The Norse Earls of Orkney – Orkney islands

The islands of Orkney, off the north coast of Scotland, were the centre of a powerful Norse Earldom which lasted from the ninth century to the thirteenth, and remained under Norwegian sovereignity right up until 1468. During this time the Earldom, which also included the Shetland Isles and Caithness at various times, was ruled by a succession of men, some powerful, some weak, some good, and some bad.

It is mainly thanks to the Norse sagas that we know so much about the figures who ruled over this Earldom, and in particular the Orkneyinga Saga. The Orkneyinga Saga, or ‘History of the Earls of Orkney,’ as it is also known as, is unique in being the only Norse Saga concerned with what is now part of the British Isles. It was written around 1200 AD, and although some experts have questioned the historical accuracy of the text, most historians agree that it is certainly based on true events.

Around thirty Norse earls ruled the islands during this period, and the stories of their lives make for exciting reading. Although some died in their beds and some were killed in battle, most were murdered by those who would succeed them.

The following are just a few of the Earls of Orkney:

SIGURD EYSTEINSSON (Sigurd the Mighty)
Sigurd the Mighty was the first Earl of Orkney, who ruled from c872 to c891. He was granted the Earldom by his brother, Earl Rognvald of More in Norway, who himself had received it from King Harald Fairhair as compensation for the loss of a son. Sigurd fought many campaigns in the north of Scotland and conquered Caithness, Argyle and Ross, and it was during one of these excursions that he lost his life. He was fighting a Scottish earl called Maelbrigte Tusk (so called because of a large protruding tooth), and killed him in battle. Sigurd beheaded him and prepared to ride home with the Scottish earl’s head tied to his saddle, but he grazed his leg on the protruding tooth and contracted blood-poisoning from which he subsequently died. He is buried in a mound on the north shore of the Dornoch Firth on the Scottish mainland.

EINAR ROGNVALDSSON (Turf-Einar) c894 – c936
Einar was the illegitimate son of Earl Rognvald of More, and his mother was a slave, so his father granted him the Earldom to get rid of him. He was another great warrior who subdued the powerful Danish vikings Thorir Tree-beard and Kalf Scurvey, but unlike Sigurd, Einar spent a lot of time in Orkney. He was generally caring to his people, and was responsible for the first peat-cutting for fuel in the islands, hence his nick-name. He gained notoriety however when he killed Halfdan Longlegs, a son of King Harald Fairhair, in revenge for the murder of his father, but ended up ruling over Orkney for a long time before eventually dying in his bed.

THORFINN EINARSSON (Thorfinn Skull-splitter) c936 – c963
Thorfinn was the son of Einar Rognvaldsson, and ruled jointly with his brothers Erlend and Arnkel until their deaths in c954 when he became the sole ruler. His rule was overshadowed by the arrival of King Eric Blood-axe’s wife Gunnhild, who along with her sons and the remnants of Erik’s army, set up a permanent base in Orkney from where they launched periodic attacks on the British mainland and Norway. Thorfinn married Grelod, a daughter of the Celtic Caithness ruler Dungad, and was remembered as a strong ruler and warrior, but also died in his bed. He was buried at Hoxa in North Ronaldsay.

SIGURD HLODVIRSSON (Sigurd the Stout) c980 – 1014
Sigurd was a son of Hlodver Thorfinnson, and was reputed to have conquered Ross and Murray, Sutherland, and the dales of Scotland, and along with his brother-in-law Earl Gilli of the Hebrides, the kingdom of Man in the years 986 – 989. His second wife was a daughter of King Malcolm II of Scotland. The last of the true heathens, Sigurd was baptised and converted to Christianity in 995 by the viking chief Olaf Trygvesson. He died at the battle of Clontarf in Ireland after raising a magic banner which guaranteed victory to the army who displayed it, but death to the man who carried it.

EINAR SIGURDSSON (Einar Wry-mouth) 1014 – c1020
Einar was the second oldest son of Sigurd the Stout, and ruled the Earldom jointly with his brothers Sumarlidi, Brussi and Thorfinn. He was remembered for being a tyrant in Orkney, and cruel, oppressive and reckless in battle. He levied harsh taxes from his people and forced them to accompany him on unsuccessful raiding expeditions, including a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Irish at Larne in 1017 in which many Orcadians lost their lives. He was murdered at Skaill in Deerness by a farmer called Thorkel Amundasson, a long-standing enemy.

THORFINN SIGURDSSON (Thorfinn the Mighty) 1019 – c1065
The youngest son of Sigurd the Stout, Thorfinn was only five years old when his father died. He lived in Caithness in the charge of his grandfather, King Malcolm II of Scotland, and was fostered by the farmer and eventual murderer of his brother Einar, Thorkel Amundasson, who became known as Thorkel the Fosterer. He gained his share of the Orkney Earldom when he was ten with the help of Thorkel. He got complete control of the Earldom in the early 1030s, and for a while ruled unopposed until his cousin Rognvald Brussisson arrived back in Orkney c1038 intent on regaining his father’s share. For a while they shared the Earldom on uneasy terms, until Rognvald was also murdered by Thorkel. The remainder of Thorfinn’s reign was relatively peaceful, and he even went on a pilgrimage to Rome to receive absolution of his sins. When he returned he built a cathedral at Christchurch at his residence in Birsay, and installed Orkney’s first bishop, Turolf. When he died he was buried in Christchurch.

MAGNUS ERLENDSSON (Saint Magnus) c1105 – 1115
Magnus was the son of Erlend Thorfinnsson. He was taken on an expedition to Anglesey with King Magnus Bare-legs of Norway in 1098 along with his cousin Hakon Paulsson, but he refused to fight, singing psalms in the heat of the battle instead. This angered the king so Magnus fled to Scotland where he spent a few years in exile in King Edgar’s court, while Hakon eventually became Earl of Orkney. After the death of King Magnus Bare-legs in 1102, Magnus returned north and became joint Earl of Orkney with Hakon a few years later. For several years the cousins ruled together, but in 1114 Magnus visited King Henry I of England, and during his absence Hakon plotted his demise. Upon his return Magnus discovered trouble was afoot, and a meeting with Hakon was arranged for a reconciliation. During Easter week of 1115 Magnus met Hakon on Egilsay where he was tricked, taken prisoner and sentenced to death. Since no man present wanted the pious Earl’s blood on their hands, Magnus was executed by a single blow with a meat cleaver by Hakon’s cook. He was initially buried at Christchurch in Birsay but after miracles were reported at his grave site, his body was exhumed by Bishop William the Old twenty years later, and his remains were moved to Kirkwall to eventually rest in the cathedral his nephew Rognvald Kolsson had built.

ROGNVALD KOLSSON (Saint Rognvald) 1136 – 1158
The son of Kol Kalisson and Gunnhild, a sister of Mangnus Erlendsson, hence his claim to the Earldom. Rognvald was born and brought up in Norway, but in 1129 was given the right to half the Earldom by Sigurd Magnusson. He began gathering support for his claim, particularly in Shetland, and fought a campaign against Paul Hakonsson, which he won with the help of the viking chief Sweyn Asleifsson. He undertook the building of St.Magnus Cathedral in 1136, under the supervision of his father. He fostered Harald Maddadsson, and agreed to share the Earldom with him in 1138, then went on a voyage to the Holy Land. Upon his return he got involved in a fight for the Earldom with Harald and Erlend Haraldsson. In 1158 he went on a hunting expedition with Harald and was murdered by Thorbjorn Clerk.


  • Sigurd Eysteinsson (Sigurd the Powerful)
  • Guthorm Sigurdsson
  • Einar Rognvaldsson
  • Hallad Rognvaldsson
  • Arnkel Einarsson
  • Erlend Einarsson
  • Thorfinn Einarsson (Thorfinn Skull-splitter)
  • Arnfinn Thorfinnsson
  • Havard Thorfinnsson (Havard Harvest-happy)
  • Hlodvir Thorfinnsson
  • Ljot Thorfinnsson
  • Sigurd Hlodvirsson (Sigurd the Stout)
  • Sumarlidi Sigurdsson
  • Brussi Sigurdsso
  • Einar Sigurdsson (Einar Wry-mouth)
  • Thorfinn Sigurdsson (Thorfinn the Mighty)
  • Rognvald Brussisson
  • Paul Thorfinnsson
  • Erlend Thorfinnsson
  • Hakon Paulsson
  • Magnus Erlendsson (St.Magnus)
  • Paul Hakonsson
  • Harald Hakonsson (Harald Smooth-tongue)
  • Rognvald Kolsson (St.Rognvald)
  • Erlend Haraldsson
  • Harald Maddadarsson
  • John Haraldsson
  • David Haraldsson

More about Norse and Viking history:

Orkney – Isles

Burray is a small island between South Ronaldsay and the Orkney Mainland, in the south of the archipelaego, joined to each by the Churchill Barrier causeway.

Eday is a long, thin island in the north of Orkney. It is dominated by peat-producing heather-covered upland, with farmland confined to a narrow strip of coastal ground. The sparsely inhabited island is almost divided in two by its thin waist, flanked on either side by sandy bays, between which lies its airfield (known as London Airport). Eday, in the northern Orkney isles, boasts prehistorical sites, pirates and birds.

Hoy takes its name from the Old Norse ‘haey’, meaning ‘High Island’. With an area of 57 square miles, it is the second largest island in Orkney. It is most famous for its towering sea stack, the Old Man of Hoy. Hoy is steeped in history and has a variety of fascinating sites dating from prehistoric times and the Viking period. Here you’ll find the only rock-cut chambered tomb in Britain.

North Ronaldsay
Isolated North Ronaldsay is Orkney’s most northerly island. North of Sanday, North Ronaldsay is just three miles by one and rises only 66ft above sea level. The island is almost overwhelmed by the enormity of the sky, the strength of wind and the ferocity of the sea – so much so that its very existence seems an act of tenacious defiance. Despite these adverse conditions, North Ronaldsay has been inhabited for centuries, and continues to be heavily farmed from old-style crofts.

Papa Westray
Just across Papa Sound from Westray in the north of the Orkney Islands. Papay was once a medieval pilgrimage centre, focused on a chapel dedicated to St Tredwell, which is now just a pile of rubble on a promontory on the loch of the same name just inland from the ferry terminal. Holland House, occupying the high central point of the island, was once seat of the local lairds, the Traill family, who ruled over Papay for three centuries. There is a small museum here, filled with bygone bits and bobs. Papa Westray, or ‘Papay’, as it is known locally, has one of Orkney’s best-preserved Neolithic settlements, and a large nesting seabird population.

Rousay is today home to little more than 200 people, having suffered Highland-style clearances in the 19th century. The history of the island goes back a good deal longer: the chambered cairn Taversoe Tuick dates back to 3500BC. One of the more accessible northern Orkney isles, Rousay is home to a number of intriguing prehistoric sites.

The appropriately-named Sanday is mostly made up sand dunes, which gives it some brilliant beahes – fine sweeps of white sand and clear blue sea. Dominated by sand dunes, Sanday is the largest of the northerly Orkney islands.

The green and fertile island of Shapinsay is just 30 minutes by ferry from Kirkwall. Tradition has it that this little isle was home to banished thieves and witches but now it is the haunt of cormorants, kittiwakes and seals. The main settlement is Balfour village, built in the late 18th century as a home for smiths, carpenters and masons employed on the Balfour estate. Balfour Castle is open to visitors in the summer.

South Ronaldsay
The main town on South Ronaldsay is St. Margaret’s Hope, where the visitor will find necessary facilities. The various habitats on South Ronaldsay – such as heathland, beaches, lochs, cliffs and rocks – give rise to a wide variety of birds. Common and Grey Seals can also often be seen as you walk along the coast. South Ronaldsay is the nearest Orkney Island to Scotland, being just six and a half miles across the Pentland Firth from John O’Groats.

Stonsay is a place which prides itself on its friendliness and tranquillity. It is also very low-lying, with its highest point being Burgh Hill which is only 46 metres (154 feet) above sea level. The island has several lovely sandy beaches and turquoise bays.

Westray is an hour and a half on the ferry from Kirkwall. The boat docks at Rapness at the far south of the island, while the main settlement, Pierowall, is in the north. You can learn all about the island at the Westray Heritage Centre in Pierowall, or you can actually get out and about and visit the ruins of Noltland Castle. Over 100,000 seabird nest on the high cliffs at Noup Head.

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The Norse Earls of Orkney – Orkney islands
Scotland, UK

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