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Orkney, jarldom of

Orkney, jarldom of. From the late 9th cent. the fertile Orkney islands were the locus for a Norse jarldom, for centuries the dominant power in northern Scotland. Orkney had been the seat of a Pictish subkingdom in the 6th cent., according to Adomnán.

Despite the origins of the jarldom being shrouded in obscurity, it is clear that the first jarl was Røgnvald, also jarl of Møre in western Norway. He passed on the jarldom to Sigurd the Mighty, his brother. Sigurd, in partnership with Thorsteinn the Red from the Hebrides, turned his attention to the Scottish mainland. Together they are credited, in Icelandic tradition, with conquering Caithness, Sutherland, Moray, and Ross. Sigurd died (c.892) on one of his forays south, and may have been buried at Cyder Hall, on the banks of the river Oykell.

The jarls had sole possession of the archipelago, apart from periods when the king of Norway or his family attempted to establish a claim to authority, as, for example, in c.947, when the joint jarls, Arnkel and Erlend, were visited by the exiled Erik Bloodaxe, ex-king of Norway. They accompanied him to York, where he became king. They were still in his retinue at the battle of Stainmore in 954, where he and they were killed.

The jarldom entered its period of greatest power and influence during the late 10th to mid-11th cents., under Sigurd the Stout and his son by a daughter of the ‘king of Scots’, Thorfinn the Mighty. During this period, the authority of the jarls spread south down the western searoute towards Dublin. The beginning of this expansion is perhaps to be seen in the attack on Iona in 986, when the abbot and fifteen elders of the monastery were slain by a force of unidentified ‘Danes’. It is unclear whether Sigurd's presence in the Hebrides amounted to conquest, but Icelandic tradition claims he gathered tribute from Man and the Isles. He was definitely a powerful player in the politics of the Irish sea province, as his presence, and death, at the battle of Clontarf in 1014 make clear. With Thorfinn, there is more solid evidence for his conquest of the Hebrides. He was remembered by the Icelandic historian Snorri Sturluson as ‘the ablest jarl of these islands, and has had the greatest dominion of all Orkney jarls’. He is credited with the establishment of a bishopric and with building Orkney's first documented church. However, his political achievements were transitory. After his death in 1065, his conquest fell apart.

Andrew Jennings

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