Historically, the people that we know today as Vikings came from several countries in Northern Europe Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark. The Vikings who settled in Scotland’s Orkney Islands came from Norway specifically, but where? Most of the Orkney Vikings are thought to have come from the mountainous western Norway, famous for its deep fjords and intense landscape. It was a vastly different place from the Orkney Islands. Mountainous and rugged compared to Orkney’s rolling, fertile fields. Archaeologist and Viking Orkney expert Olwyn Owen states that “When the first boatloads of Viking settlers from the rugged west coast of Norway arrived in Orkney, they must have thought they had landed in paradise. The well-drained light soils, and the mild climate of cool summers and warm winters, would have made Orkney and north-east Caithness especially attractive” (Owen 1999).
Historic sources provide some detail about the specific origin of certain Norsemen who settled in Orkney. The first earl of Orkney (as recorded by the Orkneyinga saga) Rögnvaldr and his younger brother Sigurðr of Möer are recorded as hailing from Møre og Romsdal, a county near Trondheim on the NW coast. The rest of earls of Orkney descended from Rögnvaldr and Sigurðr. Some scholars believe that large scale colonization came about after the Møre “dynasty” gained political control over the islands and established a peaceful place to immigrate to (Owen 1999).
Though much of the ruling class of the Orkney islands and many of the other settlers came to Orkney from the west coast of Norway, not all settlers hailed from Norway’s west coast. Most famously, Earl Rognvald Kolsson (1129 AD), who commissioned St. Magnus Cathedral in honor of his uncle St. Magnus, is thought to have come to Orkney from Grimstad in southern Norway (Orkneyjar). Earl Rognvald erected the imposing and magnificent cathedral that still stands in Kirkwall (the capital of Orkney) in honor of St. Magnus, his uncle who had been canonized as a saint. The Orkneyinga saga records that Earl Rognvald was advised by his father Kol to:
“build a stone minster at Kirkwall more magnificent than any in Orkney, that you’ll have (it) dedicated to your uncle the holy Early Magnus and provide it with all the funds it will need to flourish. In addition his holy relics and the episcopal seat must be moved there” (The Orkneyinga Saga, chapter 68).