The Orkneyinga Saga
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THE ORKNEYINGA SAGA
ST. MAGNUS CATHEDRAL
(South Transept and part of Choir)
The Orkneyinga Saga is the history of the Orkneymen, Earlsand Odallers of Norwegian extraction, who established anEarldom of Norway in the Northern Scottish Isles a thousandyears ago, and whose descendants for several centuries heldsway over the Hebrides and Northern Mainland of Scotland.Commencing with the conquest of the Isles by Harald Harfagri,the Saga relates the subsequent history of the Earldomof Orkney under the long line of its Norse Jarls, and is,for a period of three centuries and a half, the principalauthority for the history of Northern Scotland. The narrativeis mainly personal, and therefore picturesque, pourtrayingthe men in person and character, impartially recording theirdeeds, and mentioning what was thought of them and theiractions at the time. Occasionally the Saga-writer is enabledto do this in the words of a contemporary Skald. Theskaldic songs, so often quoted, were the materials from whichthe Sagas were subsequently elaborated. In estimating theirvalue as historical materials, it must be borne in mind thatall history has begun in song. When great events and mightydeeds were preserved for posterity by oral recitation alone, itwas necessary that the memory should be enabled to retainits hold of the elements of the story by some extraneousartistic aid, and therefore they were welded by the word-smith’srhymes into a compact and homogeneous “lay.”Thus, worked into a poetical setting (as the jeweller mountsivhis gems to enhance their value and ensure their preservation),they passed as heirlooms from generation to generation,floating on the oral tradition of the people. Snorri Sturlusontells us that the songs of the skalds who were with HaraldHarfagri in his wars were known and recited in his day, afteran interval of nearly four centuries. “These songs,” he says,“which were sung in the presence of kings and chiefs, or oftheir sons, are the materials of our history; what they tell oftheir deeds and battles we take for truth; for though theskalds did no doubt praise those in whose presence they stood,yet no one would dare to relate to a chief what he and thosewho heard it knew to be wholly imaginary or false, as thatwould not be praise but mockery.” Our earliest Scottishchroniclers did not disdain to make use of the lay-smith’scraft, as a help to history, long after the Iceland skald hadbeen succeeded by the Saga-writer, and the flowery recitativeof an unclerkly age superseded by the terser narrative of theparchment scribe. The art is as old as Odin and the gods,if indeed it be not older, and these its creations. But itsgolden age had passed ere Paganism began to give way beforeChristianity, and the specimens we have in this Saga aremostly of the period of its decadence and by inferior skalds.Yet it is significant of the esteem in which the art continuedto be held by the settlers in the Orkneys, that we find EarlSigurd honouring Gunnlaug Ormstunga with princely gifts,Arnor Jarlaskald enjoying the special favour and friendshipof Earl Thorfinn, and Earl Rögnvald, the founder of thecathedral, courting for himself the reputation of an accomplishedskald.
But though we can thus trace to some extent the authorshipof the unwritten materials from which the Saga wasframed, there is nothing to show where or by whom it wasvwritten. There is proof, however, that it was known inIceland in the first half of the thirteenth century. Its earlierchapters, down to the division of the Earldom betweenThorfinn and Brúsi, are incorporated into the Olaf Saga ofSnorri Sturluson, and are there cited as from the “JarlaSaga,” or Saga of the Earls. It must therefore have beenin existence as a completed work before 1241, the date ofSnorri’s death. The compiler of the Fagrskinna, which isshown by internal evidence to have been written between1222 and 1225, also quotes from it, by the title of “JarlaSagan.” The closing chapters of the Orkneyinga Saga, in itspresent form, recording the burning of Bishop Adam, couldnot have been written before 1222; but, as it is stated in thelast chapter that the terrible retribution exacted by the ScottishKing for the murder of the Bishop was still in freshmemory, it may very well have been completed before 1225.No manuscript of the Jarla Saga is known to exist, and theoriginal form of what is now called “The Orkneyinga Saga” isthus matter of conjecture. We know it only as the substanceof its earlier chapters was given by Snorri previous to 1241,and in the expanded version of the Flateyjarbók, where it ispieced into the Sagas of Olaf Tryggvi’s son and Olaf the Holy.The Flateyjarbók, however, is nearly a century and a halflater than Snorri’s work, having been written between theyears 1387 and 1394.
The object of the present issue being simply to provide aplain, readable, and unadorned translation of the OrkneyingaSaga (which has been hitherto inaccessible to the Englishreader), it has been deemed advisable to adhere to the form ofthe Saga adopted by its first editor Jonæus, though not toJonæus’s text, which is by no means free from corruptions.The Christiania edition of the Flateyjarbók, printed literallyvifrom the manuscript, has afforded the means of rectifying thetext where necessary; and the expanded version of the earlierchapters given in the Flateyjarbók has also been translatedand inserted as an appendix, for the sake of the fuller detailswhich it supplies of the earlier history of the Earldom. Inone sense it might have been desirable to have compiled atext which would have given the fullest history of the OrkneyEarls, but this would not have been the “Orkneyinga Saga.”It would have necessitated the collection and critical collationof all the passages in all the Sagas and early writings relatingto the history of the Northmen in Scotland—a work whichhas long been in progress in abler hands, and under morefavourable auspices.
The Introduction, however, has been compiled with aview to supplement the Saga narrative, as well as to furnisha continuation of the history of the Earldom down to thetime when it ceased to form part of the Norwegian dominions.Some account of the islands previous to the Norse invasion,and a few notices of their antiquities and ecclesiastical remains,as well as of the existing traces of the Norsemen,seemed requisite to supplement the notes in illustration ofthe text. Chronological and Genealogical Tables have beenadded to facilitate reference; and on the maps of Scotlandand of the island-groups which formed the Earldom proper areshown the names of the principal places mentioned in theSagas as known to the Northmen.
In conclusion, I have to express my obligations to thosekind friends who have aided me with their advice and assistance.To Dr. John Stuart, Dr. John Hill Burton, Sir HenryDryden, Bart., and Colonel Balfour of Balfour and Trenaby, Iam indebted for many valuable suggestions. To the first-namedgentleman I am also under obligations for the useviiof the woodcuts of the symbols of the Sculptured Stones.The Society of Antiquaries of Scotland have generously contributedthe woodcuts of the Bressay Stone, the SaveroughBell, and the Sword and Scabbard-tip; to the Society ofAntiquaries of London I am indebted for the illustrationsof the Stones of Stennis; to Mr. James Ferguson and Mr.John Murray for those of Maeshow; to Mr. Thomas S.Muir for the Dragon of Maeshow, the etchings of thechurches of Weir and Lybster, and the ground-plans ofthe ancient churches; to Messrs. Chambers for the woodcutof Mousa; and to Dr. Daniel Wilson and Messrs. Constablefor those of the Brooch and Comb, illustrating the burial-usagesof the Norsemen. The view of Egilsey church is froma photograph, for which I am indebted to Mr. George Petrieof Kirkwall, whose pleasant companionship in a pilgrimageamong the localities described in the Saga is gratefullyremembered.
|I.||Earliest Historical Notices of the Orkneys||ix|
|II.||Early Christianity of the Islands||xi|
|III.||Arrival of the Northmen and Establishment of the Earldom of Orkney and Caithness||xxi|
|IV.||The Earldom in the Norse Line, 872-1231||xxiii|
|V.||The Earldom in the Angus Line, 1231-1312||xlvi|
|VI.||The Earldom in the Stratherne Line, 1321-1379||lv|
|VII.||The Earldom in the Line of St. Clair, 1379-1469||lxi|
|VIII.||The Bishopric of Orkney, 1102-1469||lxxi|
|IX.||The Bishopric of Caithness, 1150-1469||lxxix|
|X.||Ancient Churches of Orkney||lxxxvii|
|XI.||Maeshow and the Stones of Stennis||ci|
|XII.||Mousa and the Pictish Towers||cix|
|XIII.||Remains of the Northmen||cxi|