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The Orkneyinga Saga


The Orkneyjnga Saga is the history of the Orkneymen, Earls and Odallers of Norwegian extraction, who established an Earldom of Norway in the Northern Scottish Isles a thousand years ago, and whose descendants for several centuries held sway over the Hebrides and Northern Mainland of Scotland Commencing with the conquest of the Isles by Hamid Harfagri, the Saga relates the subsequent history of the Earldom of Orkney under the long line of its Norse Jarls, and is, for a period of three centuries and a half, the principal authority for the history of Northern Scotland. The narrative is mainly personal, and therefore picturesque, pourtraying the men in person and character, impartially recording their deeds, and mentioning what was thought of them and their actions at the time. Occasionally the Saga-writer is enabled to do this in the words of a contemporary Skald. The skaldic songs, so often quoted, were the materials from which the Sagas were subsequently elaborated. In estimating their value as historical materials, it must be home in mind that all history has begun in song. 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 the word-smith’s rhymes into a compact and homogeneous “lay.” Thus, worked into a poetical setting (as the jeweller 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. Snorri Sturluson tells us that the songs of the skalds who were with HaraM Harfagri in Ms wars were known and recited in Ms day, after an interval of nearly four centuries. " These songs,” he says, “ wMch were sung in the presence of kings and cMefs, 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 eMef what he and those who heard it knew to be wholly imaginary or false, as that would not be praise but mockery.” Our earliest Scottish chroniclers did not disdain to make use of the lay-smith’s craft, as a help to history, long after the Iceland skald had been succeeded by the Saga-writer, and the flowery recitative of an unclerkly age superseded by the terser narrative of the parchment scribe. The art is as old as Odin mid the gods, if indeed it be not older, and these its creations. But its golden age had passed ere Paganism began to give way before Christianity, and the specimens we have in this Saga me mostly of the period of its decadence and by inferior skalds. Yet it is significant of the esteem in which the art continued to be held by the settlers In the Orkneys, that we find Earl Sigurd honouring Qnnnlang Ormstunga with princely gifts, Amor Jarlaskald enjoying the special favour and friendship of Earl Thorium, and Earl Kogmvald, the founder of the cathedral, courting for himself the reputation of an accomplished skald.

But though we can thus trace to some extent the authorship of the unwritten materials from which the Saga was framed, there is nothing to show where or by whom it was written. There is proof, however, that it was known in Iceland in the first half of the thirteenth century. Its earlier chapters, down to the division of the Earldom between Thorfinn and Brasi, are Incorporated into the Old Saga of Snorri Sturluson, and are there cited as from the “Jarla Saga,” or Saga of the Earls. It must therefore have been in existence as a completed work before 1241, the date of Snorri’s death. The compiler of the Fagrshinna, which is shown by internal evidence to have been written between 1222 and 1225, also quotes from it, by the title of "Jarla Sagan.” The dosing chapters of the Orkneyinga Saga, in its present form, recording the burning of Bishop Adam, could not lave been written before 1222; but, as it is stated in the last chapter that the terrible retribution exacted by the Scottish King for the murder of the Bishop was still in fresh memory, it may very well have been completed before 1225. No manuscript of the Jarla Saga is known to exist, and the original form of what is now called The Orkneyinga Saga* is thus matter of conjecture. We know it only as the substance of its earlier chapters was given by Snorri previous to 1241, and in the expanded version of the Mateyjarack, where it is pieced into the Sagas of Olaf Tryggvi’s son and Olaf the Holy. The Hafceyjarbdk, however, is nearly a century and a half later than Snorri’s work, having been written between the years 1382 and 1394.

The object of the present issue being simply to provide a plain, readable, and unadorned translation of the Orkneyinga Saga (which has been hitherto inaccessible to the English reader), it has been deemed advisable to adhere to the form of the Saga adopted by its first editor Jonaeus, though not to Jonaeus’s text, which is by no means free from corruptions. The Christiania edition of the flateyjarbdk, printed literally from the manuscript, has afforded the means of rectifying the text where the expanded version of the earlier chapters given in the Flateyjarbdk has also been translated and inserted as an appendix, for the sake of the fuller details which it supplies of the earlier history of the Earldom. In one sense it might have been desirable to have compiled a text which would have given the fullest history of the Orkney Earls, but this would not have been the “Orkneyfnga Saga.” It would have necessitated the collection and critical collation of all the passages in all the Sagas and early writmgs relating to the history of the Northmen in Scotland—a work which has long been in progress in abler lands, and under more favourable auspices.

The Introduction, however, has been compiled with a view to supplement the Saga narrative, as well as to furnish a continuation of the history of the Earldom down to the time 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 of the text Chronological and Genealogical Tables lave been added to facilitate reference; and on the maps of Scotland and of the island-groups which formed the Earldom proper are shown the names of the principal places mentioned in the Sagas as known to the Northmen.

In conclusion, I have to express my obligations to those kind friends who have aided me with their advice and assistance. To Dr. John Stuart, Dr. John BM Burton, Sir Henry Dryden, Bart., and Colonel Balfour of Balfour and Trenaby, I am indebted for many valuable suggestions. To the first-named gentleman I am also under obligations for the use of the woodcuts of the symbols of the Sculptured Stones. The Society of Antiquaries of Scotland have generously contributed the woodcuts of the Bressay Stone, the Saverough Bell, and the Sword and Scabhard-tip; to the Society of Antiquaries of London I am indebted for the illustrations of the Stones of Stennis; to Mr. James Eergusson and Mr. John Murray for those of Maeshow; to Mr. Thomas S. Muir for the Dragon of Maeshow, the etchings of the churches of Weir and Lybster, and the ground-plans of the ancient churches; to Messrs. Chambers for the woodcut of Mousa; and to Dr Daniel Wilson and Messrs. Constable for those of the Brooch and Comb, illustrating the burial-nsages of the Norsemen. The view of Egilsey church is from a photograph, for which I am indebted to Mr. George Petrie of Kirkwall, whose pleasant companionship in a pilgrimage among the localities described in the Saga is gratefully remembered. J. A.

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