We’ve heard about the Viking raids of the 8th and 9th centuries in previous episodes and the disruption they caused, in the north of Britain as in England. Thereafter the chronology is very tricky; it’s reasonably clear that by 1200, Scotland north of Moray was entirely Norse speaking. This is probably true also though less certain, of the western Isles. It’s less certain because of the placename evidence. In the Northern isles, Orkney and Shetland, the vast majority of place names are of Norse origin. In the Western Isles, the Gaelic percentage is much larger. Ah, you say, that’s interesting, so Gaelic culture and people survived, the impact was much less. It’s seems like a sensible and logical conclusion to which to leap, and a conclusion many once shared. It also seems to be wrong, which is irritating. More recently it’s been concluded that this greater survival is simply due to Gaels moving back into the western Isles and renaming stuff later. So the message is that the Norse swept all before them in the north and west initially at least during our period.
Okey fine, so when? If 1200 is a reasonable point in time when there’s this very Scandinavian component of Scotland in place, linguistically and culturally very different to Alba, when was it firmly established? And as I say the chronology is tricky, but guessable, let us not despair, it is guessable.
But before we can answer that, it helps to understand how the settlement took place. The traditional understanding has been that this occurred in what we might call the waves of advance approach. This describes a violent settlement in waves – so the Norse, or the Hothar as we called them, the men from Hortharland in Western Norway, hit the Orkney and Shetland islands first, kill all the blokes, get that sorted and make sure it’s fully settled, and then target the next place, the Outer Hebrides, do the same there, and then on down the coast to Argyle, and then they tip up at Dublin and Ireland and away you go. Bit by bit, advance by advance. The implication of the model is that the Norse always came with the intention of finding themselves a good looking spouse, a plot of land and mortgage and settling down with 2.2 kids and good read by the roaring open fire.
The problem is that it does seems pretty doubtful that those first Horthar came with an intention to settle down as the waves of Advance model suggests. They seem much more eager to pilfer, collect slaves, or precious metals and stuff. Or maybe trade if the fancy took them and they really felt they had to. Ok, so they did establish the odd settlement like Dublin for example; and maybe the area around Kintrye in Argyle, but apart from that, you know, not so much. Even where they did make settlements, the hinterland around such settlements were small – so, they were sort of raiding bases. As time passed, the greater attraction lay in Ireland than in the western Isles, so for quite a long time, there would have been a variety of relationships with the original inhabitants; sometimes raiding, but often trade.
In addition, it’s not entirely clear that the process of Norse settlement in the western isles was as violent as we tend to assume. I’m not suggesting that a bunch of Viking turn up one morning, politely ask for possession of your farm and family, and you wave them through, but once side by side with some violent take overs there may well have been more peaceful settlement, and inter marriage, suggested by the varied genetic mix of the islands now, far less dominated by Scandianvian descendants than in the northern Isles. Through this process many of the ideas and cultural norms of the inhabitants may well have been adopted by the new arrivals and well as the other way round; and Christianity would have been one of these, slowly being adopted by the Vikings.
Factors like these means that the pendulum of debate has swung so that the consensus now seems to favour an alternative model, that of a passing through or simultaneous settlement. The idea is that Vikings can in a disorganised, continuous stream, heading all around the north and west and down southwards to Ireland. Along the way they established settlements as they needed, and some stayed more permanently until at some point the balance has shifted from raid and forget to settle and stay. As I say, this is guessable within nice wide parameters. Critically, most of the pagan burials hang around the 850-950 period, so this seems a reasonable time period when the shift happened, until by the end of the period by 950, the Norse were coming to stay.
Arriving at a conclusion is hard, since the amount written down makes the histories of Alba look positively verbose – there’s essentially nothing. Irish and Alba’s limited sources almost never mention the area during the 9th century and before. This is probably because the centre of conflict and political power is further south with Alba and Ireland, and so the north is not mentioned much; just in the same way as the Times today warbles on about London until it’s coming out of your ears, whereas Loughborough last got mentioned in 1885. Not that I am in any way bitter, of course.
Which leads folks to dig out one of those sagas again, in particular an Icelandic saga called the Orkneyingas Saga, and this leads us to this next section, about the History of the Northern Isles, Orkney and Shetland. The Orkneyingas Saga is a rather magnificent read, and rather more down to earth than some of the other sagas, and so it’s been used as a historical document, which is difficult. The saga is written at the earliest in the 1130s, 1-200 years after the events we are talking about; it would have been based on a bunch of old oral histories, poems and ballads, the sort of thing filled with hyperbole to big up the boss, not designed for historical accuracy. Documents were of course entirely absent. So the 12th century Icelandic author would have gathered these sources together, and constructed a history which one of the books I read described, rather well, by saying that it would have been like reconstructing a history of the 2nd world war based on Hollywood movies. Some of the films would have been reasonably accurate, some of them utter tosh, like U571 just to pick one at random, and you just wouldn’t know which was which. Without corroboration, the Orkeyinga Saga is therefore at best, not reliable.
Which is a shame, actually, because it does tell a good tale. Together with our friend Snorri Sturluson and other sagas, they give a fine, and quite detailed history of Orkney at very least, and by implication of the Northern Isles. The traditional story goes like this. It relates that Orkney by the 10th century had become a nest of Norse pirates. Not sure why pirates are always in nests, but there you are. And so the first king of Norway, one Harold Fairhair, as well as bringing all Norway together, takes a fleet over to the Orkney Islands, and conquers it. He sternly forces them to give up their rights to hold land independently – Odol rights, as they were known. With the subjugation done he passes it to his lieutenant Rognvald, because poor Rognvald lost his son in the process, there there, have an earldom in the middle of the northern seas, that’ll make you feel better. And then Haraold Fairhair sets off to do a bit more subjugating elsewhere. And so the idea of an Earl of Orkney is born. However, Rognavald rather ungratefully didn’t seem that keen, and passed the earldom on to his brother, Sigurd the Mighty.
There’s a fun story in the saga about Sigurd fighting with the Scots of Northern Scotland, who were led by a man called Mael Brighte. The story goes that it’s supposed to be an arranged fight of 40 a side, no substitutes or extra time allowed. But Sigurd brings 80 instead, and wins. The Vikings did so love to cheat. It’s often said that Mael Brighte got the last laugh, because Sigurd chopped off his head, and snagged his leg with one of Mael Brighte’s teeth, got an infection and died. From Mael Brighte’s point of view, I’d have thought this something of a poor consolation.
Anyway, we pass through a stream of Earls Of Orkney, of temporary control by a variety of well named Scandinavians; Eric Bloodaxe is around for a while for example, as we know, before he uses Orkney as a base for conquering Jorvik. The Blood Axe family have something of a connection with the place in fact; Eric had some sons, some little Bloodaxes, hatchets I suppose you might call them, but the Bloodaxe juniors are thrown out of Norway by a king called Haakon, and they hole up in the Orkney Islands.
It’s all a bit chaotic and indeed uncorroborated, until we come to the first occasion where we can hang a hat on the existence of the Earl of Orkney. This is because there is a contemporary mention in an Irish Chronicle, at the famous battle of Clontarf in Ireland in 1014, where Brian Boru defeats the Vikings. One of the Norse at the battle is another Sigurd, this time called Sigurd the Stout, and he is described specifically as the Earl of Orkney. Great, so now at least we can agree we have an Earl of Orkney. Sigurd the Stout is also credited with returning those odol rights to the Orcadians, and therefore was something of a darling of the histories.
Having been a good historian by introducing a guy who has contemporary corroboration, let me blot my historical copybook by telling you about Sigurd’s Mum. Sigurd’s mum, mythically let me stress, had something of a talent for making magical banners which assured victory. Which is a useful talent in those days.There was however, a minor drawback; the bloke that had to carry the banner into battle would die, something of a disincentive. You can picture the scene. Smokey Norweign great hall, the lord and his famous warriors, ale, strong flaxenhaired Viking women, fine stories by the heroic bards, great cheers and clashes of axes and shields as the forthcoming battle is declared. Sigurd’s mum slips her lad the great Raven banner
“Svein” Roars Sigurd “You shall have the honour of carrying the glorious Raven banner before us into battle, and win immortality in Valhalla, Svein, step forward, take your destiny”
Followed by something of a deathly ‘ush, broken only by footshuffling, and weak explanations about not feeling too good, or having split nails or the like.
In the case of Clontarf therefore, Stout Sigurd sadly had to carry said Raven banner into battle himself. Not only did he lose his life but he also lost the battle so bit of an epic fail for Mum there, as my son would say. Sigurd was succeeded by another Mighty, Thorfin the Mighty, once Thorfin had seen off his brothers.
Rather like Cinead MacAilpin, Thorfin the Mighty became the ancestor for all the later earls of Orkney, he’s like the father figure, and he probably represents a historical figure for whom the 12th century writers would have had more authority. He reputedly was the grandson of a Scottish king called Mael Colium – quite probably our Mael Colium we heard about last time, the last of the Alpinids. According to the saga at least, Thorfinn the Mighty built something of a Northern Empire, visited Rome and had two sons with his wife Ingebjorg before dying somewhere around 1065.
So look, there’s a very brief potted description of the traditional history. And the question around it has to be – is any of it true? We have talked before of foundation stories, have we not. There’s one line of thought that says look, as regards the Harald Fairhair story – we’ve got the wrong Harald. Adam of Bremen in 1070 ascribes the conquest of Orkney to Harald Hardrada, king of Norway who met his Waterloo at Stamford Bridge if you don’t mind me mixing my metaphors; and some historians have said look, maybe later writers in the 12th century have just taken Hadrada’s attributes and projected them backwards to Fairhair.
There’s another theory, which has a connection with wireless connectivity in the modern age. This is one Harold, not a king of Norway at all, but the king of Denmark, called Harold Bluetooth. Harold Bluetooth was king late in the 10th century; he is also the bloke after whom the wireless technology was named. Fab Fact. Harold Bluetooth he was an expansionist king who laid the foundations for Cnut’s 11th century Scandinavian Empire, by uniting the Danes, and incidentally also converting them to Christianity. He also worked together with our Haakon King of Norway. So, the idea is; forget all the legendary stuff, the Harold Fairhair and the Sigurd the Mighties, for whom there is no corroboration outside of the Orkneyingas Saga. We know Fairhair existed for sure, but modern historians have reduced his probable area of influence very dramatically to a region of Norway, and there’s no corroboration for his conquering trip to the Orkney Islands. Let us build our story of rock not sand, and assume therefore that the first earl of Orkney is in fact the first guy who appears elsewhere – Sigurd the Stout, him of the Raven Banner at Clontarf, who we know was Earl in 1014 when he croaked. Ha. Croaked – Raven. Yup. Anyway, Sigurd the Stout would have followed nicely from a conquest by Harold Bluetooth, since Harold died in 986. Thereafter we can follow the line into better attested characters like Thorfin the Mighty.
The theory that it was Bluetooth that conquered the Northern Isles, and in the late 10th rather than early 10th century, has the benefit of explaining why Eric and the little BloodAxes found it so easy to find a home in the Orkney Islands; essentially before the arrival of the great conqueror and uniter, Harold Bluetooth, the Orkney Islands and the Shetland Islands are indeed a nest of pirates, and of farmers and local strongmen, of no great central authority.
It might also explain another slight oddity. The earldom of the Orkneys was substantial – so the question is, why was it not a kingdom? We can be pretty sure that the Earldom is indeed politically and militarily significant, because of the constant struggle they carry on with their southern neighbours, the rulers of Moray. But if the earldom had been handed to Sigurd the Stout from the hand of a King such as Harold Bluetooth with such extensive an empire, it would indeed make a bit more sense – it was a relatively small entity in the context of an empire the size of Bluetooth’s.
If this is true, I hear you snarl, why do we get the Harold Fairhair story? Well, I am glad you asked me that. A reasonably constant theme of early Anglo Saxon and Scottish history has been the creation of foundation stories that reflect and support a later reality. So what I mean by that is that if you are living in a Norwegian state in the 12th century, with no real records as to how you came to be there and just a few snippets and famous names from stories and legends, you cobble together a history that makes sense in the context that you can see around you. And by 1098 Norwegian leaders Harald Hadrada and then Magnus Barelegs had wrested control of the Earldom and the northern Isles away from Denmark. So then writers tried to explain their earlier history in the 12th century, when histories begin to be written down, they look backwards for Norwegian explanations – and therefore hit on Harold Fairhair, and Norwegian king, rather than Bluetooth, and Danish king. QED. Fascinating isn’t it? How historians of this period have to unpick the tangled skein of histories and legends lain on top of each other.
So, that brings us up to date as it were with the death of Thorfin Earl of Orkneys in 1065; or at least it brings us up to date with the Northern Isles, now an earldom under the control of the Norwegians. What about the rest of the area the Scandies invaded, the western isles and further south, the Suthreyjar? What about them, ladies and gentlemen.
You may need to consult your map again folks, at the history of England dot co blah blah. Broadly we have the outer isles, the Hebrides, and the inner islands like Skye and Islay. Islay, Vic, Islay. And then Argyle and Kintyre, but let us not forget to travel further south to the Isle of Man set like a jewel in the wine dark sea. Well, cold dark, miserable as sin and stone grey sea might be more appropriate given we are in the Irish sea rather than the Aegean at this point. And actually let us not forget Ireland and Dublin across the sea, and the most appallingly forgotten area south and west of Strathclyde, Galloway, the only area in the world that deserves the title ‘more forgotten than Loughborough’.
The Irish Sea, as we have irritatingly commented before, is a highway as well as a barrier. Over the 9th and 10th century, the Ui Imarr, the family and descendants of Ivar the Boneless had fought and contended with the Gaels the Irish and the Angles. At last when Amlaib Cuaran, or Olaf Sihtricson if you prefer, was defeated by the Irish at Dublin in 980 and retired to Iona, and the age of the Ui Imarr was over.
Not that the age of the Vikings was over, but Amlaib Cuaran was the last of the big players as far as the Norse were concerned, the last man who might have forged a larger kingdom over Ireland and the western Isles. We are left with a loose collection of islands and lordships, over which periodically individuals probably tried to impose some sort of control, but left little long term imprint.
The Hebrides and islands such as Islay and Skye, and further south maybe including Kintyre therefore, becomes to be called the Southreyjar, or Southern Islands; As opposed to the northern islands of Orkey and Shetland; or alternatively the Innse Gall, or islands of the foreigners, or strangers. The region very likely had little political structure, and such as there was may well still have been very fluid and informal. Parallels have been drawn with the organisation of the Swedish interior; assemblies of freemen, who elected lawmen to preside over public and joint decisions. Each island or Island group may have had their own assembly; and from time to time they might join with one or other of the dynastic rulers from Ireland or Scandinavia, Alba and so on for specific ventures.
Particularly tricky to understand is the situation at Iona, the holy island; here on the one hand Amlaib Cuaran was able to retire to pray; equally kings of Alba continue to be buried from time to time; the island of Iona was of course slap bang in the middle of the western Isles you’d imagine dominated by the Norse. Now it might be that Iona and bits of old Dal Riada had somehow been retained by the kings of Alba; or it could simply be that the norse were amenable to burials happening peacefully on their territory – we really do not know which. But in general what’s clear is that despite the Ionan connection, the attention of the Kings of Alba was not on the western Isles or Argyle. From the later perspective of the dominance of Gaelic culture this seems counter intuitive and strange; we might think they’d be fighting hard to regain the lands of the roots. But not so; the western Isles are left very much alone, very much dominated by the Norse.
If you are not already aware of the Lordship of the Isles, then take my word for it, the massive Lordship which brought together the western isles and Man will become a political constant, until it is finally totalled in 1493. The earliest reference we get of this later Lordship of the Isles comes in our period in 980; the term is used for the first time by Irish chronicles, referring to half of the brotherly team Maccus and Gothfrith; Gorthfirth is referred to as ri innse Gall, King of the Islands of the foreigners. Any sense of unity, though, would disappear into the mists again until the end of the 11th century.
The last part of this mix then is the area to the south of the isles and Argyle, the Irish sea bounded on one side by Ireland, and the other North West England and Cumbria, and South West Scotland, modern Dumfriesshire, Galloway and Ayrshire; and slap bang in the middle of it the Isle of Man. Man was probably closely connected with the Britons of North Wales and Anglesey until the Viking ships swept into the Irish sea and cannot have failed to see the value of Man; quite early, by the 870s Man was controlled by the Norse. But then there is a major oddness, oddness personified, odd ness in spades; because the language of Man was not Norse but instead Goidelic Celtic, Q Celtic, the Celtic of Ireland rather than the old Britons. So that’s weird. The situation on the mainland, SW Scotland and North West England was much more confusing, a balkanised mixture of languages, Brythonic, English, Norse – but also certainly Gaelic. And yet we also know that after the fall of Dublin in 902 there was an exodus of Norse and significant Scandinavian settlement on mainland Britain. What is going on ladies and gentlemen, why does this not lead to dominance of Norse as it did in the western Isles?
It seems, counter intuitively, that the Gaelic language was brought into Man and South West Scotland by the Scandinavians. It must have come along with their households, servants and allies that they brought with them from Ireland, and it was their language, rather than that of their masters, which put down roots and became Manx. The same process did not happen in North West England, though. We do know there is some Irish settlement, because of placenames like Ireby, which means ‘farm of the Irishman’.
Again, the region is as poorly reported and written about as the Western Isles. Just a few names creep out. One of the is Gallgaedil, a word translated as ‘the Gaelic speaking foreigners’. It’s a word that becomes the basis for Galloway, in the South West of modern Scotland. The Gallgaedil are recorded in Irish chronicles from the late 9th century involved in wars in Ireland, and again the odd name survives, one of the them Caitil Find. This name has got some commentators very excited, because they have linked the Caitil Find of the Gallgaedil with an Icelandic tradition of a man with a spookily similar first name – Ketill. Ketill Flatnose was supposedly sent by Harald Fairhair to conquer the Suthreyjar for him, did the job and then squeefed on the deal and refused to pay tribute; was he this same Caitil Find? Actually, it seems unlikely for many reasons; Ketil is a common name, and there appears to have been little connection between the western Isles and Man at this point. One name that does escape is that of Suibne [side-ney], recorded as a king of Gallgaedil who died in 1034. It’s a Gaelic name; and it is likely that by the 11th century the Gallgaedil dominated a large area of SW Scotland, and came up against the kingdom of Strathclyde. But the very fact that the name of just one king survives suggests that the area was as politically Balkanised as it was linguistically balkanised, a soup of small groups and warlords coalescing for a while to achieve some common objective, alliances which would dissolve into warfare just as quickly.
There is a more significant name that emerges later in the SW though, later in the 11th century in the time of Malcolm Canmore. Echmarcach was at various times king in Dublin, king in Mann and then finally King in Galloway. Various theories are advanced about his progress westward – maybe he was king of the Isles for a while, maybe he was a rather unsuccessful jobbing king if you like, removed from one role after failing a detailed performance improvement plan only to get himself a job in another similar job – a bit like football managers. Or it could be, and given that he meets with the mighty Cnut this seems like a reasonable option, that Echmarcach had, for a while, united a kingdom across by the Irish sea that comprised Dublin, Mann and Galloway. If he did he really ought to be better known, for that’s quite an achievement.
There we are then, the 11th century world of Northern Britain for you, by golly it’s not straightforward is it. To summarise, and I urge you to head map-wards on the website; the Scandinavian Northern Isles, Caithness and the earldom of Orkney, becoming politically united under Norwegian leaders like Thorfinn. The Scandinavian Western Isles stretching round the Atlantic seaboard, free form, independent, localised, Norse. The Gallgaedil of the South west, similarly amorphous, fluid borders between them and the Angles of Northumbria and Britons of Strathclyde; Strathclyde itself, mysterious and beleaguered, stretching from the Clyde all the way down in an arc to south of the Gallgaedil into NW England. Against this backdrop, Alba looks integrated and centralised.
But remember that Alba itself is divided between two parts – the southern Tay basin, and increasingly the lands of Lothian to the South, and the north, Moray north of the Mount, where the Mormaers may well have considered themselves as rival contenders to the throne of Alba.