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  Earl Robert Stewart

The Stewart tyranny begins...

The Stewart earls of Orkney - Robert and his son Patrick - have a particularly unenviable reputation in Orkney. Local tradition has painted these two men as tyrants, whose oppression of the people of Orkney is unparalleled in the history of the county.

But peeling away the layers of legend and myth that surrounds the pair, it has been argued that the two were perhaps not as black as they were painted? They came to be linked with lurid tales of torture, imprisonment and forced labour – tales which undoubtedly have elements of truth but which have been embellished considerably over the centuries.

Robert Stewart comes across today as an overbearing man, unscrupulous and greedy for land by whatever means. But although he was to become notorious for a harsh and oppressive rule in Orkney, history treats him slightly kinder than his successor, his son Patrick.

Robert Stewart was born in Scotland in 1533, the illegitimate son of King James V of Scotland.

His acquisition of the islands can be blamed on his half-sister, Mary Queen of Scots, who granted him Orkney and Shetland in 1564/5 and appointed him sheriff. Mary's grant, however, was legally dubious and in 1566 Robert was replaced as Sheriff of Orkney.

The following year, Robert lost all his powers in Orkney when his sister Mary married the Earl of Bothwell and made him Duke of Orkney. But despite the fact he held the office of sheriff in 1565, Robert's first visit to Orkney came in 1567, following Mary Queen of Scots defeat and her husband's flight to Scandinavia.

Upon his arrival, he forced Gilbert Balfour, the builder of Noltland Castle in Westray, to surrender the sheriffship and managed to gain control of Kirkwall Castle.

The following year, his followers took control of the St Magnus Cathedral to prevent it from being used as a vantage point to spy on his castle. In the process, Stewart's henchmen slaughtered two of the Orkney bishop's men, an act that did nothing to endear him to the islanders.

The next few years saw Robert Stewart's grip on Orkney tighten.

Although still not earl, he made up for this by making himself Provost of Kirkwall. Not satisfied with seizing Noltland Castle - and with it the Westray rents - he also began to construct the massive palatial complex in Birsay, now known as the Earl's Palace.

Stewart's rise to power inevitably made him enemies - both inside and outside Orkney - a number of whom wielded considerable power and influence.

In 1575, a complaint made to the Scottish Privy Council regarding Stewart resulted in his detention in Edinburgh Castle while the complaints were investigated.

At this time, Robert's nephew, James VI, was growing up and assuming more control over matters of state. Robert managed to find favour in his nephew's eyes and was permitted to return to Orkney in 1578.

He was finally granted title Earl of Orkney, Lord of Shetland and Knight of Birsay, in 1581. Confirmation of his Bishopric rights followed in 1585 and gave him complete control of the islands, acquiring more and more land through dubious means.

But Stewart soon fell out of favour with James VI, who was investigating the land-grabbing habits of a number of his sheriffs - in particular Robert Stewart himself. As a result, the Orkney earl began to return some of the land he had illegally acquired over the years.

The Scottish king despatched an old enemy of Robert's, Patrick Bellenden, to Orkney with three armed ships. Bellenden's task was not only to gather rents owed the King but also to fetch Robert Stewart and take him to Edinburgh .

On his arrival, Bellenden was met by Earl Robert, who commanded a force of men still loyal to him. Bellenden was forced to return empty handed.

Earl Robert remained in Orkney until he died in 1593 – the earldom subsequently passing to his son, Patrick, whose machinations were to bring about the downfall of the Stewart earldom.