Gairsay Island and the Orkneyinga Saga

The small island of Gairsay in the Orkney Islands features prominently in the Orkneyinga Saga as the home of famed ‘Viking’ chieftain Svein Asleifsson .  Made infamous in the Orkneyinga Saga, spent his life on Gairsay, a small island (0.93 sq mi) located roughly in the middle of the archipelago.  Due to the fact that he lived nearly a century after the end of the Viking period, his lifestyle was that of a Viking from a previous age.  The saga records him as…

“This was how Svein used to live. Winter he would spend at home on Gairsay, where he entertained some eighty men at his own expense. His drinking-hall was so big, there was nothing in Orkney to compare with it. In the spring he had more than enough to occupy him, with a great deal of seed to sow which he saw to carefully himself. Then when that job was done, he would go off plundering in the Hebrides and in Ireland on what he called his ‘spring trip’, then back home just after mid-summer, where he stayed till the cornfields had been reaped and the grain was safely in. After that he would go off raiding again, and never came back till the first month of winter was ended. This he used to call his ‘autumn-trip’” (Orkneyinga Saga, ch. 105, reproduced from Barrett, 2005).

Svein’s wealth and power brought him to the attention of the Earl of Orkney, the most powerful man in the islands (Palsson et al. 1978).  It is recorded that:

“After he had been home for a short while

[Svein] invited Earl Harld to a feat, welcoming him with a magnificent banquet at which people had plenty to say about Svein’s high style of life.

‘I’d like you to stop your raiding, Svein,’ said the Earl. ‘It’s always better to be safe back home, and you know well enough that you’re only able ot keep yourself and your men on what you steal. Most troublemakers are doomed to be killed unless they stop of their own free will.’

Svein looked at the Earl and there was a smile on his face.

‘Fine and friendly words, my lord,’ he said. ‘I’ll take your excellent advice, though there are people who might say you yourself are hardly the most peaceful of men.’

‘I’m responsible for my own actions,’ said the Earl, ‘but I must say what I think.’

‘I’m sure you’ve the very best of intentions, sire,’ said Sveing, ‘so this is the way it’s going to be: I’ll give up raiding. I’m getting on in years and not up to all the hardships of war, but I’m going on ne more trip in the autumn and I want it to be as glorious as my spring-trip. When that’s over, I’ll give up raiding.’

‘Hard to tell which comes first, old fellow,’ said the Earl, ‘death or glory’” (Orkneyinga Saga,  ch. 105, reproduced from Barrett, 2005).

Svein died shortly thereafter, in that last raiding trip that he mentioned to the earl.  Upon his death, the saga records that “The summer after his death, [his sons] set up partition walls in the great drinking hall he had built on Gairsay. (Ch. 108)”  Svein was one of the last of his type – the raiding Viking – in many sense he was an anomaly of a past age.  With his death, there was no need for the great hall to house his many fellow Vikings who traveled with him.  It was far more expedient for his sons to build walls and use the space for something more useful (Palsson 1978).

Since Svein’s time, the island has had very limited occupation.   Laingskaill House was built near the presumed site of Svien’s hall in the 17th century.  19th century census records indicate a population fluctuating between 40 and 70 people throughout that century, which was the highest on record in the history of the island.  It decreased throughout the century until the population stabilized around 3 people, which it is currently at today.

The Orkneyinga Saga in Context

The late 12th century AD saw a generation of Icelandic writers dedicated to recording both the history of their country and of their original homeland – Norway. Not all of their works have survived, but those that have show many similarities. As with the Orkneyinga Saga, they are often texts that tell the story of a country through an exploration of the lives and deeds of their nation’s leaders over a period of time. The stories tend to focus on not on the politics of the time, but rather on the personality and deeds of the leader whose life is being written about. In particular, the Orkneyinga Saga is similar in structure to the Knytlinga Saga (Hisory of the Kings of Denmark) and the Heimskringla (History of the Kings of Norway) (Palsson 1978). Even in the titles of these historical texts can one see the focus on the people rather than the politics of the place in question.

The Orkneyinga Saga: It’s purpose and accuracy

The Orkneyinga Saga, written around 1230 AD by an unknown individual in Iceland, is the only medieval text in written specifically about Norse and Viking history in the Orkney Islands (Palsson et al. 1978; Anderson 1873).  It tells the story of the earls of Orkney and other famous Vikings, focusing primarily on their character and deeds (Anderson 1873).  What is essentially a history text was written several hundred years after the event occurred in order “to explore the history of a country through its rulers” (Palsson et al. 1978).  Due to the amount of text dedicated to northern Scotland (that is, not Orkney) and the focus on the earls, the possible earlier name of the saga, Jarla Saga (Earl’s Saga)may be a more accurate title (Cowan 1973).

Much of the history that the saga relates is hundreds of years old, so where did the saga-writer get the information and how accurate is it?  In some cases, contemporary skalds would share historical songs and oral recitations that had been passed down for generations.  The saga-writer then expounded upon these stories (Anderson 1973).

With this in mind, there are at several areas in which accuracy of the historical account is at risk, both in terms of production of the story, transfer of the story orally and eventually to writing, and in interpretation.

    • (1) The original skald who composed the story after of the deed was accomplished may have elaborated or changed elements for dramatic style.
    • (2) There may have been changes to the story during the transition of the account from skald to skald over the generations.
    • (3) The extent of elaboration provided by the writer of the Orkneyinga Saga, as well as the creators’ biases, whether they be known or unknown.
    • (4) Preconceived notions about Scandinavians (“Vikings”, in particular) on the part of the reader, which influences the interpretation of the source (Cowan 1973).  This could include the translation into other languages.

(1) Similar to other Icelandic sagas, the Orkneyinga Saga was composed with a noticeable sense of the “dramatic movement” of the narrative.  Because of this and the subject matter, the final text that the saga writer created contains two important components of a good saga: a story that illustrates the social and historical continuity of a place that is made memorable by “inventive narrative skill” (Palsson 1978).

Joseph Anderson, whose translation of the Saga was published in 1873, provides an interesting glimpse into the construction of the oral histories of the Scandinavians and what this means for their accuracy:

“When great events and mighty deeds were preserved for posterity by oral recitation alone, it was necessary that the memory should be enabled to retain its hold of the elements of the story by some extraneous artistic aid, and therefore they were welded by thewordsmith’s rhymes into a compact and homogenous “lay”. Thus, worked into the poetical setting (as the jeweler mounts his 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” (Anderson 1873).

Accuracy of the skalds who originally composed the oral recitations was a concern of saga writers. Anderson records the words of famed Icelandic saga-writer Snorri Sturluson:

““These songs,” he says, “which were sung in the presence of kings and chiefs, or of their sons, are the materials of our history; what they tell of their deeds and battles we take for truth; for though the skalds did no doubt praise those in whose presence they stood, yet no one would dare to relate to a chief what he and those who heard it knew to be wholly imaginary or false, as that would not be praise but mockery.””

In order to write the Orkneyinga Saga, the author relied upon several types of sources, including poetry, oral tradition, and written material (Palsson 1978).

(3) As for the saga-writers’ biases that may have influenced the construction of the saga, it should be kept into account that the writer recorded the history several hundred years after it occurred.  It was done at a time when changes in law and culture were occurring.  As Cowen states “However much of the saga originated in Orkney, the version which now exists was put together in Iceland, by an Icelander who detected in medieval Orkney a chronicle of internal strife and external aggression similar to that which threatened his own country in the Age of the Sturlings” (Cowan 1973).

(4) In terms of misinterpreting the saga due to preconceived and strongly held misconceptions about Vikings, according to a paper by Edward J. Cohen, these issues can most strongly be seen in the sections about Earl Rognvald and Sweyn Asliefsson.  As Sweyn Asliefsson is the subject of part of this survey, it will be particularly important to keep this in mind.  Cohen calls Sweyn “a man persistently romanticized by commentators as one who epitomizes the Viking way of life.  Sweyn is an anachronism, his values decadent, in a twelfth century context” (Cowan 1973).


Click here to learn about the Orkneyinga Saga in context

Maritime Viking Orkney

The Orkney Islands form a small archipelago on Scotland’s northern coast. Though they may seem remote and desolate to those who don’t live there, these islands have been the center of civilation for its inhabitants for thousands of years. The islands are famous for containing some of the richest archaeological heritage in Great Britain.

When the Vikings set forth from Scandinavia in the 8th century, the Orkney Islands acted as an excellent base for raiding and trading throughout the rest of Europe and beyond. Norse Vikings quickly took control of the Orkney Islands from the local Pictish population and made it a permanent settlement site. From there, they expanded across the north Atlantic, using the Orkneys as a base for expansion, raiding, and trading with the rest of Scotland, Ireland, Greenland, and Iceland.

Though some areas where the Vikings settled were uninhabited, others such as Orkney were not. Different groups of Vikings dealt with indigenous peoples in various manners. The late 12th-century Latin history text Historia Norvegiaerecords that the Norse in Orkney had to defeat the local Picts in order to settle there. Place names, one of the most useful indicators of Norse presence in Scotland, indicated that nearly all Pictish names were replaced by names of Norse origin in Orkney. Though there is still academic debate as to the exact nature of Viking and Pictish interaction, the wealth of archaeological material, historical evidence (in the form of documents such as the Orkneyinga Saga), and place names reveals that Viking presence in the Orkney Islands was very strong.

From the late 8th century until the mid-15th, the Orkney Islands were dominated by the Norse. Though the islands have been Scottish for more than half a millennia, Norse influence is still felt today in many areas, including the boat-building traditions and Udal law, the Viking maritime law that is still in use.

We have begun a research project aimed at looking at Norse expansion in the Orkney islands, specifically the maritime nature of life on the islands. Archaeologists and historians have been studying Viking Orkney for decades. We would like to join this endeavor, but with a maritime focus. There are many fascinating research questions that prompted this research, such as, how does the landscape and environment of Orkney change the way that Norse colonizers utilized the sea? What types of maritime traditions did they carry over from Norway, and which were changed? Boat building, and boat burials (three of which have been found on Orkney) remained very important to Orkney Vikings. This is particularly interesting because Orkney is essentially treeless. Broader questions include: how does one look at change in maritime traditions as a group of people adapt to a new environment and way of life?

This will be a partner project to our work in Norway and may develop into field work in cooperation with Orkney and other Scottish archaeologists. Ideally, we would like to use our research in Norway as a basis for comparative studies so that we can contribute to the knowledge base and better understand Viking Orkney.


Click on the links below to learn more about the Orkneyinga Saga

The Orkneyinga Saga: It’s Purpose and Accuracy

The Orkneyinga Saga in Context

 Gairsay Island and the Orkneyinga Saga


Click on the links below to learn more about the Vikings in Scotland

A Brief Introduction to Norse Expansion in Scotland

The Origin of the Orkney Vikings

The Picts and the Vikings


Click on the link below to learn more about archaeology in Scotland

A Short History of Shipwreck Protection in Scotland

An Introduction to the Types of Archaeological Organizations in Scotland

Government Archaeology Organizations

Archaeological Research Foundations

Contract Archaeology Companies

Countrywide Research Initiatives

Published Archaeological Resources