The Orkney Islands in the Viking Age
By Moira Speirs
Oglethorpe Journal of Undergraduate Research, Vol.4:1 (2014)
Introduction: At the height of the Viking Age the seas around northern Europe were a passage for war and trade. Viking longships ruled the seas and today the tales of the power, might and influence of these Norsemen still fascinate us. A small group of islands to the north east of Scotland, the Orkney Islands, played a crucial role in supporting the Viking network in the tenth to thirteenth century. The history of the islands and their relationship with both Scotland and Norway illuminate the discussion of the Scandinavian influence in the North Sea region.
The Orkneys are now part of Scotland but the history of the islands show that they were part of the Norwegian Scatterlands in The Viking Age. Norway was certainly the most powerful of the three and although Scotland was always independent the links between the two countries were strong. Orkney as an outpost of Norway was a focal point which played a large part in shaping their shared history. An accurate description of the situation would be that Norway, its province, Orkney, and its close neighbor, the land of the Scots, shared affiliations, treaties and trade agreements which were influenced by the circumstances in all three regions. Orkney’s importance grew beginning from being a Scandinavian outpost used for winter quarters through a thriving settlement, a source of supplies and manpower for Norway and at its height to a semi independent earldom capable of hosting diplomatic meetings between heads of state or their representatives. It is clear that Norway, Orkney, and Scotland shared a relationship that was not entirely that of conquerors and conquered. How and when did Orkney become such a key player in the relations between Norway and Scotland? Were the Earls of Orkney a barrier to war between the nations? The answers to these questions will show that Orkney was a hub of commerce and diplomacy in The Late Middle Ages.
Orkney’s geographical position is perhaps the first point which should be explored. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when Orkney became a Scandinavian province. We have evidence that the islands were known to be inhabited before the Viking Age. In Roman times the name Orc or Cape Orkas was recorded on maps of the British Isles. There are a few very early mentions of the people who inhabited these northernmost islands. Two distinct early tribal peoples for which we have evidence are the Picts and the Papar. One early source states that “these islands were inhabited by the Picts, who were only a little bigger than pigmies, worked great marvels in city building each evening and morning, but at noontide they were utterly bereft of their strength and hid for fear in little subterranean dwellings.”