upon his right arm.

The mention of a widow is interesting, for regal widows in those days were prone to join or set up religious houses, which provides the perfect background for a convent at Papple.


IMG_20191129_134130The mound at Papple certainly feels like a Viking Boat – its the right shape, the right length, it looks out to the sea & Norway. Its got a cool little causeway too, its great. That Papple has Vikingly religious & regal connections suggest that if the mound is a burial ship, then its gonna be a king inside it, but who? Well, it just so happens that a significant Viking ruler’s last known movements were just a few miles away from Papple.

During my chispological studies I’ve come across Olaf Guthfrithsson of the Uí Ímar dynasty before – the famous ‘Analf’ of the Brunanburh campaign. Tho’ defeated, once Athelstan died, Analf was back in Jorvik as the Viking king of Northumbria. Then crucially, soon after after attacking Auldhame & bearby Tyninghame in East Lothian,  in 941, he died. The written evidence tells us;

941: Olaf, having plundered the church of St Balthere [i.e. St Baldred] and burnt Tyninghame, soon perished Symeon of Durham

941: Amlaíb son of Gothfrith, king of the fair foreigners and the dark foreigners, died Chronicon Scotorum


In 2005, a 10th century Viking skeleton was discovered at Auldhame cemetary on an archaeological dig. He was buried with a number of items indicating his high rank, & some folk have concluded this was Analf. ‘Whilst there is no way to prove the identity of the young man buried at Auldhame,’ says Alex Woolf, ‘the date of the burial and the equipment make it very likely that this death was connected with Olaf’s attack.’ For me, I am sure Analf would have had a cooler burial site, something as impressive as his ego.




So, Analf dies, no-one knows where he’s buried. So where to look. Well, a ships-shaped mound at a Viking religio-regal centre is not a bad start. What confirms it for me is two slight depressions in the mound, under which lie broken stones (see below). It is as if  the roof of the ship burial has caved in somewhat…





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