John R Tudor.

The Orkneys and Shetland; their past and present state online

. (page 6 of 59)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

sacrilege, and requested David's good offices with Jarl
Rognvald. .There must have been something very taking
about Swein after all, unmitigated rufiian as he appears to
modern eyes, as David, instead of hanging him straightway
as most monarchs would have done, made good all their losses
to the men whom Swein had robbed, and got him reconciled
to Jarl Rognvald.

Iri the year 1150 Jarls Rognvald andHarald, the latter being
then, the Saga says, nineteen years of age, went over to Norway


on the invitation of King Ingi, one of the two joint monarchs of
Norway at that date, sons of Harald GiUichrist, who had been
one of the earUest friends of Rognvald. Whilst staying with King
Ingi, a certain Eindridi Ungi, who had that year returned from
Constantinople, having, as Anderson conjectures, been probably
one of the Varangian bodyguard of the Greek emperor, sug-
gested to Rognvald that to give himself special renown he
should make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. After spending two
winters in making preparations and inducing Bishop William to
accompany him, Rognvald sailed for the Holy Land, leaving
Harald in supreme command during his absence.

Of the details of that pilgrimage — made, not in ordinary
palmer fashion with staff in hand and sandal on foot, but with
sword girt on thigh and helm on head — -how they arrived at the
court of Ermingerd, and Rognvald, as was his wont, went
making verses ; how they captured the castle in Gallicia, which
Bishop William would not permit them to assault during Yule-
tide, and Rognvald made more rhymes ; how they captured the
Drdmund, or Saracen privateer, when the Jarl made still more
verses ; how they visited Jerusalem, bathed in Jordan, where
yet again the rhyming faculty came out strong ; how they went
to Constantinople, where they found Eindridi Ungi, who had
deserted them at Gibraltar ; how Jarl Rognvald, Bishop William,
and others rode from Apulia in Italy to Denmark, and thence
made their way home, via Norway, full details are given in the
Saga. The story of Rognvald's Jorsala-faring is the cameo of
the whole Saga, and gives a curious picture of the mixture of
piety and plundering which animated the best of the Norsemen
of that day.

Whilst Rognvald was travelling in foreign parts, stirring
events were taking place in the dominions he had left under
the rule of Harald. The very summer, 1152, he sailed. King
Eystein came westward wath a large army, and, surprising
Harald at Thurso, compelled him to become " his man," a
compact which was confirmed by the usual oaths intended to
be kept by each side as long as was convenient and no longer.


From thence King Eystein proceeded southwards, plunder-
ing both in Scotland and England, " considering," so far as his
English raid was concerned, " that he was taking revenge for
King Harald Sigurd's son," who had been slain at Stamford
Bridge eighty-six years previously.

Maddad, Earl of Athole, was now dead, and his widow,
Margaret, was living in Orkney with Gunni, brother of Swein
Asleifs son, by whom she had several children. The Saga
describes her as "a handsome woman, but a virago."

Erlend, the son of Harald Slettmali, had been living, since
his grandmother and great-aunt had been banished from the
Orkneys by his uncle Jarl Paul, at first with his aunt Frakork
and afterwards with her brother Earl Ottar, at Thurso. He is
described as "a very promising man, and accomplished in
most things, liberal in money, gentle, open to advice, and
greatly loved by his men."

Having been created Earl of Caithness by Malcolm, King of
Scots, Erlend, after negotiations with Jarl Harald, which seem,
however, to have come to nothing, finally took possession of
all the islands, with the assent of the Boendr,^ which Swein
seems to have obtained for him on the understanding that Jarl
Rognvald, on his return, should be allowed to claim a half.

Erlend, having settled himself in the Orkneys, another Erlend,
and distinguished from him as Erlend Ungi or Erlend the
Younger, appears to have proceeded to court Margare't, Harald's
mother, or she to entrap hirn, which is quite as likely. Harald,
however, objected to the alliance, so the somewhat ancient
Delilah fled with her new lover to Mousa, a small island on
the south-east side of the Mainland of Shetland, to which
place they were followed by Harald, who besieged them in
the broch, which is still standing, and after a time permitted
the marriage to be solemnised.

Circa 115 5. Jarl Rognvald had now returned from his
pilgrimage via Norway to the Orkneys, when he and Erlend

^ Plural of BSndi, "dweller" or "resident," and used in place of
Odallers or^ Freeholders.


came to terms and made an alliance against Earl Harald, which
was, as usual, confirmed with oaths.

However, the Rognvald-Erlend alliance was not of long
standing, as, on Harald turning up at Thurso, he and Rognvald
did some more swearing, and proceeded to attack Erlend.
After divers skirmishes and alarms, as they say in the old
jjlays, Rognvald and Harald eventually surprised Erlend about
live nights before Christmas, and slew him on the island of
Damsay. Erlend, having been keeping up the season, was so
drunk, that, we are told, he had to be lifted into the boat when
his followers tried to escape.

Swein was now nominally reconciled to Jarls Rognvald and
Harald, for the former, pirate and marauder as Swein was, he
seems to have had a sincere regard, but with Harald he was, for
some years, constantly at feud, and in place of there being only
two Jarls, there were practically three, the third Swein apparently
considering himself at liberty to rob and slay anywhere. Every
summer, we are told, Rognvald and Harald were in the habit
of crossing over to Caithness " to hunt the red-deer or the
reindeer," a passage which, taken in conjunction with the fact
of horns of reindeer having been found in the brochs of the
north of Scotland, shows that reindeer still existed in that
district at this period.

During one of these hunting excursions Jarl Rognvald was
slain at Calder in Caithness by Thorbiorn Klerk, the worthy
grandson of the fiend Frakork. And so died in 1158 Jarl
Rognvald, the brightest, and, take him all round, the best of
those Norse Jarls whose reign over the Orkneys was now draw-
ing to a close ; though why he should have been canonised
in 1 1 98, unless it was for building St. Magnus, is somewhat
of an enigma.

Harald was inclined to let Thorbiorn Klerk off, both on the
ground of his having acted as his tutor and foster-father, and
also on the score of relationship, but Magnus Gunni's son (not
Gunni Swein's brother), the noblest of Harald' s followers, told
him that if he did so, he (Harald) would be charged with having



plotted Rognvald's death. As Harald still hung back, Magnus
proceeded to burn the miscreant out of some buildings in which
he had taken refuge, and on his attempting to escape slew him
and all his followers. The murder took place somewhere about
the Loch of Calder, and, after Thorbiorn had been duly
accounted for, Magnus took the corpse of the murdered Jarl
to Forss and thence to Thurso. From Thurso the remains
of Rhyming Rognvald were transported in state to Kirkwall,
where, as was fitting, they were interred in that Cathedral
which he had erected, and which to this day forms his sole
monument in the Orkneys or Shetland, as, strange to say, not
a single church appears to have been dedicated to his memory.
Swein, after Rognvald's death, kept on his old courses,
spending the winter, late summer, and early autumn on his
property at Gairsay, where he had erected the largest drinking
hall in the islands and kept some eighty kindred spirits, who,
when non-resident, accompanied him on his freebooting
forays. Swein's " little game " was thus described by Ein'k
the Icelander : —

" Half-a-dozen homesteads burning,
Haifa-dozen households plundered :
This was Swein's work of a morning —
This his vengeance ; coals he lent them "

Jarl Harald warned him that the pitcher would go once too
often to the well, but Swein would have one more autumn
expedition, after which he intended no doubt to live cleanly
and " make his soul," as the Irish say. However, this autumn's
foray was destined to prove the truth of Harald's prediction,
and Swein was slain in the streets of Dublin, saying with his
last breath —

" Know all men, whether I die to-day or not, that I am
the holy Earl Rognvald's henchman, and my confidence is
where he is with God." Like that of Rob Roy, Swein's
epitaph should be " ower bad for blessing, ower good for

Rognvald's daughter and only child Ingigerd had married


one Eiri'k Slagbrellir, and had three sons and three daughters.
Harald Ungi, the eldest of the sons, when he grew up was
granted half the islands by Magnus Erling's son, then King of
Norway, and half of the earldom of Caithness by William the
Lion, King of Scotland.

Jarl Harald the Elder, as might have been expected, refused
to recognise his namesake's claims, and the two Jarls at length
met in battle somewhere near Thurso, in Caithness, where the
younger Harald fell.

Innumerable miracles, according to the Saga^ testified to the
sanctity of the ground on which the combat took place, and
a church was afterwards erected on the spot where he fell.
Miracle-working seems to have been hereditary in this family.

To avenge the younger Harald' s death and the occupation
of Caithness by the elder one without his leave or license,
William the Lion ordered Rognvald, the King of the Hebrides,
to seize and occupy Caithness, which he did for some time, and,
on his departure, left three stewards or syshanemi to manage
the affairs of the district, one of whom was murdered by a
follower of Harald.

Bishop Jon, who was then Bishop of Caithness, had refused
to allow the collection in his diocese of the Peter's pence,
which Jarl Harald had granted to the Holy See ; so when, on
Harald's landing in Caithness, the bishop attempted to act the
peace-maker between the Jarl and the Caithnessmen, his inter-
vention only made Harald more furious, who stormed the borg
in which the bishop had taken refuge, and, having slain most
of the garrison, caused the bishop to be blinded and his
tongue cut out. Jon, however, on praying to St. Tredwell,
the occulist among saints, recovered both his sight and speech.
For this outrage Harald was compelled by King William — who
is said to have previously blinded and otherwise horribly
mutilated Harald's son, Thorfinn — to pay a fine amounting to
2,000 marks of silver.

Whilst thus involved with his Scottish Suzerain, Harald had
also been mixed up in the conspiracy of the Eyjarskeggjar

E 2


against his other lord paramount, Sverrir, King of Norway,
and for his complicity in this rebellion was in 1195 deprived
of the lordship of Shetland, which remained severed from the
Jarldom of Orkney till it was granted to Henry St. Clair in
1379 by King Hakon Magnus' son.

Harald died, according to Anderson, in the year 1206, and
was succeeded by his sons Jon and David.

Harald, says the Saga^ was one of the three greatest of the
Orcadian Jarls, the other two being Sigurd the first Jarl, and
the great Jarl Thorfinn. In conjuction with Jarl Rognvald he
had ruled for twenty years, and, after Rognvald's murder, for
forty-eight years longer he ruled alone.

David, his son, died in the year 12 14, and after his death
his brother Jon became Jarl of all the Orkneys. As was the
case with his father Harald, Jon found himself in trouble with
his Scottish and Norwegian Suzerains.

Bishop Jon, who had survived his mutilation eleven years,
was succeeded in the see of Caithness by Adam, Abbot of
Melrose, who oppressed his flock in the most unblushing
manner, till, goaded to madness by his exactions, they burnt
him to death in his own kitchen at Halkirk {Hd Kirkia), up
the valley of the Thurso. This tragedy is thus quaintly
described ^ by Wyntoun : —

" Thre hundyre men in company
Gaddyrt on hym suddanly,
Tuk liym owt quhare that he lay
Of his chawmyre befor day,
Modyr naked hys body bare ;
Thai band hym, dang hym, and woundyt sair,
Into the nycht or day couth dawe.
The monk thai slwe thare. hys falaw e,
And the child that in his chawmyr lay,
Tliare thai slwe hym before day.
Hymself bwndyn and wowndyt syne
Thai pwt hym in hys awyn kychyne,
In thair felny and thare ire
Thare thai brynt him in a fyre."

^ Ork, Sag. Introduction, p, xliv


For the bishop's murder Alexander II. of Scotland exacted
a fearful retribution, causing the feet and hands to be hewn
from eighty men who had been present at the tragedy.

Jarl Jon, who had refused to intervene between the bishop
and his flock, was heavily fined by Alexander, for his apathy,
if it were nothing worse. No sooner was this matter settled
than he was suspected by his Norwegian sovereign of com-
plicity in the rebellious designs of Jarl Skule, and to clear
himself was compelled to go to Bergen, where, on his return
to the Orkneys, he left his only son Harald as a hostage
for his future good behaviour, who was drowned at sea in
1226, probably, as Anderson suggests, on his voyage home.
King Hakon appears to have appointed one Hanef Ungi as
his resident or commissioner in the Orkneys, to see that Jon
for the future kept clear of all treasonable proceedings.

With Hanef, SnaekoU Gunni's son, a grandson of Jarl Rogn-
vald, and one Aulver lUteit, Jon quarrelled in 1231, and was
slain by them in the cellar of the inn in which he was staying
at Thurso. His murderers fled to Kolbein Hriiga's Castle, in
Veira or Wyre, the grass-grown remains of which are known
to the present day as Cobbe Row's Castle, where they were
besieged by Jon's partisans, till both sides agreed to refer the
matter to King Hakon, who executed Aulver lUteit and others
and imprisoned Hanef and SnaekoU. The greater number of
the leading men in the Orkneys went over to Norway for this
trial, and were all lost at sea on their voyage home.

With Jon's death the line of the Norse Jarls, and the
principle of Odal Right, so far as the Jarldom of the Orkneys
was concerned, came to an end together, as in none of the
succeeding lines do we find any instance of the Jarldom being
held by more than one person at a time.

THE NORSE PERIOD — (continued).

The Earldom in the Angus line, 1231 — 1321.

With the Norse Jarls the romantic and, as some people
would say, the heroic era of Orcadian history came to an end,
and the glimpses we afterwards get of the islands are few and
far between, till they passed under the sway of the Scottish
Crown more than two centuries later on. Of Shetland, even
under the Norse Jarls, we have very few notices, and for the
last two centuries of Norwegian rule we have fewer still. The
materials for the better elucidation of the history of both
groups, and especially of the northern one, which from 1195
to 1379 was, with the Faroes, directly administered by the
Norwegian monarchs, are probably lying in the archives at

On the death of Jon, Magnus, a son of Gilbride Earl of
Angus, and whose mother was either sister or daughter of the
last of the Norse Jarls, was created Earl of Caithness by
Alexander II. of Scotland, who, however, granted what is now
known as Sutherland, and which hitherto had formed part of
the Earldom of Caithness, to William Freskyn.

Magnus, who seems to have been either created or allowed
to assume the title of Earl of Orkney by the King of Norway,
is, according to the Icelandic Annals, said to have died in


1239, and was succeeded by one Gilbride, but whether his
father, his brother, or his son, does not appear. Gilbride, who
died in 1256, was succeeded by his son Magnus, who accom-
l)anied King Hakon, in 1263, on that iU-starred expedition
when the Norsemen went out to shear and came back shorn,
and the Viking expeditions on British soil and in British seas
were for ever put an end to by the bloody defeat at Largs.

Sick, sad, and weary, Hakon, with what remnants of his
fleet the Scots and the elements had spared to him, returned
to the Orkneys, where, having laid up his long ships in Midland
Harbour (now Smoogra Bay) and Scapa Bay, he rode into
Kirkwall, and taking to his bed in the bishop's palace, departed
on the 15th of December, 1263, to join his Viking ancestors
in the halls of Valhalla. After temporary interment in St.
Magnus Cathedral, the remains of the Norwegian monarch
were conveyed in the March following on board his own
war-ship to Bergen.

Hakon was succeeded by his son Magnus the Seventh, who,
learning wisdom from the result of his father's fatal expedition,
by a treaty' entered into at Perth, in the year 1266, between
liimself and Alexander the Third of Scotland, yielded up to
the Scottish crown the Isle of Man, and all other islands in
the western and southern portion of the great "haff," to-
gether with all right of patronage to the See of Man free from
all jurisdiction of the Metropolitan of Nidaros in Norway,
" exceptis insulis Orcadie et Yhetlandie quas idem rex Norwagie
cum dominiis homagiis et redditibus serviciis et omnibus
juribus et pertinenciis suis infra easdem contiguis dominio suo
specialiter reseruauit," in consideration of an annual payment
of "centum marcas bonorum et legalium sterlingorum secundum
modum et usum curie Romane ac regnorum Francie Anglee et
Scocie " in the Church of St. Magnus in Orkney, into the hands
of the Bishop of Orkney, or of the representative, specially
deputed for that pur])ose, of the King of Norway ; and if
neither bishop nor special agent, then into the hands of the
^ Peterkin's Rentals, Appendix, p. 2.


canons of that church. Magnus, Earl of Orkney, died some-
where about 1273, and was succeeded by his son of the same
name, who, dying without issue, was succeeded by his brother
John in 12S4.

Here we come to an episode in Norwegian history, which,
like the Perkin Warbeck incident in England and that of the
lost Dauphin in France, showed the power and extent of
popular credulity. Ein'k the Priest Hater, who succeeded
Magnus the Fourth as King of Norway, married, in the year
1 28 1, Margaret, daughter of Alexander the Third of Scotland.
Of this marriage the only issue was Margaret, " the Maid of
Norway," who, through her mother being heiress to the Scotch
crown, was betrothed to Edward of England, son of the
greatest of the Plantagenets.

" The Maid" was, in the year 1290, despatched to Scotland,
but died at sea either in the month of September or October.
It was for a long while believed that she had been buried
in St. Magnus Cathedral, but it has been proved ^ in recent
years that the body was not even temporarily interred there,
but was carried straight back to Bergen, where Eirik had
the coffin opened, to satisfy himself as to the identity of the
corpse before it was deposited in the choir of Christ Church,
where likewise the remains of Hakon the Unfortunate had
been laid. Ein'k the Priest Hater, died about the year 1290,
and was succeeded by his brother Hakon the Seventh, shortly
after whose succession a woman appeared in Bergen and an-
nounced that she was the Maid of Norway, and that she had
been " sold " by her attendant, one Ingibiorg Erlingsdatter.
The whole story was improbable, and in 1301 she paid the
penalty for her imposture by being burnt at Nordness.

The populace, however, looked upon her as a martyr, and
the pilgrimages to the place of her execution had to be put down
with the strong hand.

John Earl of Orkney died somewhere about 13 10, and
was succeeded by his son Magnus, who \vas one of the
^ Troc. Scot. Ant. vol. x. p. 418.


ninety-nine Scottish nobles who in the year 1320 signed the
letter to the Pope asserting the independence of the Scottish
Crown. Magnus, including the Saint, the fifth of that name
who had been Earls of Orkney, is supposed to have died in
132 1, and with him the Angus line of the Earls of Orkney came
to an end.

The Ear/doi/i in the Strathcrne line, 1321- — 1379.

A good deal of obscurity has for a long while lain over this
]jeriod of Orcadian history, from the fact, in a great measure,
of no less than four Earls of Stratherne having successively
borne the name of Malise. From some " Notes ^ on the
Earldom of Caithness," read by Dn Skene, the well-known
historian, at a meeting of the Society of Scottish Antiquaries in
1878, we find that, in all probability, MaUse, fourth Earl of
Stratherne, was created Earl of Orkney in right of his mother,
though how she was connected with the previous Earls of
Orkney of the Angus line does not appear. Earl Malise, who
appears to have been twice married, had several daughters, one .
of whom, Agneta, left a ^on named Erngils Suneson, who, in
1353, Earl Malise having died, it is beheved, about 1350, was
created Earl of Orkney. Erngils, however, did not long enjoy
the Earldom, _as all his rights thereto and in connection there-
with were sequestered by King Magnus in 1357, after which
the Earldom seems to have remained in abeyance till the
St. Clairs first come on the scene.

The Earldom in the St. Clair line., i379 — 1468.

In the year 1379 Henry St. Clair of Roslin and a certain
]^Ialise Sperra, both apparently through their mothers,
daughters of Earl Malise, laid claim to the Earldom of
Orkney, in which contest Henry St. Clair was successful, and
was invested not only with the Earldom of Orkney, but also
^ Proc. Scot. Ant. vol. xii. p. 471-76.


the Lordship of Shetland, which had been severed from the
Earldom in the time of Harald Maddad's son. The first act of
the newly created Earl was, in defiance of the prohibition against
building places of strength in the islands which King Hakon
had imposed on him, to erect the castle of Kirkwall, the last
relics of which were only swept away a few years since. About
this time (1382) William, the fourth Bishop of Orkney of
that name, was either slain or burnt by his flock. Malise
Sperra seems to have endeavoured to establish himself in
Shetland, and in a quarrel which arose between the cousins
at a Thing meeting in the year 1389, was slain ; when the
standing stone of grey granite close to the roadside between
the Lochs of Tingwall and Asta was probably erected to mark the
spot where he fell. Earl Henry is supposed to have died about
1400, and was succeeded by his son Henry, who was sent in
charge of James the First, the Poet King of Scotland, on that
unfortunate voyage to France for James's education, when
they were captured on the 13th November, 1405, off Flam-
borough Head. On the death- of Henry, the second Earl of
that name, in 141 8, his son William seems to have been a minor,
and the islands were first administered by the Bishop, Thomas
TuUoch, then by David Menzies of Weem, and again by the
Bishop, till in 1434 Earl William was formally invested.

Menzies was the forerunner of those greedy gripping Scotch
donatories, who looked upon the islands as a milch cow, to be
squeezed for their own special benefit, and a long string of
charges was brought by the natives whom he had oppressed
before King Eirik. A copy of these charges will be found by
the curious in Balfour's Oppi-essions. The connection of the
later Earls with Scotland led to a great influx of Scotchmen
into the Isles, and the dislike, almost amounting to hatred
at times, of the "ferry louping " strangers, was probably first
engendered about this period. That the Orcadians were being
Scotticised before the transfer of the islands in 1468 is shown
by a deed ' of gift in English or Scotch, made on the 6th day
1 Orkney, Deeds relating to, p. iii.


of June, in the year 1433, by one ''Duncan off Law," of a
house in Kirkwall to one " Donalde Gierke," as a marriage
portion with Jonet Law, sister of the donor. We have seen
how Swein and his like used to ravage the AVestern Isles, and
the sins of the fathers were now being visited on tlie children,
and, in the years 1460 and 1461, complaints were made to
King Christian I. of the raids during the summer season of
John of Ross Lord of the Isles, and his bands of Islemen,
Irish, and Scots from the woods, who wasted the lands,
plundered the farms, destroyed habitations, and put the in-
habitants to the sword without regard to age or sex. Traditions
about these raids still survive in Westray in the Orkneys, and