19th August 2018
Established 1872. Online since 1996.

How we were overwhelmed by heathens

, by , in Features

A new popular history of the Vikings by Robert Ferguson, an expert on the subject who has lived in Norway for many years, is to be published next month. Here, the author gives a flavour of what it has in store for readers.

The Orkneyinga Saga, a narrative history of the Norwegian over­lordship of Shetland and the Orkney islands written down in Iceland in about 1200, begins the tale with the establishment of a Norwegian earldom in the final decades of the ninth century. The Norwegian King Harald Finehair crossed the North Sea as part of his campaign to unify the inhabited territories of Norway under his kingship. His immediate purpose was to teach a lesson to certain vikings whose plunderings he could no longer tolerate. These vikings used to raid in Norway over summer and had Shetland and Orkney as their winter base. Harald conquered Shetland, Orkney and the Hebrides, then sailed all the way to the Isle of Man where he laid its settlement in ruins. During his campaign he fought a number of battles, winning himself territories further west than any King of Norway has done since. In one of these battles Earl Rognvald’s son Ivar was killed. On his way back to Norway, King Harald gave Earl Rognvald Shetland and Orkney in compensation for his son, but Rognvald gave all the islands to his brother Sigurd, the focsl’man on King Harald’s ship. When the King sailed back east he gave Sigurd the title of earl and Sigurd stayed on in the islands.

History involving their own ancestors was what mattered to the thirteenth century storyteller and his audience, who or what preceded them was of lesser interest. By the end of the 8th century it seems the islands were occupied by a com­munity of Picts who had been living there since the 4th century, one part of a larger tribal kingdom comprising the Northern Picts in what is now Caithness and the Southern Picts of “The Mounth”. Little is known of their society, but it was probably Christian. Accord­ing to Adomnán, an abbot of Iona in the late seventh century, and the biographer of Columba, the com­munity’s founder, the saint visited the Picts in the course of his missionary work and made some converts at the court of their king, Bridei. A bishop Cuiritán is reported to have preached the gospel to them from a base at the head of the Moray Firth, and a congregation of Pictish memorial stones in the area seems to confirm the existence of a Christian centre there. Adomnán also writes that monks from Iona were living in hermitage on the Orkneys during the 6th century, and there may have been a church in St Ninian’s Isle by the 8th century.

Stirred up by Charlemagne’s ruth­less treatment and forcible con­version of the Heathen Saxons on the north-east border of his Frankish empire, at the close of the 8th century Viking warbands embarked on a campaign of what we might now call asymmetrical warfare – or even terrorism – choosing as their first targets the Christian commun­ities that rimmed northern Britain. The annals for 794 note the “devas­tation of all the islands of Britain by Heathens”, the following year that the Isle of Skye was “overwhelmed and laid waste”. Iona, a religious site that was, if anything, more sacred to Christians even than Lindisfarne, was attacked for a first time in 795, and again in 802. In 806 the monastery was burned down and the community of 68 people killed. The monastery was attacked again the following year. Blamac, an Irish chieftain’s son who had chosen the religious life, took it upon himself to warn others to flee when Viking ships yet again appeared off Iona in 825. He stayed behind himself to bury the relics of St Columba and was tortured to death after refusing to reveal their whereabouts.

Their geographical proximity as well as the large number of Irish who had settled in Scotland over the preceding centuries – the original meaning of “Scots” is “people from Ireland” – meant that details of Viking raids on the Western Isles appeared regularly in the Annals of Ulster. Attacks on the more remote Northern Isles were not similarly documented, but the likelihood is that the first wave of violence also involved the Viking colonisation of Shetland and the Orkneys, as well as mainland Caith­ness and Sutherland. The treatment of the Orcadian Picts may have been even more severe than that meted out to the Hebri­deans. According to the 12th cen­tury Historia Norwegie the islands were occupied by Irish priests and Picts when a fleet of Vikings arrived from across the sea and “totally destroyed these people of their long-established dwellings and made the islands subject to themselves”. The names of all the towns, settlements, farms, rivers and natural features of the landscape of the Shetland and Orkney Islands are, with the obvious exception of modern names and of Orkney (“seal-island”) itself, of Norse origin. Given the documentary evi­dence of Viking violence against other regional targets a likely explanation for the vanished topon­ymy is the wholesale eviction or extinction of the indigenous people of the islands. Of the 126 names of villages in Lewis, 99 are wholly Scandinavian, an anomaly that hints at a similar scenario for the Western Isles. By the middle of the ninth century the Irish annalists were referring to the Hebrides as “Na hInnsi Gall” or “the islands of the foreigners”.

Mainland Scotland seems largely to have been spared the 250 years of torment to which the Viking bands that later became full-scale armies went on to subject the inhab­itants of the four main, independent king­doms of England. In 851 a fleet of 350 ships attacked London from the Thames and instead of sailing home afterwards camped for the winter at Thanet. It was a prelude to the arrival in 865 of what the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle called the “Great Heathen Army”, a force which, after some 15 years of fighting against Northum­bria, Wessex, Mercia and East Anglia, gained control of the east coast of England from York down to East Anglia. By the reign of King Ethelred in the 990s Viking armies under the Dane Sven Forkbeard and the Norwegian Olaf Tryggvason were extracting huge “danegeld” payments – money paid in return for being left alone – with a punishing regularity. In 1012 the Archbishop of Canterbury was captured for ransom but then murdered for their sport by a drunken group of men under the Jutland earl Thorkell the Tall, who pelted him with bones, stones, blocks of wood and the skulls of cattle before finishing him off with the flat of an axe. The loss of its spiritual head brought the faltering Wessex monarchy to its knees and within five years a Danish king, Sven Forkbeard, sat on the throne of England. By 1028 Sven’s son Cnut was ruler of a North Sea empire that comprised Denmark (with Skåne in the south of Sweden), Norway and all of England. Mainland Scotland did not attract the same large-scale military interest from the Vikings and was not part of Cnut’s empire. One of the most striking effects of the raiding and settling was to split the island fringe into two separate and thriving maritime power centres; the earldom of Orkney, where proximity to the Norwegian west coast encouraged men to bring their whole families to settle; and the Western Isles, where the pattern of settlement more commonly invol­ved a young man taking a local woman for his wife. The difference in settlement patterns is reflected in the greater density of the genetic and linguistic heritage in the Northern Isles. Early 20th century lexicographers recorded about 10,000 Norse words surviving in Shetland, where a unique form of Old Norse known as Norn was spoken until well into the 18th century, and some 3,000 words in Orkney. In 1098 power in the Western Isles was formally ceded to Norway, with the islands pre­sently becoming part of a curiously fractured Norwegian empire that linked them with the Faroes, Iceland and the two Greenland colonies. Norway retained possession until 1266 when the island chain, which included the Isle of Man, reverted to Scotland. A thousand years on, the Viking inclusion of Man as part of the Hebrides is still echoed in the diocesan name “Sodor and Man”, from Old Norse suðreyjar, “South­ern Isles”, in contrast to norðreyjar or Northern Isles. Shetland and the Orkneys remained Norwegian pos­sessions until 1469, when they were returned to James III of Scotland as part of a dowry arrangement, a provisional agreement only that turned out to be permanent. In the south, Danish rule over England lasted less than 30 years. Another 15 years on and the memories of King Cnut and his North Sea empire were all but wiped out by the greater drama of Duke William of Nor­mandy’s overnight conquest of 1066. The long and uninterrupted duration of Viking influence in the Western and Northern Isles is thus unique in a British context, although after about 1100 and the establish­ment of the first Scandinavian bishopric at Lund in Sweden it is hardly correct to refer to “Vikings” anymore, for by that time the rulers of Norway, Denmark and Sweden were always – nominally at least – Christian.

The Hammer and the Cross: A New History of the Vikings. Published by Allen Lane, £30.