Undoubtedly, one of its most formidable rulers was the Viking warrior Thorfinn Sigurdsson, whose reign was as mighty as his martial skill.
Orkney and Norway: Age-old connections
The Orkney Islands seem to be perched on the very edge of the world. Cast adrift from the British mainland, these islands have recently been the center of a heated political debate.
A recent proposal under consideration by the local council aims to evaluate "alternate forms of government," which includes cutting ties with the United Kingdom and joining Norway as a self-governing territory.
This is not as implausible as it may first seem, as Norway and the Orkneys have strong historical and cultural links that stretch back to the early medieval period.
From the late 8th century onwards, Viking warriors sailed to the Orkneys to raid and ravage extensive areas of the local communities inhabited by Picts.
These Vikings settled and used the islands as a base for pirating operations in northern Scotland and even as far away as the west coast of Norway.
By 872, with the unification of Norway's petty kingdoms under Harald Fairhair, the Orkney Vikings had become a major thorn in the side of the new Norwegian kingdom.
Fairhair sent, if we are to believe the Norse sagas, an expeditionary force to subdue these Vikings and bring the Orkneys under his rule.
He was said to have handed the islands, along with the Shetlands, to a comrade, Rognvald Eysteinsson, as an earldom to compensate for the loss of two sons fallen in battle in Scotland.
Eysteinsson was the first of the Jarls of Orkney.
- READ MORE: A Viking history of Norway - Part 1
The Norse legacy on the Orkney Islands is deeply etched into the archipelago's history, with Viking settlers leaving a lasting impact on its culture, language, and heritage. Photo: pql89 / Shutterstock
Death of a father and a jarl
Fast forward over a century, and the Orkneys had become an important part of what the Vikings called the "Northern Isles." It was here, in the first decade of the 11th century, that Thorfinn Sigurdsson was born.
The youngest of five sons of the Jarl of Orkney, Sigurd Hlodvirsson, Thorfinn came from a large family that witnessed tragedy.
Both Thorfinn's brother and father died when he was young; his brother as a hostage in the court of the Norwegian king, Olaf Trygvasson, and his father on the battlefield at Clontarf (near modern-day Dublin, Ireland), as part of the Viking invasions of the Emerald Isle.
Before his father had set out for battle, he had sent Thorfinn to the custody of his maternal grandfather, Malcolm II, King of the Scots.
Political machinations followed his father's death, and his older half-brothers pounced on what they believed was their inheritance, dividing the Orkney and Shetland islands between them under their rule.
Malcolm II, perhaps out of altruism or perhaps eyeing a young mind that he could influence and overpower, appointed Thorfinn as ruler over the lands centered around the modern counties of Sutherland and Caithness in far northern Scotland.
This was Thorfinn's first taste of power, but not his last.
Family issues and power-sharing
The following two decades saw a mixture of political and familial disputes.
Not everyone was happy with his family's rule over the islands, and Thorfinn often raised an army to suppress local rebellions throughout the territories that his family ruled.
On their father's deathbed, he had left the earldom to be divided between two of his sons, with Einar ruling over most of his father's possessions.
Einar annoyed everyone, from local farmers to the Norwegian king, with his heavy-handed shakedowns of the population for taxation money.
As one of his brothers died, a portion of his father's possessions passed to Thorfinn, making him a joint Jarl with his brother Einar.
In 1020, a foiled plot led to Thorfinn murdering his brother, Einar, who had schemed and was about to lead Thorfinn into an ambush.
Thanks to the early political schooling by Malcolm II, Thorfinn learned the art of intelligence.
By 1030, the islands had been at the forefront of political machinations back in Norway as Cnut the Great, victor at Stiklestad, raided them, aiming to eliminate any opposition to his rule.
Thorfinn's scheming relatives were killed, and he became the sole Jarl of the Orkneys.
Under Thorfinn Sigurdsson's rule, the Christian faith took firm root in the Orkney Islands, with his support for church-building marking a significant turn in the islands' religious landscape. Photo: Leon Wilhelm / Shutterstock
A Christian influence
Our best window into the rule of Thorfinn as the Jarl of Orkney is from the Orkneyinga saga (The Saga of the Orkneys).
Here, upon ascending to sole rule, he was said to become involved in a dispute with a pretender for the King of the Scots.
This saw Thorfinn defeat the pretender in a significant naval battle, then pursued his army, engaging in extensive pillaging and plundering, onto the Scottish mainland as far south as Firth.
By 1034, he had added the Hebrides to his conquest and became known as the King of the Isles – both northern (Orkney and Shetland) and southern (the Isle of Man, Hebrides, and the islands surrounding the confluence of the river Clyde).
Thorfinn was said to have made peace with the Norwegian king, Harald Hardrada, in the latter years of his reign.
This allowed a degree of security and prosperity to flow into his territory, with trade, goods, and people moving from Norway.
Thorfinn had been baptized at an early age and, by the early 1040s, was interested in establishing a bishopric somewhere in the Orkneys.
In 1048, after meeting with his Norwegian counterpart, who assured him of the security of his possessions, Thorfinn was said to have gone on a pilgrimage to Rome, meeting with the Holy Roman Emperor Henry III on his way.
Upon his return, he built a church, Christ Church, on the Orkneys.
Modern historians have argued that though Thorfinn did not introduce Christianity to these remote islands, he helped popularize it among the political and societal elites.
1066: The death of a famous Viking warrior
Like most figures of this era, we, unfortunately, have little historical record of the death of Thorfinn.
Still, according to the sagas, his death is believed to have occurred in the same year as Harald Hardrada's death in 1066.
Thorfinn had spent his life battling not only the Scots and Vikings but also members of his own family for power.
This is why, in addition to the epithet "the Mighty," he was also nicknamed "Thorfinn the Head Splitter."
He had carefully navigated a life full of danger and treachery, from his formative years in a foreign court to the battlefields of northern Scotland to negotiations and confrontations with his family.
Upon his death, the jarldom passed to his two sons – Paul and Erlend, who ruled jointly until 1098.
The jarldom of Orkney remained an independent force until 1195 when it became a vassal of the Norwegian crown. It then passed to the Scottish crown as part of the marriage dowry for James III of Scotland in 1470.
BBC Travel has more information on the Viking history of the Orkney Islands, available to read here.
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