Earl of Orkney

The Earl of Orkney was originally a Norse jarl ruling the archipelagos of Orkney and Shetland (Norðreyjar). Originally founded by Norse invaders, the status of the rulers of the Norðreyjar as Norwegian vassals was formalised in 1195. Although the Old Norse term jarl is etymologically related to "earl", and the jarls were succeeded by earls in the late 15th century, a Norwegian jarl is not the same thing.[2] In the Norse context the distinction between jarls and kings did not become significant until the late 11th century[3] and the early jarls would therefore have had considerable independence of action until that time. The position of Jarl of Orkney was eventually the most senior rank in mediaeval Norway except for the king himself.

Ruins on the Brough of Birsay, once the seat of the early Norse jarls of Orkney. The Brough is now a tidal islet but in earlier times it was connected to Mainland Orkney by an isthmus.[1]

The jarls were periodically subject to the kings of Alba for those parts of their territory in what is now mainland Scotland (i.e. Caithness and Sutherland). In 1232, a Scottish dynasty descended from the Mormaers of Angus replaced the previous family descended from the late 10th century jarl Torf-Einarr, although the Norðreyjar remained formally subject to Norway. This family was in turn replaced by the descendants of the Mormaers of Strathearn and later still by the Sinclair family, during whose time Orkney and Shetland became part of Scotland.

The second earldom was created by James VI of Scotland in 1581 for his half-uncle Robert Stewart but after only two incumbents the title was forfeited in 1614. After the third creation of 1696, which title still exists today, the earls' influence on Orcadian affairs became negligible.