Author: Gail Drinkall, Curator
By the end of the 13th century, the fact that Orkney was 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? How did they live alongside the people who were already here? These are questions we cannot answer completely.
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.
But, although 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 in Norway. 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 a 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.
The 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.
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 their base.
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.
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 place names wiping out those that had gone before.