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Thorfinn Einarsson known as Thorfinn 'Hausakluif' the Skullsplitter
Viking Earl of Orkney (947-977)

The Beer

You are most likely to come across the name of 'Thorfinn Skullsplitter' if you are found of the odd pint or two of British Real Ale, as 'SkullSplitter' is one of the products of the small Orkney Brewery. 'SkullSplitter' was voted Supreme Champion Winter Beer of Britain in 2001, and is an extremely potent brew with an alcohol content of 8.5% ABV. (And very nice it is too if you ever stumble across it.)

You might be forgiven for thinking that the name 'Skullsplitter' was simply the product of some advertising executive's imagination but no, the beer is named after a very real historical character by the name of Thorfinn Skullsplitter.

The Man

The genuine Thorfinn was the son of Torf Einar and succeeded his father as the Viking Earl of Orkney around the year 947, although it appears that he shared the earldom with his brothers Arnkel and Erlend. It has to be said that not a great deal is known about him. It is known that he married Grelaug or Grelod the daughter of a Dungladr or Dungaldus who it appears was a subordinate 'earl' of Caithness at the time.

According to the Orkneyinga Saga, Gunnhildr the wife of Eirikr Bloodaxe fled back to the safety of the Orkneys after the death of her husband at the battle of Stainmore in 954. (In which battle incidentally both of Thorfinn's brothers Arnkel and Erlend were also killed.)

Gunnhildr and her sons appear to have then taken over the government of Orkney. (Presumably by grant of the king of Norway, as the earldom of Orkney was subject to Norway at the time.) As one of Gunnhildr's daughters named Ragnhild was then married to Thorfinn's son and eventual successor Arnfinn, there does not appear to have been to much animosity generated by this switch.

Gunnhildr subsequently decided to leave Orkney and left for Denmark at which point Thorfinn resumed his reign. The Orkneyinga Saga then informs us that Thorfinn died peacefully in his bed and was buried at Hoxa in North Ronaldsay; probably around the year 977.

There is rather disappointingly no explanation of how Thorfinn came by the name 'Skullsplitter' and there are no surviving accounts, whether historical or legendary that ascribe any heroic or bloodthirsty deeds to our Thorfinn. Or indeed make any reference to the actual splitting of skulls.

Of course it is worth mentioning that the Vikings were not without a sense of humour in the nicknames that they bestowed upon people. There was, for example, a Thorfinn the Short who was actually noted for being very tall, and it is therefore within the bounds of possibility that Thorfinn 'Skullsplitter' was so named because he was a gentle old soul who wouldn't have hurt the proverbial fly.


SOURCES

Ann Williams, Alfred P. Smyth and D. P. Kirby A Biographical Dictionary of Dark Age Britain (Seaby, 1991)
For SkullSplitter ale see http://www.legendslimited.com/skull.html
The Orkneyinga Saga at http://www.northvegr.org/lore/orkney/