Essays on the Nobility of Medieval Scotland

By K. J. Stringer | Go to book overview

2
THE EARLDOM OF CAITHNESS AND THE KINGDOM OF
SCOTLAND, 1150–1266

Barbara E. Crawford

As part of the mainland of Scotland the province of Caithness was implicitly recognised as Scottish territory by the Norwegians in the treaty of 1098 between their king, Magnus Barelegs, and King Edgar of Scotland.1 Being, however, the only part of the mainland which was thoroughly settled by peoples of Norse extraction,2 Caithness was in a totally different situation from any other part of the Scottish littoral. During the period of settlement the native population had been to some extent displaced and the Celtic language replaced by Norse, at any rate in the north-east quarter of the province. The nature of the land also made it very different from the west coast (where the Norse also had some influence), for it was more fertile, with excellent pasture and arable land; and it was this factor which had attracted the Norse settlers to the area from Orkney in the ninth and tenth centuries.3 The earls of Orkney then claimed jurisdiction over the settlers and theoretically held the ancient Celtic province as an earldom of the kings of Scots. The fact that Caithness was part of the Scottish mainland was, apparently, not particularly relevant: seen from the middle of the Pentland Firth it was merely another stretch of territory along with the islands of Stroma, Hoy, or South Ronaldsay, and, after all, 'united' with them by water. Furthermore, the Ness, as the saga writer called the north-east of Caithness, is cut off from the land to the south (the Sutherland) by the central upland area of the county and the long sea journey round Duncansby Head, so that it was particularly closely linked with the islands across the Pentland Firth. Geographical and historical factors therefore provide the reason for the anomalous position whereby Caithness lay under the jurisdiction of the earls of Orkney, nobles who owed allegiance to the kings of Norway for their island earldom. These earls also owed nominal allegiance to the kings of Scotland as earls of Caithness. A short stretch of water united the two halves of their lordship, and during the period under discussion Caithness was linked, emotionally and economically, with the Norwegian earldom.

These factors made the situation in Caithness one which the Scottish kings did not willingly tolerate. Access to the political heart of the Scottish kingdom was more possible from the Scandinavian north down the east coast than from the west, where a protective mountain barrier helped to keep the Norse of the Hebrides at bay. It is not surprising, therefore, that for the whole of our period the kings of Scotland made repeated efforts to bring under firm control Caithness and its ruling earls. Two incidents from the very beginning and the very end of the period demonstrate the vulnerability of their northern shores to a foreign power. In 1151 Earl Harald

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