“Earl Thorfinn made himself a great chief; he was the tallest and strongest of men, ugly, black-haired, sharp-featured, and big-nosed, and with somewhat scowling brows. He was a mighty man of strife, and greedy both of money and honour; he was lucky in battle, and skilful in war, and good in onslaught;”
Thorfinn Sigurdsson, or Thorfinn the Mighty, was born around 1009, and, at the height of his power, controlled Orkney, Shetland, the Hebrides, Caithness and Sutherland.
Thorfinn was one of the four sons of Earl Sigurd Hlodvirsson (Sigurd the Stout), who fell at the Battle of Clontarf in Ireland in 1014.
Upon Sigurd’s death, the Orkney earldom was left to Thorfinn’s brothers, Sumarlidi, Einar “Wry Mouth” and Brusi. Around this time, Thorfinn was made Earl of Caithness and Sutherland by his grandfather, King Malcolm II of Scotland.
After Sumarlidi took ill and died in his bed, sometime around 1015, Thorfinn attempted to claim a share of the Orkney earldom. Einar immediately opposed the move, on the grounds that Thorfinn already held Caithness and Sutherland.
But to keep the peace Brusi eventually gave up his share to Thorfinn, while Einar seized Sumarlidi’s third of the earldom and set himself up as overall ruler.
But Einar was overbearing and was not a well-liked man. As a result, his time in control was short. In 1020, Thorkel Amundason – Thorfinn’s foster-father, killed him in Deerness.
It was Einar’s insistence that the Orcadian landowners support his summer raiding campaigns that led to Thorkel first coming up against the Earl. Thorkel, whose father had already refused to speak to the earl, was asked to speak to Einar on behalf of the people of Orkney. So Thorkel approached Einar at a called meeting of landowners, a Thing, and made his plea.
Reluctantly, the earl agreed, but warned Thorkel not to raise the matter again.
The following spring, Einar requested the same level of levy, and again, the Orcadian people asked Thorkel to speak on their behalf. Thorkel agreed, but at the Thing, the earl flew into a rage, forcing Thorkel to flee to Caithness and seek refuge with Thorfinn.
Thorkel remained with the young Thorfinn. He became his foster-father, resulting in him being known thereafter as “Thorkel Fostri” – Thorkel the Fosterer.
When Thorfinn came of age, he asked Einar for a share of their father’s earldom. Not surprisingly, Einar wasn’t keen on the idea. So, Thorfinn massed an army in Caithness ready to take a share by force. In Orkney, Einar was also mobilising troops with the intention of striking Thorfinn first.
But a battle between the siblings was averted.
Brusi, with an army of his own, met Thorfinn and Einar and managed to arrange a bloodless settlement. Thorfinn was granted Brusi’s portion of the earldom, while Brusi agreed to share the two thirds held by Einar – although Einar would retain leadership with responsibility of defending the islands.
Satisfied, Earl Thorfinn placed men in Orkney to watch over his assets but he remained in Caithness.
Thorkel was regularly despatched back to Orkney to gather Thorfinn’s taxes – something that rankled Einar, who held Thorkel responsible for Thorfinn’s uprising and subsequent acquisition of part of the earldom.
On one such tithe-gathering trip, Thorkel became aware of Einar’s plan to assassinate him, but escaped back to Caithness. There, Thorfinn convinced him to travel to the court of the Norwegian king Olaf, rather than confront Earl Einar.
Reluctantly, Thorkel agreed.
During his time in the company of the Norwegian king, Thorkel made sure Olaf was aware of the situation across the North Sea. As a result, the following spring, Thorfinn was brought to Norway to meet the king.
After a successful summer in the Norwegian court, King Olaf gave Thorfinn a fine longship to travel home. Accompanied by Thorkel, he set out for Orkney.
But once alerted to Thorfinn’s return, Einar prepared an attack.
Earl Brusi foiled his efforts again, however, arranging a peaceful settlement between the brothers. Part of this was that Einar was to forget his enmity towards Thorkel. To seal the agreement, both men were required to throw a feast for the other.
Thorkel’s feast was first, taking place at his Deerness hall at Sandwick. Einar attended, grudgingly, but the peace was kept - for a while, at least. Then, on the day the Earl was due to leave, with Thorkel in attendance, Thorkel sent men ahead to scout out the road. They returned with the news that three ambushes awaited.
Upon hearing this, Thorkel gathered his men.
Then, when Einar’s retinue announced it was time to leave, Thorkel declared that he was not yet ready and made his way to the main hall. Entering, he closed the door and went to where Einar sat by the fire.
“Are you ready?” snapped the Earl.
“I am ready,” replied Thorkel, and with a single blow to the head, killed Einar, sending his corpse tumbling forwards into the fire.
After Einar’s murder, Brusi took control of his lands, thus assuming control of two thirds of the earldom. Thorfinn questioned this, feeling they should have equal shares.
Brusi knew he could not withstand an assault by his brother’ and his allies, so instead sought the assistance of King Olaf of Norway. But Olaf was shrewd, and awarded himself Einar’s third, over which he made Brusi steward.
When Thorfinn arrived in Norway, with the intention of petitioning the king for aid, Olaf presented him with the same choice – hand over the earldom and declare himself “the King’s man”.
Diplomatically, Thorfinn refused, stating that he was already bound to owe allegiance to his grandfather, the King of Scotland. However, acting on advice from Thorkel, Thorfinn eventually agreed to King Olaf’s terms.
As a result, Brusi and Thorfinn were to hold a third of the earldom each, with Olaf claiming he would maintain a third himself. But the king was obviously wary of Thorfinn’s ambitions . After the young earl’s departure for Orkney, the King awarded a second third to Brusi, whose son Rognvald remained at the Norwegian court.
After leaving Norway, however, Thorfinn spent little time in Orkney, once again leaving retainers to look after his interests in the earldom.
Because of Thorfinn’s absence, the responsibility for defending the territory fell on Brusi’s shoulders. And he was struggling under a constant stream of raids. Brusi complained to his brother that he was doing nothing to defend his share, although he was keen enough to gather the taxes due to him.
So Thorfinn made an offer. If Brusi granted him two thirds of the earldom, he would assume sole responsibility for the defence of the islands.
And so the overall power in the earldom of Orkney passed to Earl Thorfinn.