Did Earl Rognvald live
By Gregor Lamb
(originally printed in The Orcadian, 27 April 2000)
Among the notable families in Kirkwall towards the end of the Norse period were the Laws. They are mentioned only briefly in the earliest records but we are left in no doubt that they were a significant family.
The first mentioned Law, John Law, died some time before 1433. John's tenement in Kirkwall was no mean dwelling – it was so significant that the story of it and its distinguished occupants can be traced right down through the pages of history.
If Orcadians should stand at the offices of the Norwegian consul in Bridge Street and look across at the large courtyard and premises of Tod Holdings Ltd and Scarthcentre, I wonder whether they have any idea of the illustrious history of this part of Kirkwall.
We first learn of a house here in
1433 when John Law's son, Duncan, apparently gave half of a tenement
in Kirkwall to his sister Janet when she married Donald Clerk. We
know that the whole property subsequently reverted to the Laws,
for in a deed in the Wemyss Castle charter chest, recorded by Storer
Clouston, Alexander Law sold his whole tenement in Kirkwall to the
merchant John Haraldson.
It would seem that on the death of John Law, the family dwelling had been split in two by the law of udal succession – one half going to Alexander, the other half to Duncan.
Duncan gave his sister his share but Alexander bought it back and thus owned the whole house. By good fortune the deed tells us where this house was; it lay “on the north side of Olaf's house”. Although that location means nothing to us today, it ties up neatly with a deed drawn up in Shetland more than 50 years later.
In the year 1488, Katherine Leask of Shetland sold property in Orkney which included a tenement in Kirkwall she had inherited from her mother Janet Haraldson. Janet had in turn inherited it from her father John Haraldson. The deed describes the position of this house. To the north lay a “bigging”, also owned by her grandfather and to the south lay a house owned by John Olafson. It would seem that although seperated by a period of 50 years, the transactions deal with the same house.
We can see that the house to the south of Alexander's property passed from Olaf to his son John and this vital piece of information helps us to identify the middle house and position it exactly at what Orcadians today call “Gairdeen's”.
We began by saying that nothing is known of the Law family or their dwelling but we can now make some assumptions. John Law must have been of the nobleman class since he sold his house to a nobleman, John Haraldson, who now owned three properties in town.
John Law must also have been a merchant since John Haraldson was at that time one of Orkney's great merchant families, operating a trading company in London and trading as far east as the Baltic. A house fit for a nobleman must have been a very fine house indeed and since the nobleman had merchant interests its proximity to the landing stage (now the pier head) was important.
When Katherine Leask sold the tenement in 1488, it was bought by no less a person than Sir David Sinclair of Sumburgh in Shetland and it was here that he resided when he was in Orkney. Sinclair must have been very pleased with his house for as a deed of 1491 records, he deemed it a fitting gift for his dearest wife Sonneta. Within the pages of Hossack's Kirkwall in the Orkneys we learn something about this house which is referred to as a “stately dwelling”.
The house was built in the form of a square and enclosed a courtyard, overlooking which was a balcony. This design gave the house a characteristic Norwegian medieval appearance, though in the homeland the house would have been built of timber. It was the distinctive balcony which gave the house the name “The Gallery”.
In 1677 this dwelling was more than two and a half centuries old and it is not surprising to read that it was in a ruinous condition. Despite this, possession of it still held prestige value and it came into the hands of the Kennedys – a distinguished Scots family.
Although the Kennedys had long been established in Orkney, in this case it was the Stroma branch of the family that took over the property.
The Kennedys in turn sold it on to other Scots immigrants, the Drummonds of Perthshire, one of whom was a burgess of Kirkwall. In 1718 it was bought by David Traill of Edinburgh who, incidentally bought North Ronaldsay and Woodwick in Evie at the same time! Twelve years later David Traill restored the building to its former glory, establishing a small arboretum behind it and a folly which stands to this day – a small, stone-built summer house with a spire made from the ballast of Pirate John Gow's boat.
David Traill, like his Haraldson predecessor, was a merchant of some note and conducted a thriving business from the premises. For more than 100 years the property remained in the possession of the Traill family.
When it was next sold the nature of commerce had changed. Travelling salesmen needed accommodation and the enterprising purchaser turned the building into Orkney's first hotel. This new role lasted no more than half a century and in the 1890s the building was bought by merchant Robert Garden and its role reverted to commerce – this time however, not as a merchant's residence but as a merchant's warehouse.
When a raging fire swept through the building in the 1930s, how many Kirkwallians recognised the significance of what was being consumed by the flames?
Who was John Law?
We began by puzzling over the origins of the Law family. With a surname like “Law” who were they? Were they Scots? This is very unlikely since there were no important Scots families at that time with such a surname. The conclusion that we would have to draw is that the Laws were Orcadians who, unusually at that time, adopted a nickname as a surname. “Law” in this case might suggest that one of the family had been a lawman of Orkney – the highest office in the islands next to the Bishop and the Earl.
But of which distinguished family would he have been a member?
I would hesitantly attach him to the Kirknesses for a variety of reasons. Sometime before 1438 a John Kirkness had been a Lawman of Orkney and there is every likelihood that John Kirkness and John Law were one and the same person. It was very common at this time and for a period of more than 100 years later, to have an alias surname. The first name John was popular among the Kirknesses but the name Alexander and the rare name Duncan also appear in branches of the Kirkness family. Apart from the Haraldsons, the Kirknesses were the only known Orkney merchant noblemen of the time. Kirknesses and Haraldsons traded in the same company and were in all likelihood shareholders of their vessel, the Saint Magnus. So the evidence would seem to point to the Kirkness family. If my surmise that Law is an alias of Kirkness, the name Law vanished after two generations whereas Kirkness spans every succeeding century.
Who owned the house in the first place?
But who owned this house in the first place – or at least the original that preceded it?
Whoever the owner was, the proximity of the building to the chapel of St Olaf (now in St Olaf's Wynd) should be noted.
Some believe the original St Olaf's chapel to have been built by Earl Rognvald Brusison and dedicated to his foster father, King Olaf the Holy, in the early years of the eleventh century but it may equally have been an old Pictish chapel re-dedicated by the Earl to the Norse saint.
Whatever the origin there is a very great likelihood that this chapel was in the first instance the private chapel of an adjacent dwelling.
So was this the site of Earl Rognvald Brusison's long-hall?
The Orkneyinga Saga records that Earl Rognvald lived in Kirkwall for eight years and clearly in some style for we read that “he had a great number of men and entertained them liberally.” During that period he must have had a well-established dwelling and an excellent case could be made for this site.
Earl Rognvald was a merchant himself for we read in the Orkneyinga Saga that he and his henchmen took a cargo boat to Papa Stronsay and loaded it with malt for the Yuletide brewing and it can be imagined that with such an entourage the vessel was well laden. Sadly it was this same mission that led to Rognvald's death.
That this area was the nerve centre of old Kirkwall before the move to the Cathedral precincts became more fashionable, there is no doubt. Though more than 400 years separate the period when Earl Rognvald lived and the first mention of John Law, there can be no doubt that the prestige of John's house in the years following the fifteenth century mirror its importance in earlier years.