About Orkney
 About the Site
 Search Site 
  Viking Orkney

Torf-Einar - a man of great power

"After [Sigurd], Torf-Einar, a son of Ragnvald, took the earldom, and was long earl, and was a man of great power"
Heimskringla - Saga of Olaf Haraldson

Torf Einar. Illustration by Sigurd TowrieAfter the death of Earl Sigurd the Mighty, around 893AD, the Orkney earldom passed to his son, Guthorm.

Guthorm died childless "after one winter", leaving the earldom with no direct heir, so Rognvald of Møre sent his son, Hallad, from Norway to Orkney.

Repeated Viking raids after Hallad's arrival, and his inability to deal with them, prompted the new earl to give up the earldom and return to the safety of Norway.

Next in line was Rognvald's son, Hrolf - the man who would later found the Norman dynasty in France.

Hrolf, however, was away warring in the Baltic, so the earldom passed to Rognvald's bastard son, Einar.

Einar Rognvaldsson's accession to the earldom pleased his father greatly. An illegitimate son, Einar was undoubtedly a thorn in his father's side.

"Considering the kind of mother you have," said the Earl, "slave born on each side of her family, you are not likely to make much of a ruler. The sooner you leave and the later you return, the happier I'll be."
Orkneyinga Saga, Chapter 6

A renowned poet, the saga describes Einar - or Torf-Einar as he came to be known - as ugly and one-eyed. But despite his father's harsh words, this "low born" son of a slave went on to be an able ruler and warrior.

After Hallad's retreat to Norway, two Danish Vikings - Thorir Treebeard and Kalf Scurvy - had established a base in Orkney. Einar, with a shipload of men, made his way to Shetland first, before heading to Orkney.

Then, after defeating the Danes in battle, Einar:

"laid the lands under him, and made himself the greatest chief."

Halfdan and the blood-eagle

The saga goes on to explain how Einar came into conflict with Norway, after Halfdan Longlegs, the son of the Norwegian King, Harald Fairhair, attacked his father, Rognvald.

Halfdan, together with his brother, Gudrod Gleam, were rebellious troublemakers who preyed on Norway's earls. Attacking the aged Rognvald, Halfdan had the earl killed, burning him alive in his house. He then fled to Orkney to escape the wrath of King Harald.

In Orkney, Halfdan declared himself king, and Earl Einar was forced to flee to Scotland.

Later the same year, after gathering an army, Einar returned and soundly defeated Halfdan in a naval battle off North Ronaldsay. After the battle, in an effort to escape Einar, Halfdan leapt from his ship and tried to swim to safety.

At first light the following morning, Einar and his men scoured the island.

Eventually, the earl, who was renowned for the keenness of his single eye, spotted something moving by the shore. His men moved to intercept and captured a bedraggled Halfdan.

Seeking revenge for the death of his father, Einar slaughtered Halfdan. The Orkneyinga saga recounts, with relish, that Einar carved the notorious blóðörn - blood-eagle - on his struggling captive:

"Einar had his ribs cut from the spine with a sword and the lungs pulled out through the slits in his back. He dedicated the victim to Odin as a victory offering."
Orkneyinga Saga

For more on Torf Einar and the Blood Eagle, click here.

Though barbaric, Einar's revenge remains touching, for although Rognvald seems to have had no time for his bastard son, Einar's revenge at least hints that he held his father in some esteem.

Earl Einar Rognvaldsson died peacefully in his bed, leaving three sons - Arnkel, Erlend and Thorfinn Skullsplitter.