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  A Brief History of Orkney

The Norse Takeover

Dragon ProwThe Norsemen began to colonise Orkney in the eighth century AD and before long the islands became a vital link in their western sea-routes.

Exactly how the Norse takeover of Orkney took place remains a hotly debated subject to this day. Was it a peaceful integration or did the Norsemen wipe out the indigenous population?

Whatever the circumstances, by the end of the ninth century the Norwegian settlement was firmly established and Orkney's culture and way of life was entirely that of a Norse earldom - an earldom that became a powerful political unit and had considerable impact on the history of Scotland.

The history of the Norse Earls of Orkney is recorded in the Orkneyinga Saga which recounts events up until the murder of the last of the Norse Earl in 1231. However, although elements of the saga are historically accurate, it remains a literary work and cannot be accepted as entirely trustworthy.

According to the saga, Norway's first noteworthy dealings with Orkney involved King Harald Harfagre, who set out to deal with renegade Vikings who were using the islands as a base for summer raids on Norway. The Saga states that on this expedition a son of the Norwegian Earl Rognvald of Møre was killed, so to recompense the Earl, King Harald gave him Orkney and Shetland.

The saga account, however, is not backed up by other references and is more than likely a 13th century Icelandic "creation", based on their traditions that it was the tyranny of Harald Fairhair that forced their forebears to leave Norway. For more details, click here.

Whatever the historical truth, the saga goes on to explain that Earl Rognvald had no interest in the islands so passed them on to his brother, Sigurd. The first earl of Orkney, Sigurd the Mighty was the first in a long line of Norwegian earls who controlled Orkney for the next 600 years.

After the death of Earl John Haraldsson in 1231, the Earldom was passed to the son of the Earl of Angus. Despite this, the islands were still owned by Norway and the Scottish inheritor of the island earldom owed allegiance to the Norwegian Crown.

The period in which Orkney played such a major part in the Western Empire of the Norse is considered by some to have been the islands' Golden Age.

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