The Settlement of the North Atlantic
Norse settlements in the North Atlantic.
The archipelagos of Shetland and Orkney were an early target for Norse expansion during the Viking Age. The Shetland island of Housay lies just over 300 km from the Norwegian coast and could probably have been reached without too much difficulty even by coastal sailing vessels like the Oseberg ship. The islands were inhabited before the Norse arrived, by Gaelic and possibly also Pictish speakers. These inhabitants have left very little trace and are likely to have been culturally assimilated by the newcomers. Landnamabok (the Book of Settlements), an Icelandic text first composed in the twelfth century, gives the impression that Norse settlers of Orkney and Shetland married into local families: in particular, Norse men took wives from among the existing populations. Some of these families then relocated to Iceland, and genetic studies have confirmed the Celtic element of the female population.
According to Orkneyinga saga, an Icelandic account of Orcadian history which was composed in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, by the late ninth century Orkney was being used as a base for Norse pirates preying on shipping between the Norse and Insular worlds. These pirates were driven out by Harald Finehair, who gave the islands to Jarl Rognvald of Møre (a coastal region in Norway), from whom all subsequent jarls of Orkney were descended. Whether events unfolded in this way is unclear: although the jarls of Orkney did claim descent from Jarl Rognvald, it is possible that the involvement of Harald Finehair was introduced into the account later to increase the prominence of the
Remnants of a Norse settlement on the Brough of Birsay in Orkney. Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons.
Norwegian royal dynasty. Throughout its history, the jarls of Orkney struggled to retain the polity’s autonomy, often being forced to acknowledge Norwegian overlordship either through political expedience or in response to direct threats. The jarls of Orkney also became involved in dynastic struggles in neighbouring Scotland, although it was not until the thirteenth century (long after the Viking Age) that the islands became subject to the Scottish crown.