Orkney Islands

Written for The Viking Network by Thomas Manson

The Islands of Orkney lie north of Scotland, east of Ireland, and west of Norway. That said, it is easy enough to see how, for several centuries, Orkney held a central position in the Viking world.

It is believed that Vikings came to Orkney late in the 8th century. It is not known whether Vikings came as “landtakers”, dispossessing indigenous peoples, or whether Viking farmers settled peacefully among the natives of Orkney or some of both. In any case, it appears that the Norse immigrants soon assumed dominance over any communities there.

Little is known about the first Vikings in Orkney. The sagas tell us that (at least some of) these Vikings were “sea pirates”, perhaps escaping Norway as much as raiding abroad. Orkney and Shetland were likely used as a base for raids on Scotland, England, Ireland, and, for a time, Norway.

In time, Orkney came to be ruled by jarls established by royal authority from Norway. Toward the end of the 9th century, a force led by King Harald Fairhair and Earl Rognvald of Møre or Moeri in West Norway came to Orkney to put down the Viking “sea pirates” who had attacked Norway from bases in Orkney and Shetland. Harald made a grant of Orkney and other territory to Earl Rognvald. He transferred these lands to his brother, Sigurd.

Sigurd the Mighty ruled Orkney as the first Jarl or Earl. He died in Scotland after defeating Melbrigda Tusk, Maormor of Ross.

Orkney was never an independent state in the Viking days. However, during the late 10th century to the mid 11th century the Earldom was dominant in northern Scotland, the northern Isles and Ireland. This was during the rule of Sigurd the Stout (980 – 1014 A.D.) and Thorfinn the Mighty (1014 – 1065 A.D.). However, it is important not to over-emphasise the role of raiding and plunder. The Vikings in Orkney remained in a largely agricultural economy with dispersed settlements.

After the death of Earl Thorfinn, the Earldom was ruled by his two sons Paul and Erland. Like other Orkney Vikings, they joined Norse kings on raids and military campaigns. Indeed, the two brothers fought in England with King Harald Hardrada in 1066 A.D., at the Battle of Stamford Bridge.

In the winter of 1150-1151 A.D. Vikings on their way to Jerusalem broke into Maeshowe. It is a giant chambered cairn, which had been built around 2900 B.C. on the Mainland, the main island of Orkney. The “Jerusalem-farers”, said to be Earls Rognvald and Eindrid the Younger and their men, left runic inscriptions on the walls of the tomb; the largest collection outside Scandinavia. What did they say? We are told by the famous Orkney author, George Mackay Brown, in his Portrait of Orkney (1979) that some of the runes said:

“Ingibiorg is the Loveliest of the Girls”

“Jerusalem-Farers Broke in Here”

“Hermund of the Hard Axe carved these Runes”

In or about the early 13th century, the famous Orkneyinga Saga was composed in Iceland. By this same time, the Norse influence was waning as Orkney came under the increasing control of Scotland.

The Vikings left their mark on the culture of Orkney especially through literature, land tenure, placenames, and, until the 17th century, language – the Orkney Norn.

For more information on the story of the Vikings in Orkney, see Viking Histories such as Magnus Magnusson’s “The Earldom in the North” in Viking Expansion Westwards (1973), Orkney Histories such as William Thomson’s History of Orkney (1987), J. Storer Clouston’s A History of Orkney (1932), G. Barry’s History of the Orkney Islands (1805, reprinted in 1974), and various official guides such as Ancient Monuments in Orkney and The Early Christian and Norse Settlements at Birsay.