Earl of Orkney

Earl of Orkney

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Earldom of Orkney
(creation of 1696)

Arms of the 8th Earl of Orkney:[1]
Quarterly: 1st and 4th grandquarters, Argent on a Saltire Gules a Lymphad sails furled Or a Chief Ermine (Fitz-Maurice); 2nd grandquarter, quarterly: 1st and 4th, Gules three Cinquefoils Ermine (Hamilton); 2nd, Argent a Lymphad sails furled Sable (Arran); 3rd, Argent a Heart Gules imperially crowned Or on a Chief Azure three Mullets of the first (Douglas); over all at the fess point an Escallop Or for difference (for Lord George Hamilton, 1st Earl of Orkney); 3rd grandquarter, quarterly: 1st and 4th, Gules three Lions passant guardant per pale Or and Argent (O'Brien); 2nd, Argent three Piles meeting in the point issuing from the chief Gules; 3rd, Argent a Pheon Azure.
Creation date 3 January 1696 (third creation)
Monarch William II of Scotland
Peerage Peerage of Scotland
First holder Lord George Hamilton
Present holder Peter St John, 9th Earl of Orkney
Heir apparent Oliver robert St John, Viscount Kirkwall
Remainder to heirs whatsoever of the 1st Earl (a woman can succeed if she has no brothers or if all her brothers died childless)
Subsidiary titles Viscount of Kirkwall
Lord Dechmont
Former seat(s) Kirkwall Castle

The Earl of Orkney was originally a Norse jarl ruling Norðreyjar (Orkney, Shetland, Caithness and Sutherland). Originally founded by Norse invaders, the status of Norðreyjar as a Norwegian vassal was formalised in 1195. Although the term Jarl looks similar to Earl, and the Jarls were succeeded by Earls in the late 15th century, a Norwegian Jarl is not the same thing[2]; in fact, the position of Jarl of Orkney was the most senior rank in mediaeval Norway except for the king himself.

The Jarls were periodically subject to the kings of Alba for those parts of their territory in what is now mainland Scotland (i.e. Caithness and Sutherland). In 1232, a Scottish dynasty descended from the Mormaers of Angus replaced the previous family descended from the Mormaers of Atholl, although it remained formally subject to Norway. This family was in turn replaced by the descendants of the Mormaers of Strathearn and later still by the Sinclair family, during whose time Orkney passed to Scots control.

Norse Jarls

Rognvald Eysteinsson, Earl of Møre fl. 865–890[Note 1] is sometimes credited with being the founder of the jarldom. By implication the Orkneyinga saga identifies him as such for he is given "dominion" over Orkney and Shetland by King Harald Finehair, although there is no concrete suggestion he ever held the title. The Heimskringla states that his brother Sigurd was the first to formally hold the title.[6][7]

Sigurd's son Guthorm ruled for a year and died childless.[8] Rognvald's son Hallad then inherited the title. However, unable to constrain Danish raids on Orkney, he gave up the earldom and returned to Norway, which "everyone thought was a huge joke."[9] Torf-Einarr then succeeded in defeating the Danes and founded a dynasty which retained control of the islands for centuries after his death.[10] Smyth (1984) concludes that the role of the brothers Eysteinsson lacks historical credibility and that Torf-Einarr “may be regarded as the first historical earl of Orkney”.[11] Drawing on Adam of Bremen's assertion that Orkney was not conquered until the time of Harald Hardrada, who ruled Norway from 1043–66, Woolf (2007) speculates that Sigurd “the Stout” Hlodvirsson, Torf-Einarr’s great-grandson, may have been the first Earl of Orkney.[12] Dates are largely conjectural, at least until his death recorded in 1014.

Assuming Torf-Einarr is a genuine historical figure, all of the subsequent earls were descended from him, save for Sigurd Magnusson, whose short rule was imposed by his father Magnus Barelegs, and who later became Sigurd I of Norway.

One of the main sources for the lives and times of these earls is the Orkneyinga saga, which has been described as having "no parallel in the social and literary record of Scotland".[13] One of the key events of the saga is the "martyrdom" of Earl Magnus Erlendsson, later Saint Magnus, c. 1115. The last quarter of the saga is taken up with a lengthy tale of Earl Rögnvald Kali Kolsson and Sweyn Asleifsson — indeed the oldest version ends with the latter's death in 1171.[14][15]

After the murder of Earl Jon Haraldsson some sixty years later, Magnus, son of Gille Brigte became the first of the Scottish earls. He may have been a descendent of Earl Rögnvald Kali Kolsson, although this has never been corroborated, and was a descendent of Earl Harald Maddadson on his mother's side. However, the line of specifically Norse earls is said to have come to an end when Earl Magnus II was granted his title by Haakon IV of Norway c. 1236.[5][16]

Name Byname Relationship to predecessor Rule commences Rule ends
Sigurd Eysteinsson Sigurðr inn riki
"the Mighty"
Brother of Rognvald Eysteinsson c. 892[17][Note 2]
Guthorm Sigurdsson Son of Sigurd Eysteinsson c. 892 c. 893[17]
Hallad Rognvaldsson Son of Rognvald Eysteinsson c. 893 c. 895
Einarr Rognvaldsson Torf-Einarr
Son of Rognvald Eysteinsson c. 895[11][18] 910[5][17][19]
Arnkel Torf-Einarsson Son of Torf-Einarr Rognvaldsson 910 with Erlend and Thorfinn to 954[20][Note 3]
Erlend Torf-Einarsson Son of Torf-Einarr Rognvaldsson 910 with Arnkel and Thorfinn to 954[20][21]
Thorfinn Torf-Einarsson Þorfinnr hausakljúfr
Son of Torf-Einarr Rognvaldsson 910 with Erlend and Arnkel to 954[20]

alone 954–963[17][Note 4]

Arnfinn Thorfinnsson Son of Thorfinn Torf-Einarsson 963
Havard Thorfinnsson Hávarðr inn ársæli
Son of Thorfinn Torf-Einarsson On Arnfinn's death
Ljot Thorfinnsson Son of Thorfinn Torf-Einarsson On Havard's death c. 980[Note 5]
Hlodvir Thorfinnsson Son of Thorfinn Torf-Einarsson c. 980 991[24][Note 6]
Sigurd Hlodvirsson Sigurðr digri
"the Stout"
Son of Hlodvir Thorfinnsson 991 1014[25]
Sumarlidi Sigurdsson Son of Sigurd Hlodvirsson 1014 with Brusi and Einar to c. 1016[26]
Brusi Sigurdsson Son of Sigurd Hlodvirsson 1014 with Einar and Sumarlidi to 1016
with Einar to 1025

with Einar and Thorfinn to c. 1031[5][27]

Einar Sigurdsson Einar rangmunnr
Son of Sigurd Hlodvirsson 1014 with Brusi and Sumarlidi to 1016[5]
with Brusi to 1025
with Brusi and Thorfinn to 1026
Thorfinn Sigurdsson Þorfinnr inn riki
"the Mighty"
Son of Sigurd Hlodvirsson c. 1025[Note 7] with Brusi and Einar to 1026
with Brusi to 1031
alone to 1036
with Rögnvald 1036 to 1046
alone to c.1064[5][29]
Rögnvald Brusason Son of Brusi Sigurdsson c. 1036[30] with Thorfinn to c. 1046[5]
Paul Thorfinnsson Son of Thorfinn Sigurdsson 1064 with Erlend to 1098[5][31]
Erlend Thorfinnsson Son of Thorfinn Sigurdsson 1064 with Erlend to 1098[5][31]
Sigurd Magnusson Sigurðr Jórsalafari
"the Jerusalem-farer"
Son of Magnus Barelegs 1098 1103
Haakon Paulsson Son of Paul Thorfinsson 1104[32] alone to 1106
with Magnus to 1116
alone to 1123[5]
Magnus Erlendsson Later "Saint Magnus" Son of Erlend Thorfinnsson 1106[32] with Haakon to 1116[5]
Harald Haakonsson "Smooth-tongue" Son of Haakon Paulsson 1123 with Paul to c. 1130[33]
Paul Haakonsson Son of Haakon Paulsson 1123 with Harald to 1130
alone to 1136[33]
Rögnvald Kali Kolsson Later "Saint Rögnvald" Son of Gunnhild, daughter of Erlend Thorfinnsson 1136[34][35] alone to 1138
with Harald Maddadsson 1138 to 1151[35] and 1154 to 1158[5]
with Harald and Erlend Haraldsson 1151 to 1154
Harald Maddadsson "the Old" Son of Margaret, daughter of Haakon Paulsson 1138[35] with Rögnvald to 1151 and 1154 to 1158
with Rögnvald and Erlend Haraldsson 1151 to 1154
alone 1158 to 1191
with Harald Eiriksson to 1198
alone to 1206[36]
Erlend Haraldsson Son of Harald Haakonsson 1151[35] with Harald Maddadsson and Rögnvald Kali Kolsson to 1154[33]
Harald Eiriksson Haraldr ungi
"the Young"
Son of Ingiríðr, daughter of Rögnvald Kali Kolsson 1191 with Harald Maddadsson to 1198[5]
David Haraldsson Son of Harald Maddadsson 1206 with Jon to 1214[5][36]
Jon Haraldsson Son of Harald Maddadsson 1206 with David to 1214
alone to 1231[5][36]

Scottish Jarls under the Norwegian Crown

The Angus Jarls

In 1236, Magnus, son of Gille Brigte, Mormaer of Angus, was granted the Jarldom of Orkney by King Haakon Haakonsson.

Strathearn and Sinclair Jarls

Arms of feudal Earldom of Orkney: Azure, a lymphad at anchor or flagged gules sails furled argent oars erect in saltire within a double tressure flory of the second; as shown today in 1st quarter of arms of Sinclair, Earl of Caithness[37]

Some time after Magnus Jonsson's death, around 1331, the Jarldom was granted to Maol Íosa (Malise), Mormaer of Strathearn, a distant relative of the first Earl Gille Brigte. Maol Íosa ruled Orkney and Caithness from 1331 to 1350. He left several daughters, but no sons. After a 3 year vacancy, Orkney passed to his son-in-law, the Swedish councillor Erengisle Suneson. However, Suneson was ambitious, and was caught plotting to depose the Norwegian king; he was ejected from the Jarldom in 1357.

At about this time, Haakon VI, the Norwegian king, married the daughter of Valdemar IV, the King of Denmark. The sudden death of the Swedish king's rebel son, from plague, triggered the foreign policy obligations Haakon had to Valdemar, as a result of the marriage. These drew Haakon's attention away from Orkney, until the death of Valdemar, in 1375. Meanwhile, the Jarldom lay vacant.

In 1375, Haakon decided upon Alexander de l'Ard, another son-in-law of Maol Íosa, as Suneson's successor. However, after having been stung by Suneson's behaviour, Alexander was merely appointed Captain of Orkney. This was to be a probationary role, the intention being that if Haakon had been satisfied by Alexander's behaviour after a year, Alexander would have been appointed Jarl. However, Alexander's interests were mainly in Scotland, so he took little interest in his Captainship, and was sacked as a result.

Alexander had also inherited some of Maol Íosa's property in Caithness. In 1375 he gave these lands to Robert, the Scottish king. Several writers portray this as the transfer of an Earldom of Caithness; however, it only involved property, and Caithness remained part of the Jarldom of Orkney. Although successive Jarls of Orkney were related, they each acquired the position by being personally appointed to the role by the Norwegian king; the Jarldom was not inheritable.

In 1379, the Jarldom of Orkney was granted to yet another son-in-law of Maol Íosa, Henry Sinclair, by King Haakon VI Magnusson. Henry ruled until his death in 1401, and was succeeded by a son named Henry, who was followed by his son William. In 1455, the King of Scots granted William the newly created title Earl of Caithness, in acknowledgement of William's pre-existing control over Caithness, and as an attempted assertion of Scottish authority over the region.

When James III of Scotland married Margaret of Denmark, her father, Christian I, king of Norway-Denmark, was unable to immediately provide a dowry. Instead, he promised that he would provide the dowry at a later date, and pledged Norðreyjar as security for his promise. In 1470, James persuaded William to quitclaim his rights over Orkney and Shetland only, in return for lands in Fife; technically Norðreyjar remained in existence as a Norwegian Jarldom, but William's authority became limited to the mainland parts, while Orkney and Sheltland became Jarl-free.

After a few years, it became clear that the dowry was unlikely ever to be paid, so in 1472, James declared Norðreyjar to be forfeit (and forewent the dowry). As an immediate consequence, the diocese of Caithness was transferred from the Archdiocese of Niðaróss (Trondheim), in Norway, to that of St Andrews, in Scotland.

William retained his authority over the lands he had not quitclaimed, using his Scottish title Earl of Caithness in connection with them. In 1476, he resigned the Earldom in favour of his son William, but lived another 8 years.

Scottish Earls

The next Orkney title was the dukedom of Orkney, which was given to James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, husband of Mary, Queen of Scots, in 1567. Later that year, however, he forfeited the title when his wife was forced to abdicate.

The second creation of the title was for Lord Robert Stewart, an illegitimate son of King James V. His successor Patrick, however, forfeited the title.

The last creation of the earldom was in favour of the man who would become the first British Field Marshal, Lord George Hamilton, the fifth son of William Douglas, Duke of Hamilton. By marriage, the title passed to the O'Brien family, then to the Fitzmaurice family, and finally to the St John family. The present earl holds the subsidiary titles of Viscount of Kirkwall and Lord Dechmont. Both subsidiary titles were created at the same time as the earldom, in 1696.

Dukes of Orkney (1567)

Earls of Orkney, Second Creation (1581)

Earls of Orkney, Third Creation (1696)

George Hamilton, 1st Earl of Orkney (third creation)

The third creation came in 1696 when the soldier Lord George Hamilton was made Lord Dechmont, Viscount of Kirkwall and Earl of Orkney in the Peerage of Scotland. Hamilton was the fifth son of William Douglas-Hamilton, Duke of Hamilton and 1st Earl of Selkirk and his wife Anne Hamilton, 3rd Duchess of Hamilton. The peerages were created with remainder to the heirs whatsoever of his body, which means that the titles can be passed on through both male and female lines. Lord Orkney was succeeded by his eldest daughter Anne, the second Countess. She married her first cousin William O'Brien, 4th Earl of Inchiquin. On her death the titles passed to her daughter, the third Countess. She married her second cousin Murrough O'Brien, 1st Marquess of Thomond (the nephew of the fourth Earl of Inchiquin). She was succeeded by her daughter, the fourth Countess. She married the Hon. Thomas Fitzmaurice, second son of John Petty, 1st Earl of Shelburne and younger brother of Prime Minister William Petty, 1st Marquess of Lansdowne. On her death the titles passed to her grandson, Viscount Kirkwall's son, the fifth Earl. He sat in the House of Lords as a Scottish Representative Peer from 1833 to 1874.

His son, the sixth Earl, was a Scottish Representative Peer from 1885 to 1889. He was succeeded by his nephew, the seventh Earl. On his death the peerages passed to his first cousin twice removed, the eighth Earl. He was the great-grandson of the Hon. Frederick Fitzmaurice, third son of the fifth Earl. The succession was approved by the Court of the Lord Lyon in 1955. He died childless and was succeeded by his third cousin, the ninth Earl. He is the son of Frederick Oliver St John, son of Isabella Annie Fitzmaurice, daughter of the Hon. James Terence Fitzmaurice, fifth son of the fifth Earl of Orkney. Lord Orkney lives in Canada and has been a professor at the University of Manitoba. His paternal grandfather Sir Frederick Robert St John was the youngest son of the Hon. Ferdinand St John, third son of George St John, 3rd Viscount Bolingbroke and 4th Viscount St John. Consequently, Lord Orkney is also in remainder to the viscounties of Bolingbroke and St John and their subsidiary titles.

The family seat was Kirkwall Castle, near Kirkwall, Orkney Islands.

The heir apparent is the present holder's son Oliver Robert St John, who holds the courtesy title, Viscount Kirkwall (b. 1969).

Family tree
George Hamilton,
1st Earl of Orkney

Anne O'Brien,
2nd Countess of Orkney

d. 1756
Mary O'Brien,
3rd Countess of Orkney

Mary FitzMaurice,
4th Countess of Orkney

John FitzMaurice,
Viscount Kirkwall

Thomas FitzMaurice,
5th Earl of Orkney

George FitzMaurice,
6th Earl of Orkney

Hon. Henry FitzMaurice
Hon. Frederick
O'Bryen FitzMaurice
Hon. James FitzMaurice
Edmond FitzMaurice,
7th Earl of Orkney

Douglas FitzMaurice
Isabella FitzMaurice
d. 1948
Douglas FitzMaurice
Frederick St. John
Cecil O'Bryen FitzMaurice,
8th Earl of Orkney

Oliver St John,
9th Earl of Orkney

b. 1938

See also



  1. ^ Assuming an identification of Rognvald with "Ragnall son of Albdann" in 865.[3][4][5]
  2. ^ Muir (2008) suggests Sigurd Eysteinsson may have died c. 874.[5]
  3. ^ Date of death based on the assumption Arnkel and Erlend Turf-Einarsson died at the Battle of Stainmore beside Eric Bloodaxe.[21]
  4. ^ Muir (2005) has a death date for Thorfinn of 976, which leaves only four years for three subsequent earls to rule before his son Hlodvir.[5]
  5. ^ Muir (2005) dates the meeting of Ljot's brother Skuli with Malcolm II to 978. Subsequent to that Skuli and "Earl MacBeth" fought two battles with Ljot. Skuli was killed in the first, Ljot in the second.[22] Canmore states that the battle at Skitten Mire where Ljot Thorfinnsson was mortally wounded took place "between 943 and 945" although this does not square with either Muir (2005) or Earl Thorfinn (his father) dying c. 963.[23]
  6. ^ Woolf (2007) implies Hlodvir's death may have taken place earlier as his son Sigurd "may well have been an active leader since the 980s".[12]
  7. ^ "When Thorfinn came of age he asked Earl Einar for a third of the islands".[28] Thorfinn is said to have been five years old when his father died at the Battle of Clontarf in 1014.[7]


  1. ^ Cracroft's Peerage page
  2. ^ Merriam-Webster Dictionary, entry for Jarl
  3. ^ Radnor (tr.) (1978) Fragmentary Annals of Ireland. FA 330.
  4. ^ Thomson (2008) p. 22
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q Muir (2005) Preface: Genealogical table of the Earls of Orkney.
  6. ^ Orkneyinga saga (1981) Chapter 4 pp. 26-27
  7. ^ a b Heimskringla. "Chapter 99 - History Of The Earls Of Orkney".
  8. ^ Orkneyinga saga (1981) Chapter 5 p. 28
  9. ^ Thomson (2008) p. 30 quoting chapter 5 of the Orkneyinga saga.
  10. ^ Thomson (2008) p. 29
  11. ^ a b Smyth (1984) p. 153
  12. ^ a b Woolf (2007) p. 307
  13. ^ Crawford (1987) p. 221
  14. ^ Pálsson and Edwards (1981) p. 10
  15. ^ Beuermann (2011) pp. 148-49
  16. ^ Muir (2005) p. 127
  17. ^ a b c d Crawford (1987) p. 54
  18. ^ Crawford (1987) p. 55
  19. ^ Johnston, A.W. (July 1916) "Orkneyinga Saga". JSTOR/The Scottish Historical Review. Vol. 13, No. 52. p. 393. Retrieved 27 January 2014.
  20. ^ a b c Clouston (1918) p. 15
  21. ^ a b Cannon (2008) "Stainmore, battle of,". Retrieved 27 January 2014.
  22. ^ Muir (2005) p. 21
  23. ^ "Upper Bowertower, Stone Lud". Canmore. Retrieved 27 January 2014.
  24. ^ Muir (2005) p. 27
  25. ^ Woolf (2007) p. 243, quoting the Annals of Ulster.
  26. ^ Muir (2005) pp. 44-45, "he died in his bed not long after his father's death" and is not referred to in an incident dated to 1018.
  27. ^ Muir (2005) p. 47 "Earl Brusi died in the early 1030s".
  28. ^ Muir (2005) p. 45
  29. ^ Muir (2005) p. 53
  30. ^ Thomson (2008) p. 82
  31. ^ a b Muir (2005) p. 61
  32. ^ a b Muir (2005) p. 63
  33. ^ a b c Thomson (2008) p. 101
  34. ^ Thomson (2008) p. 103
  35. ^ a b c d Thomson (208) p. 89
  36. ^ a b c Thomson (2008) p. 128
  37. ^ Source: Debrett's Peerage, 1968, p.206, as shown in 1st quarter of arms of Sinclair, Earl of Caithness. See also: Moule, Thomas, Heraldry of Fish: Notices of the Principal Families Bearing Fish in Their Arms, London, 1842, p.175 [1] "Azure, a ship at anchor her oars in saltire within a double tressure counter-flory or are the arms of the Sinclair family, ancient Jarls of Orkney, and are now borne by their descendant the Earl of Caithness"
General references
  • Beuermann, Ian (2011), "Jarla Sǫgur Orkneyja. Status and power of the earls of Orkney according to their sagas", in Steinsland, Gro; Sigurðsson, Jón Viðar; Rekdal, Jan Erik; et al., Ideology and power in the viking and middle ages: Scandinavia, Iceland, Ireland, Orkney and the Faeroes, The Northern World: North Europe and the Baltic c. 400–1700 A.D. Peoples, Economics and Cultures, 52, Brill, ISBN 978-90-04-20506-2 
  • Cannon, John (2009) The Oxford Companion to British History. Oxford University Press.
  • Clouston, J. Storer (1918) "Two Features of the Orkney Earldom". The Scottish Historical Review pp. 15–28. Edinburgh University Press/JSTOR. Retrieved 18 January 2014.
  • Crawford, Barbara E. (1987) Scandinavian Scotland. Leicester University Press. ISBN 0-7185-1197-2
  • Muir, Tom (2005) Orkney in the Sagas: The Story of the Earldom of Orkney as told in the Icelandic Sagas. The Orcadian. Kirkwall. ISBN 0954886232.
  • Orkneyinga Saga: The History of the Earls of Orkney. tr. Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards. Penguin, London, 1978. ISBN 0-14-044383-5
  • Radner, Joan N. (editor and translator) (1978). "Fragmentary Annals of Ireland". CELT: Corpus of Electronic Texts. University College Cork. Retrieved 10 March 2007. 
  • Sturlson, Snorri Heimskringla. Wisdom Library. Retrieved 21 January 2014.
  • Smyth, Alfred P. (1984) Warlords and Holy Men: Scotland AD 80–1000. Edinburgh University Press. Edinburgh. ISBN 0-7486-0100-7
  • Thomson, William P. L. (2008) The New History of Orkney, Edinburgh, Birlinn. ISBN 978-1-84158-696-0
  • Woolf, Alex (2007) From Pictland to Alba, 789–1070. Edinburgh. Edinburgh University Press. ISBN 978-0-7486-1234-5

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