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The Mormaer of Caithness was a vassal title mostly held by members of the Norwegian nobility based in Orkney from the Viking Age until 1350. The mormaerdom was held as fief of Scotland[2] and the title was frequently held by the Norse Earls of Orkney, who were thus a vassal of both the King of Norway and the King of Scots. There is no other example in the history of either Norway or of Scotland in which a dynasty of earls owed their allegiance to two different kings.[3]

Mormaer of Caithness
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Creation date10th century?
MonarchConstantine II of Scotland?
PeeragePeerage of Scotland
First holderDonnchad?
Last holderMaol Íosa
Extinction date1350
Former seat(s)Braal Castle[1]

The earliest reference to the title is however to that of a native Scots ruler, Donnchad, although the extent of the Scottish crown's influence so far north at the time, beyond the lands of the powerful Mormaers of Moray is questionable.[4] The Norse saga which mentions the existence of Donnchad does not provide a date[5] although the context suggests the early tenth century. Nonetheless, at least since the days of the childhood of Thorfinn Sigurdsson in c. 1020, but possibly already several decades before, the Earls of Orkney were the controlling figures. In the Norse context the distinction between earls and kings did not become significant until the late 11th century[6] and the Caithness mormaers therefore would have had considerable independence of action until that time.

Location of Caithness to the north of the Scottish mainland, with the archipelagoes of Orkney and Shetland to the north and the Hebrides to the west.

The Pentland Firth lies between Caithness and Orkney, a stretch of water which divided the two earldoms but also united them, especially perhaps for the Norse, whose command of the seas was an important aspect of their culture. Indeed there are numerous incidents recorded in the Orkneyinga saga in which movement across these waters occurs as if the two polities were parts of a single political and cultural arena.[7][a] Even in the mid-12th century it appears that a king of Norway - Eystein Haraldsson - had no difficulty in capturing Harald Maddadson, an Earl of Orkney, from his base in Thurso, Caithness. Meanwhile a Scottish king - David I exercised control of both areas through promotion of the Scottish Church and other indirect rather than military means.[7] In the 13th century, especially after the Norwegian defeat at the Battle of Largs and the subsequent Treaty of Perth in 1266, the distinctions hardened and the Firth became more like a "state border".[9]

Sutherland was part of the Caithness mormaerdom for most this title's existence but was "taken" by Alexander II from Magnus, the first "Angus" earl and given to others for unknown reasons.[10]

Most dates during the Norse period are approximate and records become more detailed and historically accurate as the line of Norse jarls comes to an end. After the close of the Jarls' Saga on the death of Jon Haraldsson in 1230, the history of Caithness is "plunged into a darkness which is illuminated by very few written sources".[11][b]

After the rule of Maol Íosa there was no mormaer of Caithness from c. 1350 to 1379.[11] The title Earl of Caithness was granted to David Stewart, a younger son of the Scots king, and the mormaerdom effectively continued as an earldom from that point onwards.


Mormaers of CaithnessEdit

The list is by necessity a fragmentary one, the archives being not fully preserved, the reigns of some supposed mormaers being not fully attested, and so forth. According to the Landnámabók, Thorstein Olafsson (fl c. 850-c. 880) and Sigurd Eysteinsson “conquered Caithness, Sutherland and Moray, and more than half of Argyll [and] Thorstein ruled over these territories as King”.[15] There is no suggestion that Thorstein was beholden to any overlord although his son-in-law Donnchad is described as a "native earl".[4]

Dates Mormaer Notes
Early 10th century Donnchad of Caithness Donnchad (or Dungadr) was married to Groa, daughter of Thorstein Olafsson.[4]
Mid 10th century Uncertain Thorfinn Torf-Einarsson, Donnchad's son-in-law having married his daughter Gruaidh, was a powerful Earl of Orkney from an unknown date until his death c. 963.[16] However, there is no specific reference to him as a Mormaer of Caithness.
978[17]–980s? Skuli Thorfinnsson Son of Gruaidh and Thorfinn, supported by Kenneth II of Alba.[4] Defeated in battle by his brother Ljot in the Dales of Caithness.[18]
980s? Ljot Thorfinnsson[18] His defeat of Skuli angered the Scots and MacBeth, the Mormaer of Moray, brought a large army north. They engaged in battle at Skitten Mire near Wick[18] where Skuli was killed [c] and Ljot died of his wounds shortly afterwards.[19][d]
980s Hlodvir Thorfinnsson He became Earl of Orkney after Ljot and on his death he was buried at "Ham in Caithness"[21] suggesting that his writ extended that far, although there is no specific reference to any mainland title he may have had.
991[22] to 1014 Sigurd Hlodvirsson Earl of Orkney, who "was powerful enough to defend Caithness against the Scots".[4] Njal's saga describes his Scottish dominions as "Ross and Moray, Sutherland and the Dales", which last location may be a reference to Caithness.[e] Earl Sigurd was killed at the Battle of Clontarf on 23 April 1014.
1014–c.1060 Thorfinn Sigurdsson On the death of Sigurd Thorfinn's older half-brothers divided Orkney and Shetland between them. King Máel Coluim of Scotland, his maternal grandfather, set Thorfinn up as ruler of Caithness and Sutherland with Scots advisors to rule for him.[25][f]
Mid-11th century Madadhan of Caithness Orkneyinga saga mentions that "Muddan", who was a nephew of a King of Scots the saga calls Karl Hundason, became jarl of Caithness.[28] He had not held this position long when he was killed by Thorkel "the Fosterer" Sumarlidason, an ally of Thorfinn Sigurdsson.[g]
Mid-11th century Thorfinn Sigurdsson? Given the bullish remarks in the Orkneyinga saga about Earl Thorfinn's exploits - "conquering all the way south as far as Fife"[28] - it is reasonable to suppose that he regained control of Caithness after the death of Muddan, with or without the support of the Scots royal house.
To 1098 Paul and Erlend Thorfinnsson? The sources are silent about what happened to the Caithness jarldom after Earl Thorfinn's death, although it is clear that his sons Paul and Erlend ruled as joint earls in Orkney at least.[29]

Norwegian interludeEdit

Magnus Barefoot's army in Ireland, as imagined in Gustav Storm's 1899 edition of Heimskringla

In 1098 Magnus Barefoot, King of Norway deposed the Thorfinnsson brothers as Earls of Orkney and set his 8 year old son Sigurd Magnusson up in their place. This was an unprecedented occurrence, probably intended as a permanent step.[30] Magnus then conducted two vigorous campaigns in the Hebrides and Irish Sea region.[31] It is likely that de facto control of the mormaerdom was in his hands prior to his death during the second campaign in 1103 although "there does not seem to have been any intention on the Norwegian side" to formally take control of Caithness, which remained subject to the Scottish crown.[32]

It is possible the native Celts regained the title at this time. in the late 11th or early 12th century, Ótarr son of Madadhan and brother-in-law of Haakon Paulsson is described as "jarl of Thurso".[33] It is not certain that this second "Moddan of Dale" was a descendant of his earlier namesake, and there is no suggestion that Moddan himself was a jarl.[34] Ótarr was the brother of Helga Moddansdóttir fl. 1015-23 and a "curiously shadowy figure".[33]

Later Norse jarlsEdit

Dates Mormaer Notes
c.1104 - c.1105 Haakon Paulsson Grandson of Thorfinn Sigurdsson and made Earl of Orkney by the young King Sigurd of Norway[35] he also claimed Caithness.[36]
c. 1105 - 1114 Magnus Erlendsson Haakon Paulsson's cousin who was joint Earl of Orkney from c. 1105 until his death on Egilsay at Haakon's hands.[37] Caithness formed half of his estates.[38]
1114-1123[39] Haakon Paulsson As sole Earl of Orkney he probably regained control of Caithness on the death of Magnus Erlendsson.
1123-1128 Harald Haakonsson Nephew of Ótarr and son of Haakon Paulsson, he "held Caithness from the king of Scots".[40][41]
1128-1136 Paul Haakonsson Half-brother of Harald was also Earl or Orkney. He ruled jointly with Harald, then alone, then briefly with Rögnvald Kali Kolsson until his death at the hands of Sweyn Asleifsson and the descendants of Moddan of Dale.[42] He and Earl Rögnvald divided his holdings between them, "which probably included Caithness".[43] During the military events that preceded this division Earl Paul had gödings - allies - in Caithness but none in Shetland.[44]
1136-1151 (jointly 1139-58) Rögnvald Kali Kolsson Earl of Orkney and likely ruler of Caithness for much of his tenure.[43]
1151-54[45] Erlend Haraldsson Son of Harald Haakonsson. When Earl Rögnvald left Orkney in 1151 to go on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, Erlend obtained half of his father's lands in Caithness from Malcolm IV of Scotland.[44][46]
1139-1206 Harald "the Old" Maddadsson Grandson of Haakon Paulsson and son of Matad, Earl of Atholl. He became joint Earl of Orkney with Rögnvald as a child.[47] During the "War of the Three Earls" 1151-58[46] Harald was captured from a base in Thurso by King Eystein Haraldsson of Norway aged only 18,[7] then freed for a ransom. After the death of both Erlend and Rögnvald he became sole ruler of Orkney in 1158 until his own death in 1206.[48][49]
1198 Harald "the Younger" Eiriksson Grandson of Rögnvald Kali Kolsson. Half of Caithness was granted to him by king William the Lion but he died later that year near Wick in a military conflict with Harald Maddadsson, whose grip on Caithness then resumed.[50]
1206-1214 David Haraldsson Son of Harald "the Old" he ruled jointly over Caithness and Orkney with his brother Jon.[51]
1214-1230 Jon Haraldsson Jointly with his brother David, then alone until he was murdered in Thurso.[52]
Rognvaldr Gudrodsson's name as it appears on folio 40v of British Library Cotton MS Julius A VII (the Chronicle of Mann): "Reginaldus filjus Godredi".[53]

After the failure of Harald the Younger, c.1200 William of Scotland then asked King of the Isles Rognvaldr Gudrodsson (Raghnall mac Gofraidh) to take Caithness on behalf of the Scottish Crown. Rognvaldr marched north, subduing the region and then returned to the Isles leaving three stewards in charge.[54] Although not descended from previous Orcadian earls, Rognvaldr was related to these Norse magnates through his paternal grandfather's marriage to Ingibjorg, daughter of Haakon Paulsson. There is no evidence of his installation as a Mormaer of Caithness, only that he was appointed to administer the province.[h] His tenure in Caithness seems to have been short-lived and once again Harald Maddadsson became the undisputed ruler of his northern holdings.[57] |-

Angus and Strathearn rulersEdit

Jon Haraldsson's son Harald had drowned in 1226 and as there were no male heirs two parties with a claim sought the jarldom from King Haakon Haakonsson of Norway. On their return to Orkney in the autumn of 1232 in a single ship the claimants and their supporters were all lost at sea. As early as 2 October of that year the Caithness title was claimed by a member of the family of the Earl of Angus and it was to this house that Caithness and Orkney were eventually granted.[58]

Dates Mormaer Notes
1235 Walter Comyn, Mormaer of Menteith Comyn signed a charter in July 1235 as "Earl of Caithness" but if he was so appointed it was as a temporary measure.[59]
1236-1239 Magnus II Also Earl of Orkney, was granted Caithness in two halves (north and south) but it seems to have been held by an unknown other prior to his investiture. His parentage is uncertain and he may have been a descendent of Ingrid, a daughter of Rögnvald Kali Kolsson. Sutherland - the southern half[i]- was "taken" by Alexander II from Magnus and given to Hugh de Moravia for unknown reasons.[10]
1239? Joanna and Matilda? There is a fragmentary reference in the Panmure Codex to two sisters called Joanna and Matilda who inherited a joint title to Caithness from "a virgin who died without progeny". They may have had a family connection to Moddan of Dale and/or to Jon Haraldsson. Alternatively, the sisters may have been the children of Earl Gilbert.[62] It is not clear when their rule is supposed to have taken place.[j]
1239?-1256[65] Gilbert Gilbert (Gille Brigte) was not the son of Magnus, to whom his relationship is obscure. He ruled Caithness as well as Orkney and he may have been preceded by another Gilbert.[66]
1256-1273[65] Magnus Gilbertsson[67] Son of Gilbert.[65] Magnus initially played a role in the Scottish–Norwegian War in support of Haakon IV of Norway and in 1263 Caithness was granted a separate peace treaty in return for paying a fine. The negotiations were partly responsible for delaying Haakon's assault on the west coast of Scotland.[68]
1273-1284 Magnus Magnusson Son of Magnus Gilbertsson.[69]
1284-1303[70] Jón Magnússon Son of Magnus Gilbertsson,[71][72] he was as cautious as his father in balancing Scots and Norwegian interest. In 1300 his was the last signature on the Ragman Rolls.[73]
1303-1320 Magnus Jónsson Son of Jón Magnússon.[74] Magnus was still a minor on the death of his father sometime between 1300 and 1303 and Wards were in place until he came of age in 1312. His last known act was to sign the Declaration of Arbroath in October 1320 and he was dead by August of the following year.[75]
1321-1330 Uncertain The singular lack of haste with which a new title was granted by either the Scots to Caithness or the Norwegians to Orkney has led to the suggestion that Magnus may have had an heir who was a minor, but who died before 1330. In December 1330 a Margaret Fraser is described as one of the heirs to the Caithness title although the nature of her claim is unknown. It is also likely that unravelling the genealogy of Maol Íosa and providing proofs of his descent was a time-consuming project.[76]
1330-1350 Maol Íosa Some time after Magnus Jonsson's death the title was granted to Maol Íosa, Mormaer of Strathearn, a distant relative of Earl Gilbert. His ancestry is not clear but he may have been a descendent of the Matilda mentioned in the Panmure Codex. Maol Íosa ruled both Orkney and Caithness and had several daughters, but no sons.[77]
The ruins of Braal Castle, the caput of the Caithness mormaers which was given over to the Scottish crown in 1375 by Alexander of Ard.[1][78]

There was no Mormaer of Caithness from c. 1350 to 1379.[11] Alexander of Ard, the son of Maol Íosa's daughter Matilda and Weland of Ard[78] (Aird, west of Inverness)[79] was considered the rightful heir to Caithness but he resigned his interest in 1375[78] to King Robert II, possibly for a financial compensation[80] or the king's support for his attempt to become Earl of Orkney.[81] The power vacuum in Caithness was filled by William III, Earl of Ross.[77] After this time the title "Earl of Caithness" was granted to David Stewart, 1st Earl of Caithness a younger son of Robert II[82] whose successors have borne that title from then until the present day.

The Pentland Firth, the "waterway which divided - or united - the Earldoms of Caithness and Orkney".[7] Caithness is to the south and some of the Orkney islands are to the north.
Ruins of the Castle of Old Wick, a twelfth- or thirteenth-century fortress, which may have been a winter residence of Harald Maddadsson.[83]



  1. ^ Roland Saint-Clair, in his 1898 publication The Saint-Clairs of the Isles goes so far as to suggest that the Earldom of Orkney consisted of "two principal parts - Insular and Scottish" and refers to Caithness as the "Scottish Orcadia". Crawford (2013) describes this as a "mistake".[8]
  2. ^ The reliability of the sagas in general and the Jarls' Saga in particular as an historical source is much discussed[12][13] but it is recognised this improves over time. For example, Williams (2007) notes that it "is probably rather less reliable for the eleventh century than for the twelfth".[14]
  3. ^ The Orkneyinga saga refers to "Scots" but it is quite possible that the Scots were in alliance with the Norse against the power of Moray.[4]
  4. ^ Canmore state that the battle at Skitten Mire took place "between 943 and 945"[20] although this does not square with the presumed death of Ljot's father, Earl Thorfinn hausakljúfr, in 963.[16]
  5. ^ Crawford makes this suggestion [23] but later speculates that the absence of a specific reference to Caithness may mean that the "native family" of Donnchad still dominated there [24] although if so they were clearly surrounded by territories controlled by Sigurd.
  6. ^ The chronology of the life of Thorfinn inn riki is problematic. The Heimskringla states that Thorfinn was 5 years old when his father Sigurd was killed at Clontarf reliably dated to 1014.[26] Muir (2005) dates a struggle for power with his half-brothers to 1020-21[27] but if Thorfinn was five years old in 1014 this would have made him only eleven or twelve by then. An earlier birthdate for Thorfinn is thus implied. Similarly, Thorfinn is often stated as dying c. 1065, although Woolf (2007) states that "there is no reason why a date in the late 1050s is not just as credible."[12]
  7. ^ There are further chronological issues to contend with regarding the role of Thorkel Fosterer. See Helga Moddansdóttir.
  8. ^ As a king himself Rognvaldr would in any case have considered such a title to be beneath his dignity and the contract between him and William is assumed to have been financially advantageous.[55] Following an incursion into the Hebrides by Inge Bardson c. 1210, Rognvaldr thought it expedient to go to Norway in the company of his son Gofraid Donn to effect a reconciliation with the Norwegian Crown.[56]
  9. ^ Crawford (2013) refers to Sutherland as "the southern half of Caithness" in the context of Earl Sigurd digri in the late 10th century[60] but seems less certain that this was the division of Caithness referred to in the early 13th.[61]
  10. ^ Crawford suggests two possibilities: that the sisters inherited a share to the Caithness title after the death of Magnus II or during the interregnum between 1320 and 1330. In the former case Joanna and Matilda could have been the children of a daughter of Jon Haraldsson and Duncan, possibly a brother of Magnus II. Matilda then may have married a Gilbert (I) who had a claim to the mormaerdom and their son Gilbert II succeeded, dying in 1256. In the second case, it is known that a daughter of Gilbert II called Matilda was married to Malise II, Earl of Strathearn and that about this time a Joanna (fl. 1269-86) was the wife of Freskin de Moravia, a nephew of William de Moravia, 3rd Earl of Sutherland. Although there is no record of such a relationship between them Joanna could have been Matilda's sister.[63] Thomson favours the earlier option with Magnus II being the "virgin" and credits Crawford with yet another suggestion - that one of the sisters was Matilda, Countess of Angus.[64]


  1. ^ a b Crawford (2003), p. 326 fn 171
  2. ^ Crawford (2013), p. 19
  3. ^ Crawford (2003), p. 64
  4. ^ a b c d e f Crawford (1987), p. 64
  5. ^ Sturlason, Chapter 99. "History of the Earls of Orkney"
  6. ^ Crawford (2013), p. 165
  7. ^ a b c d Crawford (2013), p. 23
  8. ^ Crawford (2013), p. 30, footnote 66
  9. ^ Crawford (2013), pp. 24-26
  10. ^ a b Crawford (2013), pp. 280-81
  11. ^ a b c Crawford (2013), p. 26
  12. ^ a b Woolf (2007), p. 267
  13. ^ Crawford (2013), pp. 39-50
  14. ^ Williams (2007), p. 131
  15. ^ Pálsson & Edwards (2007), p. 51, “Aud the deep-Minded”
  16. ^ a b Crawford (1987), p. 54
  17. ^ Muir (2005), p. 20
  18. ^ a b c Muir (2005), p. 21
  19. ^ Pálsson & Edwards (1981), Chapters 9 & 10
  20. ^ "Upper Bowertower, Stone Lud". Canmore. Retrieved 27 January 2014.
  21. ^ Pálsson & Edwards (1981), Chapter 10
  22. ^ Muir (200), p. 27
  23. ^ Crawford (1987), p. 65
  24. ^ Crawford (2013), p. 114
  25. ^ Pálsson & Edwards (1981), Chapters 12 & 13
  26. ^ Woolf (2007), p. 243
  27. ^ Muir (2005), p. 46
  28. ^ a b Pálsson & Edwards (1981), c. 20 "Karl Hundason".
  29. ^ Pálsson & Edwards (1981), Chapter 33 "Earls and noblemen".
  30. ^ Crawford (2013), p. 167
  31. ^ Muir (2005), pp. 60-62
  32. ^ Crawford (2013), p. 169
  33. ^ a b Williams (2007), p. 130
  34. ^ Williams (2007), pp. 133-35
  35. ^ Muir (2005), p. 63
  36. ^ Muir (2005), pp. 63-64
  37. ^ "St. Magnus and his World", Foghlam AlbaArchived 2015-02-18 at the Wayback Machine
  38. ^ Crawford (2013), p. 25
  39. ^ Thomson (2008), p. 102
  40. ^ Crawford (2013), pp. 176-77
  41. ^ Pálsson & Edwards (1981), Chapter 54
  42. ^ Muir (2005), p. 66
  43. ^ a b Crawford (2013), p. 177
  44. ^ a b Thomson (2008), p. 101
  45. ^ Muir (2005), pp. 98-100
  46. ^ a b Muir (2005), p. 97
  47. ^ Muir (2005), p. 88
  48. ^ Muir (2005), Introduction
  49. ^ Thomson (2008), pp. 114-15
  50. ^ Crawford (2013), pp. 248-49
  51. ^ Crawford (2013), p. 261
  52. ^ Crawford (2013), pp. 261, 274-77
  53. ^ "Cotton MS Julius A VII". British Library. n.d. Retrieved 27 March 2018.
  54. ^ Crawford (2013), p. 390
  55. ^ Crawford (2013), p. 250
  56. ^ Crawford (2013), p. 263
  57. ^ Williams (2007), p. 149
  58. ^ Crawford (2013), pp. 275-79
  59. ^ Thomson (2008), p. 135
  60. ^ Crawford (2013), p. 117
  61. ^ Crawford (2013), p. 281
  62. ^ Crawford (2013), pp. 282-86
  63. ^ Crawford (2013), pp. 280-83
  64. ^ Thomson (2008), p. 136
  65. ^ a b c Thomson (2008), p. 137
  66. ^ Crawford (2013), p. 282
  67. ^ Crawford (2013), p. 293
  68. ^ Thomson (2008), p. 142
  69. ^ Crawford (2013), pp. 307, 429
  70. ^ Crawford (2013), p. 427
  71. ^ Crawford (2013), p. 307
  72. ^ Thomson (2008), pp. 145-46
  73. ^ Thomson (2008), p. 147
  74. ^ Crawford (2013), p. 429
  75. ^ Thomson (2008), pp. 148-49
  76. ^ Thomson (2008), pp. 149-50
  77. ^ a b Crawford (2013), pp. 317-20
  78. ^ a b c Crawford (2013), p. 321
  79. ^ Crawford (2013), p. 320
  80. ^ Crawford (2013), p. 326
  81. ^ Crawford (2013), p. 326, fn 171
  82. ^ Crawford (2013), p. 329
  83. ^ Crawford (2013), p. 195


Primary sourcesEdit

Secondary SourcesEdit

  • Crawford, Barbara E. (1987), Scandinavian Scotland, Leicester University Press, ISBN 0-7185-1197-2
  • Crawford, Barbara E. (2003), "Orkney in the Middle Ages", in Omand, Donald (ed.), The Orkney Book, Edinburgh: Birlinn, ISBN 1-84158-254-9
  • Crawford, Barbara E. (2013), The Northern Earldoms, Edinburgh: John Donald, ISBN 97819-0460-7915
  • Muir, Tom (2005), Orkney in the Sagas: The Story of the Earldom of Orkney as told in the Icelandic Sagas, Kirkwall: The Orcadian, ISBN 0954886232
  • Thomson, William P. L. (2008), The New History of Orkney, Edinburgh: Birlinn, ISBN 978-1-84158-696-0
  • Williams, Gareth (2007), "The Family of Moddan of Dale", in Ballin Smith, Beverley; Taylor, Simon; Williams, Gareth (eds.), West Over Sea: Studies in Scandinavian Sea-borne Expansion and Settlement Before 1300, Leiden: Brill, ISBN 90-04-15893-6
  • Woolf, Alex (2007), From Pictland to Alba, 789–1070, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, ISBN 978-0-7486-1234-5

External linksEdit