The Shetland Islands.

The Shetland Islands is the northernmost province of Britain. The archipelago consists of more than 100 islands, of which only 20 are inhabited. The population today is about 25.000. The distance to Bergen is ca. 350 kms. – a distance the Vikings travelled in one day. From the southernmost point of Shetland – Fair Isle – it is possible, in clear weather, to sight the northernmost island of Orkney – North Ronaldsay (Rinnansøy) in the southeast. The islands demarcate a frontier between the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea. The climate is generally rough, but due to the Gulf Stream winters are relatively mild, while summers are chilly and moist. Due to the rough climate – in addition to man’s ruthless exploitation of the forests – vegetation is scanty. The landscape is dominated by large heathery moors. Trees are nowadays a rare sight. The northern isles are mainly composed of granite and gneiss, the eastern and southern of grey and brown sandstone. People today make their living mainly from fishing, sheep breeding and some farming, but the rapid development of the oil industry in the North Sea has also affected the Shetlanders economically. In addition, tourism has prospered, due to improvements in communication facilities.

Map of Shetland

The Shetland Islands have been inhabited by humans for more than 5 500 years. At that time, however, the Neolithic Pictish dwellers could enjoy a far warmer climate than today, with forests and arable grassy plains. The remnants of these first settlements are among the most outstanding and best preserved from this period of European civilisation (Sumburgh). At a later stage, the iron- and bronze-age peoples have left behind more than a hundred stone defences scattered around the islands – the brochs. Sometimes during the 6th Century the first Christian Celtic monks arrived on the islands from Iona. Some of these monks built churches and practised missionary work among the heathen Picts, while others settled down as hermits in the most remote and isolated islands. These islands still bear names to remind us of this activity, for instance Papa Stour. The Vikings arrival on the islands during the 8th Century made a lasting stamp on the cultural development of the islands, clearly visible even today. Almost all place names have a Norse origin. The Old Norse language has – as in the Orkneys - made a lasting impression on colloquial speech. As was the case in the Orkneys, the Norse dialect Norn was spoken up until the 18th Century. In the Latin chronicle Historia Norwegiae, written down in the 13th Century, two different peoples are mentioned living on the Isles when the Norwegians arrived – the Pap and the Peti. The Paps are described as people wearing long white garments, probably the Celtic monks. The Petis (Picts) are described as people of low stature (like Pygmies), having strange habits.

The Vikings named the islands Hjaltland (The Old Norse word hjalt is the term used for the transverse piece between the sword blade and the grip). May be the Vikings chose the word hjalt because the Shetland Isles was halfway to (or between) the Orkneys – an intermediate station for reloading the ships? After the Battle of Hafrsfjord (ca. 890 AD), Harald Fairhair occupied the Shetland Isles, because some men here had supported his enemies in the battle, and for several years had been raiding along the Norwegian coast.

Broch Jarlshof, Sumburgh

In 1958 a huge silver treasure from the Viking Age was unearthed on the small uninhabited island St.Ninian. Today this island is connected to the mainland by a causeway at ebb-tide. Professor Andrew O’Dell from Aberdeen University started excavations here in 1955 – in search for the ruins of St. Ninians Church, the mother church of Shetland. According to legend it was situated here. He found the ruins of a chapel from the 8th Century, but on the 4th of July 1958 he stumbled over a buried Pictish silver treasure, that would completely overshadow the discovery of the church ruins. The treasure consisted of 28 decorated silver objects inside a lark wood chest. It was found underneath a sandstone slab in the nave of the church. A cross was carved onto the stone slab. Among the objects were 12 brooches and 8 silver bowls. This was the largest and finest collection of Celtic silver ever to be found in Britain!
Professor O’Dell interpreted the hoard to be church silver, hidden away in a hurry before the Vikings arrival, but later research maintains it could be part of the fortune of a Pictish family, who had deposited it in the church in the late 8th Century.

Southernmost on the Shetland mainland lies the village of Sumburgh. Here the very first certain Viking settlements in the British Isles were unearthed in 1934. The Scottish author Sir Walter Scott (1771 – 1832) made the place famous in his Viking novel “The Pirate”. The name he gave the place in his novel – Jarlshof – has been stuck to it ever since. But prior to the Vikings settling down here, there had been settlements in the place all through the bronze- and iron-age. The Picts also lived here in their circular “wheelhouses” before the Vikings’ arrival. As time past, all these settlements were eventually covered by sand and abandoned. The Vikings were forced to abandon the place sometime during the 15th Century. The entire area was covered in sand until it was accidentally rediscovered in the beginning of the 19th Century.

Jarlshof - neolithic dwellings Jarlshof - overview

Shetlands oldest preserved document deals with a royal tax collection from 1299 AD. The tax collectors name was Torvald Toresson, and the taxpayers name was Ragnhild Simunsdatter – a farm owner on the island Papa Stour. The negotiations take place in the Stova. Stova was the most important house on the island, and belonged to the Earl and the heir to the Throne of Norway - Håkon Magnussen. Håkon is the son of Magnus Lagabøter (the Lawmaker), king of Norway. The Stova was used for these kind of negotiations. In the 1970ies the archaeologist Barbara Crawford from the University of St. Andrews tried to localize this Stova. She succeeded in finding the ruins of it, close to the island’s church. The wooden floor of the Stova was in real good condition, and was dated to the 12th Century. The house measured 9 × 5 metres, and was built of massif wooden planks mounted vertically into sills, and attached to corner posts. In the centre of the Stova there was a large stone slab, used as a fireplace. Along the walls there were benches for resting and sleeping. Outside the house the researchers found remnants of a lavatory.

Shetland was at first ruled by the Earls of Orkney, but from 1195 AD the islands were ruled directly from Norway. The Earl’s possessions in Shetland were confiscated by the Norwegian king, because the Earl had supported an upheaval against the king. In 1469 the Shetland and Orkney Islands were given as a mortgage to the Scottish king (part of a marriage dowry). Since then the Islands have been ruled over by Scottish Lords.

Restored 19th Century croft house

The Orkney Islands

By the time the local chieftain Harald Halfdansson Luva* made the hitherto best attempt to “Unify all of Norway” in the late 9th Century, Norwegian settlements in Orkney had been firmly established for almost 100 years. Little by little the Norwegians climbed in the social hierarchy, and eventually succeeded in becoming the dominating class among settlers on the island. There is however no evidence indicating that this position in society was achieved by means of force; rather they mingled naturally with the indigenous people (the Picts). Farming, fishing and hunting were – like in their homeland - the primary means by which they made their living. When a group of restless young men in the late 8th Century set out on their raiding expeditions along the coasts of Britain and Ireland, their point of departure were primarily from bases in the Orkney and Shetland Islands.

* Harald I Fairhair (860 – 933) is reckoned as the first King of Norway. His hair was a real mess before he engaged in his life’s great venture of unifying all the petty earldoms of Norway. Luva means Messyhair. He promised himself not to cut or comb his hair before he had succeeded in this task. After the great Battle at Hafrsfjord (ca. 885 AD) the king let the most loyal of his earls, Ragnvald Mørejarl cut and comb his hair. He was from the on given the name of Fairhair.

Map of Orkney

The Orkneys were “discovered” by the Phoenician seafarer Pytheas when he sailed around the British Isles in the year 325 BC. Pytheas also continued his voyage further north, and caught sight of a land in the horizon, which he named Ultima Thule (Norway?). The Roman geographer Diodorus Siculus referred to Pytheas in his work Bibliotheca Historica which he published in 56 BC. Here the name Orcades appears for the first time as a name for these Islands. Diodorus wrote in Greek, and the Greek word orchas means wild boar. Probably Pytheas was the first human being from the Greek-Roman world to observe seals, and since there was no word in the Greek language to describe this new animal, wild boar was the closest. In other words, Orcades means Seal Islands. When the Greek geographer Ptolemaios from Alexandria constructed his famous World Map in 140 AD,Orcades was also drawn in. The Roman historian Tacitus relates that the Roman commander Agricola (his father-in-law), after he had conquered the Picts in the Battle of Mons Graupius in the year 84 AD, sailed around the Orkneys and claimed them as part of the Roman province of Britannia.

The Orkneys have been inhabited for more than 5000 years, and one of Europe’s most impressive and best preserved Neolithic settlements is to be found here – Skara Brae, ca. 3200 BC. Scattered all over the islands are also impressive burial mounds (Maeshowe, ca. 2800 BC) and stone circles (Ring of Brodgar & Stones of Stennes, ca. 2900 BC). Most of these ancient monuments are to be found on the largest of the islands – Mainland, or Meginland, which was the Viking name. The Vikings sometimes also called the island Rossøy – Horse Island.

The Ring of Brodgar

The Orkney archipelago consists of more than 70 islands, but only about 1\3 of them are inhabited. Even today almost all of them derive their names from Old Norse, like Egilsøy, Grimsøy, Høy, Rinnansøy (North Ronaldsey), Sandøy, etc. The suffiks ey (øy) meaning island. The Vikings probably established their main base in the southern and middle part of Meginland, in the present day counties of Orphir and St. Ola. The naturally protected sea bay – Scapaflow (Skapinseid) – with islands on all sides, must have served as a perfect harbour for the Viking ships. Scapaflow was also the main marine base for the allied fleet during both World Wars.
Archaeologists have unearthed remnants of old Viking settlements at different places in the Orkneys, on Westray, Sanday, Egilsay and Rousay. In the county of Birsay on western Mainland ruins of a royal court and the first Christ Church built on the islands (1057 AD) have been unearthed. Here was the headquarters of Earl Thorfinn the Mighty.
A local variant of the Old Norse language – norn - was spoken on the islands up until the late 1700’s ! Some enthusiasts today are trying to bring norn back into the limelight, and have started a radio station in norn. Some old people on the islands prefer saying the Lord’s Prayer in norn even today:

Favor i ir i chimrie, helleur ir i nam thite,
Gilla cosdum thite cumma,
veya thine mota vara gort
o yurn sinna gort i chimrie,
ga vus da on da daglight brow vora
firgive vus sinna vora sin vee firgive
sindara mutha vus.
Lyv vus ye i tumtation,
Min delivera vu solt ilt
Amen.

Scara Brae Stones of Tennes 2

Our knowledge about the Vikings in Orkney is mainly derived from the Sagas, written down on Iceland early in the 13th Century, foremost Orkneyinga saga and Snorre Sturlusons Heimskringla, the history of the early Norwegian kings. In the Saga of Harald Fairhair Snorre tells about his “punitive expeditions” to the Western Isles, and about the annexation of Orkney into the newly established Norwegian kingdom:

20. HARALD SUPREME SOVEREIGN IN NORWAY.

After this battle King Harald met no opposition in Norway, for all his opponents and greatest enemies were cut off. But some, and they were a great multitude, fled out of the country, and thereby great districts were peopled. Jemtland and Helsingjaland were peopled then, although some Norwegians had already set up their habitation there. In the discontent that King Harald seized on the lands of Norway, the out-countries of Iceland and the Faeroe Isles were discovered and peopled. The Northmen had also a great resort to Hjaltland (Shetland Isles) and many men left Norway, flying the country on account of King Harald, and went on Viking cruises into the West sea. In winter they were in the Orkney Islands and Hebrides; but marauded in summer in Norway, and did great damage. Many, however, were the mighty men who took service under King Harald, and became his men, and dwelt in the land with him.

22. KING HARALD'S VOYAGE TO THE WEST.

King Harald heard that the Vikings, who were in the West Sea in winter, plundered far and wide in the middle part of Norway; and therefore every summer he made an expedition to search the isles and out-skerries (1) on the coast. Wheresoever the vikings heard of him they all took to flight, and most of them out into the open ocean. At last the king grew weary of this work, and therefore one summer he sailed with his fleet right out into the West Sea. First he came to Hjaltland (Shetland), and he slew all the Vikings who could not save themselves by flight. Then King Harald sailed southwards, to the Orkney Islands, and cleared them all of Vikings. Thereafter he proceeded to the Suderøyene (Hebrides), plundered there, and slew many Vikings who formerly had had men-at-arms under them. Many a battle was fought, and King Harald was always victorious. He then plundered far and wide in Scotland itself, and had a battle there. When he was come westward as far as the Isle of Man, the report of his exploits on the land had gone before him; for all the inhabitants had fled over to Scotland, and the island was left entirely bare both of people and goods, so that King Harald and his men made no booty when they landed. So says Hornklofe:

"The wise, the noble king, great
Whose hand so freely scatters gold,
Led many a northern shield to war
Against the town upon the shore.
The wolves soon gathered on the sand
Of that sea-shore; for Harald's hand
The Scottish army drove away,
And on the coast left wolves a prey."

In this war fell Ivar, a son of Ragnvald, Earl of Møre; and King Harald gave Ragnvald, as a compensation for the loss, the Orkney and Shetland isles, when he sailed from the West; but Ragnvald immediately gave both these countries to his brother Sigurd, who remained behind them; and King Harald, before sailing eastward, gave Sigurd the earldom of them. Thorstein the Red, a son of Olaf the White and of Aud the Wealthy, entered into partnership with him; and after plundering in Scotland, they subdued Caithness and Sutherland, as far as Ekkjalsbakke. Earl Sigurd killed Melbridge Tooth, a Scotch earl, and hung his head to his stirrup-leather; but the calf of his leg were scratched by the teeth, which were sticking out from the head, and the wound caused inflammation in his leg, of which the earl died, and he was laid in a mound at Ekkjalsbakke. His son Guthorm ruled over these countries for about a year thereafter, and died without children. Many Vikings, both Danes and Northmen, set themselves down then in those countries.

Ragnvald, Earl of Møre, then decided to send his son Hallad to the Western Isles, to establish peace and order. Snorre relates:

27. OF EARL TORV-EINAR’S OBTAINING ORKNEY.

When Earl Ragnvald in More heard of the death of his brother Earl Sigurd, and that the Vikings were in possession of the country, he sent his son Hallad westward, who took the title of earl to begin with, and had many men-at-arms with him. When he arrived at the Orkney Islands, he established himself in the country; but both in harvest, winter, and spring, the Vikings cruised about the isles plundering the headlands, and committing depredations on the coast. Then Earl Hallad grew tired of the business, resigned his earldom, took up again his rights as an allodial owner, and afterwards returned eastward into Norway. When Earl Ragnvald heard of this he was ill pleased with Hallad, and said his son were very unlike their ancestors. Then said Einar, "I have enjoyed but little honour among you, and have little affection here to lose: now if you will give me force enough, I will go west to the islands, and promise you what at any rate will please you -- that you shall never see me again." Earl Ragnvald replied, that he would be glad if he never came back; "For there is little hope," said he, "that thou will ever be an honour to thy friends, as all thy kin on thy mother's side are born slaves." Earl Ragnvald gave Einar a vessel completely equipped, and he sailed with it into the West sea in harvest. When he came to the Orkney Isles, two Vikings, Tore Treskjegg and Kalv Skurva, were in his way with two vessels. He attacked them instantly, gained the battle, and slew the two vikings. Then this was sung:

"Then gave he Treskjegg to the trolls,
Torv-Einar slew Skurva."

He was called Torv-Einar, because he cut peat for fuel, there being no firewood, as in Orkney there are no woods. He afterwards was earl over the islands, and was a mighty man. He was ugly, and blind of an eye, yet very sharp-sighted withal.

With Torv-Einar (ca. 910 AD) peace was acquired for a period in the Isles, but peace didn’t last for long. King Harald had many sons. Some of them were displeased and envious of the power acquired by the Earls of Møre, and they demanded to get their fair share. Snorre relates what happened:

30. EARL RAGNVALD BURNT IN HIS HOUSE.

When King Harald was forty years of age many of his sons were well advanced, and indeed they all came early to strength and manhood. And now they began to take it ill that the king would not give them any part of the kingdom, but put earls into every district; for they thought earls were of inferior birth to them. Then Halfdan Haleg and Gudrod Ljome set off one spring with a great force, and came suddenly upon Earl Ragnvald, earl of More, and surrounded the house in which he was, and burnt him and sixty men in it. Thereafter Halfdan took three long-ships, and fitted them out, and sailed into the West sea; but Gudrod set himself down in the land which Ragnvald formerly had. Now when King Harald heard this he set out with a great force against Gudrod, who had no other way left but to surrender, and he was sent to Agder. King Harald then set Earl Ragnvald's son Thorer over More, and gave him his daughter Alof, called Arbot, in marriage. Earl Thorer, called the Silent, got the same territory his father Earl Ragnvald had possessed.

31. HALFDAN HALEG'S DEATH.

Halfdan Haleg came very unexpectedly to Orkney, and Earl Einar immediately fled; but came back soon after about harvest time, unnoticed by Halfdan. They met and after a short battle Halfdan fled the same night. Einar and his men lay all night without tents, and when it was light in the morning they searched the whole island and killed every man they could lay hold of. Then Einar said "What is that I see upon the isle of Rinansey? Is it a man or a bird? Sometimes it raises itself up, and sometimes lies down again." They went to it, and found it was Halfdan Haleg, and took him prisoner.

Earl Einar sang the following song the evening before he went into this battle:

"Where is the spear of Hrollaug? where
Is stout Rolf Ganger's bloody spear!
I see them not; yet never fear,
For Einar will not vengeance spare
Against his father's murderers, though
Hrollaug and Rolf are somewhat slow,
And silent Thorer sits add dreams
At home, beside the mead-bowl's streams."

Thereafter Earl Einar went up to Halfdan, and cut a spread eagle upon his back, by striking his sword through his back into his belly, dividing his ribs from the backbone down to his loins, and tearing out his lungs; and so Halfdan was killed. Einar then sang:

"For Ragnvald's death my sword is red:
Of vengeance it cannot be said
That Einar's share is left unsped.
So now, brave boys, let's raise a mound,
Heap stones and gravel on the ground
O'er Halfdan's corpse: this is the way
We Norsemen our scat duties pay."

Then Earl Einar took possession of the Orkney Isles as before. Now when these tidings came to Norway, Halfdan's brothers took it much to heart, and thought that his death demanded vengeance; and many were of the same opinion. When Einar heard this, he sang:

"Many a stout udal-man, I know,
Has cause to wish my head laid low;
And many an angry udal knife
Would gladly drink of Eina's life.
But ere they lay Earl Einar low,
Ere this stout heart betrays its cause,
Full many a heart will writhe, we know,
In the wolf's fangs, or eagle's claws."

32. HARALD AND EINAR RECONCILED.

King Harald now ordered a levy, and gathered a great force, with which he proceeded westward to Orkney; and when Earl Einar heard that King Harald was come, he fled over to Caithness. He made the following verses on this occasion:

"Many a bearded man must roam,
An exile from his house and home,
For cow or horse; but Halfdan's gore
Is red on Rinansey's wild shore.
A nobler deed -- on Harald's shield
The arm of one who ne'er will yield
Has left a scar. Let peasants dread
The vengeance of the Norsemen's head:
I reck not of his wrath, but sing,
`Do thy worst! -- I defy thee, king!

Men and messages, however, passed between the king and the earl, and at last it came to a conference; and when they met the earl submitted the case altogether to the king's decision, and the king condemned the earl Einar and the Orkney people to pay a fine of sixty marks of gold. As the bondes thought this was too heavy for them to pay, the earl offered to pay the whole if they would surrender their udal lands to him. This they all agreed to do: the poor because they had but little pieces of land; the rich because they could redeem their udal rights again when they liked. Thus the earl paid the whole fine to the king, who returned in harvest to Norway. The earls for a long time afterwards possessed all the udal lands in Orkney, until Sigurd son of Hlodver gave back the udal rights.

After the death of Torv-Einar, his three sons – Arnkjell, Erlend and Thorfinn – came into power (933 AD). The youngest son of Harald Fairhair – Eirik Bloodaxe - was however an ambitious and power-seeking man. After he was driven from Norway, and also had to loosen his grip on Northumberland, he put his eyes on the Orkneys. In the battle of Stainsmore however both Arnkjell and Erlend was killed, but so was also Eirik Bloodaxe.

Sword & Stones

In the year 968 AD the rule of Orkney is in the hands of Thorfinn’s four sons – Arnfinn, Håvard, Ljot and Hlodve, and in 980 AD Hlodve’s son Sigurd II the Mighty is the sole ruler of the islands. In 995 AD Sigurd is forced by the Norwegian king Olav Trygvesson to let himself be baptized. Snorre relates this about the episode:

Olaf sailed (from Ireland) accordingly, accompanied by Thorír Klakka, with five ships; first to the Hebrides, and from thence to the Orkneys. At that time Earl Sigurd, Hlodver's son, lay in Osmundswall, in the island South Ronaldsay, with a ship of war, on his way to Caithness. Just at the same time Olaf was sailing with his fleet from the westward to the islands, and ran into the same harbour, because Pentland Firth was not to be passed at that tide. When the king was informed that the earl was there, he made him be called; and when the earl came on board to speak with the king, after a few words only had passed between them, the king says the earl must allow himself to be baptized, and all the people of the country also, or he should be put to death directly; and he assured the earl he would lay waste the islands with fire and sword, if the people did not adopt Christianity. In the position the earl found himself, he preferred becoming Christian, and he and all who were with him were baptized. Afterwards the earl took an oath to the king, went into his service, and gave him his son, whose name was Valp (Whelp), or Hunde (Dog), as a hostage; and the king took Valp to Norway with him.

Sigurd is later killed in the Battle of Clontarf in Ireland (1014 AD).

Many Norwegian kings have since sailed westwards to secure their possessions in the Western Isles. Their first stop (after stocking up in Shetland) were always the Orkneys. King Harald Hardrule made a short halt in Orkney to reinforce his army, before sailing on to England to confront the English king Harald Godvinsson in the famous Battle of Stanford Bridge (1066 AD). After the battle, where Harald Hardrule was killed, his son Olav (Kyrre) fled back to Orkney with the remnants of the fleet. When Olav Kyrre died in 1093 AD, his son Magnus Barelegs became king of Norway. He was a pugnacious young man, and during his 10 year reign, he spent more time fighting and ravaging in the Western Isles than in his homeland. It is said that he was given the name barelegs because he preferred wearing a kilt instead of trousers. He was deceived by his father-in-law King Muircheartach of Connacht, and was killed in an ambush in Ireland in 1103 AD.

King Magnus’ first voyage to the Western Isles.

King Magnus undertook an expedition out of the country, with many fine men and a good assortment of shipping. With this armament he sailed out into the West sea, and first came to the Orkney Islands. There he took the two earls, Paul and Erlend, prisoners, and sent them east to Norway, and placed his son Sigurd as chief over the islands, leaving some counsellors to assist him. From thence King Magnus, with his followers, proceeded to the Southern Hebudes, and when he came there began to burn and lay waste the inhabited places, killing the people and plundering wherever he came with his men; and the country people fled in all directions, some into Scotland-fjord, others south to Cantire, or out to Ireland; some obtained life and safety by entering into his service. So says Bjorn Krephende:

"In Lewis Isle with fearful blaze
The house-destroying fire plays;
To hills and rocks the people fly,
Fearing all shelter but the sky.
In Uist the king deep crimson made
The lightning of his glancing blade;
The peasant lost his land and life
Who dared to bide the Norseman's strife.
The hunger battle-birds were filled
In Skye with blood of foemen killed,
And wolves on Tyree's lonely shore
Dyed red their hairy jaws in gore.
The men of Mull were tired of flight;
The Scottish foemen would not fight,
And many an island-girl's wail
Was heard as through the isles we strife sail."

10. OF LAGMAN, KING GUDROD'S SON.

King Magnus came with his forces to the Holy Island (Iona), and gave peace and safety to all men there. It is told that the king opened the door of the little Columb's Kirk there, but did not go in, but instantly locked the door again, and said that no man should be so bold as to go into that church hereafter; which has been the case ever since. From thence King Magnus sailed to Islay, where he plundered and burnt; and when he had taken that country he proceeded south around Cantire, marauding on both sides in Scotland and Ireland, and advanced with his foray to Man, where he plundered. So says Bjorn Krephende: --

"On Sandey's plain our shield they spy:
From Isla smoke rose heaven-high,
Whirling up from the flashing blaze
The king's men o'er the island raise.
South of Cantire the people fled,
Scared by our swords in blood dyed red,
And our brave champion onward goes
To meet in Man the Norseman's foes."

Lagman (Lawman) was the name of the son of Gudrod, king of the Hebudes. Lawman was sent to defend the most northerly islands; but when King Magnus and his army came to the Hebudes, Lawman fled here and there about the isles, and at last King Magnus's men took him and his ship's crew as he was flying over to Ireland. The king put him in irons to secure him. So says Bjorn Krephende:

"To Gudrod's son no rock or cave,
Shore-side or hill, a refuge gave;
Hunted around from isle to isle,
This Lawman found no safe asyle.
From isle to isle, o'er firth and sound,
Close on his track his foe he found.
At Ness the Agder chief at length
Seized him, and iron-chained his strength."

11. OF THE FALL OF EARL HUGE THE BRAVE.

Afterwards King Magnus sailed to Wales; and when he came to the sound of Anglesey there came against him an army from Wales, which was led by two earls -- Hugo the brave, and Hugo the Stout. They began immediately to give battle, and there was a severe conflict. King Magnus shot with the bow; but Huge the Brave was all over in armour, so that nothing was bare about him excepting one eye. King Magnus let fly an arrow at him, as also did a Halogaland man who was beside the king. They both shot at once. The one shaft hit the nose-screen of the helmet, which was bent by it to one side, and the other arrow hit the earl's eye, and went through his head; and that was found to be the king's. Earl Huge fell, and the Britons fled with the loss of many people. So says Bjorn Krephende:

"The swinger of the sword
Stood by Anglesey's ford;
His quick shaft flew,
And Huge slew.
His sword gleamed a while
O'er Anglesey Isle,
And his Norsemen's band
Scoured the Anglesey land."

There was also sung the following verse about it:

"On the panzers arrows rattle,
Where our Norse king stands in battle;
From the helmets blood-streams flow,
Where our Norse king draws his bow:
His bowstring twangs, -- its biting hail
Rattles against the ring-linked mail.
Up in the land in deadly strife
Our Norse king took Earl Huge's life."

King Magnus gained the victory in this battle, and then took Anglesey Isle, which was the farthest south the Norway kings of former days had ever extended their rule. Anglesey is a third part of Wales. After this battle King Magnus turned back with his fleet, and came first to Scotland. Then men went between the Scottish king, Melkolm and King Magnus, and a peace was made between them; so that all the islands lying west of Scotland, between which and the mainland he could pass in a vessel with her rudder shipped, should be held to belong to the king of Norway. Now when King Magnus came north to Cantire, he had a skiff drawn over the strand at Cantire, and shipped the rudder of it. The king himself sat in the stern-sheets, and held the tiller; and thus he appropriated to himself the land that lay on the farboard side. Cantire is a great district, better than the best of the southern isles of the Hebudes, excepting Man; and there is a small neck of land between it and the mainland of Scotland, over which longships are often drawn.

King Magnus’ second voyage to the Western Isles.

When King Magnus had been nine years king of Norway (A.D. 1094- 1102), he equipped himself to go out of the country with a great force. He sailed out into the West sea with the finest men who could be got in Norway. All the powerful men of the country followed him; such as Sigurd Hranason, Vidkun Jonson, Dag Eilifson, Serk of Sogn, Eyvind Olboge, the king's marshal Ulf Hranason, brother of Sigurd, and many other great men. With all this armament the king sailed west to the Orkney Islands, from whence he took with him Earl Erlend's sons, Magnus and Erling, and then sailed to the southern Hebudes. But as he lay under the Scotch land, Magnus Erlendson ran away in the night from the king's ship, swam to the shore, escaped into the woods, and came at last to the Scotch king's court. King Magnus sailed to Ireland with his fleet, and plundered there. King Myrkjartan came to his assistance, and they conquered a great part of the country, both Dublin and Dyflinnarskire (Dublin shire). King Magnus was in winter (A.D. 1102) up in Connaught with King Myrkjartan, but set men to defend the country he had taken. Towards spring both kings went westward with their army all the way to Ulster, where they had many battles, subdued the country, and had conquered the greatest part of Ulster when Myrkjartan returned home to Connaught.

King Magnus rigged his ships, and intended returning to Norway, but set his men to defend the country of Dublin. He lay at Ulster ready for sea with his whole fleet. As they thought they needed cattle for ship-provision, King Magnus sent a message to King Myrkjartan, telling him to send some cattle for slaughter; and appointed the day before Bartholomew's day as the day they should arrive, if the messengers reached him in safety; but the cattle had not made their appearance the evening before Bartholomew's mass. On the mass-day itself, when the sun rose in the sky, King Magnus went on shore himself with the greater part of his men, to look after his people, and to carry off cattle from the coast.

Magnus is here betrayed by his father-in-law, and is killed in the following battle. Snorre relates how king Magnus was dressed during the battle:

King Magnus had a helmet on his head; a red shield, in which was inlaid a gilded lion; and was girt with the sword of Legbit, of which the hilt was of tooth (ivory), and handgrip wound about with gold thread; and the sword was extremely sharp. In his hand he had a short spear, and a red silk short cloak, over his coat, on which, both before and behind, was embroidered a lion in yellow silk; and all men acknowledged that they never had seen a brisker, statelier man. Eyvind had also a red silk cloak like the king's; and he also was a stout, handsome, warlike man.

This is the introduction to a dramatic and important period in the history of the Orkneys. After the death of king Magnus, his son Sigurd Magnusson Jorsalfar (= crusader) becomes king of Norway. The Earls Håkon and Magnus are put in charge of the Orkneys. Their dual reign ends dramatically with Håkon’s murder of Magnus on Egilsøy in 1117 AD. A detailed account of this incident is rendered in Orkneyinga Saga. Magnus is later sanctified, and his name is for all eternity firmly attached to the impressive Cathedral in Kirkwall – St. Magnus’ Cathedral.

St. Magnus Cathedral

St. Magnus’ Cathdedral – founded in 1137 AD – is the most magnificent and best preserved of all the monuments from the Viking Age. The Earl Ragnvald Kalesson initiated the erection of the Cathedral in red sandstone. When it was finished the corpse of king Magnus was moved here from his grandfather Thorfinn the Mighty’s Christchurch in Birsay. In 1919 the wooden coffin with the relics of St. Magnus were accidentally discovered during a restoration of the cathedral. The final proof that this was really the earthly remnants of St. Magnus was the discovery of a deep cleavage in the skull. This cleavage could only have been caused by a severe blow to the head by a battleaxe or sword, and this fitted well in with the description given in the Sagas.

So, what else have archaeologists managed to “dig out” of old Viking settlements in the Orkneys during the last century? On the island of Rousay (Rolfsøy) they have discovered a large cemetery from the Viking Age. The most interesting aspect of this find is that it shows that the local Picts and the Vikings probably used the same burial grounds for their dead. The archaeologist Olwyn Owen claims this proves a peaceful coexistence between the Picts and the Vikings. This claim is further supported by the archaeologist Anna Ritchie’s excavations at Buckqouy on the Mainland, where she discovered Pictish bone combs and other artefacts in Viking graves. Two boat graves were also discovered on Rousay in the 1960’s, where Viking warriors were surrounded with their weapons and other equipment.

The most recent boat burial was dug out from the sandbanks of Sanday in 1991 – the Scar boat burial. The archaeologists had to work fast, as the site was acutely threatened bi erosion and flooding. Three skeletons were found in the boat – a man, a woman and a child. At the mans side lay a quiver, a sword, a comb, a pair of scales made from lead and 22 nicely carved whalebone gaming pieces! By the woman’s side they found a maplewood jewellery box, a needlecase, spindle-whorls and a beautifully decorated whalebone ironing board! The patterns found on the jewellery and other artefacts was of Scandinavian origin, and could be dated to the 9th Century. The boat itself had decayed, but one could easily get an impression of how it was built. It was iron rivets from the boat found in the sand that first guided the archaeologist to Sanday. Small samples of sand from the boat were of a type only found in Scandinavia!

large plaque scar burial

The impressive Neolithic burial mound Maeshowe was called Orkahaugr by the Vikings. The grass covered mound conceals a 9 metres long stone passage, leading to a quite large burial chamber, with three wall openings or cells. The mound is 35 metres in diameter and has a height of 7 metres. It is surrounded by a dyke. The entrance is directed towards the southwest horizon, in such a way that the sunbeams light up the chamber only once a year – on midwinter’s day! A megalith – Barnhouse stone – rises in the air 700 metres away, placed in a linear relation to the entrance. The most interesting aspect of this burial mound – seen from a Viking view – is that it contains no less than 24 runic inscriptions and engravings from the Viking Age! This makes it the largest single collection of runic inscriptions in the world! Maeshowe was excavated in 1861, and the only find – apart from the runes – was a fracture of a human skull and some animal bones. The burial mound was probably just as empty when the Vikings broke into it in the 12th Century. There is a referral to Maeshowe (Orkahaugr) in the Orkneyinga Saga:

On the tenth day of Christmas Svein Åsleivsson amd his mates were drinking and celebrating. As he rubbed his nose, he said to them: I have a notion Earl Harald is on his way to the Islands. His mates thought this was out of the question due to the heavy storms. Svein said he knew that was what they were thinking: I do not intend to call on the Earl just because of my hunch, but I am afraid this may be wrong.
The conversation switched over to something else, and they continued drinking. Earl Harald broke up at Christmas setting course for the Orkneys; he bided for two days at Grimsøy. They went ashore in Havnevåg on Rossø, from there they went on to Fjord on the thirteenth day of Christmas; they stayed inside Orkahaugr as long as the storm lasted; two of his men turned crazy and therefore they were unduly delayed. Night had come when they reached Fjord. There Erlend waited with his ship. He had been drinking in a house out in the country during the day. Earl Harald killed two men from the party, and took four with him. These were Arnfinn, brother of Anakol, one named Ljot and two others. Earl Harald sailed back to Torså together with Torbjørn the priest, but the two brothers Benedikt and Eirik sailed on to Lambaborg, and they took Arnfinn with them. (Kap. 93).

Maeshowe Interior Maeshowe Small rune fragments

Several of the runic inscriptions tell the story of a treasure found here:

“The Crusaders broke into Orkahaugr. Leif, the Earl’s cook, carved these runes. To the north-west a great treasure is hidden. It was hidden a long time ago. Happy is the man who finds the great treasure. Håkon carried the treasure away from this mound all by himself.” Simon Sirith.

Recent research shows the mound must have been closed with a layer of stones late in the 9th Century, and later reopened by the Viking Crusaders in the 12th Century. Probably some of the early Vikings had used the mound as a burial place for one of their chieftains, together with all his earthly valuables. This is probably the treasure referred to in the runic inscriptions. Another interesting inscription reads:

“These runes are carved by the greatest master of runes in the Western Seas, with the axe that once belonged to Gauk Trandilsson from the south of Iceland.”

This Gauk Trandilsson can be traced back to the farmstead Stöng in Iceland. Gauk was later killed by Ásgrim Elliða-Grimsson, and the axe became an heirloom in the murderer’s family. A later descendant of the family – Thórhall Ásgrimsson – was captain on a ship carrying the Earl Ragnvald Kalisson from Norway back to Orkney after his Crusade to Jerusalem. This was in the year 1153 AD. This incidence was perhaps celebrated inside Orkahaugr, and Thórhall and his axe were there. Orkahaugr was probably also employed as a “lovenest”, as several of the inscriptions bare witness to sexual activity having taken place here:

“Thorný lay down. Helgi carved (a pun)”
“Ingigerð is the most beautiful of women.”
“Ingibjörg, the fair widow; many a woman has lowered
herself to get inside (a pun). What a girl. Erlingr.”

The most famous rock carving in Maeshowe is the picture of a dragonlike beast, turning its head to the right and snapping at a creature on its back. Researchers recognize similar figures surrounding the doorway on the stave church at Urnes in Sogn and Hylestad stave church in Aust-Agder. The old legend of Sigurd Fåvnesbane (the dragon killer) was a popular motif in Medieval times.

The Maeshowe Dragon Detalj fra Sigurd Portalen

The largest Viking treasure ever found in Scotland was discovered by a schoolboy – David Linklater – in 1858, while he was out chasing rabbits. At Skaill bay on the west coast of Mainland, he found some silver coins in the sand. It turned out to be part of a buried Viking treasure, consisting of about one hundred items weighing more than 7 kilograms (9 brooches, 14 necklaces, 27 arm rings, Anglo-Saxon and Kufic coins, and an array of small silver ingots). Many of the coins were marked with a knife, some several times. This was the Viking way of testing if the silver was genuine and of good quality (the more marks, the more times had the coin been used in trade). The silver was placed in a stone chest, indicating it might be the loot from a raiding expedition – hidden away in a hurry. The silver treasure has been dated to 950 AD.

Håkon Håkonsson was the last of the Norwegian kings sailing to the Western Isles to try to consolidate his power “over there”. Snorre’s nephew – Sturla þórðarsson – was given the honourable task of writing down king Håkon’s life story. He had a completely different writing style than his uncle, less bombastic and poetic, more sober and factual. It reminds a little of the style in the old Celtic and Anglo-Saxon annals and chronicles, containing accurate place names and dating of events. In the Saga of Håkon Håkonsson we can follow him and his men’s wanderings from island to island, and almost from hour to hour, up until the final and decisive battle at Largs in October 1263 (it was really a draw). On his way back to Orkney Håkon becomes seriously ill, and dies in the Bishop’s Castle in Kirkwall.

Bishop's Palace, Kirkwall Bishop's Palace, Interior The Earl's Palace, Kirkwall

Norway was eventually forced to let go of the major part of its possessions in the Western Isles, and surrender it to the Scottish Clans. The Scottish Clans, under the leadership of MacDonald (Dunnadsson) and MacDougall (Dungalsson) had always been allied with the Norwegian forces against the Scottish king. Now was the time to take over and chase the Norwegians back home. Their last possessions were the Orkneys and Shetland (Hjaltland). To secure these possessions king Eirik Magnusson married the daughter of the Scottish king Alexander III in Bergen in 1281. Eirik was only 12 years old when he married Margaret. Eirik and Margaret had a daughter – Margrete (born 1283). This Margrete, known by the Scots as the maiden from Norway, inherited the Scottish throne after her grandfather. A marriage was also arranged between Margrete and thr heir to the English throne (the later king Edward II). However, on her way from Norway to the Orkneys, she died - only 7 years old - in September 1290 AD.

The Islands of Orkney and Shetland were eventually given as a mortgage by the Danish-Norwegian king Christian I to the Scottish king James III, meaning to be part of the dowry in the marriage of his daughter Margrete. This happened in 1469 AD, but the mortgage has never been released.