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  The Orkneyinga saga

The Orkneyinga Saga: Illustration by Sigurd TowrieAn important source for understanding the history of Norse Earldom of Orkney lies in the Icelandic sagas.

Of these, the Orkneyinga saga is one of the most famous and certainly the most specific to Orkney.

Compiled sometime between 1192 and 1206 by an unknown Icelandic scribe, or scribes, the Orkneyinga Saga presents an interpretation of the first conquest of Orkney by Norway and the subsequent history of the Earldom.

Within its pages, the reader is drawn into the semi-legendary world of Earldom Orkney.

The saga is thought to have been compiled, over the years, from a number of sources, combining oral tradition, artistic licence and historical fact.

It paints a vivid picture of battles, murders, sorcery, political intrigue and dirty dealings - all events occurring at places that have changed little over the centuries and remain familiar to Orcadians today.

After three chapters dealing with the mythical ancestry of the later earls, the saga's adventurous account begins with the semi-mythical tales of the conquest of Orkney by Harold Fairhair, the King of Norway.

This event, says the saga, resulted in the founding of the Orkney Earldom, which it then goes on to document.

Within its pages, we are introduced to some of the most powerful figures of Viking Britain - Sigurd the Mighty, the first Earl of Orkney; Haakon Paulsson, Svein Asleifarson, Sigurd the Stout, Earl Rognvald and in particular the beloved Earl Magnus the Martyr, the saint still revered throughout Orkney today.

All these characters remain firmly in the minds of Orcadians to this day and form the backbone of the county's Viking heritage.

Fact or fiction?

Scribe. Illustration by Sigurd TowrieAlthough the Orkneyinga saga is, without a doubt, a valuable document, without which much of our understanding of Orkney's Viking history would be lost, the reader must remember it is not a strictly historical work.

The saga is as much a piece of medieval literature as historical documentation and, written some three centuries after some of the events it records, presents the various contributors' interpretation of the history of the Orkney Earldom.

In among the more plausible historical elements, we find examples of what are obviously legendary or fictional elements - such as the poisoned shirt of Earl Harald and Earl Sigurd's raven banner.

These episodes, however, are generally found early in the saga and as the timeline progresses so does the historical veracity of the account.