History about the Nordic settlement of British islands, such as the Shetland Islands, the Orkney Islands and the Hebrides, is dubious at best, even during the better-documented times when Harald Finehair was attempting to spread his influence over those regions. Anglo-Saxon sources, such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles and Asser’s Life of King Alfred were more likely to comment on Viking activity in mainland Britain and France than on Scandinavian settlements in the islands of the northern British Isles. Consequently, written history about the medieval Orkney and Shetland Islands has been overwhelmingly shaped by the most prolific lore-keepers of the Scandinavian world—the Icelanders.
Orkney, Shetland, the Hebrides, the Isle of Man, and Ireland were natural stopping points for Vikings who were sailing around the British Isles, looking for settlements to loot. Viking raids in Britain had begun as early as the 790s in the north, and had spread to the southern British kingdoms by the 830s. Viking activity increased dramatically in 865, with the arrival of the so-called Great Heathen Army. King Alfred the Great of Wessex finally forced this army to leave his kingdom in 878, after many years of back-and-forth fighting. Another Great Heathen Army tried its luck against King Alfred in 892, but the Anglo-Saxon king had improved his kingdom’s defenses by then and the Vikings were driven away by 896.
King Harald Finehair (c. 860-940) was born in the midst of this Viking Age, yet he showed little interest in plundering foreign lands. Instead, while his peers sailed away to raid distant lands, Harald Finehair instead stayed home and spread his influence throughout Norway, becoming the king of the whole region sometime between the years 885 and 900. Only after Harald had become king of all Norway did he reportedly turn his gaze toward Britain, and did so because displaced Norwegians were launching Viking raids against Harald’s kingdom from Shetland, Orkney and other Viking hubs. Therefore, Harald’s navy set sail toward Britain, not to raid the Anglo-Saxons, but to punish the Vikings.
The Saga of Harald Finehair (from Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla) and the Orkneyinga saga, both written in 13th-century Iceland, give an account of Harald’s campaign. The Heimskringla claimed that Harald Finehair campaigned successively from the Shetland Islands, to the Orkneys, to the Hebrides, and then all the way down to the Isle of Man. The Heimskringla and the Orkneyinga saga both agree that King Harald gave Shetland and Orkney to Earl Rognvald, who subsequently handed the islands over to his brother, Sigurd. Earl Sigurd allied with Thorstein the Red (a member of the family that gained controlled the Hebrides) and together they meddled in Scottish affairs, going as far as invading Scotland through Caithness. The sagas agreed that the Norwegians encountered stiff Scottish resistance, led by a certain Scot nobleman whom the Icelandic authors named Maelbricht Tooth, and, according to the Laxdæla saga, Thorstein the Red was eventually killed by the Scots. Earl Sigurd, however, continued the war effort and reportedly slew Maelbricht Tooth.
As the Heimskringla and Orkneyinga saga tell it, Earl Sigurd’s pride at overcoming Maelbricht led him to create a morbid trophy from the skull of his fallen Scottish rival. The Orkneyinga saga suggested that Maelbricht naturally had bizarre protruding teeth. The Heimskringla, however, claimed that Earl Sigurd added tusks to the skull to make the trophy all the more intimidating. Whatever the case, both sagas agreed that Earl Sigurd hung the skull from the saddle strap of his horse.
One day, while Earl Sigurd was riding around his domain, showing off his trophy as he went, the earl accidentally stabbed his leg on the protruding tooth or tusk from Maelbricht’s skull. The wound quickly became infected and eventually led to the inglorious death of Earl Sigurd.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Scene from the Halvdan Svartes saga, by Gerhard Munthe (1849–1929), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Heimskringla, by Snorri Sturluson and translated by Lee Hollander. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964, 2018.
- Orkneyinga saga in The Viking Age: A Reader, edited by Angus A. Somerville and R. Andrew McDonald. Ontario: University of Toronto Press, 2010.
- Laxdæla saga in The Viking Age: A Reader, edited by Angus A. Somerville and R. Andrew McDonald. Ontario: University of Toronto Press, 2010.
- Asser’s Life of King Alfred and Other Contemporary Sources translated, introduced and denoted by Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge. New York: Penguin Classics, 2004.