VIKING SCOTLAND by Tyr Neilsen

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The Age of the Vikings began with an attack on the Island of Lindisfarne in 793, which in the 8th century was part of the Kingdom of Northumbria, a territory that stretched from Yorkshire to Edinburgh. Over the course of hundreds of years, Vikings, mostly from Norway, extended their rule and influence across the land that would become Scotland. There were various stages from raiding to conquest, settlement, integration, and finally withdrawal, but the Viking legacy in Scotland is massive and has never ended.

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In the Viking Age, longships could sail the 300 kilometers due west of Norway, to The Northern Isles in a day. These 26 inhabited islands off the coast of mainland Scotland include Orkney and Shetland, which have experienced the first and longest lasting Norse influence of any part of Scotland. To the Norse these islands were known as the Norðreyjar.

Norðreyjar

Viking warriors played an integral part of the formation of the early Kingdoms of Scotland. As early as 839, a Norse army defeated a combined Gaelic-Pictish army somewhere in central Scotland, which allowed the MacAlpine dynasty to forge a union between Dalriada and Pictland to form Alba, which was the Scottish Gaelic name for early Scotland.

What began as Norse warriors pillaging and heading home, changed to them settling on the mainland and the islands of Hebrides, Orkney and Shetland.

Throughout the 9th century, so many Norsemen settled in these areas that in some cases they replaced local populations and the native languages. The Northern Isles of Orkney and Shetland became fully Norse in manner, custom and law, and Vikings throughout the coastal area became known as the Norse-Gaels. In the Highlands they were known as the Gall-Ghàidheil, or the ‘foreign Gaels’.

 Kong Harald Hårfagre statue, haugesund, Norway

Kong Harald Hårfagre statue, haugesund, Norway

In Norway, King Harald Hårfagre (Finehair) consolidated the various Norwegian estates into one single kingdom, and in 875 he appropriated Orkney, Shetland and the Hebridean Islands to his crown. Orkney was prized as an important strategic location and was made a great earldom whose authority extended all the way down the west of Scotland to the Isle of Man. 

Throughout the 9th and 10th century the Norse-Gaels and their fellow Norsemen used the islands to launch attacks on Alba. By the middle of the 10th century, the Norse Earldom of Orkney included large tracts of mainland Alba. The Kingdom of Strathclyde was assaulted by Vikings and Albans alike, and was assumed into the ever growing country. By 1050 the Albans forced the Norsemen from Sutherland and Caithness, and in 1058, Malcolm III became king. Malcolm's long reign of 35 years preceded the beginning of what is called the Scoto-Norman Age.

The name Scotland comes from Scoti, the Latin name for the Gaels, and by the 11th century, Scotia was being used to refer to Gaelic-speaking Scotland. At this time many areas of northern mainland Scotland were subject to the Crown of Norway, but the home of the Norsemen was far away, and there was a constant battle against the ever expanding Kingdom of the Scots.

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Suðreyjar

To the Norse, the Southern Isles, which include Hebrides, Skye, Iona, Firth of Clyde, and the Isle of Man, were known as Suðreyjar. It was in the Suðreyjar that battles between the warlords of Gaelic Scotland and the Viking Empire would have far reaching consequences, and one particular battle would shift the balance of power in Scotland.

King Malcom’s dynasty, the Canmores, and their ambition to rule as much of Scotland as possible, put them on a collision course with the powerful Viking lords. In the summer of 1158, the rival navies of Godred, King of Man, and his brother-in-law Somerled, Lord of Argyll, faced each other across the Sea of the Hebrides. 

 Romanticised nineteenth-century depictions of Godred Crovan.

Romanticised nineteenth-century depictions of Godred Crovan.

In the Battle of Bargarran in 1164, Somerled was killed. With Somerled dead, Godred, with the aid of the king of Norway, took back control of the isles. Somerled’s descendants, the MacDonalds and MacDougalls, were granted the islands of Argyll, while Godred and his descendants governed Skye and the Outer Hebrides under the Norwegian Crown.

The MacDonalds gave their loyalty to the Scottish Crown, and launched attack after attack throughout the Hebrides until Norse authority slowly subsided. In 1262, Alexander III of Scotland laid a formal claim for Scottish territories before the Norwegian King Haakon IV, who rejected the claim and responded with a formidable invasion. In 1263 Alexander defeated Haakon in the Battle of Largs. King Haakon turned homewards, but died in Orkney on 15th December 1263. 

The Kalmar Union

In 1266, the Age of the Vikings in Scotland, which had lasted for 400 years, was over. King Magnus VI of Norway signed the Treaty of Perth, and ceded the Isle of Man and the Western Isles to Scotland in return for a monetary payment. Now only Orkney and Shetland remained. 

 PLaque of King Magnus VI of Norway

PLaque of King Magnus VI of Norway

Orkney and Shetland had been true valuable Viking assets, and the Scottish Earls still held their lands as vassals of the Norwegian crown, but influence and power was shifting. Many Scots began to settle in the islands and hold important positions of influence, and in 1379 the centralizing of power was complete with the rise of the Sinclair family.

In 1380, one year after Henry Sinclair became Earl of Orkney, Norway and Denmark created a union under one crown called The Kalmar Union, which heavily favored Denmark. 

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In 1468 the Scottish king, James III, married Margaret of Denmark, daughter of King Christian I of Denmark. As part of the marriage agreement, King Christian handed Orkney and Shetland over to James as a goodwill gesture in expectation of the usual dowry payment, which was never paid. Because no dowry was paid, the last earl holding the title from Norway, William Sinclair, handed over control to the Scottish Crown in 1470.

In 1471, King James III granted Sinclair lands in Caithness as compensation, and made him Earl of Caithness. In 1472, the Danish Kingdom relinquished Shetland and the Earldom of Orkney, and the islands became part of the realm and crown of Scotland. After fighting for and holding these lands for over 500 years, a simple marriage debt ended Norse rule in Scotland. Never had a land been more fiercely held and given away so cheaply.

Viking Legacy

Vikings are a part of Scottish history, and although Norse rule ended in 1472, the influence of the Vikings has endured in Scotland. Viking/Scottish history makes up part of Scottish school and university curriculum. Nordic place names can still be found on Scottish territories, the etymology of place names such as Wick, Lerwick and Tinwald are Norse, and the names of Viking Kings still adorn street signs. Norse-Viking culture has left an indelible mark in other ways. Some Scottish words such as 'out' and 'house' are pronounced as 'ut' and 'hus',  as they are  in Norway, and many Scottish words are Viking, such as bairn meaning child, and even kilt is from the Old Norse verb kjalta, meaning "to fold". 

Highland games, called Høylandsleker in Norwegian, are events held in Scotland and other countries as a way of celebrating Scottish and Celtic culture. Some believe that Highland Games can be traced back to a sporting event created by King Malcolm III of Scotland in the 11th century. 

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A favorite sporting event at Highland Games is Scottish Backhold wrestling. Backhold is a style of folk wrestling originating in Scotland, where wrestlers grip each other around the waist at the back, and try to throw an opponent to the ground without breaking the backhold grip. Scottish backhold wrestling is incredibly alike Hryggspenna, the name for Old Norse back-hold glima wrestling. 

Hryggspenna was a very popular form of Viking wrestling, and as many regions of Scotland were under Norwegian rule or colonization until the 15th century, it is very possible that Scottish backhold wrestling has its origins in Hryggspenna.

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The Scandinavian connection and Norse culture is still a large part of life in Orkney and the Shetlands. Every year, Up Helly Aa is celebrated in Lerwick, the northernmost town in Scotland. The name Up Helly Aa comes from the Old Norse word uppi, meaning up or above, helly, from Old Norse helgr, meaning holiday or festival, and Gaelic , meaning all. It is the biggest fire festival in Europe, and is totally Norse in character. The parade of thousands holding burning braziers is led by Guizers in Viking outfits and culminates in the burning of a Viking Longship.

When Norway became independent in 1905, the Shetland authorities sent a letter to King Haakon VII which stated: 

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"Today no 'foreign' flag is more familiar or more welcome in our voes and havens than that of Norway, and Shetlanders continue to look upon Norway as their mother-land, and recall with pride and affection the time when their forefathers were under the rule of the Kings of Norway." 

At the 2013 Viking Congress held in Shetland, the Scottish Government announced plans to strengthen Scotland’s historic links with Scandinavia. In an effort to build on this plan, agencies in Norway and Scotland are working together to get the Viking sport of Glima back in the Highlands.

                                                                                               Top and bottom - James Buchanan - photos by Cristina Buchanan, taken at Old Cambus, Scotland

                                                                                              Top and bottom - James Buchanan - photos by Cristina Buchanan, taken at Old Cambus, Scotland

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