The Origins of the Viking Earldom

Apart from a brief period in the seventh century when Aedan mac Gabrhain may have brought the islands under Dal Riadan influence, the Orkney Islands together with its sister archipelago of the Shetlands were part of Pictavia, the kingdom of the Picts.

During the ninth century however, the islands were captured by a band of Viking sea-pirates. This particular band of Vikings appear to have been as much of a threat to good order in Norway as they were in Britain. So the Norwegian king Harald Hårfagre sent Rognvald the Jarl of More to clear out the insurgents and claim the islands in the name of Norway.

Orkney was never formally an independent kingdom as such, its earls paid homage to the king of Norway in respect of their lands in Orkney and Shetland, and to the king of Scotland in respect of their holdings in Caithness and mainland Scotland. But its earls had considerable autonomy and despite their nominal submission to both Norway and Scotland were largely free to act as they saw fit.

The fate of the Picts

What exactly happened to the native Picts after the Vikings came is a matter of debate and controversy;

a) one school of thought insists that the native Picts were systematically exterminated (an example of ethnic cleansing in the modern vernacular)

b) the other believes that the Picts were peacefully incorporated within the new Scandinavian culture.

The latter argue that the discovery of Pictish goods within Viking settlements indicates the survival of some element of Pictish society.

The former claim that the almost complete absence of any Pictish place-names in the Orkneys and Shetlands clearly demonstrate that the Pictish language and culture were totally eradicated and that the presence of Pictish goods is explained as simply booty from Viking raids.

The Jarls of Orkney

Some sources show Rognvald as the first Viking Earl or Jarl of Orkney, but although it is clear he held Orkney in the name of the king of the Norway it seems that the first person to specifically rule Orkney with the specific title of 'Earl of Orkney' was his brother Sigurd Eysteinsson, better known as Sigurd the Powerful (or sometimes as 'Sigurd the Mighty').

It was Sigurd the Powerful who was also responsible for extending the earldom so that it encompassed Caithness and Ross in mainland Scotland; the earldom of Orkney thereafter included much of what had been northern Pictavia following the collapse of that kingdom in the mid ninth century and its absorption into Dal Riada.

The history of the Viking Earls of Orkney is rather murky as much of it is derived from the Orkneyinga Saga, a thirteenth century Icelandic saga which is an account of heroic deeds and daring-do rather than a work of history and provides no dates for any of the events it relates. It also appears that the earldom was often divided between different heirs so that there are often periods when there a number of jarls recorded as ruling simultaneously.

The last Viking earl John Haraldsson, was killed in 1231 and the earldom passed into the hands of the Earl of Angus who continued to administer it on behalf of Norway. The Orkneys remained part of Norway until the fifteen century when James III acquired it as part of the marriage settlement agreed with Christian I of Norway.

The Vikings Earls or Jarls of Orkney


The Norse Earls of Orkney at

The Heritage of the Orkneys website at

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