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Einarr Rögnvaldarson
Died c. 910[1]
Other names Torf-Einarr
Title Earl of Orkney
Spouse(s) Unknown
Children Thordis, Arnkel, Erlend and Thorfinn
Parents Rögnvald Eysteinsson and unknown slave

Einarr Rögnvaldarson, Torf-Einarr or Turf-Einar (fl. early 890s–c. 910) was one of the Norse Earls of Orkney. His rise to power is related in sagas which apparently draw on verses of Einarr's own composition for inspiration. After battling for control of the Northern Isles of Scotland, Einarr founded a dynasty which retained control of the islands for centuries after his death.

Rise to power[edit]

Einarr was the youngest son of Rögnvald Eysteinsson of Møre, Norway, by a concubine. Rögnvald's family conquered the Orkney and Shetland islands in the late ninth century, and Rögnvald's brother, Sigurd Eysteinsson, was made Earl of Orkney. After his death on campaign, Sigurd was succeeded by his son, Guthorm, who died shortly afterward. Rögnvald sent one of his sons, Hallad, to govern the islands but Hallad was unable to maintain control, resigned his earldom and returned to Norway as a common landholder.[2]

According to the Norse Heimskringla and Orkneyinga sagas, Rögnvald had little regard for his youngest son Einarr because Einarr's mother was a slave. The sagas record that Rögnvald agreed to provide Einarr with a ship and crew in the hope that he would sail away and never return. Einarr sailed to the Scottish islands, where he defeated two Danish warlords, Þórir Tréskegg (Thorir Treebeard) and Kálf Skurfa (Kalf the Scurvy), who had taken residence there, and established himself as earl.[3] It is unclear whether the account in the sagas of Einarr's conquest is accurate. Though the Historia Norvegiæ, written at the same time as the sagas but from a different source, confirms that Rögnvald's family conquered the islands, it gives few details. The scene in the sagas where Einarr's father scorns him is a literary device which often figures in Old Norse literature. Much of Einarr's story in the sagas appears to be derived from five skaldic verses attributed to Einarr himself.[2]

Relations with Norway[edit]

The five verses attributed to Einarr describe a feud between the families of Rögnvald and the King of Norway, Harald Fairhair. The poems are elaborated in the sagas, which say that two of Harald Fairhair's unruly sons, Halvdan Hålegg (Hálfdan Longlegs) and Gudrød Ljome (Gudrod the Gleaming), killed Einarr's father Rögnvald by trapping him in his house and setting it alight. Gudrød took possession of Rögnvald's lands while Hálfdan sailed westwards to Orkney and displaced Einarr. The sagas say that King Harald, apparently appalled by his sons' actions, overthrew Gudrød and restored Rögnvald's lands to his son, Thorir Rögnvaldarson. From a base in Caithness, Einarr resisted Hálfdan's occupation of the islands. After a battle at sea, and a ruthless campaign on land, Einarr spied Hálfdan hiding on North Ronaldsay. The sagas claim that Hálfdan was captured, and sacrificed to Odin as a blood-eagle.[4] While the killing of Hálfdan by the Orkney islanders is recorded independently in the Historia Norvegiæ, the manner of his death is unspecified. The blood-eagle sacrifice may be a misunderstanding or an invention of the sagawriters as it does not feature directly in the earlier skaldic verses, which instead indicate that Hálfdan was killed by a volley of spears.[5] The verses do mention the eagle as a carrion bird, and this may have influenced the sagawriters to introduce the blood-eagle element.[6] The sagas relate that Harald sought vengeance for his son's ignoble death, and set out on campaign against Einarr, but was unable to dislodge him. Eventually, Harald agreed to end the fight in exchange for a fine of 60 gold marks levied on Einarr and the allodial owners of the islands. Einarr offered to pay the whole fine if the allodial landowners passed their lands to him, to which they agreed.[7] Einarr's assumption of control over the islands appears well-attested and was considered by later commentators to be the moment at which the Earls of Orkney came to own the entire island group in fee to the King of Norway.[2] Others have interpreted the payment of 60 gold marks as wergild or blood money.[8]


Apart from the five verses recorded in the sagas, no other examples of Torf-Einarr's poetry are known to survive, though they appear to be part of a larger body of work.[9] A couplet that commemorates Einarr's defeat of the two pirate Vikings, Þórir Tréskegg (Thorir Treebeard) and Kálf Skurfa (Kalf the Scurvy),

Hann gaf Tréskegg trollum,
Torf-Einarr drap Skurfu.

He gave Treebeard to the trolls,
Torf-Einarr slew Scurvy.

has a matching metre and alliterative similarities to the attributed verses.[9] Einarr must have had some fame as a poet, as his name is used in the Háttatal, an examination of Old Norse poetry written in the thirteenth-century, to refer to a specific type of metre, Torf-Einarsháttr.[9]

The remainder of Einarr's long reign was apparently unchallenged, and he died in his bed of a sickness, leaving three sons, Arnkel, Erlend and Thorfinn. The sagas describe Einarr as tall, ugly and blind in one eye, but sharp-sighted nonetheless.[10] Despite these apparent disabilities, as well as his low-born mother, Einarr established a dynasty which ruled the Orkney Islands until 1470.[2]

Ari Þorgilsson quotes a short section from the now lost Torf-Einar’s Saga in the Landnámabók. It begins:

Earl Turf-Einar (of Orkney) had a daughter in his youth, she was called Thordis. Earl Rognvald brought her up and gave her in marriage to Thorgeir Klaufi, their son was Einar, he went to Orkney to see his kinsmen; they would not own him for a kinsman; then Einar bought a ship in partnership with two brothers, Vestman and Vemund, and they went to Iceland.

and goes on to make brief reference to young Einar's travels there. It also lists his two sons, Eyjolf and Ljot, and some details about them and their descendents.[11][1]

The sagas incorrectly claim that the Earl of Orkney was called "Turf-Einarr" because he introduced the practice of burning turf or peat to the islands since wood was so scarce. The real reason for the nickname is unknown.[2] While depletion of woodland could have caused a cultural shift from burning timber to peat, potentially the name arose because the sequestration of the common or allodial rights of the islanders by Einarr forced them away from coppicing towards cutting turves.[12]


  1. ^ a b Johnston, A.W. (July 1916) "Orkneyinga Saga". JSTOR/The Scottish Historical Review. Vol. 13, No. 52. p. 393. Retrieved 27 January 2014.
  2. ^ a b c d e Crawford
  3. ^ Heimskringla, Harald Harfager's saga, chapter 27; Orkneyinga saga, chapters 6 and 7
  4. ^ Heimskringla, Harald Harfager's saga, chapters 30 and 31; Orkneyinga saga, chapter 8
  5. ^ Poole, p. 165
  6. ^ Frank, Roberta (April 1984) "Viking Atrocity and Skaldic Verse: The Rite of the Blood-Eagle". The English Historical Review 99 (391): 332–343 (Subscription required)
  7. ^ Heimskringla, Harald Harfager's saga, chapter 32; Orkneyinga saga, chapter 8
  8. ^ Woolf, p. 305
  9. ^ a b c Poole, pp. 169–170
  10. ^ Heimskringla, Harald Harfager's saga, chapter 27; Orkneyinga saga, chapter 7
  11. ^ “Landnámabók: Part 3” Retrieved 27 January 2014.
  12. ^ Buckland, Paul (26 March 2002). "Review of The Christianization of Iceland, priests, power, and social change 1000–1300 by Orri Vésteinsson". Institute for Historical Research, retrieved 25 August 2009.


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