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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.