Vikings! Fury from the North, Pt.3

Vikings! Fury from the North, Pt. 3 - The Vikings in England and Scotland

by Robert M Gunn©
All Rights Reserved, by all international copyright law exclusively to the author and ©Skye-Net, RM Gunn

Part Three

The Early Vikings in Scotland

England circa 830 C.E.

Although the Danish Vikings launched a series of raids and assaults of extraordinary intensity in England from 835 A.D., England managed to escape the type of major campaigning that the French suffered during the mid 9th century, until later. Even so, those series of assaults opened the door to the Danes to make a further move on England. The Vikings had been quite preoccupied in Francia until the treaty that paid them off (see Normandy part 2). Now with England weakened by Continuous Viking raids and internal political strife, the opportunistic Northmen came en masse to England.

The famous Viking formation, the Wedge
[Viking wedge] But before we overextend ourselves by delving directly into to the complex situation in Britain, some historical background is needed at this time to better comprehend the intricate situation of Anglo-Saxon England, Celtic Scotland and Wales.

Historical Background for the British Isles and the Viking Age

The political geography of the British Isles at the beginning of the Viking Age was vastly different that what we would recognize as Britain today. Most of England and about one-third of southern Scotland, as mentioned previously, was partitioned into seven smaller kingdoms (the Heptarchy). The most important of which were Northumbria in the north of England, Mercia in the midlands and Wessex in the southwest. The northern remainder of Scotland was further divided among three peoples: the Strathclyde Welsh (usually called the Strathclyde Britons) who were in the southwest corner, descendants of the Britons and Welsh of Roman times. The Scots of Dalriada to the north and west, a tribe of Gaels from Ireland who invaded the west coasts of Scotland, and the mysterious Picts, who occupied the rest and majority of Scotland.

Other areas still in Celtic hands were Cornwall (all that remained of the West Welsh kingdom of Dumnonia), and Wales itself, the latter being split into a number of petty kingdoms (or tribes), not unlike Ireland at this time. The most important of Welsh areas were Gwynedd in the northwest and Powis (Powys) in the central region with south Wales being a confused collection of eight tribes and districts.

Ireland however, although splintered and divided, was completely in Celtic hands (pre-Viking), with an even more implausible patchwork of over 100 petty tribal kingdoms. Each of these might, from time to time, be subject to a ‘Ri Coiced’ (king of a fifth – one of the five major provinces) or subject to a Ard Ri, or ‘High King’.

[Vikings] Sadly, the older Celtic peoples had been in decline. However, even at this late date, Anglo-Celtic conflicts were by no means one-sided. Around 800 AD, for example, the Strathclyde Welsh captured Dumfries from Northumbria (Angles), which at the time was embroiled in one of its many civil wars that colored its history throughout this period. In general, the western expansion of the Anglo-Saxon people continued, though this momentum was much reduced by defeats, e.g. by the Picts at Nechtansmere (Dunnichen) and these new inroads made by the Scots, Picts and north Britons were largely responsible for this reduction in Angle expansion. In 814, the West Saxons conquered the West Welsh of Dumnonia whilst two years later the Mercians conquered the Welsh kingdom of Rhufuniog.

The Anglo-Saxons (Angles in Northumbria and East Anglia, the Saxons in the rest of England) were equally willing to turn their swords on each other. At the beginning of this period, Offa of Mercia (757-796) was the most powerful king in England, Wessex being ruled by his puppet, Brihtric, who was married to Offa’s daughter. When Brihtric died in 802, the exiled Egbert claimed the throne of Wessex despite Mercian opposition, and began strengthening his position. When things finally came to a head in 825 AD, Egbert defeated Mercia at ‘Ellendon’ and proceeded to add Kent, Sussex, Essex and Surrey to his holdings. England was beginning to take the shape it would be in when the Vikings came. The East Angles took this opportunity to throw off the Mercian yoke and slew two Mercian kings, Beornwulf and Ludeca, when they led armies against them in 825 and 827. Two years later, Egbert conquered Mercia and marched his army to Dore, where the Northumbrians also submitted to him, and he became the eighth king to be acknowledged ‘Bretwalda’. His triumph was short-lived – Mercia was once again ruled by her kings from 830 Ad onwards – Wessex maintained its prominent position in English politics for the remainder of the Viking Age.

There were also conflicts amongst the Celtic peoples. Petty squabbles were endemic in Ireland, usually in the form of cattle raid and counter-raid, though rivalry for kingships could lead to conflict that was more widespread. In Scotland, the struggle for dominance between Scots and Picts allegedly came to bloody resolution around 843 AD, with the so-called ‘Treachery of Scone’. According the long standing legend (and that is all it can be for now), the southern Pictish leaders were murdered by the Scots of Dal Riata (Dalriada) when the Scots, following MacAlpin’s orders, rolled the benches out from under the Pictish leaders sending them into a spiked pit under the feast table! The legend goes on to relate that the Scots forced the Picts to recognize the Scots leader, MacAlpin, as king of all Picts and Scots. Rather than merely being recognized as over-king and thus leave the Pictish aristocracy intact, Kenneth MacAlpin organized a large-scale emigration of Scots from the Dalriada center at Dunadd to the very heart of Pictish territory (the southern Picts), near Scone and Dunkeld. In one stroke, the Scots replaced the Pictish aristocracy with their own followers. Others have suggested that this is just a fanciful legend, and what really happened, was that by war and marriage (the Picts had a matriarchal lineage, through the female line), the Scots out-bred the Picts. So, any Pictish marriages to Scots (who used the male lineage) were in essence, married out of existence, in terms of aristocracy. Whatever the truth, treachery, or warfare and marriage, the Picts were effectively terminated as a separate people. So complete was this takeover and absorption of the Picts, that there is no trace of the Pictish language or separate identity by the end of the 9th century – they became ‘Scots’. This newly formed Scottish culture was given a new name, Alba (Alban in English) and comprised all of Scotland except the Scottish Isles: the Hebrides, Orkney, Shetland and the far north of Scotland, Caithness and Sutherland which were under control of the Norse Jarls (Earls). The Strathclyde Britons still held the southernmost portion of Scotland.

The Vikings in Scotland

For centuries, the writings of historians virtually ignored the Viking activity in Scotland other than a brief mention. But in the past 40 years, the importance of the Norse in Scotland has become a hot issue for archaeologists and historians. The long and complex relationship to the Scots, Picts and especially those Scottish-Norse lands held by the Vikings, has become very important indeed.

Map showing the main attack routes used by the Vikings to raid Scotland and England
[Viking routes to Britian] The arrival of the Viking (Norwegians) was to have far-reaching effects on all the peoples of the British Isles, first in Scotland. The Vikings settled the Northern Isles of Orkney and Shetland, from Norway, a decade or so before 800 AD, even before the actual raids began. The earliest recorded Viking raid, in the traditional style, was on the monastery of Colmcille on Iona in 795. Raids of this style continued in the early Viking period for the next half-century. Though there is a lack of narrative evidence (chronicles from Scotland) outside of the Irish ‘Annuals of Ulster’, there are the Viking Sagas – a mixture of historical and political stories and legendary narratives often too mythical to be accepted as history. For the most part, we have to rely on the evidence provided by archaeologists for historic fact in Scotland. Place-name studies are another area important in proving Viking settlement in the north, and the Isles of Scotland during the course of the 9th and 10th centuries.

Viking activity is concentrated in three principal geographic areas: The North Isles (Orkney and Shetland), the Caledonian mainland of Caithness, Sutherland and Ross, and the Western Isles, extending as far as the Isle of Man. Most clear-cut are the Northern Isles of Orkney and Shetland. These consist of two virtual archipelagos of islands – nearly 70 in Orkney and over 100 in Shetland – only comparatively few of which are now inhabited. In older times, they were very much the province of the wind and the wave. Communications were of necessity by sea and the highly skilled Viking seamen were needed to man the boats in what were often impetuous and dangerous waters. Remote as the islands are, at points in history they have been the epicenter of important movements of people in civilization. Megalithic monuments such as the stone-built Maes Howe in Orkney, great stone rings (Henges) such as the Ring of Brodgar, the Ring of Bookan, and the well-excavated area of Skara Brae all attest to the vitality of the inhabitants of the Islands in the pre-Viking period. Modern man is always amazed at the skill and the level of activity shown in the dangerous and remote areas of these early Iron Age settlements. They successfully braved the northern waters in their frail craft. What would be wrong, is to think of these Iron Age wonders as perpetually being on the fringe of civilization, for it is probably true to imply that never were they as much at the epicenter of great movements (migrations) as they were during the Age of the Viking. We do not know the exact identity of the native peoples of these islands during the time of the Viking invasions. Their origins remain a question, which has baffled modern scholars and historians as much as writers of the Middle Ages. Were they Picts? Beaker People? Or were they unknown Iron Age tribes? What the historians of the early 13th century did not know about the inhabitants (pre-Viking), they made up with a set of good stories. [Writing about much earlier times].

They wrote that in Orkney, “Picts and Gaelic priests were the first inhabitants.” The Picts, as described by these early historians, were “pygmies working during the day but becoming frightened by night, so they hid underground.” Later they wrote, “In the days of Harald Fairhair (a Viking)… pirates of the kin of the most powerful prince of Rognall, crossing the North Sea with great fleets, destroyed them [the native inhabitants] and deprived them of their accustomed habitation and subjected the Islands to their own power.”

This medieval interpretation of historic events in the Northern Isles at the end of the 8th century is plainly flawed. They had less than half of it correct. The native inhabitants could well have been Picts, although that is conjecture, or a mixture of Picts and Iron Age peoples, but they were not pygmies! Gaelic priests in the Orkney & Shetland have never been confirmed during the Viking take-over. As for the natives being ‘lazy’ and working only in the daytime and hiding underground at night, this is clearly a bad misunderstanding of the ancient dwellings of Skara Brae and Maes Howe. When the first of these settlements were discovered, they were mostly underground because of time. The medieval writers assumed that the settlements had always been underground, not able to grasp the great length of time involved to bury these villages, when in fact, in their heyday, they had been on the surface. Thus, from their limited understanding in the 13th century, they concluded that they lived underground for fear of the daylight and because the dwellings were cramped, they came up with the notion of ‘pygmies’ to explain it all. However, their conclusions were not entirely incorrect. What they were right about was the coming of the Vikings (not a prince, that is a legend) who did supplant and replace the native population, whoever they were. In fact, as suggested by A. W. Brogger, most of the smaller islands were a “veritable museum” of deserted brochs, farms and outbuildings. Modern scholars would rather hold that the Picts, (if in fact they were Picts) were simply overwhelmed politically, linguistically, culturally and socially, but not necessarily exterminated by the Viking war-machine.

There is some evidence to back this up. There would have been far greater use for the native inhabitants as laborers, translators (as they did with Scots in the Hebridean Isles), and builders. This last idea appears to be confirmed by the similarities in style of houses/buildings, and of simple common grave construction built by the Vikings, which were identical to the previous inhabitants. This suggests what cultural historians call “cultural transmission” from the Picts to the Norsemen. Undoubtedly keeping the native populations alive and working for them was much to the advantage of the Vikings, and Viking Age construction seems to confirm this.

Dr. Anna Ritchie has proved during her excavations in Orkney, that many sites (such as Buckquoy) had a full continuity in architecture after the Viking domination of the North Isles, showing they used Pictish styles of construction. Another compelling idea is that the Northern Picts and Vikings became interrelated rather than them being destroyed, such as the continued use of the now-extinct Pictish language; long after the Vikings took all the Northern Isles. One stunning discovery in 1998 of the Pictish stones revealed that many of the inscriptions which had been so difficult to decipher, were often combinations of Pictish symbols and Viking runes. Whether this took place at one time, or the Vikings later added rune carvings to the existent stones is still under investigation. Even more recent studies have suggested, not proved, that ‘Pictish’ was a P-Celtic form of language similar to that spoken by the Gauls, but not similar to the P-Celtic form of the Welsh or Britons. It is compelling, but still speculative and needs further study.

But one fact is undisputed by all authorities: the settlements of the North Isles, Caithness and Sutherland in north Scotland, was a true settlement, and came principally from Norway. Linguistic experts suggest an overwhelming preponderance of the settlers from the western fjords, especially though not exclusively, from Rogadal and ‘Fylkir’ to the south of Bergen.

[Viking longhall recontruction]
A spectacular Viking ‘Long House’ was discovered in Jarlshof at Sumberg Head (pictured, right is a reconstruction), the southernmost part of the Shetlands. The roofs were made of upturned Viking boats as this provided the strongest structure, even when used as roofing material. Later, medieval churches would emulate this creation sometimes giving the appearance of a multi-domed ceiling.

Most Vikings who initially settled north Scotland, the Hebrides, and the Northern Isles of Orkney and Shetland, were of the middle-warrior class, the Hersirs. Some styled themselves jarls (small “j”) but not Jarls (or Earls). This did not happen until the end of the ninth or beginning of the 10th century.

From these headquarters north of mainland Scotland, the Norse spread south to the mainland and west to the Islands in the course of the 9th-10th centuries. The Norse Sagas help in determining a chronology of events. But even though this political history helps, it must be recognized that the picture given in the sagas (written later) of the deeds of the Earls of Orkney are themselves distorted by the needs of the narrator of the sagas. The first prominent ruler was Sigurd, brother of Ragnoll More (and possibly the uncle of Rollo, the first Duke of Normandy) at the end of the ninth century.

The famous Gallowglass warrior - a mix of Gaels and Norse Islanders
[gallowglass] He exercised some authority over Shetland and also over Caithness. Place-names suggest Norse penetration further south in Ross, Cromarty and Sutherland to the detriment of northern Pictish power. Caithness in fact, (Katanes) means ‘Headland of the Cat’ in Norse and Sutherland was ‘Sundrlund’, meaning ‘southern land.’ Some have taken this to imply that this was the southernmost limit of the Viking expansion into north Scotland, but evidence of Viking artifacts and place-names are found in the modern shires as far south as the great spread of Invernesshire, north of the Great Firth. Admittedly, these Viking expansions were no more than scattered, spasmodic, and temporary, on the eastern seaboard of the Moray Firth and Aberdeenshire. The widest extent of Viking territory in mainland Scotland was reached under the Jarldom of Thorfinn the Mighty (d. 1064), a contemporary of MacBeth.

But the greatest Viking influence in Scotland outside of Orkney has to be in the Western Isles, the Hebrides and the western seaboard. Viking expansion all along the western coast is more intelligible yet still difficult to reconstruct in detail.

The magnet was likely Ireland, fast becoming a major settlement and trading center. As H. Lyon suggests, “One should not regard that the artifacts strewn from the Irish Sea, the Hebrides (outer and inner) and the Islands as far south as Man as mere incidents of fate, refuges for those who sailed to reach their haven in Ireland.” The Scottish western Isles had many attractions for Vikings: farms, fishing and permanent settlement -- the benefit of these being islands – so useful for Viking lifestyle and their longships. Both linguistic and archaeological evidence strongly suggest a large degree of peaceful intermingling of Norse and native Celtic stocks.

[Scoto-Norse, the GallGael]
The Scottish clan system, which at this time was in its infancy, was also supplemented by the tribal structure of raiding and settling Vikings. Many clans of the Western Isles and of the north of Scotland have in fact, a partial or total Norse heritage and origin. MacLeod is a Gaelic/Norse mixture but adopting as its clan name the Viking forefather, Leod, who gave rise to at least one son (probably two), who went on the form the MacLeod branches, MacLeod of Harris (from Tormod) and MacLeod of Lewis (from Torquil). The great clan Donald’s origins are similar in that their progenitor was a Scoto-Viking named Somerled, whose offspring were the clans MacDonald and MacDougall. The power of Clan Donald would dominate the Western Isles and parts of the Scottish western mainland as the “Lords of the Isles.” Other clans with direct Viking heritage are: Gunn (named after Gunni or Gunnr whose forefather was an infamous Viking pirate and warrior), MacAulay (means ‘son of Olaf’), MacQueen (son of Sven or Sweyn), and many other clans that have at least a partial Norse connection or bloodlines in their lineage. It is a safe assumption that the clans that existed in the Western Isles, at the time of Viking settlement and possessions, probably have some Norse connection. Curiously, those Vikings that came to the Western Isles did not bring their Norwegian wives, as did the Norse and later the Danes in Ireland. This facilitated intermarriage with the Celtic women and the two cultures of the Isles developed into a distinct new people: the Gall-Gael (Scoto-Norse), and the Gall-Gaedhil (Hiberno-Norse), meaning ‘foreign Gael’ from which the southern Scottish lands of Galloway also gets its name. It therefore is safe to state that the Norse went just about anywhere they wanted to go on the Scottish coast and some even ventured deep inland into Pictland and Alba. One result of the Celtic influence was the adoption of Christianity by the pagan Vikings starting about 900 AD, but taking over 150 years for the conversion to be complete.

Meanwhile, Viking raids on the mainland were an important factor in the formation of Alba (Scotland under the rule of the Scots from Dal Riata, minus the Viking territory), which destabilized the Pictish territory sufficiently for them to be overtaken so completely by the Scots. More Norse settlers arrived in steady succession for the next 70 years, with colonization intensifying following Harald Fairhair’s unification of Norway during the last years of the ninth century.

Dragon prow of a longship
[Dragon prow] As elsewhere, piratical raids usually preceded settlement. After Iona was raided, the monks resettled on the Island of Lambey, north of Dublin off the Leinster coast. Most Scottish books on the topic fail to note this important change. As mentioned, the Norse also settled part of southwest Scotland (Galloway) around 875-900 AD. They recruited the native Celts, some of whom threw off Christianity for Viking paganism – before it was adopted by the Vikings themselves – to join the pagan host. Also, a certain amount of interbreeding resulted in the Scottish ‘Gallowglass’ warriors, long known for their fierce fighting skills long after the Age of the Vikings ended. Robert the Bruce, when trying to subdue Ireland for his own causes against the English, recruited many Gallowglass mercenaries to fight in Ireland. Along with Irish-Norse, these Gall-Gael were the terror of the seas, even exceeding the dread often inspired by the original Vikings themselves. It is also likely that the renewed Viking pressure on Northumbria (covered in more detail on the Vikings in England section), which lost Carlisle in northern Cumbria to the Strathclyde Welsh, circa 910-920 AD, was a direct result of Viking incursions, and settlements into the heart of Northumbrian territory.

The most important effect that the Vikings had on Scotland in this early period was to weaken or sever the existing power structures. In about 800 AD, Scotland was divided amongst four main ethic groups – the Picts of central Scotland and the Highlands, the Scots of Dalriada (centered around Argyll and Dunadd), the Britons of Strathclyde (Dumbarton, Cumbria and north England), and the Angles of Northumbria, which means ‘north of the Humber’ [river]. All of them suffered Viking raids and attacks, but the Scots of Dalriada took less damage, both militarily and culturally, than the others. The Picts suffered from Vikings incursions so steadily they were sufficiently weakened to allow the Scots to take over completely under Kenneth MacAlpin, as mentioned earlier. Later, the Scots incorporated the Strathclyde Britons (the last Welsh kingdom in Scotland) into Scotland circa 920 AD.

Caithness and Viking Place-name Evidence

The name Caithness derives from the Old Norse, ‘Katanes’, meaning ‘headland of the Cats', and it is assumed that the pre-Norse inhabitants of the area had ‘cats’. Either this was their tribal name or the area, literally, had wild cats (perhaps Lynx or Puma). The land to the south and west of Caithness the Norsemen called ‘Sundrland’ or Sutherland, meaning ‘southland’, just as they called the Hebrides ‘Sudreyjar’, the Sudreys being south from the perspective of the Norse in Orkney and Shetland. In return, the Gaelic speakers of Sutherland referred to Caithness as ‘Gallaidh’ or ‘among the strangers’, and the Hebrides were called ‘Innsegall’ or ‘Island of the strangers’. In both cases, the ’strangers’ were Northmen. Dr. Anna Ritchie, says “Place-names in Caithness suggests that Norse settlement here was somewhat later, perhaps a couple of generations later, than in the Northern Isles: early names incorporated ‘–stadir’ are absent but there are plenty of ‘-bolstadir’ as in Scrabster and Lybster.”

Place-names are varied from Norse to Danish complicating identification. Also, since Old Norse wasn’t a formal written language (it was written, but without uniformity and with many variations), place-names such as ‘–stadir’ can be ‘-stathir’ and ‘-bolstadir’ as ‘bolstadr’. Notice the hyphen before the words: this is because these are suffixes added to the names. For example, ‘-stathir’ means ‘place’, as in Lybster (Lyb’s place); ‘-bolstadr’ means ‘farm’, as in Isbister (east farm); ‘-ton’ means village, as in Ashton (Ash village). These are examples of Danish-Norwegian hybrids for place-name suffixes. Danish examples include: ‘-by’ meaning ‘farmstead’, as in Ashby (Ash’s farmstead); ‘-thorpe’ means ‘outlying farm’, such as in Kettlethorpe (Ketil’s outlying farm). The Norwegian ‘-thveit’ or ‘-thwait’ means ‘clearing’, as in Brackenthwait or (Bracken’s clearing). Also common are some suffixes for some elements in the coastal areas such as ‘-fjord’ or ‘–ford’, as in Waterford (Water’s Fjord or Loch); ‘-holm’ as in Lynholm (Lyn Islet), ‘-ey’, as in Lambey (Lamb island); ‘-wick’ means ‘bay’, as in Berwick and ‘-dale’ as in Helmsdale (Helm’s valley).

[Viking longships]

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