The Scapa Flow Landscape Partnership Scheme

Scapa Flow - The nerve centre and Knarr centre of the medieval earldom

The matter of transport communications, what today is called ‘logistics’, was a vital part of the success of medieval rulers and overlords, just as it has always been throughout history. Naturally in the earldom of Orkney communications by water were basic to political control, and these were internal among the islands (and inland waterways of the west Mainland) as well as external between Orkney and Caithness (the Scottish part of the earls’ territory).

There were also the more distant sea communications between the Northern Isles and the two countries with which the earls were closely associated, Scotland and Norway. Contact with Norway was to the east or north-east, while contact with Scotland was south, either down the west coast to the Hebrides (and Ireland) or down the east coast to political centres of the Scottish kingdom.

Map showing the Pentland Firth

The most important waterway was the Pentland Firth, which connected Orkney with north Scotland and the Scottish half of the earls’ dominions, Caithness and (during the pre-13th century period) Sutherland and Ross. The earls of Orkney were always fighting for control of the Firth, in order to conquer and settle the lands on the other side.

The Pentland Firth was a turbulent waterway which on the face of it divided the two halves of the earls’ dominions. However, the Firth came to unite, not divide, the political exercise of power by the earls. This control over both sides of the Pentland Firth put the earls in the advantageous position of controlling the waterway and the traffic passing through and across it.

That is probably a prime reason why the earls launched campaigns in north Scotland, so that they were able to control both sides of the Firth. Caithness was their Scottish earldom, which by the late 11th century was regarded as part of the kingdom of Scotland. It remained the case that the earls had two earldoms, Orkney and Caithness from the 10th to the 14th century, when Caithness was resigned to the Scottish king, although the last earl of Orkney managed to get it back again in 1455.

This is the background to the important place which Scapa Flow had in the earls’ political landscape. It was the nerve centre of the joint Orkney-Caithness lordship and played a vital role in maintaining control over the Pentland Firth. Scapa Flow is a vast natural harbour providing safe refuge from the tides and turbulence of the Pentland Firth, but also providing secure vantage points from which the Firth could be policed, passing traffic dominated and passage to and from Caithness secured.

Osmundwall in South Walls

According to the main source of information about the earls and about their successes and failures in the many battles to maintain power and authority, the Jarls’ saga (Orkneyinga Saga), it is clear that several significant events in the lives of the earls took place in and around Scapa Flow. The first incident occurred in 995/6 when the famous and powerful Olaf Tryggvason was passing through the Pentland Firth on his way back to Norway to claim the kingdom (OS chap.12).

Olaf was a newly-converted Christian, having adopted the religion during his raids on England and he saw it as his duty to impose the new beliefs on his fellow Norwegians who were still for the most part pagan. Sailing from western Britain back to Norway he passed through the Pentland Firth en route and decided to start with Earl Sigurd Hlodversson (“the Stout”) in this process. He was lucky to run into the earl who lay in the sheltered harbour at Osmundwall (Asmundarvágr) in south Walls with three ships getting ready to set out on a Viking expedition. He clearly caught the earl by surprise, who cannot have had his scouts out watching for approaching fleets.

There are varying accounts of this confrontation and it is added in Jarls’ Saga that, as a result of the earl’s submission, ‘all Orkney embraced the faith’. The dramatic confrontation of these two powerful Viking chieftains no doubt caught the imagination of the later saga authors and we do not have to believe that it all literally happened as they wrote it. But there is no need to doubt that such an incident did take place, and that it was part of the process of the Norwegian king’s assertion of his authority over the earl.

Looking across to the kirk at Kirk Hope. (c) SFLPS

Osmundwall (or Kirk Hope as it is known today) is one of the very few good anchorages on either side of the Pentland Firth and it is situated in a sheltered position controlling the western entrance into Scapa Flow through Cantick Sound. It is mentioned again a few decades later when a close follower of King Olaf Haraldsson, Eyvind Urarhorn, on sailing back to Norway from Ireland ran into a fierce gale in the Pentland Firth and took shelter there where he was stormbound (OS, chap.15). But he didn’t remain safe for long as Earl Einar came and captured him and had him put to death, which didn’t endear Einar to King Olaf.

In the 12th-century account of the fighting between the three earls Earl Erlend was urged by Swein Asleiffson to move their fleet over to South Walls (probably to Osmundwall), where ‘they could lie at anchor close to the Pentland Firth and see the moment anyone put out from Caithness. It was also thought a good place from which to make an attack, should the opportunity arise’ (OS, chap.94).

Twelfth Century events

Moving forward to the 12th century we find something of a change in the political geography of Orkney, which really led to Scapa Flow becoming of central importance in earldom activities. Previously the most important earldom power centre had been on the Brough of Birsay in the west Mainland, a location giving direct access to the western coastal route for those sailing between west Scotland, Ireland, Orkney, Shetland and the north Atlantic settlements of Faeroe and Iceland.

However, the importance of Birsay as a political centre declined in the 12th century for various reasons.  In particular the move of the episcopal centre to Kirkwall with the building of St. Magnus Cathedral in the period after the martyrdom of Earl Magnus Erlendsson led to the development of Kirkwall as the political and commercial heart of the earldom.

St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall. (c) SFLPS

This development had its roots in the geographical situation of Kirkwall, which lies at the very heart of the islands and at the most strategic crossing-point between the southern-facing waters of Scapa Flow and the northern-facing waters of Wide Firth, linking east-west land routes with north-south sea routes.

The crossing point was called Scapa (ON skalp-eið, ‘the dividing isthmus’), and this important geographical feature has a great deal to do with Scapa Flow becoming a nodal centre of the earldom. Shipping was increasingly funneled up to Scapa and berthed on the southern side while men and goods were transported over the aith. Or the boats themselves may have been dragged over the portage and then sailed on to the north isles and beyond.

The growth of Kirkwall was therefore an obvious factor in the changed geo-political development. Also events in Caithness were closely linked into the 12th-century story because there was a lot of movement across the Firth between Orkney and Caithness in a period of intense competition for power among earldom claimants (or indeed competition for power among the likes of Swein Asleifsson who features a great deal in the 12th-century saga story, frequently crossing the Pentland Firth).

The following is some of the incidents recorded in the full of the comings and goings in Scapa Flow in this period:

In the 1130s Swein Asleifsson was ferried over the Firth from his estate in Caithness to Knarston at Scapa where he was dropped and went on to Earl Paul’s estate at Orphir (ch. 66).

Borgar was farming at Gaitnip (on the opposite side of Scapa Bay from Knarston), and noticed a cargo boat putting in and also going back south (OS, ch.76). This was at the time that Earl Paul Hakonsson was taken away into captivity in Scotland. A little later in the chapter it is said that Swein went north to Scapa by ship, ‘left it there, and traveled on foot to Kirkwall'.

In chap. 77 it is recorded that Earl Rognvald held a Christmas feast at his farm at Knarston. During that period (on the 6th day of Christmas) a ship was seen sailing north across the Firth, which was bringing Bishop John of Atholl to Orkney. Rognvald welcomed the bishop and his retinue and gave them a feast at Knarston. The next morning the bishop went off to Egilsay to visit Bishop William (whether sailing there by ship from Scapa, or by transferring across the aith and taking another ship north is not said, although the latter is more likely).

In chap. 92 Swein sailed from Caithness with a cargo boat and some rowing skiffs, and when they came to Scapa they stole a ship from Fogl Liotolfsson who had just arrived from Lewis.

Chap. 94 is full of activity and manoeuvering in the War of the Three Earls: Earls Rognvald and Harald sailed from Caithness to South Ronaldsay where they put in at Widewall Bay. ‘Earl Erlend and his men were aboard their own ships in Barth Wick and from there they could see the gathering on S. Ronaldsay, so they sent spies over’. Erlend and Swein needed supplies so they sailed across to Caithness and had a cattle raid after which they set sail westwards - on a ruse.

Rognvald and Harald then shifted their fleet over to Scapa, but stayed on their ships, as they knew Swein was up to no good. Swein did indeed do an about-turn and sailed back to Orkney where he put in at South Walls ‘and learned that the earls were off Knarston in Scapa with a fleet of fourteen ships’. Rognvald meanwhile went ashore to visit Orphir, but stopped at Knarston because of a blizzard.

Erlend and his men attacked Earl Harald’s force and took them by surprise, seizing fourteen of the Earl’s ships ‘as well as all the money on board’. Rognvald and Harald reached Orphir safely the next day but put out to sea at once and sailed over to Caithness with the few of their men who had survived the fight. ‘Everyone who could get a passage went over to Caithness’.

At a later date Swein installed himself at Barth Wick, on the look-out for Earl Rognvald, and from there he sighted a big longship (Earl Rognvald’s) sailing across the Flow from Mainland to S. Ronaldsay. Reconciled, these two spotted Earl Harald’s ship sailing from Caithness to S. Walls, so Swein set out to sail to Stroma, in the middle of the Firth.

Harald changed course and chased after him, and in the end the two met up in Stroma and came to an agreement negotiated by the local farmer. A storm blew up and they all had to spend the night on the island, with Swein and Harald sharing the same bed, a fact considered worth commenting on by the saga-writer (chaps.95-97).

In chapter 100 where the violent ways of Thorbjorn Clerk are recounted, we hear that Thorbjorn sailed secretly to Orkney from Caithness in a skiff with thirty men. He landed at Scapa and walked to Kirkwall with three companions, where he rushed into a tavern and killed Thorarin Bag-nose.

Finally in ch.109 where the struggle between Earl Harald Maddadson and Earl Harald Ungi is described we are told that Lifolf was sent north across the Firth to do some spying. He landed on the east side of S. Ronaldsay and climbed a hill where he bumped into three of Earl Harald the Old’s guards. Then he sighted Earl Harald’s forces aboard a sizeable fleet of ships, and retreated back across the Firth to Caithness, where a big battle took place between the two Haralds.


Of all the places named in the recounting of these events, Scapa is most frequently mentioned as being where the ships sailed to and the powerful disembarked. But often the farm called Knarston at Scapa is where ships are said to have moored, and it is worth focusing on the name of this farm, its location and its function.

The Old Norse name is Knarrarstaðir, and this means the farm where the ships called ‘knarrs’ were commonly berthed. It is not well-known that this is the meaning of the name.   But the Icelandic editor of Orkneyinga Saga recognized it for what it indicates and says that it was a ‘good ship-mooring place’ (gott skipalægi) there (OS ed. Guthmundsson, 150-1,n.3). 

Place-names including this element in Norway are interpreted as indicating good harbours, or situated near a portage. Why should ‘knarrs’ be so important that their designation gave rise to a farm-name? What actually was a ‘knarr’? The general meaning of ‘knarr’ was a cargo ship, as opposed to a warship.

Where was Knarston exactly? If one looks for the name today on the OS map it cannot be found. It has vanished off the landscape.  We know the exact value of Knarston from the early Rentals, it was 4 ½ pennylands, and it must have been quite an establishment in the 12th century if Earl Rognvald held his Christmas feast there; it was in fact an earldom ‘bu’ (estate).

By the late middle ages it was divided into an Over and Nether Knarston and is listed between Lingro and Orquile (Thomson, 1996,30). It is still mentioned in documents in the Graemeshall estate papers in 1790 and 1836-7.  But by the time of the 1886 1st OS map there is no such farm in existence.

Looking across Scapa Bay towards Knarston. (c) SFLPS

There are two other Knarston names in Orkney and they are an interesting relic of an age when the berthing of sailing ships at strategic places for the unloading of men and goods was an important maritime factor.  The location of Knarston at Scapa speaks for itself. Although no information is given in the saga accounts about the importance of unloading cargo at Knarston. Perhaps cargo ships had to report there when arriving in Orkney from the south in order to pay tolls and register with the earls’ bailiff.

Indications from the names of tenants at Knarston suggest that there were a number of them in a short space of time-a fact which Marwick noticed and which puzzled him. Maybe these were officials who served the earl in other ways and moved around the earldom estates.

The earls had some of their biggest blocks of ‘bordland’ (home farms) located at strategic points around Scapa Flow. There are two other staðir farms in the area apart from Knarston, Herston in South Ronaldsay,  and Gaitnip (formerly Jaddvararstaðir), on the opposite side of Scapa Bay from Knarston. Both of these are in strategic positions, and the likelihood is that such staðir farms were founded by the earls out of older estates for men of their hird (military following), whose role was to act as look-out guards at vulnerable access points.


Central to all the earldom estates around the Flow, in a favoured, secure, south-facing location looking right across the Flow was the nerve centre of the nerve centre, the earldom ‘bu’ at Orphir. As an earldom residence Orphir is not mentioned until the time of earls Paul and Harald Hakonsson in the 1120s/1130s. It became an important earldom residence after the death of Earl Magnus and resulting growth of his cult. The offspring of Hakon Paulsson perhaps chose deliberately to move their main residence away from Birsay, the place associated with Earl Magnus’ burial location, for several reasons.

This was also the time when Kirkwall was developed as Orkney’s ecclesiastical centre with the removal of the martyred saint’s relics and the building of the Cathedral. But the earls may have wished to reside away from the burgeoning ecclesiastical centre, and Orphir provided them with a residence that was detached from Kirkwall but in easy reach of it.

At Orphir the earls could focus on their own inner maritime world centering on Scapa Flow, controlling security and monitoring those who sailed in from the south, east or west. They were not under the watchful and sometimes critical eye of the bishops, and they were able to retreat from the tussels at the assemblies, which appear to have been held in Kirkwall from this period onwards (although they did participate, as is often mentioned in the saga).


It has already been shown how much the saga reveals about the use of Scapa Bay and the mooring place at Knarston by the earls and their close associates. Sadly that source comes to an end soon after 1200, and the saga information gets sparser and sparser. There is one further eventful year when Norwegian saga sources give us another glimpse into the maritime activity centering on Scapa Flow.

In 1263 Hakon Hakonsson sailed with his massive war-fleet of 120 longships on a war-cruise to establish his authority over the Hebrides. As with war-fleets many centuries later, the ships were based in Scapa Flow before King Hakon launched his campaign south and west. 

First of all the Norwegian ships gathered in Bressay Sound in Shetland to re-assemble after the voyage across the North Sea. Then towards the end of July the fleet moved south to Elwick Bay in Shapinsay, conveniently close to Kirkwall.  From there it sailed round to Scapa Flow and anchored in Ronaldsvoe (St. Margaret’s Hope) because contact with Caithness had to be made preparatory to moving further south. Messengers were sent over to Caithness to demand a tax and threatening reprisals if this was not paid.

On 10th August the fleet sailed into the Pentland Firth and south to the inconsequential encounter with the Scottish force which met them at Largs in Ayrshire. On the return journey north in late October it was decided that King Hakon and his immediate following should remain in Orkney for the winter.

The royal ships gathered in Ronaldsvoe again, and then preparations had to be made for the securing of the fleet during the winter months. Some of the ships were laid up at Scapa and some at Midland-haven (Meðallandshofn), beyond Orphir. This was where the Holm of Houton provided sheltered, secure conditions for the beaching of the longships.  King Hakon rode out from Scapa to ensure that his own ship was laid up safely and ‘bade men to bestow great pains in caring for the ship’ (Hacon’s Saga,ch.328).

Already ill he returned and progressed to Kirkwall where he was housed in the bishop’s residence. All the other liegemen and chiefs who had stayed with him and not returned to Norway were billeted around the islands for the winter, with each ship’s captain having a district assigned for the maintenance of himself and his crew.

Looking across to the Holm of Houton. (c) SFLPS

King Hakon did not survive the winter, and died in the bishop’s residence in Kirkwall before Christmas 1263, a memorable event in the history of Norse Orkney. His body was taken up from its temporary burial place in the Cathedral in March 1264 and borne to Scapa where it was laid on board the king’s own flagship ‘Christsuden’, which sailed east to Bergen. That is the very last recorded event that we know of in Scapa Flow in the Norse period.

The dry documents which succeed the vivid saga narrative had no reason to include any references to Scapa Flow, for they are primarily concerned with the possession, inheritance and renting of land. We are lucky to have so much information about the activity going on in the Flow in the earlier centuries, when it was the nerve centre of the earldom domain, and had such an important place in the power games being played out among those hungry for power.

Once the practice of primogeniture became the norm during the second half of the 13th century there would be fewer occasions when rivals in the earldom family strove to dominate. But the connections with Caithness remained important, as did control of the Pentland Firth. So long as the same political authority ruled both sides of the Pentland Firth then Scapa Flow would remain an important maritime route for the control and monitoring of sea traffic across the Firth, as indeed it would even during the short period when the earldoms were in different hands. Unfortunately we have no evidence to tell us anything more about that situation for the rest of the medieval period.

Text courtesy of  Barbara E. Crawford