About Orkney
 About the Site
 Search Site 
  Viking Orkney

Earl Sigurd the Mighty - the first Earl of Orkney

The Battle: Illustration by Sigurd TowrieAccording to the Orkneyinga Saga, Sigurd Eysteinsson - or Earl Sigurd the Mighty - was the first Earl of Orkney.

But, although the saga makes it clear that Earl Sigurd I was one of the three great earls of Orkney, it contains very few details of his reign.

Sigurd enters the saga as the forecastleman of one of King Harald Fairhair’s ships on his voyage of conquest into Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles.

According to the saga, the Norwegian king had sailed westwards to deal with Vikings who, after raiding Norway throughout the summer, were making the Northern Isles their base.

Harald’s forces conquered Orkney and Shetland before going on to the Hebrides and the Isle of Man.

On the voyage, Sigurd’s brother, Earl Rognvald of Møre, received the Earldom of Orkney from King Harald as compensation for the loss of his son, Ivar. Rognvald had no intention of staying in Orkney, so passed the earldom to Sigurd, who became Earl Sigurd I of Orkney.

Sigurd gains the Earldom

As earl, Sigurd ruled wisely and became very powerful - but unfortunately the saga says little more of his reign. Instead, the reader is hurled into the tale of Earl Sigurd’s death - a story that remains firmly in the memories of Orcadians today as a folk origin for the Kirkwall Ba’ game.

Sigurd had formed an alliance with Thorstein the Red, travelling south into Scotland where they conquered all of Caithness and large parts of Argyll, Moray and Ross.

Glossing over the exact details of the campaign, the saga goes on to tell us that Earl Sigurd constructed a stronghold in Moray before mentioning a feud between him and a local magnate Maelbrigte - nickname Maelbrigte Tusk because of his protruding teeth..

The reason for the two men’s enmity is not given but it was undoubtedly to do with the Orkney earl’s forays into Scottish territory. Whatever the cause, both men agreed they should meet to settle their differences, each taking no more than 40 men.

Sigurd, however, decided that the Scots were not to be trusted. so he turned up with 80 warriors - two warriors mounted on each of his 40 horses.

Orcadian treachery

Maelbrigte was aware that treachery was afoot when he noticed there were two feet on each side of every horse.

Knowing the Orkney earl had betrayed him, Maelbrigte instructed his men to fight on and slay two of the enemy each. A battle ensued and, despite their bravery, the outnumbered Scottish side perished and Maelbrigte was slain.

Elated at his victory, Sigurd had the heads of his vanquished enemies severed and strapped to his warriors' saddles as a show of triumph.

Snatching up his grizzly trophy, Sigurd followed suit and fastened Maelbrigte’s head to his saddle. After mounting his horse, the earl’s forces headed north but Maelbrigte had his revenge. While spurring his horse during the ride home, Earl Sigurd’s leg was scratched by Maelbrigte’s protruding tooth.

The scratch became infected and before long Earl Sigurd the Mighty died.