HoS 9 Transcript

Most of you lot are now probably used to the kind of mealy mouthed statements you got from me about the Anglo Saxon migrations. You know the sort of thing; the exciting story of our youths was about the Anglo Saxons brutally wading through a sea of British blood as they wiped out the inhabitants of the islands and planted a new race in the blood-soaked soil. The modern story is of a chap called Cynewulf coming over, everyone liking the look of his trendy sandals and language, copying them, and ending up looking like Anglo Saxons to history. I exaggerate for effect of course but you know what I mean – that everything was more gradual, more about assimilation, most so called bloody invasions are in fact a lot slower and a lot less bloody and complete than we had thought.

But then in 2005, an article was published in Nature about a DNA study of the inhabitants of the Orkney and Shetland Islands, and there was none of your namby pampy two-bit relativism there, good lord no. The study found that 44% of the inhabitants of the Shetland Islands were derived from Scandinavian stock, and 30% or more in the Orkney islands. Other estimates have put it higher, especially for males. Basically, the Viking invaders of the Northern Isles came, butchered, and colonised. Is that picture accurate.

Well, today, that is part of what we are going to cover – the start of the Viking story and how it affected Scotland. But before we start on that, I am conscious that the topography and names of Scottish history tend to be less well known, so I need to keep working on that for you; and also that you would like more than a stream of kings and battles, however intensely amusing and varied those kings and battle might be. So the first half of the podcast is going to be running our fingers over the tapestry of Scotland at the end of the 8th century, the state of the political play, and state of society.

We might start actually with a note about sources. You know the way that we are constantly whining about how rubbish written sources are for early modern history? Well for Scotland, it’s even worse. Up to now, we have at least had chronicle that originated in the monastery of Iona and the excellent Bede to help guide our steps, to give us a framework. Now you can forget about those guys they are dead to us. Well, they were always dead to us, but you know what I mean…Bede died in 753, the Iona Chronicle fails us. The vast majority of information such as we have it, comes from outside Scotland, it comes from Ireland and England.

So, sit back, close your eyes and imagine a map of Northern Britain and Scotland. In what is southern Scotland and northern England, are the Angles and the kingdom of Northumbria, all the way up to Edinburgh. The South western bit, Cumbria and Galloway, is as vague as you get, but it’s probably dominated by Northumbria. North of them is the almost equally mysterious kingdom of the Britons, Alt Clut or Strathclyde, however you wish to style it; now focussed on the central western Scotland. The kingdom was part of a British cultural continuum  extending through the isle of man to Wales, Cornwall and Brittany. Further west are the gallic kindreds of Dal Riada; politically dominated by the Cenel nGabrain in Kintrye; and as a whole probably still based in Ireland as well as Scotland. It used to be thought that the arrangement and connections between the Irish and Scottish sides had come to an end by the end of the 7th century, but now it’s thought it may have survived into the Viking age.  But by our period, the Pictish king Onuist had brought the kings and kingdoms of Dal Riada and Alt Clut within the orbit and political domination of the largest of the north British kingdoms – Pictland, which comprised most of Scotland north of the Forth, including the Northern Isles of Shetland and Orkney. Pictland was in essence a hegemony over a wide range of local lords, exercised by the King of the Picts from northern region of Fortriu, north of the Grampian mountain range called the Mounth. The trickiest place of all to understand is the north western Atlantic seaboard, the Islands of the Inner and outer Hebrides; it is assumed that these are Pictish in culture, but really who knows – they constitute an area out of the mainstream, ignored by the very few chronicles we have, and we can assume they remain a society with a flat structure, with little development of kingdoms and chiefdoms – a land still dominated by farmer republics.

But they are probably Pictish in culture; and it is also very probable that Alt Clut and Pictland share a close cultural affinity, and that the cultural line between them, between Briton and Pict, is thin. By now, all of Northern Britain is Christian, though the organisation of the church is very vague in terms of things like Bishops. But we can see in Pictland in particular the development of large church estates, a process very like that happening in England of Bookland – the new idea of land alienated permanently to the church, and the grant written down and recorded – in a book.

The Scottish countryside would have looked more heavily wooded than today, with less of the Cairngorms wearing their alpine livery, and the dominant species being pine and oak. There would have been most of the animals you meet today, but also there would have survived beavers, wolves, wild cattle, wild pigs, Lynx and quite possibly Bears. Rats and Rabbits had not yet arrived. The vast majority of farms produce meat, dairy products and cereals; there’s very little sign yet of any specialisation, since there is no economy to support such a thing. Though of course, if you lived by the sea, fishing would be part of the mix, if you lived in the forested highlands hunting would be important, no need to be daft about it, but the point is that this is a subsistence economy – you produced what you needed, and there’s not much exchange going on. The area at some stage to be known as Scotland has no towns of any significance; these places we keep mentioning like Dumbarton Rock, or Dunadd, or Dunn Eydin – these are either strongholds, or inauguration centres, or tribute centres, they are not places of exchange or places where people make a buck by making stuff for export outside their household or region.  Church estates are as close as you get, in the sense that church foundations need access to oil and wine for their various holy rituals and stuff, and so they trade with the emporia that do exist further south – the London’s, Ipswiches of this world. But there are no emporia of this type in Scotland; there’s a titchy tiny suspicion of one at Dunbar on the east coast, but that’s your lot. And in fact, there’s no coinage anyway – none of the kingdoms I have just raced through produce their own coinage. Still, somewhere around our period, maybe a little later around 900, came an invention which would have a greater impact on the lives of most Picts, Gaels, Britons and Angles than any king or political changes – the Mouldboard plough. Rather than just cutting a furrow and moving the soil sideways, the mouldboard plough brought soil rich in nutrients up to the surface. It made less fertile land and heavier soils accessible to agriculture for the first time.Â

Let us talk about Inheritance law, which would probably be another of the most important things affecting most peoples’ lives. Land is probably, but not definitively, passed on through the male line to all the recognised sons. Daughters might also get a share but it would be given on a different basis; they would unable to pass that share to their offspring, and when they died it would return to the male line. This system, of partible inheritance, is in a sense, something of a nightmare, because of course if you keep having sons, their parcel of land keeps getting smaller through the generations, so small that you have to stand on tiptoe to stay inside your land. I exaggerate for effect, but the point is that there’s a real danger that unless you keep adding to your holdings before you know it you can’t sustain a family or indeed your social status. So while, of course it feels more equitable to give all your kiddies the same amount, sometimes you have to be cruel to succeed, for the good of the family. And that means you just cast the less worthy aside. I shall be mentioning this to my lot this evening. You may hear wailing.

Now, here’s a word for you. Viripatrilocal. This is a word a historian I am using wrote with confidence, even panache. I can visualise Professor Alex Woolf sniggering to himself as he wrote it, imagining the faces of his students, dazed and confused for so long it’s not true. Oddly, the OED has no memory of the word at all, no place for it among the 600,000 words that go to make up the English language in all its glory. Though apparently we typically only use 5,000 words in out speech. But I digress, viripatrilocal, is a word you can no discard, all it means is that couples lived on the land of the husband’s father. The standard family was nuclear, a primary couple with their children. Girls would have been considered ready for marriage from the age of 13 or 14, and boys legally competent from the same age. We are talking high fertility, and high mortality; there would have been lots of babies, fewer teenagers.

The problem with all of this, and none of this of course is specific to the area at some point in the future to be known as Scotland, is that there are always more mouths to feed than hands to do the work, and just when you children become useful, because in those days unlike today they did become useful at some point, they upped sticks and left to start their own family.

Which brings us to slavery. Which I don’t think we’ve really spoken of before substantially in the history of England for example, but which was a central part of society, in all parts of Britain. Putting aside any moral considerations for such a repugnant activity, slavery as a trade has relatively few barriers and can be carried out between any two areas occupied by people, there are no complexities of specific supply and demand questions. In practice, intermediaries are often necessary; since slaves would be less likely to work with the people who had actually enslaved them and possibly murdered their relatives. Slaves and masters in this world would have been largely racially indistinguishable; given the size of the houses all these folks lived in, slaves would have lived side by side with the families that owned them.

In this society, slavery delivered many economic advantages. The big one was that slaves provided labour, but unlike pesky family members, they made no call on land for inheritance. Slaves provided a kind of economic ballast for households; when times were good you could buy them in to make the most of your largesse, when time were bad you could sell them off, make a bob or two and tighten the family overheads. The concept of freedmen was probably common for slaves who survived into their middle age, and for the successful farmers who sold them their freedom, they provided the basis of their clients, maybe farming small patches of leased land. Slavery therefore, was very widespread. As we will see if we ever do get to talk about the blessed Vikings, the slave trade was a major driver for the Viking invasions, but taking slaves would have been a major part of most warfare in the region in the period between the locals well before the Vikings arrived.

Last time we talked about society, we talked about the main faultline as being that between free and unfree, in our farmer republicky things. Well, that will remain true, but in the emergingly hierarchical societies in most of Britain, there is another Faultline, between honourable and base. It is early days though; the gap between lord and men would have been slight, a primus inter pares, first among equals situation; a man controlling 5 households might have been a lord, and not so very different from his minions. The lord’s job was to provide protection in bad times; in return, his minions would do some jobs for him – they’d provide some services. Services would come in two types -  base and honourable. Base service was basically the sort of dirty job that at the time was thought to be more than a bit unattractive; digging ditches, cutting back the hedges, planting the crops and all that. I mean no offense to all you farmers out there obviously. This is history here, and if you could keep your hands white and soft that was considered cool at the time. You kept your hands white and soft by doing honourable stuff, the kind of thing your lord was doing himself and being with him – the kind of companion stuff; riding with the lord, attending him in his court, riding to war.

Sitting above all of these guys were kings. And at this point we are not talking for the most part about any kind of theocratic kingship, we are talking again of primus inter pares. Your king was more powerful, had lords reporting into him, but rarely were they blessed by God in the way that would set say, James VIth apart in the 17th century. Kings would have demanded two types of tribute, and it’s very likely that these two types had a very different reaction. One was cain, a word which translates as ‘right’; a king’s right to levy a due to maintain his court, a tax you might say. These days we think of kings of course as levying taxes – that’s what kings do; but in 800, it is very likely that this kind of due was stoutly resisted as unreasonable. These klings have their own lands, why are they imposing on us? Unlike the other, which was called Coinnmed. Coinnmed was the cost borne of putting up your lord for a night for two when he came to visit – hospitality as it were. This was expected, this was part of lordship, the head honcho coming round to share news and forge relationships, and a price worth paying by the minion’s household for the benefit of having the lord’s ear for a day or to, and being able to fill said ear with his thoughts and wants.

As I say, kings were simply the most powerful of lords, in the sense that the theocratic element which would lead to the divine right of kings thing was normally absent. But there was a qualitative difference as well as a quantitative one, which meant they stood apart. Kings were kings of a people, the ultimate court of appeal; they presided at assemblies, they led in war. Kings even back in 800, were different. And by 800 they were also beginning to live differently, in the sense that there is some sign that kings were beginning to live in palaces, large estates where a king might live in some comfort and most importantly, grandeur. The old centres we have talked about – Dunadd, Clyde Rock, Dunnottar, even Traprain Law – these were remote places, not suitable for continuous living; they were places of defence, or for inauguration rights. The obvious example then is the palace of the Pictish kings, a place called Forteviot. As the 9th century advanced, the palace at Forteviot, in Strathearn just north of the River Tay, becomes the centre of Pictish kings, where they can chill, and where they can hold court.

One more thing about kings and their impact in this age. They play, of course, a critical role in bringing the disparate parts of these forming kingdoms together. And not just as a central authority and symbol. I speak of the king’s commitatus. The king’s what, I hear you say? The King’s commitatus I respond, his companions. So this is the way it worked. A king had estates all over his lands, fair enough, but he needed more than these would yield him; only by the giving of patronage and treasure would he maintain his popularity and rule. So he went raiding and making war, as well as gathering tribute and what have you. To do this he needed companions – the commitatus.

Meanwhile, your son of a local lord often faced a tricky problem; as you now know this is a viripatrilocal society of course. So you were going to live on your father’s land. So, sons of minor lords could have a real problem waiting for dad to pop his clogs and vacate a piece of land; there was a potential for an extremely uncomfortable period in limbo land. When essentially there was a danger you’d be waiting for Dad to drop off his perch. If you had a particularly embarrassing Dad, given to, I don’t know, maybe that cultural phenomenon described as Dad dancing for example, the temptation to give the process a bit of a push, might have looked increasingly tempting. If the son wanted to marry, and pretty much everyone did want to marry, why on earth wouldn’t you want to get hitched, they had a choice; as above they could wait for dead man’s shoes, or sandals or whatever kind of footwear your own father happened to favour, and at croaking time you’d acquire your share of the family farm and could marry; or they could fend for themselves, try to make themselves a fortune or win land, and thereby be able to attract the woman of their dreams and ride off into the sunset. So for these folks all over the relevant kingdoms, the king’s need for a large comitatus was a godsend; looking for a future, said the posters? Your king needs comites for his comitatus, join up now!

So from all over the various kingdoms, young men set off on their horse or on foot to make their way to Clyde Rock, or Dunadd, or Forteviot, or wherever the king’s court happened to be as it travelled over his kingdom. And this gathering had another impact; it served to create a sense of identify independent of kindred groups, an allegiance to the central authority, to bind the kingdom together. Even when, in the words of Dire Straits, they returned to their valleys and their farms, when they no longer yearned to be brothers in arms, yet they had a network of friendships and relationships which would last throughout their lives, an invisible shield when crises visited the king. Why is it, incidentally, that Dire Straits are so uncool despite having produced some seriously good music? I’ll leave that with you, answers on a postcard…

Anyway, the urge of sons to travel to court was handy. Because various kings were just about to go through various crises. Right about now.

When I say ‘right about now’ you may be wondering exactly what that means, which is a fair question. Well, I am conscious of not inflicting lots of weird names on you, so we are going to fast forward from Onuist. Though honestly, since you all seemed to manage fine with Athelred’s Egberts and things I’m not sure why I am being so thoughtful, but hey. Essentially when all’s said and done, although the path wasn’t necessarily always smooth, the successors of King Onuist of ruled Pictland after his death, and the kings of Pictland dominated the kingdoms of Alt Clut and Dal Riada, until we come to the Pictish king Constantin, who has a long reign from 775 to 820. And so it was Constantin who was in the saddle when the unlooked for crisis fell on northern Britain – I speak of course of the Vikings.

Now I feel a sense of Deja vue, and it would be deeply wrong of me to go over all that ground again that we went through with the History of England. But just to make sure we are all on the same page, a few factoids for you, just to create the basic framework. In 789, Norsemen, Norwegians, the Vikings, landed on the south coast of England and announced their arrival by bashing a king’s Reeve over the head. In 793, came the infamous raid on Lindisfarne, and we are into the thick of the Viking invasions.

Whereas it is the Danes who dominate the Viking invasions of England, it is the Norwegians who largely came to torment Scotland and Ireland – though sometimes they get called Danes, which might have been the equivalent of calling the Scots English, not sure, anyway, but calling a Scotsman and Englishman is certainly one way of keeping warm on cold winter nights should you ever want to give it a go. The Shetland Islands off the northern cost of Scotland are the closet place west of Norway, and are reachable within a day’s travel with a following wind. Over the next 100 years, the Norwegians swept over the north of Scotland and down the west coast of Scotland like the proverbial rash, like a pagan plague of locusts, thence to Ireland where of course they would found a kingdom based on Dublin.Â

The speed and progress of the Viking invasions in Scotland are not clear in detail. A bit like the same process going on in England, it is very likely that the number of reported attacks was outweighed by the actual number of attacks– since the chroniclers tended to be only interested in the outrages perpetrated against churches and monasteries; and really there are, as we have said, so few sources. But in 794, hot on the heels of Lindisfarne, came the first recorded raid on the Hebrides; in 798 the Vikings are raiding into Ireland and in 802 came the ultimate desecration, an attack on Iona, followed in 806 by another which left 86 monks butchered in its wake.

There are many questions about the progress of the Vikings and their impact in these early years of course, but maybe there are a couple we should pull out in particular. One is why they came. One of the popular theories is in pressure on resources; the idea that the improving climate led to population growth, which led to pressure on land, which meant folks had to leave and go elsewhere for their land – though that’s always seemed a strangely circular argument to me; if the climate was better, there was more food surely the land could support more people. There is the lovely story of the cycle of the Viking life, of raids in early spring, home for the farm in summer and out again for a little gentle raiding in Autumn before winter closed in. I say lovely, of course brutal and hideously destructive might be a better phrase, but in the context of a hard, marginal existence, it’s a comprehensible explanation – raiding that made the difference between being above or below the bread line; – but it doesn’t really explain why the raids started when they did – the Norwegians would surely have been aware of Shetland and Scotland before, and don’t seem to have raided.

The explanation may come in the Scandinavian trading triangle, and in the importance in the dark ages of slavery. The story is this; that by the 8th century, a lucrative trading triangle had grown up. The Swedes traded with the middle east taking furs there, and bringing silver back. In Sweden and Denmark grew up emporia, trading centres. These emporia would also fail to provide Wensleydale or le fromage de la belle France, but they would bring wine and weapons from the Franks and from the English emporia. And so you have your triangle; the Islamic world proving silver; the Franks and the English providing goods; the Danes and the Swedes linking them all, and in the process, being were enriched. Which is all very well if you were a Swede or a Dane, but not great if you happened to be a Norwegian, where the only thing you got out of it was FOMO. Actually, archaeologists have also found evidence that an alternative route was developed through some of the eastern Norwegian regions. Which once again was fine, and once again could even be described as dandy, unless you happened to live in the Norwegian westlands, such as the province of Horthaland, which were   bypassed by these routes as well. So, if you happened to be one of the Horthar living in Hortharland, you would be shuffling over to your local lord, whose job it was to give you treasure and improve your lot in life, and frankly, you’d be whining. There were all these Swedes and Danes and Oesties, all living the dolce vita while you could barely rub two goat bones together. Come on boss, pull your weight.

Now let us turn to that iconic very first entry in the ASC in 789:

“In his days came the first three ships of the northmen from Horthaland. The reeve rode there and meant to force them to the king’s dwelling, because he did not know what they were; and then he was killed.”

So, how spooky is that on a scale of 1 to 10? I don’t know about you but I’m on well over 9.5. It is the Horthar, those excluded from the riches of the triangular trade who started this influx of raiders, striving to find their own source of goods and riches; whether to find goods to take to the emporia to exchange for coin, or even coin to buy weapons and other goodies like a fine 25 year old Burgundy or St Emilion for the dinner table.


And one of those goods, one of the most lucrative of those goods would be people – slaves. At which point you might pounce on me, HA! So why did the Danes start raiding England if they were all so well off then, tell me that if you’re so clever Mr Crowther Butler weed? The theory goes that there are interruptions in this triangular trade; changes in the Islamic caliphate itself interrupting the flow of silver when they lost control of the silver mines. And so, the Danes too were forced to find another source of riches.

Another question is whether the Vikings originally came to raid or came to settle. The standard model is that the Vikings started off only with raiding, hit and run affairs, grab what you can and leave before the law arrives; and that it was not until the micel heathen here of 865 that they came with an intent to stay. Such is probably still the favoured story; but there are hints that maybe Norwegian intentions were more permanent from the start. In 794 the Annals of Ulster noted the ‘devastation of all the islands of Britain by heathens’. In 798 an Irish chronicle recorded

The heathens burned Inis Patraic, and took cattle tribute from the territories and made great incursions in both Britain and Ireland

Well, tribute sounds like an activity based on a permanent relationship, and something that would require at least some semi-permanent bases to organise. Later raids in 807 found themselves at Roscommon in Ireland, which is at least 35 miles inland which is a mighty long way for a raid.

The probable profile of the early activities of the Norsemen then goes something like this. The Horthar crossed to Shetland and thence to Britain and ravaged down the west coast of Ireland; they quite possibly established a base in the Hebrides, and then focussed on the Irish east midlands, probably remaining for as many as 3 years at a time. There’s even a suggestion that they may have already been attacking the Dal Riadan kindred in Argyle, particularly Kintyre; and maybe possibly perhaps even with the connivance of the Pictish king Constantine, in revenge for opposition from Dal Riada to his assumption of the throne of Pictland. Just a theory though that last one, a bit of speculation.

Central to this process is the question of the Shetland and Orkney Islands, which is another of our questions. What is beyond doubt, is that the northern isles became part of a northern kingdom and norse culture for centuries to come, and from early in the 800’s they are lost to Pictland. What’s not quite clear is how this happens. How long did it take – was it through the establishment of trading relationships, leading to a greater influx of settlers and the same sort of process of cultural assimilation as we’ve see elsewhere? Or was it a violent and quick genocide, the descent of the Viking longships there to wipe out the inhabitants in a brutal act of murder, to establish an early base from which to launch further raids on the rest of Scotland? Which is essentially, where we came in with our article from Nature magazine. In favour of the genocide argument is place name data – Brittonic place names are absolutely wiped out in the Northern Isles, no messing about. I quoted the figures in Nature about what DNA tells us; but some commentators go much further. Neil Oliver in his delightfully lucid single volume History of Scotland says that quote ‘the vast majority of men have Scandinavian DNA’, and concludes that the men were largely slaughtered or thrown out, and only women remained and are descended from the original inhabitants. I can’t find anything so dramatic as this; the Nature Magazine evidence is pretty high showing Scandinavian descent at 44% in the Shetland Islands; and a study in 2015 suggested 25% Scandinavian DNA in Orkney. None the less, put place names together and DNA and you have something pretty dramatic.

Against that is the absence of any mention of a dramatic destruction of the Pictish hegemony in the northern Isles. Actually, mentions of the northern isles are pretty rare; but something as dramatic as this would surely get a mench somewhere. The more recent movement in favour of assimilation rather than genocide elsewhere would suggest a slower process starting with trade and ending with cultural takeover.

Who knows who can tell. What we can say with a degree of certainty was that the takeover of the northern Isles by the Norse was the earliest event in the establishment of Viking kingdoms in Scotland; and was the most complete. Compare that 44% figure in the Shetland Islands with the Hebrides for example, where again the takeover by Norse place names was complete – but in the Hebrides DNA studies suggests only 15% Scandinavian descent.

During the reign of Constantin, we don’t get much specific information about the progress of the Vikings in Scotland. There is very little mention at all of raids or attacks into Eastern Scotland; later events suggest that Dal Riada would have been under immense pressure, and that the Norse at very least would have controlled the islands from an early date; there’s a break in Gaelic king lists that suggest a complete takeover of political authority by the Horthar Norwegians between 793 and 806; there are other significant indications of the chaos. Between 807 and 814, a new monastery was built in Ireland at Kells; and the magnificent illuminated Book of Kells moved from Iona where it was probably actually created, to a safer place, the monastery of Kells. At some point also, the relics of St Columba would also be moved – but for the moment they appear to have remained at Iona.

The Gaels were not finished yet, however. Two Gaelic kings then re-appear, but it seems that on their own, the Gaels were too weak to regain control from the Vikings; it was the dominant power in Scotland that pushed back the Norwegian dominance one more time; and so it was King Constantin of Pictland who installed his own son as king in Dal Riada, namely Domnall, who then subsequently became king of both Pictland and Dal Riada.

By 839, there was a Gaelic king in Dal Riada once more – King Aed; and his overlord was Uuen, the king of Pictland from the same house of Constantin. There is almost no record then of Norse violence in Dal Raida and Pictland, with the exception of 825 at Iona. Maybe this was a period of respite; maybe Pictland has re-established its control over its heartland after the loss of the northern Isles and the inner and outer Hebrides. The heathen wolves of the Norse seem to have turned their attention on Ireland, where there is record of frenetic and desperate warfare.

But in 839, the period of calm came definitively to an end. Uuen King of Pictland called his commitatus to his side; he called his family and his brother Bran to his side; he called to his lesser kings, to join with him to meet the most serious threat from the Norse that the Picts had faced since the Northern Isles had gone dark. The Vikings were attacking the very heart of Pictish power. Vikings warriors had landed on the northern shore of Scotland and were raiding and burning in the northern heartland of Fortriu, north of the Mounth. King Aed of Dal Riada responded to the call of his Pictish overlord; he called the warriors of the Gaelic kindred to his side, and travelled north and East, maybe up along the great Glen, to join his overlord in Fortriu. Shoulder to shoulder, Uuen, his lords, and kings, including Aed of Dal Riada, faced the new threat.

Would 839 be the year the Viking horde was turned aside at last? Or a year where the blood and tears of the picts and gaels would mingle with the mud of their native soil?

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