McIan's rendering of an Islesman, circa 1100 AD
The Hebrides were not always part of the kingdom of the King of Scots. From about the 9th century until the 13th century Norway claimed these Islands, together with the Isles of Man, Orkney, the Shetlands, and there was considerable traffic between Norway and these Islands. Needless to say, the Norwegian overlordship was not always admitted and the Scottish kings frequently tried to regain the Islands.
In spite of Norse ownership of these Isles (and about 1/5 of the mainland in the far north), it was Celtic culture, influence and language which eventually won out. The incoming Norsemen settled, adopted Gaelic (or partially Gaelic) names, adopted Christianity of the Culdee Church, intermarried with the natives (Gunn, MacLeod, MacQueen, MacAuley, are just a few of the clans claiming Norse descent, many others having partial Norse ancestry), and even imitated the Scoto-Irish poetry and arts. The Norse also had some things in common with the Highlander and Islander before they “moved in”; including intricate knot work art, oral history taught by bards called [I]skalds[/I], a tribal society structure not too dissimilar from a clan, and worshipped a cross, even though it was for different gods until they converted. The name for these Scoto-Norse, these mixed race people (the term usually refers to Islanders), became “Gallgael” and all the Island clans belong to this half-Gaelic, half-Norwegian race. (See map at bottom to see all the areas affected).
In the last year of Malcolm III’s reign (1093), Magnus Barfaet or Barefoot, King of Norway, was in occupation of the Western Isles. He was the monarch who, claiming that the Mull of Kintyre was an island, had his ship dragged across the isthmus of Tarbet while he sat at the helm.
Typical dress of a Norse warrior of the 9th century. Notice the long tunic. Some wore leggings, but rarely trousers
These Norsemen were scarcely the “terrible Vikings” of popular fiction, for under the Norwegian kings the Western Isles enjoyed wealth and prosperity, and the state of society was advanced by contemporary standards. The arts flourished, manufactures were plentiful and excellent, and the islanders were undoubtedly contented with their lot.
There were, nevertheless, many incidents of barbaric nature, although this was happening all over Scotland in this time. The sack of Eigg in 618 AD, when St. Donnan many monks were slaughtered by pirates, was a probably not a Viking raid (as so often stated in older texts), as they hadn’t set out of raids (or at least none are recorded) until the late 8th century. Norse raiders may have been active, been then so were Pictish pirates, and Irish pirates. It wasn’t until the arrival of the Norse vessels that Picts and Irish ships took to hiding, and piracy became the hallmark of the Norse. However some pirates did raid Eigg in about 617-18 and according to Annals of Ulster, “Donnan of Eigg and 150 “martyrs” were killed. That may be an exaggeration in numbers, but you get the impression it was a terrible raid even so. The long held assumption that it was a Viking raid is now in much dispute.
But by 795 AD it was the Norse who struck with such ferocity that chroniclers left warnings of the end of the earth, the spawning of demons and lightening striking from that sky. Clearly this was metaphorical lightening, and the demons were dramatic license for foreign invaders, but you get the distinct feeling the shores of Britain had never seen anything quite like this; striking so fast, so swiftly they barely had time to react, or recover.
Two years before, in 793 AD, in northern England, English writers (Alcuin) wrote this of the Viking raid at Lindisfarne:
“In this year dire portents appear over Northumbria and sorely frightened the people. They consisted of lightening, and fiery dragons were seen in the air. A great famine immediately followed those signs, a little after that in the same year the ravages of heathen men miserable destroyed God’s church, with plunder and slaughter.”
The raid by Norse pirates on Iona in 795 left behind death and destruction, and we may never know what plunder was taken. The raids continued for centuries, even turning from raiding monasteries only, to raiding settlements, towns and villages. Eventually, in about 150 years, they began to stay, and not leave at the end of “vikingr” season. And thus began the integration of the Norse and Gaelic cultures.
Once the Kingdom of the Isles was established (and ruled by Viking-Scots), the Islesmen seem to have lived fairly amicably with the Vikings, and held their own. The Scottish kings, on the other hand, maintained a resistance to these interlopers, particularly when they encroached on the east and northeast of the kingdom.
I approach this next tidbit of information with great trepidation: it may well be an anecdote and not entirely factual. Still, it is worth mentioning.
Magnus Barefoot’s (sometimes called Barelegs) most amusing, if not his best-known claim to fame is illustrative of the free exchange of ideas between the Islesmen and the Norse, or in the case, Norwegians. In his saga dated 1093, appears the following passage:
“It is said when King Magnus returned from the expedition to the west, that he adopted the costume in use in the Western Isles, and likewise many of his followers; that they went about barelegged or barefoot.”
He may thus appear in history as the first person to set the fashion for those present-day visitors to the Highlands and Islands who blossom forth in Highland dress.
From the maiden's bower I hear
Secret sighs, these
Shall not be wasted.
I love her words,
Though I cannot see her;
Let everybody know
How highly I praise her friendship.
©Skye-Net, R. Gunn, 1995/2009