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VIKING - 19: ORKNEY, A Saga To Rival Dallas - King Thorri's Dream

Updated on August 9, 2017

"When passing a door-post, watch as you walk on, look closely as you enter. It is unknown where foes might lurk or crouch in dark corners"


Although not cheaply, the dream would one day be realised!

A jarl and his men before the clash with rivals on the mainland in Scotland, Lewis and Shetland, Ireland or Man - yet still he paid tribute to a king in far-off Norway!
A jarl and his men before the clash with rivals on the mainland in Scotland, Lewis and Shetland, Ireland or Man - yet still he paid tribute to a king in far-off Norway! | Source

From small beginnings, Thorri would make his mark

Eastern Scandinavia and the Gulf of Bothnia
Eastern Scandinavia and the Gulf of Bothnia
Coastal rocks on the Gulf of Bothnia
Coastal rocks on the Gulf of Bothnia
Evening on the Gulf
Evening on the Gulf
Northern Finnmark in the after-year
Northern Finnmark in the after-year
Northern Finnmark in the dead of winter
Northern Finnmark in the dead of winter
Northern Sweden's lakeland
Northern Sweden's lakeland
The 'keel', Kjolen Mountains astride Sweden and Norway
The 'keel', Kjolen Mountains astride Sweden and Norway
Hedmark in S.E. Norway, heathland as the name suggests
Hedmark in S.E. Norway, heathland as the name suggests
Namdalseid in central western fjordland, Norway
Namdalseid in central western fjordland, Norway
Sognefjord, western Norway
Sognefjord, western Norway
An overview of the Sognefjord - 'Saga fjord' - region
An overview of the Sognefjord - 'Saga fjord' - region

The saga has its roots beyond Norway, eastward in the dark lands of the Saumi...

[Using some of Snorri Sturlusson's references from his Heimskringla series of sagas about the Norse kings, this saga was written down from oral tradition by an unknown Icelandic scribe around the turn of the 13th Century].

Fornjot ruled over the Finns and over Kvenland, lands that ran to the east from the Gulf of Bothnia. There were three sons, Hler (or Aegir), Logi and Kari. Kari in turn fathered a succession of sons, down to Thorri, who had two sons, Nor and Gor, and a daughter, Goi.

Thorri held a sacrificial feast each midwinter eve, known as Thorri's Sacrifice - which comes down to us now as Thorri. One midwinter at Thorri's Sacrifice Goi vanished. Although a great search was mounted for her, no-one could find her. At the passing of the month Thorri had a new sacrifice for her, hoping it would help toward finding her. Yet they remained no wiser.

Three years on Nor and Gor set out in search of their sister. Nor scoured the mainland, his brother all the islands and outlying skerries. With them both went a strong force of fighting men. Gor's ships left the Gulf for the Aaland Sea, through the Svia Skerries and on to the Danish isles. He called on his kinsmen - offspring of Hler 'the Old' of Laesoe in the Kattegat - and then set off again, but without success.

Nor waited until the high moors were under a thick carpet of snow and set off on skis from Kvenland around the Gulf to the lands of the Lapps in the far reaches of Finnmark. When the Lapps tried to hinder them a fight broke out, but Nor's fighting strength and sorcery was too much for them. On hearing the war-cries and seeing the great swords unsheathed the Lapps fled. Nor and his men pressed on, westward this time, to the Kjolen Mountains - the 'Keel', as the mountains were known because they looked like an up-turned ship - seeing no-one for a long time to buy food from. Game and fowl were caught to keep themselves alive and they soon came to beyond the watershed where the rivers flowed westward. Following the flow of the rivers they came to a great fjord with large townships and broad dales that reached inland from the fjord's cliffs.

They came to a crowd, who set on them but regretted doing so and fled or were slain. On reaching the sea Nor claimed the surrounding land for himself, assuming kingship over the land east of the great fjord. He spent the summer there and at the first snows set out along the south side of the fjord known to us now as Thrandheim (Trondheim). Some of the men were sent further south along the coast to More and on his own side Nor claimed all the lands he went through. On crossing the mountain to the south of the dalehead he reached a great lake thry named Mjosen. He learned that those men he sent south had been beaten by a King Sokni, so Nor and his men headed west over the mountains to Valdres, and down to the sea to the narrower Sognefjord where he caught up with Sokni.

This king was not impressed with their sorcery, but Nor and his men took on Sokni nevertheless, defeating him and many of his followers. The trail now led to a fjord off Sognefjord known to us now as Soknadal, as Sokni had reigned there. Nor halted for some time at Norumfjord, where Gor reached him. Neither yet knew of the whereabouts of Goi. Gor had claimed all the isles on his way north and the brothers shared out the land between them. Nor would have the mainland, Gor the islands - wherever a ship with fixed rudder could be sailed between them and the mainland. On settling their land claims Nor set out to the Uplands, to Hedmark, ruled at the time by King Hrolf of Bjarg, son of the giant Svadi from the Dovre Mountains in the north. Hrolf it was, who had kidnapped Goi Thorris-dottir of Kvenland. Hrolf set out to challenge Nor to a Holmgang - single combat on a river eyot. The fighting lasted a long time and neither was even scratched. They came to terms, with Nor taking Hrolf's sister for a wife and Hrolf kept Goi.

Nor headed back north to the land he laid claim to, naming it Norway and ruling for most of his life. His sons followed him into the kingship, sharing the kingdom between them. And so it went on until the kingdoms shrank noticeably. Finally the land was split into shires when the land divisions became too small to support a king. Gor's sons Heiti and Beiti began to attack the lands of Nor's sons and fought often without any useful outcome. Beiti set out, up the Thrandheim fjord for plunder, anchoring his ships at Beitstad on the newly-named Beitstads-fjord. One of his ships was hauled north overland from Beitstad across the Namdalseid to Namsen with Gor aft, his hands on the steering arm. All land to port was claimed in this way, with all the settlements in it.

Heiti Gorason fathered the sea-king Sveidi, grandfather of Jarl Ivar of the Uplands, great-grandfather of Eystein 'the Clatterer', whose son was Jarl Rognvald 'the Mighty'.

A Norseman's world centred on the sea

A mediaeval map of Scandinavia showing in particular S W Norway and Denmark - notice foreshortened Norway and Sweden 'detached' from Finland
A mediaeval map of Scandinavia showing in particular S W Norway and Denmark - notice foreshortened Norway and Sweden 'detached' from Finland

Onward, the telling follows, to Shetland and Orkney - pearls in Njord's dark, salty fastness

[The years have passed and we come down to the time of King Harald 'Harfagri' - Fair-hair - after the small kingdoms had become no more than 'shires', governed by chieftains in a single kingdom].

Jarl Rognvald took the field with Harald Harfagri, who let him rule on his behalf over North More, South More and Romsdal. The jarl wedded Ragnhild, daughter of Hrolf 'Nose' whose son 'Ganger' Hrolf took the Northmandige and ruled the duchy on behalf of the Frankish king Karl 'the Simple-minded'. In time his blood-line became dukes of Northmandige and kings of England.

Rognvald and Ragnhild had two other sons, Ivar and Thorir 'the Quiet'. Rognvald also had sons by other women, Hallad, Hrollaug and Einar. One summer King Harald sailed west to teach a lesson to one clan of Vikings based in Orkney and Shetland, whose summer raiding caused fear and loathing around his kingdom's coast. Harald took Shetland, Orkney and the western isles and sailed onward to Man, leaving its settlements in smoking ruins. Several battles were fought during this sea-borne 'campaign', winning lands further west than any Norse king had done before - or since. In one fight Ivar was slain, and Harald gave Rognvald Shetland and Orkney in the hope of making amends, but Rognvald passed the islands on to his brother Sigurd, the foreship-man on King Harald's galley. Before sailing on back to Norway and leaving Sigurd in the islands, King Harald bestowed the rank of Jarl on him.

Jarl Sigurd ruled well, joining with Thorstein 'the Red', son of Olaf 'the White' and Aud 'the Deep-thinker'. Together they took all Katanes (Caithness), a great part of Argyll, Moray and Ross. Jarl Sigurd had a stronghold built in southern Moray and set up a meeting with Maelbrigte 'Tooth' (the buck-toothed Mormaer of Moray before Macbeothen) to settle matters. Each would have two-score men but on the day Sigurd thought the Scots might not abide by the agreement and took four-score men, mounted on two-score horses.

Maelbrigte observed to his men,

'Sigurd thinks he has fooled us, but I can see two men's legs on each horse. We must show our steel and kill at least one man before dying ourselves'.

As the Scots readied for the forthcoming fight Sigurd saw what they had aforethought,

'I want half of you to dismount and out-flank them as we come to blows, while the mounted men ride hard at them and break their line'.

In the fierce slaughter Maelbrigte and his men were slain, Sigurd's own men had their heads strapped to their saddles to show off his prowess. They rode back, but as Sigurd spurred his horse he struck his calf on one of Maelbrigte's buck teeth and the wound festered and swelled, leading to Sigurd's own early death. He was buried in a mound by the River Oykel.

Sigurd's son Guthorm ruled for a year but died childless. When Rognvald heard of the deaths he sent Hallad, on whom King Harald conferred the title of Jarl. On reaching Orkney, Jarl Hallad took up residence on Mainland. Vikings still raided the islands and mainland, but when the farmers and stockmen complained to Jarl Hallad he proved unable to do anything for them. Tiring of his rule he gave up the jarldom and returned to Norway as a landholder, earning the derision of the islanders.

A pair of Danish Vikings, Thorir 'Tree-beard' and Kalf 'Scurvy' set up camp on the islands. Jarl Rognvald flew into a rage on hearing of their cheek and called on his sons Hrollaug and Thorir to join him - Hrolf was away at the time - and asked which of them wanted the islands. Thorir's answer was that their father should say whether or not he should go at all.

'As I see it, you would be better off staying here', Jarl Rognvald told him, 'Your path does not lead overseas'.

Hrollaug asked whether or not he should go.

'Your fate does not lie in being Jarl of Orkney. Your future lies in Iceland. You will have many offspring there and they will all be highly thought of', Rognvald told him.

Einar stepped forward next and asked,

'Do you wish me to sail to Orkney? In this I believe I will fulfil your wishes, never more having to see me. There is little enough here to keep me, and I cannot foresee being any more of a failure elsewhere'.

'As your mother was thrall-borne on either side of her kin, you are not likely to make much of yourself as Jarl. I agree, however, the sooner you leave and the later you show up here again the happier I shall be!' Rognvald was delighted at the offer and gave his son a well equipped ship of twenty benches and the king have Einar the rank of Jarl of Orkney as he had with Hallad.

Einar sailed to Shetland to summon his fighhting men, then on south to Orkney to take on Kalf and his Vikings. Both Kalf and Thorir were slain in battle. As the skald put it,

"Turf-Einar gave Tree-beard

to the trolls, slew Kalf Scurvy"

Einar took over the islands and proved a hreat leader, the first to dig peat for fuel - wood being hard to get in the islands - at Tarbert Ness in Argyll. He was tall and rough-looking and, although having lost the sight in one eye, he was still the most keen-sighted of men.

On reaching manhood the sons of Harald 'Harfagri' became high-handed and stirred trouble in Norway, bullying the king's jarls, killing some and eriving others from their lands. Halfdan 'the Long-legged' and Gudrod 'Glimmer', King Harald's sons by Snaefrid, attacked Jarl Rognvald, killing him and taking on his authority. On hearing about the crime the king flew into a rage and set out after his sons. Halfdan took ship and fled but Gudrod yielded to his father. To make amends for Jarl Rognvald's slaying, King Harald gave his daughter Alof 'the Fecund' to Thorir Rognvaldsson as a wife, along with his own patrimony and the title of Jarl of More.

Meanwhile Halfdan 'the Long-legged' landed in Orkney and when news went around that one of the king's sons was there many were frightened. Some offered him their allegiance, but Jarl Einar left the islands for the mainland. Halfdan took on the 'kingship' of the islands. Later that year Einar returned to take on Halfdan and defeated him in a hard-fought battle that lasted until the twilight hours and Halfdan leapt overboard sooner than let himself be taken. In Einar's own words,

Not from Hrolf's hand

nor Hrollaug's, the hurled shaft,

no death-dart. Our

duty is to the dead,

our father: here the fight

grows fierce, while at More

what says the ale-swilling jarl?

Nought, of the sword-swing.

As soon as it was light they set out to scour the islands, to see whether anyone had escaped.

'What is that, bobbing about in the water', Jarl Einar wondered. 'Either it is a bird or a man - go find out'.

They found Halfdan 'the Long-legged'. Einar had his ribs cut from his backbone with a sword and his lungs pulled out through the slits in his back. Halfdan's corpse - rendered by the 'Blood-eagle' - was dedicated to the All-father as a victory offering and Einar put words to his act,

While sturdy spade-beards

stalked sheep,

in Orkney was I, busy

slaughtering a king's son;

true, all I am told,

how my trusty lord threatens

me, who sheared a sliver

from his kindred's shield.

Einar had a burial mound raised for Halfdan and added,

The folk-lord is fallen,

fee paid for Rognvald;

sweetly the Norns shaped

for me my quarter-share.

Cast the stone, keen

lads, on Long-leg's cairn

as we mark here

the settling of scot.

Halfdan's brothers were so angered at news of his death that they threatened to cross to Orkney to avenge him, but King Harald drew in their claws. He knew nothing good could come of their bid for vengeance. He set out over sea to Orkney and Einar left for Katanes, fearing the king was out to cut him down. Word was sent to Einar that he was safe but the king levied a tithe on the islands to the value of sixty gold marks. Einar offered to pay the sum from his own funds on condition he hold all estates in fee. The farmers agreed, as the wealthier of them hoped to redeem their estates later whilst the poorer of them would be unable to pay the tribute anyway. Einar paid out the whole amount and for a while later the jarls held in fee all the lands until Jarl Sigurd gave them back.

King Harald left again for Norway and Einar held sway over the islands for a long time afterward and died in his bed. He had three sons, Arnkel, Erlend and Thorfinn 'Skull-splitter'.

Eirik Haraldsson, 'Blood-axe', ruled Norway for a couple of years after King Harald's death, followed by the Aenglish king Aethelstan's foster-son Hakon when Eirik fled after killing one of the kingdom's leading men. First waging war in the Scots' kingdom, Eirik turned his sights on Northumbria. Aethelstan offered him land, as he was King Harald's son, and hoped to make peace between him and Hakon. Eirik took the offer of land south of the Tees to the Humber (now Yorkshire), bound in the west by Cumbria and the Irish Sea. With 'so little' land and a large following Eirik's own funds soon ran dry and he spent the summers raiding, turning back to Jorvik for winter.

Aethelstan died after a fourteen-year reign, to be succeeded by Eadmund. The new king was less friendly toward Norway, and less so toward Eirik and his rule over Deira. Eirik sailed north beyond the Scots' kingdom to Orkney one year, where Arnkel and Erlend joined him. From there they sailed to the Hebrides, adding numbers to their fleet. He went looting in Ireland and on the Strathclyde. He sailed on to Mercia, plundering there.

Eirik was lured to Stainmoor, a corner of his kingdom overlooking Cumbria to the west and Bernicia to the north. The ealdorman of Bernicia and his men fell on Eirik and several other Norse kings, slaying them as well as Jarl Arnkel and Erlend. The Aenglish numbers seemeed to the Norsemen to swell with every one killed.

Eirik's widow Gunnhild and her sons had sailed to Orkney, fearing Eirik would not come out of the fighting alive, and used the islands to raid from. They heard that war had broken out between King Hakon and the Danish king Harald Gormsson. Thinking they might be helped by an alliance with King Harald they set out to pay court to him. Before leaving they gave Ragnhild-Eiriks-dottir in marriage to Jarl Thorfinn's son Arnfinn.

On Gunnhild's departure for Denmark Jarl Thorfinn took over the islands once more. A strong ruler and warrior, he lived to old age and died in his bed. A burial mound was thrown up for him at Hoxa on North Ronaldsay and his outstanding reputation outlived him.

Penguin Classics' Orkneyinga Saga launches early into narrative action. The 'skalds' of old didn't believe in making their audience hang around waiting, even if they had hours to sit indoors around the hearth with the wind howling outside. You've read my version, see how you like this one.

Life on the Northern Isles would not be easy

Orkneyjar - Orkney Islands
Orkneyjar - Orkney Islands | Source
Orkney Farm Museum with the breed of sheep originally bred in Scandinavia, uniquely adapted to this part of the world
Orkney Farm Museum with the breed of sheep originally bred in Scandinavia, uniquely adapted to this part of the world | Source
Longhouse at Skaill, Sandwick - the dig shows the character of the wall foundations
Longhouse at Skaill, Sandwick - the dig shows the character of the wall foundations | Source
Westray settlement dig site
Westray settlement dig site | Source
Shetland Isles - still more in common with Norway than Scotland, and a lot closer!
Shetland Isles - still more in common with Norway than Scotland, and a lot closer! | Source
Shetland Viking settlement
Shetland Viking settlement | Source
Jarlshof settlement plan showing Norse and abandoned Neolithic development
Jarlshof settlement plan showing Norse and abandoned Neolithic development | Source
The Jarlshof site looking the opposite way
The Jarlshof site looking the opposite way | Source

A factual version of Orkney's saga from early Norse settlement, threats from Norway and Scotland and the handover to the Scottish Crown (of all the islands up to Shetland). Read about the warring brothers, Magnus 'Barelegs' who chose to wear a kilt into battle and the cursed raven banner...

A precarious situation for Scots' kings that would eventually be resolved mid-15th Century through the non-payment of a dowry
A precarious situation for Scots' kings that would eventually be resolved mid-15th Century through the non-payment of a dowry

The Northern Isles changed hands in 1468

Orkney and Shetland came under the auspices of the West Norse (Norwegian) kings as overlords of the Jarl of Orkney. Olaf Tryggvason had threatened the islanders in AD 995 with fire and the sword if they did not convert to Christianity. They duly embraced the faith. He himself was defeated at the Battle of Svold in the Baltic five years on and stepped overboard in full armour.

In the 14th Century Orkney was still a Norwegian dependency but Scottish influence grew. Jon Haraldsson, murdered at Thurso in 1231 was the last Norse jarl in a long unbroken line. Thereafter earls were Scots, noblemen of Angus and St Clair (Sinclair).

In 1468 Shetland was pledged by King Christian I as security against payment of the dowry of his daughter Margaret, betrothed to James III. The money was never paid and the crown of Scotland became the legal landlords. In 1470 William St Clair, 1st Earl of Caithness yielded the title to James III and the following year the Northern Isles - as Orkney and Shetland became known collectively - were directly annexed to Scotland.

Next - 20: Orkneyinga Saga (2) Jarl Havard to Jarl Rognvald


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    • alancaster149 profile image

      Alan R Lancaster 5 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      Thanks Johnathan, although I can't really take the credit for them as much as choosing them for the purpose.

    • Johnathan L Groom profile image

      Johnathan L Groom 5 years ago from Bristol, CT

      great pix