This ancient earldom originated from the Norse jarl of Orkney, Shetland, Caithness and Sutherland. The jarl was occasionally subject to the Kings of Norway, though often operated independently. In slightly later times, the jarl would be subject to the Kings of Scotland in respect of their mainland territories. The first recorded name is that of Rognvald Eysteinsson, who died c.890, and from him descended a long line of Norse earls, many holding the titles jointly as brothers. The most well known holder was Thorfin Sigurdsson, Thorfinn the Mighty, who held the post from 1020 to 1064, who was confirmed in his position by his grandfather King Malcolm II of Scotland. Thorfinn’s sons Paul and Erlend ruled until 1098 and their constant disputes shaped the development of Orkney. They were ousted by King Magnus III of Norway, who put his son Sigurd Jorsalfar (the Crusader) (b.c.1090, d.1130) in their place. However he returned to Norway in 1103 after his father’s death and Orkney returned to the original family under Haakon Paulsson and also later Magnus Erlendsson (b.1075, d.c.1115). In 1114, Haakon and Magnus fell out and arranged to meet to resolve their differences. Haakon broke the peace by bringing a larger force and had Magnus killed. Magnus was known as an exceptionally pious man, who prayed for his executioners, and he was later made a saint. Haakon was followed by his sons Harald, who died in 1127 and Paul. In 1136, Koli Kolsson, son of Magnus’s sister Gunnhilde, demanded his share of the earldom, changing his name to Rognvald. Paul initially beat Rognvald off, but was later outmanoeuvred and forced to come to terms. Conveniently, Paul shortly thereafter went missing and was never seen again. Rognvald built the Cathedral to St Magnus in Kirkwall in honour of his uncle and also went on Crusade. He was canonised himself as a saint by Pope Celestine III. He was succeeded, with a slight overlap, by Harald Maddadson, son of Matad, Mormaer of Atholl and Margaret, daughter of Haakon Paulsson, who ruled for fifty years until 1206. Although initially sponsored by David I, he swore fealty to King Eystein II of Norway and became very much an enemy of the Scottish kings, resisting their attempts to extend their influence into Caithness. In 1191, Harald Eiriksson, a grandson of Earl Rognvald, became joint ruler, and in 1197 he was recognised as Earl of Caithness by King William of Scotland, no doubt to weaken Maddadson’s control. Maddadson killed Eiriksson the following year but his hold on Caithness was permanently weakened and a major Scottish invasion force c.1202 forced him to concede to pay tribute to William. He also lost one of his sons to the Scots. When he died in 1206 he was followed by his remaining sons David and Jon. David died soon after, leaving Jon as sole ruler. However, he was murdered in a feud in 1231 and most of his leading retainers were killed on board a ship bound for Norway to attend arbitration of the dispute by King Haakon. The title of Earl of Caithness was awarded by King Alexander II of Scotland to Magnus, son of Gillebride, 2nd Earl of Angus and his wife Ingebiorg, sister of Harald Eiriksson, and he was confirmed as Earl of Orkney by Haakon in 1232. There is some debate about the succession here, although it seems to have passed from father to son, until another Magnus, who died between 1320 and 1329, and is credited with being one of the subscribers to the Declaration of Arbroath. Sometime after this, the earldom was given to Malise, Mormaer of Strathearn, which then passed to his son-in-law Erengisle Suneson. In 1379 the earldom of Orkney, without Caithness, was granted to Henry Sinclair, a grandson of Malise, by King Haakon VI of Norway.


Earls of Orkney (1379)


1st Earl of Orkney, Henry Sinclair, b.c.1345, a.1379, d.1404


Son of Isabel, daughter of Malise, 8th Earl of Strathearn, and Sir William Sinclair of Roslin. Little is known about his life, but much is speculated. It is alleged that he was a member of the Knight’s Templar, the last remnants of which supposedly fled to Scotland and fought for Robert Bruce at the Battle of Bannockburn, although that Order had been suppressed well before he was born. It is also conjectured that he was an explorer, making an epic voyage to Greenland and travelling as far as Nova Scotia in North America, and that these explorations were financed by the Knights Templar in response to their discovery of ancient archives in Jerusalem from the time of King Solomon regarding a Phoenician expedition that reached a great western continent. This hypothesis is given mystical weight by the supposed many references to American plants found in Rosslyn Chapel, the famous church built by his grandson William Sinclair, 3rd Earl, which was completed in 1486, before Columbus reached the New World. Critics complain of the complete lack of documentary evidence and mistaken interpretation of the stylised carvings in the chapel, but it’s a great story.


2nd Earl of Orkney, Henry Sinclair, b.b.1384, a.1404, d.1420-1421


Son of the 1st Earl and Jane Halyburton, daughter of Sir William Halyburton of Dirletoun. He served as Guardian to the future King James I.


3rd Earl of Orkney, William Sinclair, b.b.1418, a.1420-1421, d.1480


Son of the 2nd Earl and Egidia Douglas (b.b.1388, d.a.1438), a grand-daughter of both Archibald Douglas, 3rd Earl of Douglas and King Robert II. As a youth he was exchanged as an hostage for King James I. In 1438 he became Lord High Admiral and conveyed Princess Margaret to France to marry the Dauphin, later King Louis XI. In 1449 he was created 1st Lord St Clair and he was Lord High Chancellor from 1454 to 1458. He obtained the earldom of Caithness in 1455 in settlement of a claim for the lordship of Nithsdale through his mother. In 1470, the earldoms of Orkney and Shetland were handed to the Scottish crown as a dowry for Margaret, daughter of Christian I of Denmark, and Sinclair had to give up the title, retaining the earldom of Caithness only.



Dukes of Orkney (1567)


1st Duke of Orkney, James Hepburn, b.c.1535, a.1567, d.1578


James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, was made 1st Duke of Orkney by Mary, Queen of Scots, shortly before they were married. All his titles were forfeited a few months later when he fled the country after losing out to Parliament, who opposed the marriage.



Earls of Orkney (1581)


1st Earl of Orkney, Robert Stewart, b.1533, a.1581, d.1592-1593


An illegitimate son of James V of Scotland and Euphemia Elphinstone, daughter of Alexander Elphinstone, 1st Lord Elphinstone.


2nd Earl of Orkney, Patrick Stewart, b.a.1568, a.1592-1593, d.1615


Son of the 1st Earl and Janet Kennedy (b.b.1558, d.1598), daughter of Gilbert Kennedy, 3rd Earl of Cassillis. He was beheaded for treason after being found responsible for mistreating the local population of Scalloway in the Shetlands, where he built his castle. The title was annexed by the crown.



Earls of Orkney (1696)


1st Earl of Orkney, George Hamilton, b.1666, a.1696, d.1736-1737


Son of William Douglas-Hamilton, 1st Earl of Selkirk and Anne Hamilton, 3rd Duchess of Hamilton. A career soldier, he fought for William of Orange in Ireland and on the continent with the 1st Foot Regiment. He was seriously wounded at the Siege of Namur in 1695 and was promoted to the rank of Brigadier. In 1696 he was raised to the peerage as 1st Earl of Orkney, 1st Viscount Kirkwall and 1st Lord Dechmont. He then fought in the Wars of the Spanish Succession under John Churchill, 1st Duke of Malborough, against the French, and was active at the battles of Blenheim, Ramillies, Oudenarde, Tournai and Malplaquet. At the end of the war he had reached the rank of General. After his retiral from active service, he served as a Lord of the Bedchamber to George I, he was a Representative Peer from 1707 to 1736 and was Lord Lieutenant of Lanarkshire. In 1736, he became the first British Army officer to reach the rank of Field Marshall.


2nd Earl (Countess) of Orkney, Anne Douglas, b.b.1705, a.1736-1737, d.1756


Daughter of the 1st Earl and Elizabeth Villiers (b.b.1677, d.1733), sister of Edward Villiers, 1st Earl of Jersey.


3rd Earl (Countess) of Orkney, Mary O’Brien, b.c.1721, a.1756, d.1791


Daughter of the 2nd Countess and William O’Brien, 4th Earl of Inchiquin (a title in the Peerage of Ireland), who was also her cousin.


4th Earl (Countess) of Orkney, Mary O’Brien, b.1755, a.1791, d.1831


Daughter of the 3rd Countess and Murrough O’Brien, 1st Marquess of Thomond, and also her cousin.


5th Earl of Orkney, Thomas John Hamilton Fitzmaurice, b.1803, a.1831, d.1877


Grandson of the 4th Countess and Thomas Fitzmaurice (b.1742, d.1793), son of John Petty, 1st Earl of Shelburne, and son of John Fitzmaurice, Viscount Kirkwall (b.1778, d.1820) and Anna Maria de Blaquiere (b.?, d.1843), daughter of John Blaquiere, 1st Baron de Blaquiere of Ardkill. He was a Scottish Representative Peer from 1833 to 1871.


6th Earl of Orkney, George William Hamilton, Fitzmaurice, b.1827, a.1877, d.1889


Son of the 5th Earl and Charlotte Isabella Irby (b.?, d.1883), daughter of George Irby, 3rd Baron Boston. He was a Scottish Representative Peer from 1885 to 1889.


7th Earl of Orkney, Edmond Walter Fitzmaurice, b.1867, a.1883, d.1951


Grandson of the 5th Earl and son of Henry Warrender Fitzmaurice (b.1828, d.1875) and Sarah Jane Roose (b.?, d.1880).


8th Earl of Orkney, Cecil O’Brien Fitzmaurice, b.1919, a.1951, d.1998


Great-great-grandson of the 5th Earl, great-grandson of Commander Frederick O’Brien Fitzmaurice (b.1830, d.1867) and Mary Anne Taylor Abraham (b.?,d.1924), grandson of Major Douglas Commerel Menzies Fitzmaurice (b.1861, d.1932) and Esther Davies (b.?, d.1933), and son of Captain Douglas Frederick Harold Fitzmaurice (b.1890, d.1937) and Dorothy Jeanette Dickie. He died with no issue.


9th Earl of Orkney, Oliver Peter St John, b.1938, a.1998


The 5th Earl’s youngest son Captain James Terence Fitzmaurice (b.1835, d.1917) married Frances Rhoda Ouseley (b.?, d.1907). Their elder daughter Isabella Annie Fitzmaurice (b.?, d.1948) married Frederic Robert St John (b.1831, d.1923), a grandson of George Richard St John, 3rd Viscount Bolingbroke. Their son Lieutenant-Colonel Frederick Oliver St John (b.1886, d.1977) married Elizabeth Pierce. Their son became 9th Earl. As well as being 9th Earl he is also 9th Viscount Kirkwall and 9th Lord Dechmont.



The courtesy title for the heir is Viscount Kirkwall.


(Last updated: 24/08/2009)