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
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.
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
the Stout, Earl Rognvald and in particular the beloved Earl
Magnus the Martyr, the saint still revered throughout Orkney
All these characters remain firmly in the minds
of Orcadians to this day and form the backbone of the county's Viking
Fact or fiction?
Although 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
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.