Magnus Erlendsson clasped his hands in prayer. It was Easter 1117 and his cousin and co-regent in the earlship, Haakon Paulsson, had betrayed the terms of their peace meeting. Haakon had arrived on the island of Egilsay with eight fully manned ships. Magnus, on the other hand, had followed the agreement and brought only two ships. Haakon’s betrayal did not bode well. Soon threatening his cousin with execution, Magnus tried to save his life with three options.

The first was for Magnus to go on a pilgrimage to Rome, never to return to Orkney again. The second was that he should flee to Haakon’s allies in Scotland, who could then keep him under surveillance. According to the third, Haakon would gouge out Magnus’ eyes and then throw him into the dungeon. Haakon chose the last option. However, two chiefs among Haakon’s men protested, fed up with the earls’ perpetually conflicted rule. They demanded that either Haakon or Magnus lose his life. Haakon, who had the upper hand, immediately ordered his cook to end the cousin’s life. He raised the axe and Magnus Erlendsson fell dead.

The backdrop to the dramatic showdown was the powerful Norwegian Jarl dynasty that had been established in the Orkney Islands since the late 8th century. Until the Scottish takeover of the islands in the 13th century, a series of colourful personalities lived here: fierce Viking warriors, poetic poets and pious martyrs. Their rule was not infrequently divided between two earls, often leading to fierce battles and bitter family feuds.

Until the beginning of the Viking Age, the archipelago was inhabited by a Celtic people called the Picts – “the painted ones”. These were also found in the north and east of Scotland, but seem to have had a kingdom in Orkney. The Picts may have been a fighting people, as they often depicted armed warriors on beautifully carved memorial stones and crosses. In the 7th century, the island was Christianised by Irish monks and a number of churches were built. However, the new faith was short-lived.

By the end of the same century, the Nordic countries were in an expansionary phase. A massive increase in population and improved shipbuilding technology contributed to a move away from their own territories to colonise, trade and plunder. As a base for westward-bound Viking raids and trade voyages, the Norse established settlements on strategically located Orkney. The islands also eventually became the starting point for summer attacks on the Norwegian coast. It is likely that these attacking Vikings were political refugees who left Norway after Harald Hårfager unified the country in the second half of the 8th century.

In order to put an end to the raids, King Harald headed west with his men. Not only did he defeat the raiders and conquer Orkney, but he also took control of the Shetland Islands and the Hebrides. During these battles, the son of Earl Rognvald of Möre was killed, and as compensation Harald offered Rognvald the rule of Orkney. However, he did not want the position, and gave the title to his brother Sigurd Eysteinsson. Thus Orkney got its first Norwegian earl. He went down in history as Sigurd the Mighty.

The main source of our knowledge of the Norwegian earls of Orkney comes from the chronicle Orkneyinga saga. This was written in Iceland in the early 13th century by an unknown author, and depicts the lives of the earls over a period of three hundred years. The work is unique in that it is the only one with the Orkney Islands as the focus of the story. Like the Icelandic fairy tales, it is a mixture of oral legends and historical events, becoming more mythical in character the further removed from the author’s own time the events unfold. The islands are presented as part of the Viking world, with strong cultural and political ties to Norway.

The Norwegian earls who came to rule the archipelago were as much ruling sea kings as hard-working peasants. In their great drinking halls, they entertained their men at the residences of Birsay and Orphir in winter. The halls were not infrequently the scene of the many violent incidents caused by the earls’ dual command. On their estates were king’s manors with the duty to accommodate the earl and his retinue when he visited one of the islands.

The Celtic Picts probably soon became a people group at the bottom of the social hierarchy. However, intermarriage seems to have taken place between them and the northerners, as archaeological excavations have revealed a mixed culture with Norse architecture and Pictish household objects. With the Norwegian takeover, a pagan belief system once again became the dominant one – the Norwegians did not become Christians until the 11th century. The Pictish culture was gradually pushed aside to a point where place names, language and material culture were entirely Nordic.

Sigurd the Mighty had been one of Harald Hairfinger’s foremost warriors at sea. He had earned his nickname by leading a successful conquest of the northernmost parts of Scotland – Caithness and Sutherland – together with the Viking chieftain Thorstein the Red. Sigurd’s death, however, was most untypical of his battle-ridden life.

In a settlement with the Scottish earl Máel Brigte, it was decided that both rulers would meet with a force of forty men each to settle their differences. Sigurd, however, decided that the Scots were not to be trusted, and arranged a stratagem. On the forty horses that were to carry the men, he had double the number of men placed.

This move gave him victory, and to make this triumph visible he had the severed heads of the enemy attached to the saddles on his return. According to legend, when he went to spur his horse, the protruding front teeth of Máel Brigte’s severed head wounded him in the leg. The wound became infected and led to the earl’s swift death. The warrior who was felled by a tooth was buried in the Sigurds Howe burial mound on the Scottish mainland.

The most famous Orkney Earl, Magnus Erlendsson, came to be the patron saint of the islands, and the object of an international cult. He was the son of Earl Erlend Thorfinsson, who shared rule with his brother Paul in the second half of the 11th century. Orkneyinga saga describes Magnus as a popular ruler who was gentle with good and wise men, but punished thieves and Vikings uncompromisingly. His piety was widely known, and in his marriage to a Scottish noblewoman he was even said to have lived the first ten years in celibacy. When he was filled with sexual desire for his wife, he is said to have taken cold baths, praying to God for repentance.

Discord soon developed between Magnus and his cousin Haakon, the son of Earl Paul. Haakon was said to be arrogant and belligerent, but above all jealous of Magnus’ popularity. During the Norwegian king Magnus Barfoot’s raid on the British Isles, Magnus Erlendsson refused to disembark the ship in Wales. His pretext was that he had no quarrel with the people there. Instead, he was immersed in prayer on board the ship while the battle was going on. This made him highly unpopular with the Norwegian king, who regarded him as a coward. Magnus was later forced to flee to the Scottish king’s court.

The two ruling earls, Paul and Erlend, died at about the same time as King Magnus Barfot, who was killed during a battle in Ireland, and Haakon now took over his father’s title as earl. When the news reached Magnus, he ended his exile in Scotland, and returned to Orkney to claim his hereditary right to the title of earl. This was granted by the Norwegian king, and for a time the cousins ruled peacefully.

Soon enough, however, dissension flared up between the two, fuelled by men in Haakon’s forces. They prepared for a battle, but it was called off at the last moment. To secure peace, the time and place of the fateful meeting at Egilsay was set for Easter 1117. After the treacherous execution, Magnus was buried in Christ’s church in the village of Birsay. Soon stories of miracles began to circulate at his grave, and Magnus came to be venerated as a holy martyr. His relics were later moved to the mighty cathedral in Kirkwall, which his nephew Rognvald Kolsson had built in Magnus’ honour in the 1140s. The miracles continued at Magnus’ reliquary, and St Magnus Cathedral became an international pilgrimage destination.

The builder of the cathedral, Earl Rognvald, was himself worshipped as a saint after his death. Rognvald is the earl who receives the most favourable and extensive portrayal in the Orkneyinga saga. This is probably because his life was close to that of the chronicler in terms of time, which also makes the story more believable and less mythical in character. Rognvald was the most untypical earl to have ruled the islands, as he took power through a charm offensive rather than violence. Rognvald was also a gifted poet, and wrote a textbook on the art of scaling, the so-called Håttalykill. Being the son of Magnus Erlendsson’s sister Gunhild, he came to have the revered martyr as an uncle, something he also exploited in his quest to attain the title of earl.

Rognvald was interested in ruling over the parts of the archipelago that belonged to his saintly relative. The obstacle, however, was that the Earl Paul Hakonsson ruled Orkney alone. Rather than usurping the title through battle, Rognvald was advised by his father to try a more peaceful tactic. By letting the people know that he intended to build a magnificent church in honour of the immensely popular St Magnus if he became Earl of Orkney, he was able to influence the population in his favour. Rognvald’s strategy succeeded and in 1137 construction began on the massive cathedral in Kirkwall. At the same time, Rognvald had Paul Hakonsson kidnapped and banished from Orkney.

Rognvald would go to places far beyond the remote islands of western Europe’s periphery over which he ruled. In 1153 he fitted out 15 ships for a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and to serve alongside other northerners as an imperial mercenary in Constantinople. Such things could be lucrative even for an earl. Rognvald was not the only skald on board, which is why the account of the journey in the Orkneyinga saga is rich in poetic lines about people and events on the journey. In particular, there are poems about how the earl charmed the beautiful Queen Ermingerd of Narbonne in France at her court – so much so that marriage between the two rulers was discussed.

Once in Jerusalem, all the holy places were visited, and over the winter the northerners served at the emperor’s court. After three years, however, they set sail for the long journey back to Orkney. Here Rognvald ended his life in the same way as many earls before him. In 1158 he was cut down by a foster son of the earl who had ruled in his absence, Harald Maddadsson. After Rognvald’s burial in the cathedral he himself had built, miracles were also believed to happen at his grave. Rognvald was therefore venerated as a saint.

The Norse rule of Orkney, which has come to be known as the golden age of the archipelago, was coming to an end. The Norwegian earlship died out with Jon Haraldsson, who disappeared without a trace in the early 13th century while on a sea voyage to the Norwegian king to settle a dispute over the title of earl. Orkney was now ruled by earls from the Scottish province of Angus, who had a more distant relationship with the islands. Norway still owned Orkney, but with the Kalmar Union of 1397 the islands came under the control of Denmark.

The final break with the North was remarkably peaceful. The Orkney Islands were left as a dowry to the Danish Princess Margaret, in her marriage to the Scottish King James III in 1468. Today, the mighty St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall stands as the principal monument to a time when notorious warriors, poets and martyrs from the North ruled the islands.

READING: The Orcish Islanders’ Saga (2006).