King Harald and the establishment of the
the details of the earliest Norse contact with Orkney are vague,
the circumstances surrounding the founding of the Orkney earldom
are no clearer.
Although the Orkneyinga
Saga has no doubt regarding the events that led to
the creation of the earldom, its version is historically dubious.
Written at least 300 years after the events it claims to portray,
the saga account is highly suspect and very likely to be a literary
It documents that Norway's first noteworthy dealings
with Orkney involved the Norwegian King Harald Hárfagri (Fairhair),
who set out to deal with renegade Vikings using the islands as a
base for summer raids on Norway.
Heading 'west over sea', Harald's voyage of conquest
saw him subduing Orkney, Shetland and the Hebrides, before sailing
as far south as the Isle of Man.
The voyage of conquest
On this expedition, the son of the Norwegian Earl
Rognvald of Møre was killed.
Rognvald was a powerful man
who had aided in King Harald's efforts to unite Norway into one
kingdom. So, to recompense the Earl for the loss of his son, King Harald
gave Rognvald Orkney and Shetland.
But Earl Rognvald had no interest in the islands. He already had an earldom back in Norway, so passed Orkney and Shetland
to his brother Sigurd - one of King Harald's warriors. Before Harald
returned to Norway, Sigurd was confirmed as earl - the Orkneyinga
Saga's first earl of Orkney.
But the saga account of Harald Fairhair's voyage
is of doubtful historical accuracy. It is not corroborated in any
other non-saga source and is probably just a piece of creative writing
based on scraps of oral tradition and other Icelandic saga accounts
of similar voyages - in particular that of King Magnus Barelegs.
It seems likely that Harald's voyage was an literary
invention, based on an Icelandic historical tradition that King
Harald was the reason for the exodus of Norwegians from their home
country - an event the Icelanders saw as heralding the discovery
and eventual colonisation of Iceland.
Harald may well have been responsible for some
later emigrations from Norway, but there is no way he could have
been the cause of the earlier movements to Orkney.
Harald only became
King of a united Norway after the naval battle of Hafrsfjord.
battle took place around 892AD - 100 years after the earliest
Viking raids on Britain. His voyage to Orkney must therefore have
taken place some time around this date, but the historical sources,
such as the Irish Annals, make no mention of it.
An independent earldom?
Contact between Orkney and Norway had probably
been ongoing for some time prior to King Harald's supposed westward
It is tempting to think of the Saga's Orkney based "Vikings"
were perhaps political opponents of Harald, whose forceful subjugation
of Norway had dispossessed a number of Norwegian landowners. Did
they seek refuge with friends, families and allies who had already
settled in the islands?
Another interesting hypothesis is that Earl Rognvald
of Møre was actually the heir to an established independent
power in Orkney. As such, Earl Sigurd the Mighty was not necessarily
the first earl of Orkney - he was simply the first earl to make
it into the surviving historical records.
Was Rognvald rewarded with lands in Møre
and Romsdal after assisting Harald in his unification of Norway?
And if so was Rognvald's claim to Orkney territories ratified by
the King at the time? Hence the reference to Harald's conquest?
Earl Sigurd takes control
However the earldom began, by the time of Earl
Sigurd we are heading into more reliable territory - although still laced with myth and folklore.
in his hands, Sigurd had the means to expand his territory and, according to the saga, soon took
Caithness, Sutherland and sections of Argyll on the Scottish mainland.
But it was on one such raid into Scottish lands
that Sigurd the Mighty fell - suffering blood poisoning after AN
encounter with the chieftain, Maelbrigte Tusk.
here for more details.