Mormaer of Caithness

Mormaer of Caithness
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The Mormaer of Caithness was a vassal title mostly held by members of the Norwegian nobility based in Orkney from the Viking Age until 1476. The mormaerdom was held as fief of Scotland[1] and the title was frequently held by the Norse Earls of Orkney, who were thus a vassal of both the King of Norway and the King of Scots. There is no other example in the history of either Norway or of Scotland in which a dynasty of earls owed their allegiance to two different kings.[2]

The earliest reference to the title is however to that of a native Scots ruler, Donnchad, although the extent of the Scottish crown's influence so far north at the time, beyond the lands of the powerful Mormaers of Moray is questionable.[3] The Norse saga which mentions the existence of Donnchad does not provide a date[4] although the context suggests the early tenth century. Nonetheless, at least since the days of childhood of Thorfinn Sigurdsson in c. 1020, but possibly already several decades before, the Earls of Orkney were the controlling figures.

The modern reconstruction of holders of peerage earldoms do not usually include those of Caithness, although there is no essential difference between them and, for example, those of Mormaers of Lennox, Mormaers of Strathearn and Mormaers of Angus.

In 1334 the then Earl of Orkney, who was still a Norwegian vassal, was created or recognized as Earl of Caithness and the mormaerdom of Caithness effectively continued as an earldom. In the circumstances of the 14th century this presumably was just a recognition of his hereditary right to the ancient earldom/mormaership of Caithness. Next year, all his Scottish titles were forfeited for treason. The next grant after Earl Malise's confiscation was to David Stewart, a younger son of King Robert II of Scotland.

List of Mormaers of Caithness

The list is by necessity a fragmentary one, archives being not fully preserved, actual reign of some supposed mormaers being not fully attested, and so forth:

  • Early 10th century. Donnchad of Caithness, (or Dungadr) whose wife was Groa, daughter of Thorstein Olafsson.[3]
    • Mid 10th century. Thorfinn Torf-Einarssonwas Donnchad's son-in-law, husband of his daughter Gruaidh. He was Earl of Orkney from an unknown date until his death c. 963[5] but there is no specific reference to him as a Mormaer of Caithness.
  • 978[6]–980s? Skuli Thorfinnsson, son of Gruaidh and Thorfinn, supported by Kenneth II of Alba.[3] Defeated in battle by his brother Ljot in the Dales of Caithness.[7]
  • 980s? Ljot Thorfinnsson.[7] His defeat of Skuli angered the Scots and MacBeth, the Mormaer of Moray, brought a large army north. They engaged in battle at Skitten Mire near Wick[8] where Skuli was killed [a] and Ljot died of his wounds shortly afterwards.[9][b]
  • Hlodvir Thorfinnsson became Earl of Orkney after Ljot and on his death he was buried at "Ham in Caithness"[11] suggesting that his writ extended that far, although there is no reference to any mainland title he may have had.
  • 991[12] to 1014. Sigurd Hlodvirsson, Earl of Orkney, who "was powerful enough to defend Caithness against the Scots".[3] Njal's saga describes his Scottish dominions as "Ross and Moray, Sutherland and the Dales", which last location Crawford (1987) believes may be a reference to Caithness.[13] Earl Sigurd was killed at the Battle of Clontarf on 23 April 1014.
  • 1014–c. 1060 Thorfinn Sigurdsson. On the death of Sigurd Thorfinn's older half-brothers divided Orkney and Shetland between them. King Máel Coluim of Scotland, his maternal grandfather, set Thorfinn up as ruler of Caithness and Sutherland with Scots advisors to rule for him.[14][c]
  • Mid-11th century Madadhan of Caithness. Orkneyinga saga mentions that "Muddan", who was a nephew of a King of Scots the saga calls Karl Hundason, became jarl of Caithness.[18] He had not held this position long when he was killed by Thorkel "the Fosterer" Sumarlidason, an ally of Thorfinn Sigurdsson.[d]

Given the bullish remarks in the Orkneyinga saga about Earl Thorfinn's exploits - "conquering all the way south as far as Fife"[18] - it is reasonable to suppose that he regained control of Caithness after the death of Muddan, with or without the support of the Scots royal house. The sources are however silent about what happened to the Caithness jarldom after his death, although it is clear that his sons Paul and Erlend Thorfinnsson ruled as joint earls in Orkney at least.[19]



  1. ^ The Orkneyinga saga refers to "Scots" but it is quite possible that the Scots were in alliance with the Norse against the power of Moray.[3]
  2. ^ Canmore state that the battle at Skitten Mire took place "between 943 and 945"[10] although this does not square with the presumed death of Ljot's father, Earl Thorfinn hausakljúfr, in 963.[5]
  3. ^ The chronology of the life of Thorfinn inn riki is problematic. The Heimskringla states that Thorfinn was 5 years old when his father Sigurd was killed at Clontarf reliably dated to 1014.[15] Muir (2005) dates a struggle for power with his half-brothers to 1020-21[16] but if Thorfinn was five years old in 1014 this would have made him only eleven or twelve by then. An earlier birthdate for Thorfinn is thus implied. Similarly, Thorfinn is often stated as dying c. 1065, although Woolf (2007) states that "there is no reason why a date in the late 1050s is not just as credible."[17]
  4. ^ There are further chronological issues to contend with regarding the role of Thorkel Fosterer. See Helga Moddansdóttir.


  1. ^ Crawford (2013), p. 19
  2. ^ Crawford (2003), p. 64
  3. ^ a b c d e Crawford (1987), p. 64
  4. ^ Sturlason, Chapter 99. "History of the Earls of Orkney"
  5. ^ a b Crawford (1987), p. 54
  6. ^ Muir (2005), p. 20
  7. ^ a b Muir (2005), p. 21
  8. ^ Muir (2005) p. 21
  9. ^ Pálsson & Edwards (1981), Chapters 9 & 10
  10. ^ "Upper Bowertower, Stone Lud". Canmore. Retrieved 27 January 2014.
  11. ^ Pálsson & Edwards (1981), Chapter 10
  12. ^ Muir (200), p. 27
  13. ^ Crawford (1987), p. 65
  14. ^ Pálsson & Edwards (1981), Chapters 12 & 13
  15. ^ Woolf (2007), p. 243
  16. ^ Muir (2005), p. 46
  17. ^ Woolf (2007), p. 267
  18. ^ a b Pálsson & Edwards (1981), c. 20 "Karl Hundason".
  19. ^ Pálsson & Edwards (1981), Chapter 33 "Earls and noblemen".
  20. ^ Williams (2007), pp. 133-35
  21. ^ Crawford (2013), pp. 176-77


  • Orkneyinga Saga: The History of the Earls of Orkney, translated by Pálsson, Hermann; Edwards, Paul Geoffrey, London: Penguin, 1981, ISBN 0-14-044383-5 
  • Crawford, Barbara E. (1987), Scandinavian Scotland, Leicester University Press, ISBN 0-7185-1197-2 
  • Crawford, Barbara E. (2003), "Orkney in the Middle Ages", in Omand, Donald, The Orkney Book, Edinburgh: Birlinn, ISBN 1-84158-254-9 
  • Crawford, Barbara E. (2013), The Northern Earldoms, Edinburgh: John Donald, ISBN 97819-0460-7915 
  • Muir, Tom (2005), Orkney in the Sagas: The Story of the Earldom of Orkney as told in the Icelandic Sagas, Kirkwall: The Orcadian, ISBN 0954886232 
  • Sturlason, Snorri, Saga of Olaf Haraldson, Project Gutenberg, retrieved 11 January 2014 
  • Williams, Gareth (2007), "The Family of Moddan of Dale", in Ballin Smith, Beverley; Taylor, Simon; Williams, Gareth, West Over Sea: Studies in Scandinavian Sea-borne Expansion and Settlement Before 1300, Leiden: Brill, ISBN 90-04-15893-6 
  • Woolf, Alex (2007), From Pictland to Alba, 789–1070, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, ISBN 978-0-7486-1234-5 

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