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The Scottish Nation

ORKNEY, IARL, or earl of, a very ancient title held under the Norse kings. When Harald Harfager, or the fair-haired, one of the chiefs of Norway, subdued the Orkney islands in 876, he conferred the government of them on Ronald or Rognovald, count of Merca, father of Rollo, the famous invader of Norway, and the great-great-grandfather of William the Conqueror. Ronald ceded the government of the Orkneys to his brother, Sigurd. A long line of Scandinavian iarls succeeded, who all affected the style of independent princes. About the year 1325, the male line of the ancient iarls failed in the person of Magnus V., who married the countess of Caithness, and his daughter, Isabelle, having become the wife of Malise, earl of Strathern, her husband, in her right, possessed also the earldoms of Caithness and Orkney. One of their daughters, Isabella, married Sir William Sinclair of Roslin, and her son, Henry, obtained the earldom of Orkney, in 1379, from the Norse king, Haco IV.

His son, Henry, second earl, was admiral of Scotland, and chief attendant on Prince James, afterwards James I., when he was captured by the English at sea in 1405, on his voyage to France. The earl of Orkney was sent to the Tower of London, and his brothers were permitted to visit him in August of the same year. In the following month he was allowed to return to Scotland, his brothers apparently remaining as hostages for him. He died before 1418; Fordun erroneously states 1420.

His son, William, third earl of Orkney, was one of the hostages for James I., when allowed to visit Scotland, 31st May 1421, and he had a safe-conduct to meet him at Durham, 13th December 1423. As admiral of Scotland he conveyed the princess Margaret to France in 1436, on her marriage with the dauphin. In 1446 he founded Roslin Chapel, which although called a chapel, was really, from the very outset, a collegiate church, and endowed it with various lands and revenues. He was high-chancellor of Scotland from 1454 to 1458. He had a grant of the earldom of Caithness, 28th Aug. 1455, in compensation, as the charter bears, of a claim of right which he had to the lordship of Nithsdale, through his mother, Egidia, daughter and heiress of William Douglas, lord of Nithsdale, by Egidia, daughter of Robert II. In his time, the young king, James III., married the princess Margaret of Denmark, and in 1468 obtained as her dowry, besides 2,000 florins in money, the Orkney islands, in pledge for 50,000 florins, and Shetland for 8,000 more. As the islands were never ransomed, they thenceforth became part of the dominions of Scotland. In 1470 the earldom of Orkney and lordship of Shetland were purchased by the king from the Sinclairs, and in 1471 they were annexed to the crown by act of parliament. As some compensation, the king granted to the earl the castle of Ravenscraig, now in ruins, situated on a lofty rock, overhanging the seashore, at Dysart, in Fife, with several lands adjoining, by charter, dated 17th Sept. 1470. He was now styled earl of Caithness and Lord Sinclair. In 1471 and two following years, he was sent ambassador to England. He was twice married, and resigned the earldom of Caithness in favour of William Sinclair, his eldest son of the second marriage, who, in consequence, obtained a charter of that earldom, 7th December 1476. His first wife was Lady Margaret Douglas, eldest daughter of the fourth earl of Douglas, by whom he had one son, William Sinclair of Newburgh, ancestor of Lord Sinclair, and a daughter, Lady Catherine, married to Alexander, duke of Albany, second son of James II., but divorced on account of propinquity of blood. His second wife was the daughter of Alexander Sutherland of Dunbeath, and by her he had William, earl of Caithness, three other sons, and four daughters. (See CAITHNESS, earl of, and SINCLAIR.)


The title of duke of Orkney, with that of marquis of Fife, was bestowed on the fourth earl of Bothwell, 12th May 1567, three days before Queen Mary’s ill-fated marriage with him, but he held it for little more than a month, and was forfeited 29th December of the same year.


The earldom of Orkney was, 28th October 1581, conferred by James VI. on Lord Robert Stewart, abbot of Holyrood-house, natural son of King James V. In 1569 he had exchanged the temporalities of the abbacy of Holyrood-house for the temporal estates of the see of Orkney, with Adam Bothwell, bishop thereof. He died in 1592, and was succeeded by his son, Patrick, who, in 1600, got charters of both the earldom and the bishopric. Like his father, he was proud, avaricious, cruel, and dissipated, and having, by his profuse style of living, involved himself deeply in debt, he endeavoured to extricate himself by the most illegal and oppressive acts on the people of Orkney, confiscating their property, and depriving them of their dual privileges. Numerous complaints against him reached the king, and he was, in consequence, committed prisoner to the castle of Edinburgh in 1611, accused of high treason. One of his savage orders was, that if any man endeavoured to give relief to vessels in distress, he should be fined and imprisoned, “at the earl’s pleasure.” Previous to his apprehension, he took refuge in the king’s castle at Kirkwall, which he maintained with much desperate valour for some time against the king’s troops, till it was at last taken and demolished. Having mortgaged his estates to Sir John Arnot, the king purchased his right, and took possession of his castles of Kirkwall and Birsay. To the latter the earl had made great additions, as well as his father, Earl Robert, and above the gate was the famous inscription, which, among other points of dittay, (crimes charged against him in the indictment), cost him his head. It was as follows: “Dominus Robertus Stuartus, filius Jacobi Quinti Rex Scotorum, hoc opus instruxit.” Above his coat of arms was the motto, “Sic fuit, est, et erit.” The earl’s natural son, Robert Stewart, at the head of 500 men, seized these castles in 1613, but by the king’s orders, the earl of Caithness proceeded to Orkney, and succeeded in taking them from him. Being sent a prisoner to Edinburgh, Robert Stewart was condemned and executed. The earl was tried for high treason in October 1613, and beheaded at the market cross of Edinburgh, February 6, 1614. He left no issue.


The title of earl of Orkney was next bestowed, January 3, 1696, on Lord George Hamilton, fifth son of William and Anne, duke and duchess of Hamilton, his secondary titles being viscount of Kirkwall, and Baron Dechmont. He was an eminent military commander, and field-marshal of the forces. Born in 1666, he was bred to the profession of arms under his uncle, the earl of Dumbarton. He had the rank of colonel in the army in 1690; the command of the 7th regiment of foot in 1692, and was promoted to the colonelcy of the Royal Scots the same year. He distinguished himself at the battles of the Boyne, Aughrim, Steinkirk, and Landen, and at the sieges of Athlone, Limerick, and Namur. At the attack of the latter place, he was made a brigadier-general by King William, who commanded in person. As a reward for his eminent services in Ireland and Flanders, King William, in January 1696, advanced him to the dignity of a peer of Scotland by the title of earl of Orkney, viscount of Kirkwall, and Baron Dechmont; and his countess, the sister of Edward, first earl of Jersey, got a grant, under the great seal of Ireland, of almost all the private estates of King James in that country. His portrait is subjoined:

[portrait of Lord George Hamilton, earl of Orkney]

Upon the accession of Queen Anne, Lord Orkney was, in 1702, promoted to the rank of major-general, and in 1703 to that of lieutenant-general, and was likewise made a knight of the Thistle. He afterwards served under the duke of Marlborough, and by his gallantry contributed to the victories of Blenheim, Ramillies, Oudenard, and Malplaquet. In 1708 he was elected one of the sixteen peers of Scotland, and was rechosen at every general election till 1734. In 1710, his lordship was sworn of the privy council, and made general of the foot in the Low Countries. In 1712 he received the colonelcy of the royal regiment of Fusileers, and again in Flanders under the duke of Ormond. In 1714 he was appointed gentleman extraordinary of the bedchamber to George the First, and soon after governor of Virginia. Subsequently he was constituted governor of Edinburgh castle, and lord-lieutenant of Lanarkshire, and promoted to the rank of field-marshal of the forces. He died at London in 1737, in his 71st year. He had 3 daughters; Lady Anne, who succeeded as countess of Orkney; Lady Frances, countess of Scarborough; and Lady Harriet, countess of Orrery, afterwards of Cork.

The eldest daughter, Lady Anne, countess in her own right, died in 1756. She married, in 1720, her cousin-german, the 4th earl of Inchiquin in Ireland, and had 4 sons and 4 daughters. Lady Mary O’Brien, the eldest daughter, succeeded her mother as countess of Orkney, and died March 10, 1791. She married in March 1753, her cousin-german, Murrough, 5th earl of Inchiquin, afterwards marquis of Thomond. This lady was deaf and dumb. Shortly after the birth of her first child, the nurse saw her cautiously approach the cradle in which the infant was asleep, and fling down a large stone with all her force upon the floor. The noise it made a3woke the child, who cried. The countess fell on her knees in a transport of joy. She had discovered that her child possessed the sense which was wanting in herself. She had 4 sons, who all died young, and 4 daughters.

Her eldest daughter, Lady Mary O’Brien, born in 1755, became, on the death of her mother, countess of Orkney. She married, Dec. 21, 1777, the Hon. Thomas Fitzmaurice, M.P., brother of the 1st marquis of Lansdowne, and had one son, John, viscount of Kirkwall, born Oct. 9, 1778, elected M.P. for Heytesbury, Wiltshire, in 1802, and married, 11th August that year, the Hon. Anne Maria de Blacquiere, eldest daughter of the first Lord de Blacquiere. He died Nov. 23, 1820, leaving 2 sons. The countess died in 1831.

Her elder son, John, Viscount Kirkwall, having predeceased her, she was succeeded by her grandson, Thomas John Hamilton Fitzmaurice, born Aug. 8, 1803. In 1833 he was elected one of the 16 Scots representative peers. He married, in 1826, the second daughter of the 3d Lord Boston; issue, 5 sons and 3 daughters. His eldest son, George William Hamilton, Viscount Kirkwall, born in 1827, entered the army as an ensign in the 92d foot, in 1845, and in 1862 was a captain Scots Fusileer guards.

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