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The Vikings in Scotland

From the first raid on Lindisfarne in Northumbria in 793, it was clear to all in the British Isles that life would never be the same again. In 795, the Annals of Ulster record the "devastation of Iona of Columcille, and of Inismurray and of Inisboffin", and the arrival of the Viking raiders in Scotland. Within a few years, summer bases had been established in Shetland, Orkney, and in the Hebrides, and it wasn't long before these became year-round settlements.

The whole of the northern and western coasts of Scotland fell under the influence of the Norse rulers, nominally from Norway, but with the Earls of Orkney and the King of Mann becoming the de facto rulers of this huge seaboard, and controlling the trading routes from Scandinavia to Ireland.

Perhaps the greatest period in the Norse rule is that between 1000 and 1066, when Sigurd the Stout of Orkney had such confidence in his power that he sailed south to make himself King of Ireland. Unfortunately, he met the forces of Brian Boru and the King of Mann at the Battle of Clontarf in 1014, and fell with his famous raven banner wrapped around himself. The earldom fell into a period of squabbling between his heirs, and at once point was split three ways, but eventually his youngest son Thorfinn re-united the parts, and became sole ruler.

His influence on the whole of Scotland appears to have been considerable, including as it does the reign of Macbeth as King of Scots, and indeed Thorfinn's assistance seems to have been instrumental in placing Macbeth on the throne. So secure was Thorfinn's hold on his earldom that he left it for a year to go on a pilgrimage to Rome, helpfully transporting Macbeth on the same route.

However, the power of the Scandinavian kingdoms was turned inwards in a series of civil wars, and the western settlements were effectively left to themselves for a time, with an inevitable decline in their influence and wealth.

With Thorfinn's death in 1065, the stage was set for Orkney to continue to play a prominent role in the west, but within a year Harald Hardrada of Norway lay dead at Stamford Bridge near York, and Thorfinn's heirs Paul and Erlend escaped the defeat only with heavy losses. The last real attempt at conquest by the Vikings had failed, and the arrival of the Normans eventually also filtered through into Scotland where King Malcolm Canmore and his line consolidated their hold on the throne and slowly brought their outlying areas back under central control.

The Vikings in Central Scotland

Although the core areas of Viking settlement were in the far north and west, there was also limited settlement in Galloway by Norse-Irish incomers, and further south, Norse settlements had been established in Cumbria during the C9th. Despite this, it is normally considered that the central belt of Scotland remained firmly in the hands of the King of Scots.

However, some evidence exists that there were some settlements which at least started on Norse foundations, either from Cumbria or as incomers invited to settle the area, as place name evidence shows some settlements in Lanarkshire which are of Norse origin. Additionally, a particular type of grave marker known as a hogsback tomb is found throughout Northumbria and Cumbria, and then also in Orkney and Shetland, but only in very limited numbers elsewhere. One of these tombs is in Dalserf - how did it get there, who was it in memory of, and what was his role in the community? We will never know, but clearly there was someone with a Norse background and enough social standing to merit an expensive and specialised grave marker.

During the period from the C9th to the C11th, Scotland's borders were constantly shifting, not just in the area which now forms the border with England, but also within what is now Scotland - Galloway was effectively independent for much of this time, the Isles were rarely controllable by any King of Scots, the far north was under Norse rule (including Caithness and Sutherland, although nominally as vassals of the King), while Scotland also extended as far south as the rivers Ribble and Tees at one point. Were the borders lawless at times? Almost certainly...


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