Orkney and the Realm of Norway: Economic or Political Dependency?

Historians have often portrayed the medieval Realm of Norway as a colonial enterprise, orchestrated by a dominant metropolitan power in Norway, and enforced upon submissive communities in the North Sea and North Atlantic. This understanding of the realm assumes an economic imbalance between the central and peripheral parts and implies that the outlying communities were subject to economic exploitation by the Norwegian crown. Recent studies, however, suggest a degree of localism, home rule and consensus between the central and peripheral parts, leading to the suggestion that the realm was more of a commonwealth than an imperial or colonial undertaking. Using the case of medieval Orkney, this paper seeks to determine whether Norwegian kings attempted or succeeded in economically exploiting that local community. Applying Johan Galtung’s structural theory of economic dependency, it examines the degree to which resources were extracted from Orkney to the benefit of the metropolitan center in Norway. The focus lies on four potential sources of economic exploitation: penal fines, land rents, trade and taxation. Findings reveal that the Norwegian crown generally allowed revenues to be maintained and implemented within Orkney’s local community, thereby facilitating a decentralized, federalized economic order.