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  Earl Sigurd the Powerful

The first earl of Orkney

The Battle: Illustration by Sigurd TowrieAccording to the Orkneyinga Saga, Sigurd Eysteinsson - or Earl Sigurd the Powerful - was the first Earl of Orkney.

But although the saga makes it clear that Earl Sigurd I was one of the three great earls of Orkney, it actually documents very little of his reign.

Sigurd enters the saga as the forecastleman of one of King Harald Fairhair’s ships, on the voyage of conquest to Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles.

According to the saga, the Norwegian king had sailed westwards to deal with Vikings who, after raiding Norway throughout the summer, were making the Northern Isles their base.

Harald’s forces conquered Orkney and Shetland before going on to the Hebrides and the Isle of Man.

During this voyage, Sigurd’s brother, Earl Rognvald of More, received the Earldom of Orkney from King Harald as compensation for the loss of his son, Ivar.

Sigurd gains the earldom

Rognvald had no intentions of staying in the islands so passed the earldom to Sigurd, who became Earl Sigurd I of Orkney. As earl, Sigurd ruled wisely and became very powerful - but unfortunately the saga says little more of his reign.

Instead the reader is hurled into the tale of Earl Sigurd’s death - a story that remains firmly in the memories of Orcadians today, as a folkloric origin for the Kirkwall Ba’ game.

Earl Sigurd had formed an alliance with Thorstein the Red, travelling south into Scotland where they conquered all of Caithness and large parts of Argyll, Moray and Ross.

Glossing over the exact details of the campaign, the saga goes on to tell us that Earl Sigurd constructed a stronghold in Moray before mentioning a feud between Sigurd and a local magnate Maelbrigte.

The reason for the two men’s enmity is not given, but it was undoubtedly to do with the Orkney earl’s forays into Scottish territory. Whatever the cause, both men agreed they should meet to settle their differences, each taking no more than forty men.

Sigurd, however, decided that the Scots were not to be trusted so turned up to the "meeting" with eighty warriors - two warriors mounted on each of his forty horses.

Orcadian treachery

Maelbrigte was aware that treachery was afoot when he noticed that there were two feet on each side of every Orkneyman's horse. Knowing he had been betrayed by the Orkney earl, he instructed his men to fight on and slay two of the enemy each. A battle ensued and, despite their bravery, the outnumbered Scottish side perished and Maelbrigte was slain.

Elated at his victory, Sigurd had the heads of his vanquished enemies severed and, as a show of triumph, strapped to each of his warriors' saddles.

Snatching up his own grizzly trophy, Sigurd fastened Maelbrigte’s head to his saddle. The earl’s forces then headed back north but Maelbrigte had his revenge. While spurring his horse during the ride home, Earl Sigurd’s leg was scratched by Maelbrigte’s protruding buck-tooth.

Sigurd's Howe

The scratch became infected and before long Earl Sigurd the Powerful died.

He was buried at “Ekkjalsbakki” - the banks of the River Oykell in Scotland. Although the exact location is unknown, the area of Earl Sigurd’s burial place is now known as Ciderhall - a corruption of the Norse words meaning “Sigurd’s Howe”.

See side panel for further details.

His son, Guthrom, ruled the earldom for one winter before dying childless. Earl Rognvald of More's son was then sent from Norway to become earl.