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Viking - 20: Orkney - A Tale of Jarl Brusi and His Troublesome Brothers

Updated on October 15, 2019

"No man should think himself bright but channel his thoughts well. A wise guest is a silent guest. The wary steers clear of evil. There is never a friend more faithful, nor is there greater wealth than wisdom".


'The fellow is calling you out. He wants you to fight him, Lord'. 'Very well then, if that is the only way I stand to shut that great gaping cavern!'
'The fellow is calling you out. He wants you to fight him, Lord'. 'Very well then, if that is the only way I stand to shut that great gaping cavern!' | Source

A saga passed on by word of mouth before being set down in words - Old Norse words, that ring like swords on the foes' shield-bosses

Orkneyinga Saga, of the Earls of Orkney told in Old Norse, translated into modern Icelandic and modern English
Orkneyinga Saga, of the Earls of Orkney told in Old Norse, translated into modern Icelandic and modern English | Source
Jarl Sigurd Loddveson's flapping raven banner. It augured his own end at Clontarf near Dublin on Good Friday, 1014
Jarl Sigurd Loddveson's flapping raven banner. It augured his own end at Clontarf near Dublin on Good Friday, 1014

Jarl Thorfinn had five sons, Arnfinn, Havard 'the Fecund', Hlodvir, Ljot and Skuli.

Ragnhild Eiriks-dottir schemed in the death of her husband Arnfinn at Murkle in Katanes*, and wedded his brother Havard, who followed into the jarldom**.

Jarl Havard's nephew Einar 'Smoerre-broed' (Buttered-bread), a chieftain with a good following, usually went raiding in the summer-time. He was invited by Havard to a feast and during the evening Einar and Ragnhild talked at length. She plied him with drink and told him what a good leader he was, and how much better than Havard he would be for the jarldom,

'The woman who marries you will be well-matched', Ragnhild told Einar, to be told earnestly not to say such things.

'You are a well-respected, married woman whose husband is the greatest man in Orkney!'

'My marriage to Havard will soon be over', she rebuffed him. 'to be honest, although you do not wish it for yourself, there are those here who may not be so high-minded', she pressed him until, swayed by greed, he let her talk him into betraying his uncle. Ragnhild agreed that after he killed her husband, she would marry him.

Soon after, Einar readied himself for a long crossing, but as he did so a seer warned,

'Do not undertake this task today. Leave it for the morrow, otherwise there will be killings in your clan for years to come'.

Einar ignored the warning. At the time Havard was staying at Stenness on Mainland, where he and Einar were to meet. They fought and Havard was killed quickly at the place known as Havard's Field. Word spread of Einar's part in the killing and Ragnhild withdrew from her part of the bargain, saying it was a brazen lie that they had ever come to such an agreement. She sent for Einar 'Hard-mund' (Hard-mouth), another of Havard's nephews, and told him it was a shame none of the jarl's kinsmen had taken revenge, and that she would do all she could to pursue the matter,

'Plainly the man who avenges the jarl's death will earn respect and inherit the jarldom'.

'Talk has it, Lady, that you say one thing and mean something altogether different', Einar 'Hard-mund' told her, 'and anyone who follows this through will see more than just inheriting the jarldom into the bargain'.

Their talks ended, Einar soon after led an attack on his kinsman and slew him. Ragnhild then summoned Ljot and married him. As jarl, Ljot turned out to be a great leader of fighting men, and Einar 'Hard-mund was still no closer to the jarldom. Rankled, he called on men to take the islands by force but found it hard to gather many, as they thougtht it better to serve Thorfinn's direct offspring. Einar was then shortly afterward put to death for subverting Ljot's authority.

Skuli crossed to Scotland, where the Scots' king made him jarl, from where he returned to Orkneyto claim the islands. Ljot also called on his men and set out with a large force to head off Skuli, who lost after a hard fight. Skuli then fled, first to Katanes and then on further south. Ljot hastened after him and spent time in Katanes, adding men to his force.

Skuli headed north again with a large following given by the Scots' king and Macbeothen, the mormaer of Moray. The brothers met in the Katanes dales, with the Scots pressing hard early in the struggle. When Ljot urged his men to stand firm the Scots faltered. Leading from the front, Ljot called on his men to fight well.. not long afterward the Scots fell back. skuli fought on but was slain.

Jarl Ljot took Katanes, angering the Scots who bridled at their losses. When Ljot went down through Katanes Macbeothen met him with an army at Skitten. Outnumbered, Ljot fought so well the Scots were pushed back again in a short, pitched battle in which many of the Scots were wounded. Following this win Ljot returned to Orkney. Many of his men had suffered wounds and he himself had sustained a wound that cost him his life.

Hlodvir took over the jarldom next, marrying Eidne and ruling well. Eidne, daughter of the Erse King Kjarval, gave Hlodvir a son, Sigurd. Hlodvir died of old age and was laid to rest in a burial mound at Ham in Katanes.

Sigurd, known as 'the Stout', next inherited the jarldom, another great leader who ruled over a wide area, strong enough to hold Katanes against the Scots. He raided far and wide each summer, plundering in the Hebrides, Ireland and Scotland. A Scots' noble, Finnleik, called out Sigurd to a fight at Skitten. Sigurd sought his mother's counsel, telling her the odds against him threatened to overwhelm him and asked what he should do to overturn these odds.

'I might have reared you in my wool basket, had I thought you would want to live forever! The Norns shape our lives by where they see see us to be, not by what we are now', she scolded. 'Take this banner I have made for you with all my craft. I believe it will bring you glory if another carries it, but it brings death to those who bear it for you'.

The banner itself was finely woven, cleverly embroidered with a raven that 'flapped' its wings when the wind caught it. Jarl Sigurd lost his temper at his mother's words. To get their support in the coming battle he promised Orkney's farmers their land rights and then made for Skitten to take up Finnleik's challenge. The men formed up in their shieldwalls, but when the clash came Sigurd's standard bearer was slain. Another fellow was told to take up the banner but was also cut down. Three standard bearers were lost that way but the day was Sigurd's, and the Orkney farmers gained their land rights.

Following his return from the Wendish kingdom, Olaf Tryggvason raided in the British Isles for four years. He was converted to Christianity in Normandy and baptised in the Scilly Islands. He sailed from there to England where he wedded Gytha, the sister of the Erse King Kvaran, then took time in Dyflin (Dublin) until Jarl Hakon sent Thorir 'Klakka' west to draw him back to the islands.

'You and all your underlings will be baptised', Olaf told Sigurd at Osmundwall when they met. Sigurd had been ready to put out to sea when word came that Olaf wanted to see him. 'If you will not let yourself be baptised I will have you killed here and now. I will also render each of the islands with fire and sword'.

Seeing no way out, Sigurd yielded, was baptised and Olaf took his son Hvelp (or Hundi) hostage and had him baptised as Hlodvir. All Orkney took the faith under threat of the sword and Olaf sailed west to Norway with Hlodvir. The lad did not live long and after his death Sigurd withheld any homage that might have been Olaf's due. He wedded the daughter of King Maelcolm II and fathered Thorfinn on her. Jarl Sigurd had three further sons, Somerled, Brusi and Einar 'Wry-mouth'.

Olaf Tryggvason was killed at Svold (AD1000), and Sigurd believed his mother had laid a curse on the king. Thinking his troubles over, he took a fleet to Dyflin to support King Sigtrygg 'Silkeskegg' (Silk-beard) against the Erse high-king Brian Boru and his son Maelmordha. Thorfinn was sent to Scotland to be fostered by his maternal grandfather King Maelcolm. When Sigurd reached Dyflin Bay he joined forces with Sigtrygg. As none of his men wished to carry the ill-fated banner, sigurd bore it himself and was slain in the bloody slaughter at Clontarf on the headland. Sigtrygg left Ireland for Jorvik, to become king there, and Brian carried the day despite being killed at prayer (he refused to fight in the Good Friday clash, 23rd April, AD1014).

Three of Sigurd's sons took up the rule over the jarldom between them; Somerled, Brusi and Einar being of age and Thorfinn only five summers old. Thorfinn received Katanes and Suthraland from his grandfather, and the title of jarl was bestowed on him, and he was afforded the counsel of elders to guide his decisions. Jarl Thorfinn was an early developer, tall, strong, a very Gaelic-looking young man with dark hair. Those around him could see that as he grew older he would be a handful, with his appetite for riches. His brothers Einar and Brusi were different from one another in character.

Whereas Einar was a ruthless and grasping, hard and seasoned fighting man, Brusi was restrained and friendly, a fine speaker. Somerled was more like Brusi than Einar, the eldest yet shortest-lived, dying in his sleep. On his death Thorfinn claimed his share of Orkney's jarldom, but Einar argued that Katanes and Suthraland*** had been part of his father's jarldom and, being over a third anyway, refused him more than he already held. Brusi, however, was willing to let Thorfinn take a larger share, saying,

'I have no wish to take more of the isles than already belong to me'.

Einar had at the time over two-thirds of Orkney. A strong lord, his following was sizeable. The levies he demanded were hard and in summer he went away raiding, despite the haul never warranting such a regular investment. The farmers tired of his excesses but Einar still squeezed more from them. He brooked no argument and bullied his landholders, which led to food shortages in his part of Orkney.

On the other isles, under Brusi's rule, the farmers knew peace and thrived. He was well-liked by all.

One wealthy landholder, Amundi farmed at Sandvik on Mainland. His son Thorkel was one of the most promising young men and Amundi himself was well-respected, shrewd and worldly-wise. One fore-year Einar imposed his usually harsh levy. The farmers grumbled and took their woes to Amundi, asking him to speak to Einar on their behalf. He told them the jarl was not one to listen,

'Nothing will be gained by it. On the face of it, there's another risk if we take into consideration tempers on both sides', Amundi told them. 'Were we to fall out with Einar it could get worse. I will have no part of it'.

The farmers then took up the issue with Thorkel. He also did not relish arguing with the jarl, but the nagging went on until he agreed to take up the matter with Einar. Amundi thought it rash of Thorkel to give them this sort of undertaking, but kept his own counsel. At a meeting Einar held with the farmers Thorkel spoke up about their hardship and pleaded with the jarl to ease their load. Einar answered in a friendly enough manner that he would think it over and pat heed to the issues raised by Thorkel. He told him,

'I had meant to take six ships, but now I shall trim that number to three. As for you, Thorkel, I would not ask for more favours from me, understand?'

The farmers thanked Thorkel for his help and everyone thought the matter over and done with. The jarl embarked on his viking foray with his three ships, and was home again for the after-year. In the next fore-year he levelled a new tax on the farmers and called them to a Thing. Thorkel was there again to ask for leniency, but Einar answered tersely that this would only make things awkward for all. He was enraged and swore that only one of them would see the out the year. With that the meeting broke up.

Amundi learned what had gone before and counselled Thorkel to sail far away, so his son set out to see Jarl Thorfinn in Katanes, and stayed there a while. Thorkel had fostered Thorfinn when the jarl was younger, for which he was given the nickname 'Thorkel the Fosterer', a fine, upright sort of fellow. Many other men of note left Orkney at this time due to Einar's hard rule, most joining Thorfinn, some leaving for Norway and elsewhere.

When Jarl Thorfinn came of age he let Einar know he was out to claim his third of the isles, and Einar was unwilling to 'trim his sails' so closely, and when Thorfinn heard Einar's answer he mustered men in Katanes. Jarl Einar learned of the muster and headed off to the mainland to a fight. Jarl Brusi also gathered men and set off to meet the other two, hoping to broker a peace between his brothers.

Einar and Thorfinn were reconciled, on condition Jarl Thorfinn had his rightful third share of Orkney whilst Einar and Thorfinn and Brusi brought their shares together under one roof, so to speak. Einar would rule, and oversee the defences. On the death of either, the other would take the jarldom. however, the deal was one-sided because Brusi had a son, Rognvald. Einar was as yet still without heir. Thorfinn appointed stewards to oversee his share of the islands, but saw fit to live in Katanes.

Einar still saw fit to spend the summers raiding around the Irish Sea. One summer, in Ireland, he met King Kinofogor at Lough Larne and lost heavily in battle, with many losses. During the following summer Eyvind 'Aurochs-horn' set out eastward for Norway from ireland but had to put in at Osmundwall in the face of a heavy gale. Einar heard of Eyvind's plight and set out with a large force, capturing Eyvind and having him put to death. He spared the lives of most of Eyvind's crew. In the after-year these men set off again for Norway, telling King Olaf of the killings. Olaf had little to say on the matter, although he took the killing of Eyvind as a personal slight. Usually Olaf said little of the greater offences against him. He could bide his time until the opportunity arose, to settle the score.


* Katanes = Caithness

** jarldom = earldom

*** Suthraland = Sutherland


Next - 21: ORKNEY (Einar's Due)

Jarl Sigurd 'the Mighty' came to a sticky end...

Jarl Sigurd 'the Mighty' came to a sticky end when the severed head of his arch-enemy Maelbrighte ('foul tooth') fell from the spear it was pierced by and fell, his teeth cutting into Sigurd's leg and infecting him
Jarl Sigurd 'the Mighty' came to a sticky end when the severed head of his arch-enemy Maelbrighte ('foul tooth') fell from the spear it was pierced by and fell, his teeth cutting into Sigurd's leg and infecting him | Source
Brough of Birsay on the northwest side of Mainland, Orkney, ruined site of a jarl's garth or stronghold
Brough of Birsay on the northwest side of Mainland, Orkney, ruined site of a jarl's garth or stronghold | Source
Seen from below, part of the ruin on an imposing site overlooking
Seen from below, part of the ruin on an imposing site overlooking | Source

Trees are few and far between on Orkney. There's a small plantation near Stromness, others stand around St Magnus' Cathedral at Kirkwall on Mainland and yet others provide windbreaks around crofts (smallholdings). Views are therefore largely unbroken across the islands, as in the views above. This would have been largely the scene when the Norsemen first landed in the 9th Century.

Icelandic sources tell us it was King Harald 'Harfagri' (pron. 'Harfayrie',= 'Fair Hair') who conquered the islands in the late 9th Century; Irish sources differ, with Rognvald (pron. 'Rownwald'), Earl of More landing around the time the Danes under Halvdan (Halfdan) took York, around AD 866. Norse royal interest in the islands was certainly aroused later in the 9th Century, although the jarls of Orkney enjoyed independence until the late 10th Century. when Olaf Tryggvason threatened invasion unless Orkney converted to Christianity. Olaf Haraldsson left the Orkney jarls in no doubt as to who was 'boss' until he too was defeated at Stiklestad in AD 1030 in a rising 'sponsored' by Knut 'the Great' of Denmark.

Berserker, Pawn in the jarl's game of power

See description below
See description below | Source

Murder, mayhem and self-seeking, Does this remind you of 'Dallas'? JRs in plentiful supply here. This is the definitive saga that shapes history - over several hundred years the jarls of Orkney served both their king and themselves. The king had to threaten to exert his authority personally, and at another time had to right a wrong. Finally the kings of Scotland claimed the Northern Isles, calling in a debt default - an unpaid dowry.

The image is of one of the pawns in the Lewis chess set, the originals still incomplete. Although 'pricey', replica sets can be bought at the British Museum in London WC1, also available online. Lewis is one of the Outer Hebrides isles with a ferry link across the North Minch from Stornoway to Ullapool through Loch Broom. There's another ferry link from Tarbert on the south-east side of the isle across the Little Minch to Uig on Skye (Inner Hebrides), with a further shorter ferry link to the Kyle of Lochalsh on the mainland.

© 2012 Alan R Lancaster


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