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Robert Stewart, 1st Earl of Orkney and Lord of Zetland (Shetland) lived from 1533 to 4 February 1593. The illegitimate son of James V and his mistress Euphemia Elphinstone, Robert was the half-brother of Mary Queen of Scots. He made his name through his ruthless and despotic establishment of what became virtually a separate kingdom in the Northern Isles, which he then passed on to his son, Patrick Stewart, 2nd Earl of Orkney. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
In 1561 Robert married Janet Kennedy, daughter of Gilbert Kennedy, 3rd Earl of Cassillis. They went on to have five sons and four daughters. Among them were Patrick Stewart, who became 2nd Earl of Orkney; and John Stewart, the 1st and last Earl of Carrick. Robert also had a number of illegitimate children by other women.
As a child in 1539, Robert Stewart had been granted the income and lands of Holyrood Abbey in Edinburgh. He was a strong supporter of his half-sister Mary Queen of Scots during her reign, and he was amply rewarded when in 1564 Mary Queen of Scots granted him the Royal estates in Orkney and Shetland together with the post of Sheriff of Orkney and Shetland.
In 1568 Robert extended his landholdings in Orkney by exchanging his interests in Holyrood Abbey with the Orkney estates of Bishop Adam Bothwell, in an arrangement apparently forced on the Bishop. Robert's new properties included a large estate around Birsay which had historically been the site of a cathedral and for some centuries had been used by the Bishops of Orkney as the location of a country retreat. Over the following five years Robert built what is now known as the Earl's Palace in Birsay.
By 1570 Bishop Bothwell and many others from Orkney were complaining that Robert's approach amounted to nothing less than tyranny: in effect his using islanders as slave labour on his construction projects. His chief instrument of oppression, especially in Shetland, was his half brother, Laurence Bruce, who he appointed Sheriff of Shetland. In 1575 Robert was imprisoned in Edinburgh. by the Regent for James VI, James Douglas, Earl of Morton: less because of his behaviour towards the islanders than because it came to light that he had offered Orkney to the King of Denmark, an act that amounted to treason. The following year he was also indicted in Edinburgh. for misuse of power in Orkney and Shetland, but never brought to trial.
Instead, Robert was released, and by 1581 engineered the execution of James Douglas, Earl of Morton by convincing his young half nephew, James VI, that Morton had had a hand in the murder of James' father, Lord Darnley.
And in the same year James VI made Robert Stewart the 1st Earl of Orkney, Lord of Shetland, and Knight of Birsay. The Earldom of Orkney replaced the short-lived Dukedom of Orkney, which had been granted in 1567 by Mary Queen of Scots to her third husband James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell. This was among the titles forfeited by Bothwell after Mary's abdication. Confusingly, although Robert was the 1st Earl, there had been a previous "creation" of the Earldom of Orkney, bestowed on Henry Sinclair, 1st Earl of Orkney, by King Håkon of Norway (then ruler of Orkney) on 2 August 1379. When James III secured Orkney and Shetland for Scotland in 1470, William Sinclair, 3rd Earl of Orkney relinquished his Earldom to the King (he had other titles) in return for estates around Ravenscraig (now on the edge of Kirkcaldy) in Fife.
Further complaints followed about Robert's treatment of islanders, but he survived to die peacefully in his bed on 4 February 1593. He was succeeded by his, if anything, even less likable son, Patrick Stewart, 2nd Earl of Orkney. Robert Stewart left an indelible mark on the Northern Isles, both in terms of his impact as a tyrant, and in stone. The considerable ruins of the Earl's Palace at Birsay still stand, and the ruins of the Palace he built near the southern tip of Shetland's Mainland now form part of the incredible Jarlshof complex.