In our first guest blog post Ian Peter Grohse shares his insights on an entry from the Aberdeen registers which feature the Norwegian king and a barge belonging to the earl of Orkney. Ian is Associate Professor in History at the University of Tromsø and the author of Frontiers for Peace in the Medieval North. The Norwegian-Scottish Frontier c. 1260-1470 (Leiden 2017).
Historians have long appreciated Orkney’s role as a political intermediary between the royal orbits of Norway and Scotland throughout the Middle Ages. The isles’ commercial relations to these mainland kingdoms and other North Sea and North Atlantic communities have received comparatively little attention. While I have previously theorized that Norwegian-Scottish agreements concerning Orkney, including the monumental Treaty of Perth from 1266, were designed to facilitate mobility and trade between Scotland and Scandinavia, the relative lack of written evidence has largely obscured our image of commercial interactions in practice.1 Newly uncovered documents, brought to light through the transcriptions of the LACR project, provide fresh insight into the nature of commerce in and beyond the Pentland Firth.
The most illuminating stems from July 1445. It recounts the sworn testimony of one John Michaelson before the provost and baillies in the burgh of Aberdeen. Michaelson related that certain merchants travelling to Scawe gave one John Adamson full authority to procure dyestuff (woad) from a barge belonging to the earl of Orkney.2 Although the scribe fails to specify Scawe’s exact location, he was likely referring to Skagen on the spearpoint of the Danish peninsula. Elevated as a market town by King Eric III of Denmark and Norway only decades prior, in 1413, Skagen provided an expedient gateway for western merchants seeking access to commercial activities in the Baltic. Although there are other locations bearing the same name, for instance Skaw on the northern tip of Unst, in Shetland, the wares in transit suggest that they originated in a larger market, such as those in Denmark or Northern Germany.
The earl in question was William I Sinclair, the second (or third – it is unclear whether William’s father, Henry II, was ever formally invested) of his line to hold the earldom on behalf of the Norwegian crown. Invested in 1434, William I’s political standing with his Scandinavian lords was somewhat precarious. Following a long and turbulent campaign for succession, William proved to be an unreliable vassal and was eventually deposed of his office by King Christian I in 1461. The document in question is remarkable as it sheds a small flood of light on the earl’s relations with his Scandinavian monarch prior to his estrangement in the 1450s and 1460s. It suggests that, at this stage, William I’s relations with the Norwegian crown were functional and pragmatic from a commercial standpoint: according to the report, the dyestuff onboard the earl’s vessel belonged to the king of Norway – Christopher I – and should be recompensed to that monarch and his intromitters.
The account provides a unique insight into the commercial orbit emanating from the earldom of Orkney. To the south, the isles were linked to Aberdeen, the largest burgh in northern Scotland and a natural platform for commercial interaction with the Northern Isles. That town’s association with the isles dates to at least the late thirteenth century, when royal officials in Aberdeen began making annual donations of wine and bread for mass at St Magnus Cathedral. More interesting (and perhaps unexpected) is the earldom’s apparent integration in the Scandinavian trading sphere. I have previously, and perhaps too hastily, proposed that trade between the isles and Scandinavia had all but dried up by the fifteenth century.3 While Scandinavian markets may not have been as central to Orkney’s commercial outlooks as they had in the early and central Middle Ages, the evidence here suggests that the Orkney earldom continued to foster commercial interaction across the North Sea, providing an expedient logistical intermediary between Scotland and Scandinavia.
It is unclear whether the well-documented political discord between the Norwegian king and his Orcadian vassal affected or disrupted that arrangement in later decades. Perhaps new finds from the Aberdeen registers will shed light on these and other mysteries.