The Norse colonisation
the end of the 13th century, the fact that Orkney was a part
of Norway and fell under Norwegian jurisdiction is without question
- the islands' culture, language and way of life were entirely that
of a Norse earldom.
But although there can be no doubt as to the extent
of the Scandinavian colonisation, very little is actually
known about the early days of Viking Orkney. The circumstances surrounding
the first Norse arrivals and the eventual takeover of Orkney remains
hotly debated to this day.
When did the first settlers arrive?
Did they integrate
with the indigenous Orcadians? Were the islands deserted or were
the natives slaughtered by the newcomers? These are all questions we cannot
The first Viking raids in Britain are recorded
in the 780s, by which time it seems likely that the Norse already
had a foothold in Orkney. The islands' strategic position, off the
northern coast of Scotland and at the centre of the Viking "sea
roads", made them the obvious choice as a base for further
expansion and raids into Scotland and Ireland.
The extent of this early settlement is unclear,
but although there had probably been some contact between Orkney
and Norway for some time - either trade, settlement or raiding -
it is generally accepted that the Norse only began moving to Orkney
in significant numbers at the start of the 9th century.
The Norse exodus
Written centuries after the initial takeover of
Orkney, the Icelandic sagas lay the blame for the exodus from Norway
firmly at the feet of the Norwegian King Harald Fairhair.
political pressure from Harald may account for later emigration,
the original Norse period of raiding and settlement was at least
a century before the influence of King Harald.
Instead, there were a number of factors that led
to the Norwegian expansion into the north Atlantic.
Perhaps most important was the increasing population
This increase led to a spread of settlers seeking new
lands to settle, but in areas where land was scarce it led to the
division of farmland into smaller and smaller fragments. Eventually
there was simply not enough land to work.
As a result there was an movement across the North
Sea to the islands of Orkney and Shetland, a short voyage of one
or two days. These settlers were primarily people from the Norwegian
western seaboard who, seeking a better life in the new territories,
found a landscape and climate not too dissimilar to the one they
had left behind.
But although many headed west to make a new life,
it must also be remembered to many, the search for wealth remained
the prime concern. For this group, Orkney provided the perfect base
for raiding, plunder and conquest in Scotland and the coastlines
nature of the settlement
The next question regarding Norse settlement in
Orkney is the nature of the "invasion".
Although we know
the Norwegian settlement of Orkney probably began in earnest in
the 8th century AD, it is not known whether the Vikings came
as "landtakers", dispossessing the indigenous Orcadians,
or whether they were farmers and traders who settled peacefully.
For more on this subject, click here.
The Orkneyinga Saga version of events
The Orkneyinga Saga is clear in its interpretation
of the founding of the Orkney earldom.
It explains that the Norwegian
king, Harald Harfagri (Fairhair) sailed westwards to deal with Vikings
who, after raiding Norway throughout the summer, were making Orkney
On this voyage, Earl Rognvald of Møre, received
the Earldom of Orkney from King Harald as compensation for the loss
of his son, Ivar. Not interested in the Orkney earldom, Rognvald
passed it to his brother, Sigurd.
But this account, written at least 300 years after the
events it claims to portray, is extremely dubious and very likely
to be a literary creation on behalf of the saga writer.
on this, click here.
But however and whenever it began, within
a few generations Orkney was a distinctly Norse earldom, from where
the earls controlled Shetland, the Western Isles and large areas
of northern and western Scotland.
The Norse settlers had achieved
complete dominance in the islands, their language replacing
the indigenous language and their placenames wiping out those that had gone before.