They would remain a part of the early medieval then medieval Kingdom of Norway until well into the early modern period.

Impressive prehistory for such a remote place

Human presence on the Orkney Islands can be traced back more than eight millennia, but the first sign of settlement is a Neolithic farm dating back to 3500 BCE. 

More than four centuries later, the village of Skara Brae was constructed. This is Europe's best-kept Neolithic village consisting of ten stone houses along with other buildings, making it a landmark monument in the human settlement of northern Europe. 

There is an unsubstantiated theory that this settlement was abandoned four centuries later due to climate change.

Developments in the Bronze and Iron Ages saw larger structures and increasing trade, first with the British Isles, and then to other regions further south. 

During the Roman invasion of Britain in 43 CE, the "King of Orkney" was said to be one of the 11 British leaders to submit to Rome. By the end of the Iron Age, the Orkneys were part of a Pictish kingdom, one of the groups of peoples that lived in northern and eastern Scotland. 

Towards the end of this period, Gaels from the Kingdom of Dal Riata (a kingdom on the western coast of Scotland and the eastern seaboard of Ireland during the 6th and 7th centuries CE) started to colonize, trade, and establish a presence on the Orkneys.

The German(ic people)s are coming!

Before the Gaels could establish themselves in significant numbers, a new people began to arrive on the archipelago from the late 7th century CE onwards. 

These were the North Germanic peoples, often sailing across the North Sea from the western coast of Norway. There is speculation, amongst academics and scholars, about exactly how these North Germanic peoples began to dominate the Orkneys from this period onward. 

One academic line of academic speculation is that the Gaels, and the so-called 'native' Pictish peoples, were gradually dispossessed with theories ranging from peaceful population replacement to more bloody and violent warfare or even enslavement and targeted cultural genocide.

Whatever the actual reason, by the late 8th century CE, there was a surging stream of (mostly) Norwegian settlers. These new immigrants were not only there to farm the little arable land and live a farming life, but many also carried out a number of pirate raids. 

How these pirates, Vikings, used the Orkneys as a base for their expeditions is an unanswered historical question. Yet if we are to believe what is written in the sagas, it was events across the North Sea that were the reason.

Skara Brae, a Neolithic settlement, was inhabited for several centuries. It is part of the heart of Neolithic Orkney, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, in Scotland. Photo: Pecold / Shutterstock

Pirates fleeing a battle?

Two sagas – the Heimskringla and the Orkneyinga – deal with exactly how the Orkneys received their famous Viking presence. 

READ MORE: What you need to know about Norse sagas

Though Norsemen had established a foothold here since the late 7th century CE onwards, it was after the seminal Battle of Hafrsfjord that the Viking presence increased. 

The sagas regale how that many of the defeated warriors from the various petty kingdoms opposed to the first king of a united Norway, Harald Fairhair, had fled across the North Sea to take refuge on the Orkneys.

These Vikings carried out many expeditions not only southwards on Scottish coastal communities but also as far away as the west coast of Norway. 

In fact, these Vikings became such a nuisance and annoyance to the Norwegian king that in 875 CE, he annexed the Orkneys and the Shetland islands (commonly known as "The Northern Isles") and made them a part of his new kingdom of Norway. 

Some of these Vikings then left the Orkneys for other remote places of the Norse world – such as Iceland or the Faroe Islands.

Fairhair then appointed a new line of nobility to govern the archipelago, the Jarls (Earls) of Orkney. From the late 9th century onwards, these Jarls would govern for the Kingdom of Norway for the next four centuries.

The Jarls of Orkney

Norwegian sovereignty of the Orkneys, during the early medieval and into the later medieval period, was solidified through the rule of the Jarls. 

Up until the 11th century CE, the difference between a monarch and a Jarl was so minimal that the Jarls of Orkney had almost complete independence and authority. 

In fact, by the later stages of the medieval period, the Jarls of Orkney rose to be such an important position in the Norwegian nobility that they were second only behind the monarch.

The first Jarl of Orkney is, depending on the text, recorded as Sigurd Eysteinsson. This is the famous Sigurd the Mighty, who was killed by an infection in his leg achieved by an enemy's teeth gashing his leg whilst riding. 

Sigurd had chopped his vanquished foe's head off and was carrying it with him, on his saddles, for a trophy. Talk about enamel cruelty…

Yet regardless of Sigurd's demise, some scholars believe it was his brother, Rognvald, who was truly the first Jarl.

Regardless of who was first, this family affair would actually spell doom for the islands. Sigurd passed it on to his son who died childless, meaning it passed to the son of Rognvald. 

However, it appears that Rognvald's son, Hallad, wasn't much of a fighter. When significant Danish Viking raids kept occurring, it appears that Hallad gave up his title and fled back to Norway. 

It was up to another son of Rognvald, Torf-Einnar, to reclaim the Orkneys and establish a dynasty that would last until the late 13th century CE.

The title would remain, more or less, in the same family until the very beginning of the 13th century CE. 

The Norse dynasty of Jarls appears to end in about 1230 CE when the Jarldom of Orkney is annexed by the Kingdom of Scotland. However, this jarldom was personally appointed by the King and not inheritable.

The interior of a historic building at Skara Brae, Orkney Islands, UK. Photo: Leon Wilhelm / Shutterstock

Later Nordic events

If we look at the sagas, as we so often have to do with this period of medieval history, this time period of the Orkneys saw civil turmoil and an era of "darkness." 

The first non-hereditary jarl was Magnus II, who was personally appointed by Haakon IV of Norway.

When James III of Scotland married Margaret of Denmark, her father, Christian I, founder of the Kalmar Union, was unable to pay a significant dowry, so he used the "Northern Isles" as a sort of security bond. 

When it appeared that Christian I would never actually pay a dowry, these islands transferred from the Norwegian to the Scottish crown, from the Archdiocese of Nidaros (modern-day Trondheim) to the Archdiocese of St. Andrews in Scotland.

William Sinclair was said to be the last Norwegian jarl under the Norwegian Crown, whilst the current creation, the Duke of Orkney, was created for a third time in 1696 CE for George Hamilton, whose descendants still claim that title today.

Nordic influence

The end of the hereditary title of the Orkney Jarl, and its subsequent transfer of the island to Scotland in the late 15th century, spell an end for the Norse political influence on these tiny but beautiful islands. 

However, not all Norse influence is lost. The Brough of Birsay features the remain of a Pict and a Norse settlement, and it highlights the mixing of cultures during the early 7th and 8th centuries CE. 

Furthermore, a vast majority of the place names on the Orkneys have a Norse influence, whilst the island's impressive cathedral is named after a famous earl, St. Magnus the Martyr.

The Norse language spoken by Orcadians eventually morphed into Norn. With the death of Walter Sutherland in 1850 CE, this language is now extinct but was a very distinct example in the West Scandinavian language group that includes modern Norwegian, Faroese and Icelandic.

In March 2007 CE, the winner of a public consultation of a new flag for the Orkneys was announced. The colors red and yellow symbolize the Norwegian and Scottish coats of arms, whilst the blue represents the sea and the flag of modern-day Scotland.

For a look at Skara Brae, visit an article on the Daily Record here, whilst Historic Environment Scotland has compiled a history of the islands available here.

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