Viking Orkney: 1,000 years of mesmerising history

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The Vikings arrived in Orkney in the late 8th century – and remained for another 500 years. They first came to flee an emerging new monarchy in Norway with these exiled sea pirates using the islands to launch their own voyages and raids.

What has been left behind is a fascinating legacy of culture, archaeology, place names and language.

St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall. Founded in 1137 by Earl Rognvald in honour of his uncle St Magnus. Picture: Destination Orkney

St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall. Founded in 1137 by Earl Rognvald in honour of his uncle St Magnus. Picture: Destination Orkney

Nowhere else in the British Isles speaks more of the Viking era than Orkney, which the Norwegian king turned into an earldom to curb the threat of the wandering Norsemen. Soon, the Viking earls – or jarls – set up a number of power bases across the islands where traces of their way of life can still be readily seen today.

Viking life can be found in Orkney on shorelines, on tidal islands and on towering sea stacks high above the waters which they commanded.

Not just warriors and plunderers, the Norsemen also settled on the fertile land among islanders and farmed here for generations.

Nowadays you can walk in the footsteps of these powerful earls and see where they feasted, drank, fought and sheltered with this the rich remnants of their stay leaving this incredible period of history not hard to imagine.

Brough of Birsay, Birsay. A historic tidal island where remains of Viking settlements from as early as the 9th century can be seen. Picture: Destination Orkney

Brough of Birsay, Birsay. A historic tidal island where remains of Viking settlements from as early as the 9th century can be seen. Picture: Destination Orkney

BIRSAY

Start your tour in Birsay in the north west corner of the mainland which became the original power centre of the Vikings who started to settle here in the early 9th century.

The area had been home to the Picts, with some believing Birsay was an important centre for Scotland’s oldest indigenous people.

As the Norsemen arrived, a great complex of buildings replaced the Pictish settlements over the next 300 years.

Round Church & Earls Bu, Orphir. Scotlands only surviving circular medieval church, built by Earl Hakon and dedicated to St Nicholas. Picture: Destination Orkney

Round Church & Earls Bu, Orphir. Scotlands only surviving circular medieval church, built by Earl Hakon and dedicated to St Nicholas. Picture: Destination Orkney

Earl Thorfinn the Mighty, who is described as the most powerful of all the Orkney Earls, created his headquarters here, either at the village of Birsay or at the remarkable tidal island at the Brough of Birsay, which sits just off the coast and can be accessed by causeway at low tide.

Here, the remains of Viking houses and barns can be seen, with the 10th century homes of the settlers easy to distinguish.

A sauna and part of a house that had under-floor heating can also be found, along with the remains of a smithy and a 12th century church. The Brough gives a fascinating insight into how the Vikings lived on Orkney – just remember to check the tide times before you go.

Continue the Viking trail into Birsay village, where St Magnus Church stands on the site of an earlier church built by Earl Thorfinn in 1064.

The body of Earl Magnus, who was killed in 1117 on the orders of his brother, was buried here before later being moved to St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall.

MAESHOWE

From Birsay, head south around 12 miles to Maeshowe Chambered Cairn in Stenness. This Stone Age wonder was built some 4,000 years before the Vikings arrived but the Norsemen were to later leave some tantalising Runic ‘graffiti ‘ on the walls here.

Around 30 inscriptions speak of treasure, crusaders and beautiful women. Carvings of animals can also be found, including one of the famous Maeshowe Dragon.

Together they form the largest and most famous collection of Runic markings in Europe.

It is said that the inscriptions were left when a group of Viking warriors, led by Earl Harald, sought shelter from a heavy snowstorm around Christmas 1153.

The group were making their way from Stromness to the parish of Firth at the time, with two men suffering badly on the journey. As they took shelter, the inscriptions were made with some claiming the graffiti is a rough form of Norse verse.

Daily tours of Maeshowe are run by Historic Environment Scotland but places must be booked well in advance.

ORPHIR

Keep heading south on the mainland and you‘ll find Orphir, a place of drinking and worship during the Viking era where casks of ale and murder are woven into the story of this Norse power centre.

At Orphir, you will find the remains of a farm and massive drinking hall – the Earl‘s Bu – and a circular church built by the Norsemen.

Orphir Round Kirk is the only medieval circular church to survive in Scotland and it is thought to have been built by Earl Hakon on his return from his penitential pilgrimage to Jerusalem, with the design reportedly inspired by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

The Earl‘s Bu and the church were set close together, with Vikings going down steps from the hall to the place of worship.

“And when one entered the hall there was on the left a large flagstone, and between it and the hall were a number of large ale-casks,” according to the Orkneyinga Saga.

The Earl‘s Bu is also where Sweyn Asleifsson, who has been described as the ‘ultimate Viking‘, reportedly murdered his rival Sweyn Breastrope. It is claimed he was killed after a row over ‘unfair drinking‘ broke out.

The Orkneyinga Saga Centre is also in Orphir, and open daily during the summer season, and at other times by arrangement.

DEERNESS

At this dramatic clifftop settlement at the Brough of Deerness, you’ll find the outlines of up to 30 Viking-era buildings, all which overlook the waters that the Norsemen held within their command.

This Viking-era estate, which sits to the far east of the mainland, was likely home to Thorkel Fostri, the foster-father of the great ruler Earl Thorfinn.

Here, the summit of the stack is crowned by the ruins of a 10th to 12th century stone chapel, which was built over a wooden structure originally used by the Picts.

Deerness was chiefly a stronghold, where a long-lived domestic settlement took root at this breathtaking defensive spot.

You can get to the sea stack by parking at the Mull Head Nature Reserve and walking along the clifftop with the old settlement reached by a set of dramatic rock-cut steps.

Once you have had your Viking fix, you can enjoy the delights of Mull Head and The Gloup, where seabirds, seals and otters gather in this genuinely stunning location.

KIRKWALL

Orkney’s vibrant capital remains a Viking town at heart, with a skyline dominated by the magnificent 12th century Norse cathedral of St Magnus.

The Norse adventurers who founded the settlement 1,000 years ago called it ‘Kirkjuvagr’, meaning ‘church on the bay’.

Walk the streets and remnants of its Viking past emerge at every turn.

Kirkwall was just a small settlement until Earl Rognvald Brusason, who briefly shared the Earldom with Thorfinn the Mighty, took up residence here in the early 11th century.

He built St Olaf’s Church on land extending behind what is now Shore Street. It was here that the body of Earl Magnus, later St Magnus, was brought after it was moved from Birsay.

A 16th century gateway in St Olaf’s Wynd is all that remains of the sacred place.

Kirkwall took over from Birsay as the chief powerbase for the Orkney earls in the 12th century and grew in importance when Rognvald Kali Kolsson (c1103-1158) became Earl in 1136.

Kolsson made an incredible mark on this coastal town when he decided to build a cathedral to commemorate his uncle, Saint Magnus.

Building quickly got underway but Earl Rognvald, a crusader and poet, died in 1158 and never saw his towering tribute completed.

Rognvald was canonised in 1192 with his bones – along with those of his uncle, Orkney’s other saint - interred in matching pillars in St Magnus Cathedral.

The cathedral took 300 years to complete and is the only one in Britain to have a dungeon. Another curious trace of Orkney’s Norse era has been left behind here. The cathedral bells are rung using a Norwegian technique known as ‘clocking'. One person can peel the bells by hand and foot pedals.

Any visit to Kirkwall must include a stop at Orkney Museum. Here you will find the simplest yet most important Viking treasure – the wooden reliquary in which the bones of St Magnus were placed in the cathedral that was built in his name.

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