Like all proverbial roads leading back to Rome, there are so many historical threads that lead back to Harald Fairhair

Given that he is credited with unifying Norway under his rule – laying the foundations of the medieval kingdom and, even later modern nation-state of Norway – academics are divided over whether he even truly existed as a historical figure. 

Much of what we know about the man with the light hair and the first king of Norway is written in chronicles compiled centuries after his supposed death in about 930 CE.

These chronicles, the Heimskringla (a compilation of the lives of Scandinavian kings) and the Orkneyinga saga (a detailed history of the Norse settlement's beginnings on the Orkney Islands) suggest that after Fairhair's decisive victory at Hafrsfjord – which unified the kingdom – there was an exodus of discontented mischief-makers from the new kingdom.

Many of these troublemakers, chafing under what they perceived as the dual burdens of Fairhair's victor's justice and increased taxation, took to the seas, sailing across the North Sea to the Orkney Islands.

Political and economic exiles

Following the Battle of Hafrsfjord, there was supposedly a steady drip of people willing to flee to the Shetland and Orkney islands. 

Though they were inhabited by a local Gaelic population, from the late 9th century CE, a new wave of immigration from Viking societies saw these islands fall under the sway of Viking influence.

According to the sagas, it was here that the long arm of Fairhair appeared to reach across the North Sea. 

With several of his adversaries, their supporters, and families having fled to the Orkneys, he sent Rognvald Eysteinsson, a close ally and relative, on a grand raiding voyage to the Orkney and Shetland Islands, as well as coastal communities in present-day Ireland and Scotland.

This raid not only brought a significant amount of wealth to the new Norwegian king but also subdued the resistance of his former adversaries with the point of a sword.

Historians now question whether this vast raid actually took place; it might have been a series of raids, and Rognvald's participation in them remains uncertain. 

Due to Rognvald's close familial ties to Fairhair and his unwavering loyalty, he was granted the title of Jarl of Orkney around 873 CE, allowing him to oversee these new Norse territories for the Norwegian king.

If we scan the sagas, they paint a very different picture of Rognvald's promotion. They relate how his son, Ivar, was killed during the initial raiding of the Orkney Islands. 

Rognvald's liege back in Norway felt that a fitting compensation for the loss of a son was granting this landed title and prestigious position. 

The Jarl of Orkney would very much be the Norwegian King's right-hand man in this strategically important Norse settlement between the British Isles, Iceland, and Norway.

Orkney, under Sigurd's stewardship, grew from a Norse settlement to a powerful Jarldom. Photo: pql89 / Shutterstock

Expanding the power and influence of the Jarl of Orkney

Following Rognvald's promotion to Jarl, we, unfortunately, know little of his reign. 

However, by about the middle of the 870s, it appears that he passed the title onto his younger brother, Sigurd. 

The sagas give us little clue as to why – could Rognvald have died or been made infirm with age? Did he not want to relieve himself of the pressures of this highly political and important job? 

We may never know, but Sigurd appears to have been a close ally of Fairhair as well and might have held an important position on Fairhair's warship.

Whilst Rognvald had been gifted the title, it would be Sigurd that would expand the Jarl of Orkney's power and influence in the surrounding region. 

Teaming up with a fellow Viking ruler, Thorsteinn the Red, in far-off Dublin (which was founded as a Viking trading post for the slave trade only a few decades before in 841), Sigurd went about expanding his domains on the Scottish mainland. 

With Sigurd attacking from the north and Thorsteinn from the west, it appears that the two Viking rulers had many local lords and communities in the north of Scotland caught in a pincer movement.

Sigurd would go on to battle his way throughout the very north of Scotland, subduing local communities and bringing them under the Norse heel. 

He was said to have conquered much of what are the Scottish shires of Sutherland and Caithness in the highlands, but how much and how effectively he conquered is open to interpretation. 

Nevertheless, his campaigning in the Scottish Highlands earned him a nickname from his adversaries - "the Mighty."

As described in the Orkneyinga saga, Sigurd's conquests in northern Scotland culminated in an ironic death, caused by the tooth of a beheaded foe. Photo: Marcin Kadziolka / Shutterstock

An unusual death

Having overseen a considerable expansion of his dominion, from a mere few Orkney islands to vast swathes of the Scottish Highlands, one may think that Sigurd would be content. 

He was said to have reigned for about two decades, which, given the political insecurity and infighting during the early medieval period – must have seemed like a lifetime. 

Towards the end of his reign, he was still very much sword (or axe) in hand on the campaign throughout what is now northern Scotland.

Sigurd is responsible for what surely must be one of the coolest – if not entirely historically accurate (though we, at The Viking Herald, sincerely wish it to be!) deaths of the Viking era

Upon campaigning somewhere in Scotland, he challenged a local Gaelic ruler, Mael Bigte, to a 40-man fight. 

Now Mael had the rather unfortunate moniker of "Bucktooth" but, unlike Sigurd, appears to have been honest. 

Whilst Mael brought 40 men to the fight, Sigurd was said to have treacherously brought double that number.

The result was never in question, and having won the battle, Sigurd cut the head of Mael and attached it to his saddles as a gruesome trophy of war.

As Sigurd rode off into the proverbial sunset, it appears that Mael had the last laugh as his bucktooth appeared to have scratched Sigurd's leg. 

The resulting wound became infected with sepsis, and Sigurd died a few days later.

Regardless of whether this story is true or not, the death of Sigurd saw a generation of instability for the Jarls of Orkney. 

The Orkneys seemed to have been constantly raided by fellow Vikings until Rognvald's youngest son, Einarr, ascended to the title in the early 890s.

The Jarl of Orkney would remain a peerage of Norway until the marriage of James III to Margaret of Denmark in 1470, when it was passed to the Scottish crown as part of a dowry.

Peter St. John, the current 9th Earl of Orkney in its fourth creation, ascended to the Earldom in 1988 and holds a title which Sigurd the Mighty held over a millennium before.

For more information on growing calls for the Orkneys to somehow secede from the UK and join Norway, visit the BBC here.

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