Sunday, September 14, 2014

Been Hangin' Around: The Unlikely Legacy of the Orkney Earldom

Greetings, history fans!

Classes started last week, and while I feel slightly overwhelmed and entirely out of touch here in the United States, I am giddy beyond belief to be participating in the Viking Studies Program through the University of the Highlands.

I have been reading through The Northern Earldoms: Orkney and Caithness from AD 870-1470 by Barbara Crawford as sort of pre-homework because I have no idea where to find my reading assignments. So I just figured I'd read all my books immediately (my god, I'm gonna fail these courses)! The book is on the reading list for the course History of Vikings in the Scottish Islands and the Irish Sea Region, and it focuses on the unique situation the developed across the Pentland Firth. An Earldom, supposedly set up during the reign of King Harald Fairhair (872-930), somehow withstood the violence of the Viking Age and even flourished into the early Middle Ages.

There are a number of reasons to look into the unique history of the Orkney earldom. Its beginnings impeded by myth, its location divided by more than just a waterway, its surprising autonomy, and its longevity are just a few reasons the earldom stands out. Stranded between two cultures, two kings, two landmasses, the Orkney earldom served specific purposes for both northern Scotland and Western Norway. According to Crawford, the island served Norway as a springboard to the west, while giving mainland Scotland a buffer zone from the Vikings who were pouring in from the east.

A look across the Pentland Firth


The beginnings of the earldom is disputed, but one fact is agreed upon: the earls of More (south western Norway) took on the new position out west. The story in the sagas is that Harald decided he would lead an expedition to the Orkney islands after some accounts had reached him of some Vikings terrorizing the area. Keep in mind that Harald was the first person to attempt to "unify" Norway and he probably saw the North Atlantic islands as an extension of his domain. The powerful earl of More, Rognvald, and his son Ivar followed the king and gave the Vikings the ol' what-for. Ivar died during the campaign and as compensation, Harald set up Rognvald as his "earl" there to protect the Orkney islands from future trouble-makers.

I wonder if there is more to Harald's gesture. Crawford explains how the earls from More could already have had a presence in the Orkneys. Harald's trip could have been to thump some skulls and get those earls in line under his throne. If this theory is true, it contributes a more palpable power to Harald Fairhair. If the saga version is true, however, could it be possible that Harald was attempting to shake off a rival? Unifying Norway was a big job. The earls from Lade started to fade and perhaps Harald saw Rognvald as more of a threat than an asset. The plan, if indeed there was one, backfired. Rognvald passed on the new position, handing it his brother Sigurd (with the king's blessing of course). Harald, who thought he was a bad ass with his beautiful hair, probably was kicking himself. Now he had a powerful earl at home AND in Orkney. Both answered to him nominally, but as we will see the Orkney earls had quite a bit of freedom.

Earl Sigurd was cut off from Harald the newly patched-together Norwegian kingdom by a significant stretch of the north Atlantic and was pretty much on his own. He turned his eyes across the Pentland Firth to Caithness, the north western peninsula of Scotland. Using the classic Viking Age economic policy--take whatever isn't nailed down--Sigurd began raiding across the firth into Scotland and slowly conquering lands for his and his men's financial gain. He soon joined up with Thorsteinn the Red who was ripping apart the Scottish realm. He claimed Catihness as his own but died not long after. Sigurd, seeing his chance, filled the hole left by Thorsteinn, thus "bridging" the firth under Sigurd's umbrella.

Sigurd now had control of both banks of narrow straight that separated the Orkney Islands from mainland Scotland, which meant the earl controlled the traffic to and from the area. This was a big deal. Over the next few centuries, the earls could be friend or foe to the Norse invaders or the Scottish natives to the south. At the time however, the earldom that stretched across the water served the Norse kingdom in not only taxation and tribute money but also as a refueling station for forays into the British Isles.

The movements of Sigurd and his descendants went largely unchecked by the Norwegian kings. In fact, as the Christian kingdoms in Scandinavia solidified, the title of jarl became virtually non-existent. In the late Iron-Age and into the early Viking Age the seas were filled with jarls claiming some small pocket of dominance. One by one, the jarls were eliminated, run off, or succumbed to mightier kings. Except in the Orkneys. When all their contemporaries were going the way of the buffalo, they stayed strong all the way through the mid-15th century. Was it necessary? Did Norway really have that much to lose? Did the Orkney earls wield that much power that the kings across the sea couldn't flex their power enough to do away with the title?

After Sigurd's death the earldom passed to Rognvald's son Torf-Einar. There is little doubt that Torf-Einar served as an earl, yet his story is a common literary device in the saga corpus. The son of an earl and a concubine, Torf-Einar had to prove himself and overcome the stereotypes that plagued such a low status. This back story is in itself a foreshadowing: the only reason it exists in the literature is because you know that the character is bound to do impressive things that throws the weight of his past off of his shoulders. Torf-Einar indeed takes the empty seat in the earldom and defies Harald and his sons, albeit eventually making peace. Still, he put up a fight!

Torf-Einar's title was passed down to a son with the most bad ass name: THORFINN SKULLSPLITTER!! Unfortunately, the Skullsplitter does not get much attention in Crawford's book, and it is his children we have to focus on, none of whom have a nickname anywhere near as cool as their father's. In the unfathomable Norse tradition, Thorfinn left the entire earldom to all of his sons, each of whom wanted the entire earldom for himself. Skuli and Liot fought each other over the territory, both pulling resources and manpower from the Scottish mainland. What is significant about these battles is that they illuminated how the sons of Thorfinn saw Orkney and Caithness as one entity and not separate domains.

Thorfinn lives on in morning after hangovers


After a brief interruption by the infamous Eirik Blood-Axe and his unruly sons, the title of earl finally fell upon Sigurd II, or Sigurd the Stout. This second Sigurd aggressively defended Caithness from the Scots who wanted to incorporate it into the rest of the northern kingdom. Not only did he secure the Scottish half of the realm, he pushed further into Scotland than any earl had before, stretching the boundaries down to Ross and even pushing into the Hebrides. Earl Sigurd is remembered in multiple sagas which attests to his prowess as a warrior and ruler in the Orkneys and Scotland. The sagas also attribute Olaf Tryggvasson as forcing Sigurd to convert, not only displaying his power over Orkney as its rightful king but also essentially putting an end to the traditional Viking way of ruling in the Orkney. As Crawford puts it, "Sigurd's death, and the succeeding years of rivalry among his sons, marks an end of the Viking era in the northern earldoms, in which raiding was the predominant lifestyle of the earls, and their main means of amassing wealth."

Is it fair to blame Olaf Tryggvasson for the end of this era? Probably not. However, he flexed his muscles in Orkney in a way that no Norse king had done so far. And his successor, St. Olaf, would follow in his footsteps. The days of the strongly independent earls were over. The rulers still enjoyed a small amount of freedom from Norway because of the long distance, but as we have said before, the earldom began leaning more heavily toward is Scottish neighbors as they grew more organized.

Upon Sigurd the Stout's death there followed a very interesting period in which three sons tried to rule the earldom together: Brusi, Einar, and Thorfinn the Mighty. The latter was the ambitious brother who wanted to rule as one earl. Einar died early on but Brusi refused to give up the lands left to him by Sigurd. Thorfinn busied himself by fighting off certain Scottish kings who wanted to take back the lands his father had won. Then Thorfinn caught a lucky break. His co-earl Brusi and the great King CNUT passed away around the same time (1030-1035-ish) and left a power vacuum that Thorfinn gladly filled. With all of his threats eliminated, Thorfinn enjoyed a brief period as the sole earl of Orkney. Even the arrival of Brusi's son who took back the lands of his father did not bother him all that much. Everything seemed peachy until the arrival of the unlucky, the disgraceful, the old Viking snake-in-the-grass KALF FUCKING ARNASSON!

If you follow History Books (which I am not sure anyone actually does), then you will remember our extensive coverage of Kalf Arnasson when we were reading through The Saga of St. Olaf. Kalf had betrayed his brothers and his king, more than likely gave St. Olaf his mortal wound, stayed on for some reason in the court of Magnus Olafsson until things got too weird and he high-tailed it to Orkney where he had a relative (Thorfinn) off of whom he could mooch.

Kalf's arrival is stunning. He already fucked things up in Norway. And then he fucked things up in Orkney! The sagas say that Kalf showed up with a large following and really put a financial strain on Throfinn. The earl's solution to his money problems was to take back the land from his nephew Rognvald with whom he had a relatively decent relationship. The two sides met at sea, Kalf choosing to fight with Thorfinn and ultimately deciding the battle. Both earls survived the battle but they remained hostile toward one another which eventually led to the separation of the earldom. While it existed as one entity it was ruled separately by two different men. Thanks for everything, Kalf! You really know how to fuck up the entire North Atlantic!

We will leave the Orkneys right here and hopefully pick back up as we continue through Crawford's excellent book. If we learned anything today it is don't be anything like Kalf Arnason. And I hope you found the history of the earls as interesting as I do. Hello? Is this thing on?

I am hoping to post more as I continue doing research for the Viking program. Until then, History Fans, keep your noses clean and don't mooch off your relatives!



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