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The 'Norse Earls of Orkney held power The Earl of Orkney was originally a Norse jarl ruling Orkney, Shetland and parts of Caithness and Sutherland. The Earls were periodically subject to the kings of Norway for the Northern Isles, and later also to the kings of Alba for those parts of their territory in mainland Scotland (i.e. Caithness and Sutherland). The Earl's status as a Norwegian vassal was formalised in 1195.


Rognvald Eysteinsson, Earl of Møre fl. 865–890[Note 1] is sometimes credited with being the founder of the earldom. By implication the Orkneyinga saga identifies him as such for he is given "dominion" over Orkney and Shetland by King Harald Finehair, although there is no concrete suggestion he ever held the title. The Heimskringla states that his brother Sigurd was the first to formally hold the title.[4][5]

Sigurd's son Guthorm ruled for a year and died childless.[6] Rognvald's son Hallad then inherited the title. However, unable to constrain Danish raids on Orkney, he gave up the earldom and returned to Norway, which "everyone thought was a huge joke."[7] Torf-Einarr then succeeded in defeating the Danes and founded a dynasty which retained control of the islands for centuries after his death.[8] Smyth (1984) concludes that the role of the brothers Eysteinsson lacks historical credibility and that Torf-Einarr “may be regarded as the first historical earl of Orkney”.[9] Drawing on Adam of Bremen's assertion that Orkney was not conquered until the time of Harald Hardrada, who ruled Norway from 1043-66, Woolf (2007) speculates that Sigurd “the Stout” Hlodvirsson, Torf-Einarr’s great-grandson, may have been the first Earl of Orkney.[10] Dates are largely conjectural, at least until his death recorded in 1014.

Assuming Torf-Einarr is a genuine historical figure, all of the subsequent earls were descended from him, save for Sigurd Magnusson, whose short rule was imposed by his father Magnus Barelegs, and who later became Sigurd I of Norway.

One of the main sources for the lives and times of these earls is the Orkneyinga saga, which has been described as having "no parallel in the social and literary record of Scotland".[11] One of the key events of the saga is the "martyrdom" of Earl Magnus Erlendsson, later Saint Magnus, c. 1115. The last quarter of the saga is taken up with a lengthy tale of Earl Rögnvald Kali Kolsson and Sweyn Asleifsson — indeed the oldest version ends with the latter's death in 1171.[12][13]

After the murder of Earl Jon Haraldsson some sixty years later, Magnus, son of Gille Brigte became the first of the Scottish earls. He may have been a descendent of Earl Rögnvald Kali Kolsson, although this has never been corroborated, and was a descendent of Earl Harald Maddadson on his mother's side. However, the line of specifically Norse earls is said to have come to an end when Earl Magnus II was granted his title by Haakon IV of Norway c. 1236.[3][14]

List of jarls[edit]

Name Byname Relationship to predecessor Rule commences Rule ends
Sigurd Eysteinsson Sigurðr inn riki
"the Mighty"
Brother of Rognvald Eysteinsson c. 892[15][Note 2]
Guthorm Sigurdsson Son of Sigurd Eysteinsson c. 892 c. 893[15]
Hallad Rognvaldsson Son of Rognvald Eysteinsson c. 893 c. 895
Einarr Rognvaldsson Torf-Einarr
Son of Rognvald Eysteinsson c. 895[16][17] 910[3][15][18]
Arnkel Torf-Einarsson Son of Torf-Einarr Rognvaldsson 910 with Erlend and Thorfinn to 954[19][Note 3]
Erlend Torf-Einarsson Son of Torf-Einarr Rognvaldsson 910 with Arnkel and Thorfinn to 954[19][20]
Thorfinn Torf-Einarsson Þorfinnr hausakljúfr
Son of Torf-Einarr Rognvaldsson 910 with Erlend and Arnkel to 954[19]

alone 954–963[15][Note 4]

Arnfinn Thorfinnsson Son of Thorfinn Torf-Einarsson 963
Havard Thorfinnsson Hávarðr inn ársæli
Son of Thorfinn Torf-Einarsson On Arnfinn's death
Ljot Thorfinnsson Son of Thorfinn Torf-Einarsson On Havard's death c. 980[Note 5]
Hlodvir Thorfinnsson Son of Thorfinn Torf-Einarsson c. 980 991[23][Note 6]
Sigurd Hlodvirsson Sigurðr digri
"the Stout"
Son of Hlodvir Thorfinnsson 991 1014[24]
Sumarlidi Sigurdsson Son of Sigurd Hlodvirsson 1014 with Brusi and Einar to c. 1016[25]
Brusi Sigurdsson Son of Sigurd Hlodvirsson 1014 with Einar and Sumarlidi to 1016
with Einar to 1025

with Einar and Thorfinn to c. 1031[3][26]

Einar Sigurdsson Einar rangmunnr
Son of Sigurd Hlodvirsson 1014 with Brusi and Sumarlidi to 1016[3]
with Brusi to 1025
with Brusi and Thorfinn to 1026
Thorfinn Sigurdsson Þorfinnr inn riki
"the Mighty"
Son of Sigurd Hlodvirsson c. 1025[Note 7] with Brusi and Einar to 1026
with Brusi to 1031
alone to 1036
with Rögnvald 1036 to 1046
alone to c.1064[3][28]
Rögnvald Brusason Son of Brusi Sigurdsson c. 1036[29] with Thorfinn to c. 1046[3]
Paul Thorfinnsson Son of Thorfinn Sigurdsson 1064 with Erlend to 1098[3][30]
Erlend Thorfinnsson Son of Thorfinn Sigurdsson 1064 with Erlend to 1098[3][30]
Sigurd Magnusson Sigurðr Jórsalafari
"the Jerusalem-farer"
Son of Magnus Barelegs 1098 1103
Haakon Paulsson Son of Paul Thorfinsson 1104[31] alone to 1106
with Magnus to 1116
alone to 1123[3]
Magnus Erlendsson Later "Saint Magnus" Son of Erlend Thorfinnsson 1106[31] with Haakon to 1116[3]
Harald Haakonsson "Smooth-tongue" Son of Haakon Paulsson 1123 with Paul to c. 1130[32]
Paul Haakonsson Son of Haakon Paulsson 1123 with Harald to 1130
alone to 1136[32]
Rögnvald Kali Kolsson Later "Saint Rögnvald" Son of Gunnhild, daughter of Erlend Thorfinnsson 1136[33][34] alone to 1138
with Harald Maddadsson 1138 to 1151[34] and 1154 to 1158[3]
with Harald and Erlend Haraldsson 1151 to 1154
Harald Maddadsson "the Old" Son of Margaret, daughter of Haakon Paulsson 1138[34] with Rögnvald to 1151 and 1154 to 1158
with Rögnvald and Erlend Haraldsson 1151 to 1154
alone 1158 to 1191
with Harald Eiriksson to 1198
alone to 1206[35]
Erlend Haraldsson Son of Harald Haakonsson 1151[34] with Harald Maddadsson and Rögnvald Kali Kolsson to 1154[32]
Harald Eiriksson Haraldr ungi
"the Young"
Son of Ingiríðr, daughter of Rögnvald Kali Kolsson 1191 with Harald Maddadsson to 1198[3]
David Haraldsson Son of Harald Maddadsson 1206 with Jon to 1214[3][35]
Jon Haraldsson Son of Harald Maddadsson 1206 with David to 1214
alone to 1231[3][35]

In 1232 a Scottish dynasty descended from the Mormaers of Angus replaced the previous family descended from the Mormaers of Atholl, although it remained formally subject to Norway. This family was in turn replaced by the descendants of the Mormaers of Strathearn and later still by the Sinclair family, during whose time Orkney passed to Scots control.



  1. ^ Assuming an identification of Rognvald with "Ragnall son of Albdann" in 865.[1][2][3]
  2. ^ Muir (2008) suggests Sigurd Eysteinsson may have died c. 874.[3]
  3. ^ Date of death based on the assumption Arnkel and Erlend Turf-Einarsson died at the Battle of Stainmore beside Eric Bloodaxe.[20]
  4. ^ Muir (2005) has a death date for Thorfinn of 976, which leaves only four years for three subsequent earls to rule before his son Hlodvir.[3]
  5. ^ Muir (2005) dates the meeting of Ljot's brother Skuli with Malcolm II to 978. Subsequent to that Skuli and "Earl MacBeth" fought two battles with Ljot. Skuli was killed in the first, Ljot in the second.[21] Canmore states that the battle at Skitten Mire where Ljot Thorfinnsson was mortally wounded took place "between 943 and 945" although this does not square with either Muir (2005) or Earl Thorfinn (his father) dying c. 963.[22]
  6. ^ Woolf (2007) implies Hlodvir's death may have taken place earlier as his son Sigurd "may well have been an active leader since the 980s".[10]
  7. ^ "When Thorfinn came of age he asked Earl Einar for a third of the islands".[27] Thorfinn is said to have been five years old when his father died at the Battle of Clontarf in 1014.[5]


  1. ^ Radnor (tr.) (1978) Fragmentary Annals of Ireland. FA 330.
  2. ^ Thomson (2008) p. 22
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q Muir (2005) Preface: Genealogical table of the Earls of Orkney.
  4. ^ Orkneyinga saga (1981) Chapter 4 pp. 26-27
  5. ^ a b Heimskringla. "Chapter 99 - History Of The Earls Of Orkney".
  6. ^ Orkneyinga saga (1981) Chapter 5 p. 28
  7. ^ Thomson (2008) p. 30 quoting chapter 5 of the Orkneyinga saga.
  8. ^ Thomson (2008) p. 29
  9. ^ Smyth (1984) p. 153
  10. ^ a b Woolf (2007) p. 307
  11. ^ Crawford (1987) p. 221
  12. ^ Pálsson and Edwards (1981) p. 10
  13. ^ Beuermann (2011) pp. 148-49
  14. ^ Muir (2005) p. 127
  15. ^ a b c d Crawford (1987) p. 54
  16. ^ Smyth (1984) p. 153
  17. ^ Crawford (1987) p. 55
  18. ^ Johnston, A.W. (July 1916) "Orkneyinga Saga". JSTOR/The Scottish Historical Review. Vol. 13, No. 52. p. 393. Retrieved 27 January 2014.
  19. ^ a b c Clouston (1918) p. 15
  20. ^ a b Cannon (2008) "Stainmore, battle of,". Retrieved 27 January 2014.
  21. ^ Muir (2005) p. 21
  22. ^ "Upper Bowertower, Stone Lud". Canmore. Retrieved 27 January 2014.
  23. ^ Muir (2005) p. 27
  24. ^ Woolf (2007) p. 243, quoting the Annals of Ulster.
  25. ^ Muir (2005) pp. 44-45, "he died in his bed not long after his father's death" and is not referred to in an incident dated to 1018.
  26. ^ Muir (2005) p. 47 "Earl Brusi died in the early 1030s".
  27. ^ Muir (2005) p. 45
  28. ^ Muir (2005) p. 53
  29. ^ Thomson (2008) p. 82
  30. ^ a b Muir (2005) p. 61
  31. ^ a b Muir (2005) p. 63
  32. ^ a b c Thomson (2008) p. 101
  33. ^ Thomson (2008) p. 103
  34. ^ a b c d Thomson (208) p. 89
  35. ^ a b c Thomson (2008) p. 128
General references
  • Beuermann, Ian (2011), "Jarla Sǫgur Orkneyja. Status and power of the earls of Orkney according to their sagas", in Steinsland, Gro; Sigurðsson, Jón Viðar; Rekdal, Jan Erik et al., Ideology and power in the viking and middle ages: Scandinavia, Iceland, Ireland, Orkney and the Faeroes, The Northern World: North Europe and the Baltic c. 400–1700 A.D. Peoples, Economics and Cultures 52, Brill, ISBN 978-90-04-20506-2 
  • Cannon, John (2009) The Oxford Companion to British History. Oxford University Press.
  • Clouston, J. Storer (1918) "Two Features of the Orkney Earldom". The Scottish Historical Review pp. 15-28. Edinburgh University Press/JSTOR. Retrieved 18 January 2014.
  • Crawford, Barbara E. (1987) Scandinavian Scotland. Leicester University Press. ISBN 0-7185-1197-2
  • Muir, Tom (2005) Orkney in the Sagas: The Story of the Earldom of Orkney as told in the Icelandic Sagas. The Orcadian. Kirkwall. ISBN 0954886232.
  • Orkneyinga Saga: The History of the Earls of Orkney. tr. Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards. Penguin, London, 1978. ISBN 0-14-044383-5
  • Radner, Joan N. (editor and translator). "Fragmentary Annals of Ireland". CELT: Corpus of Electronic Texts. University College Cork. Retrieved 10 March 2007. 
  • Sturlson, Snorri Heimskringla. Wisdom Library. Retrieved 21 January 2014.
  • Smyth, Alfred P. (1984) Warlords and Holy Men: Scotland AD 80–1000. Edinburgh University Press. Edinburgh. ISBN 0-7486-0100-7
  • Thomson, William P. L. (2008) The New History of Orkney, Edinburgh, Birlinn. ISBN 978-1-84158-696-0
  • Woolf, Alex (2007) From Pictland to Alba, 789–1070. Edinburgh. Edinburgh University Press. ISBN 978-0-7486-1234-5

[[Category:Earldoms in the Peerage of Scotland] [[Category:Earls of Orkney|Norse Earls] [[Category:History of Orkney] [[Category:History of Norway] [[Category:Norse activity in Scotland] [[Category:Norway–Scotland relations]

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