The kingdom of Scotland

Tim Clarke’s book “The Makers of Scotland” might enlighten quite a few. The kingdom of Scotland was made from the unification of Dalriata and Pictland in the face of Dalriata losing the western isles and Northumbrian invasion into Pictland. After the battle of Largs, the Norse became Scottish along with the Picts, Dalriata, Norse and Angles from the northern parts of the kingdoms of Strathclyde and Northumbria. The new external threat driving the Unification of the areas was the power base that was forming into England. Though for many years (until the time of the Stewards, Royal Stewart) the Western Isles remained a type of Jarldom and were subject to one Man was “Re innish gall”, Mcdonald Lord of the Isles

Scandinavian Scotland refers to the period from the 8th to the 15th centuries during which Vikings and Norse settlers, mainly Norwegians and to a lesser extent other Scandinavians, and their descendents colonised parts of what is now the periphery of modern Scotland.

The Norse Viking age peaked between the 9th and 12th centuries, when Scandinavian seafarers conquered new lands, settling Orkney, Shetland, Iceland and Greenland, and establishing colonies in Scotland, England, Ireland, France, North America and Russia.

“In this year fierce, foreboding omens came over the land of Northumbria. There were excessive whirlwinds, lightening storms and fiery dragons were seen flying in the sky. These signs were followed by great famine, and on the 8th of June the ravaging of heathen men destroyed God’s church at Lindisfarne”

Lindisfarne, the Holy Island

Lindisfarne Priory

The year was 793. The Holy Island of Lindisfarne lies of the northeast coast of modern England, but in the 8th century it was part of the Kingdom of Northumbria, a territory that stretched from Yorkshire to Edinburgh. Earlier, in 635 a mission from the Abbey of Iona in the west of Scotland, led by St Aiden, established a monastery on the tidal island; and it became the evangelical centre for the Celtic Church in this powerful Anglo-Saxon realm. It would be home to the famous St Cuthbert, and was where the historian, the Venerable Bede would write his chronicles.

Medieval monasteries were beacons of light during the Dark Ages; places of learning and study, religious teaching and seats of subtle political power. As such they were patronised by kings, gaining vast revenues and lands as a consequence. Many were laden with gold and silver, while others held priceless treasures like manuscripts and saintly relics. Poorly defended, and often coastal, they were soft targets for anyone raiding from the sea; and with the attack on Lindisfarne in 793 by the Norse a new chapter in Scotland’s story was begun – the Age of the Vikings.

The Age of the Vikings

Scandinavia in the middle ages was a patchwork quilt of semi-kingdoms, ruled over by opportunistic warlords. Like most of northern Europe its economy was based on farming and fishing; but unlike the rest of the continent the Norse hadn’t yet converted to Christianity and this hampered trade relations with traditional markets. This in turn may have precipitated the dramatic development in sea craft and boat building techniques allowing them access to new markets. A population expansion at home seems also to have placed pressures on resource availability, especially along the fjord coast of Norway; which in turn led to a period of instability. This, plus a myriad of reasons collective and personal, resulted in raiding parties crossing the North Sea by the end of the 8th century.

These fierce raiders were known as ‘Vikings’; a Norse verb that meant literally to ‘go raiding’; the raiders themselves were the Vikingr. The Vikings don’t relate to a specific ethnic group, rather it describes the activity and those doing it. However, in the British Isles the term became synonymous with the Scandinavian people generally. Over the course of the next 500 years the Viking Norse would extend their rule and influence from Moscow to Africa, Ireland to North America; but the main group to affect Scotland were the Norwegians. The story of the Vikings in Scotland is complex and changes through time and space, and coincided with the formation of the early Kingdoms of Scotland and Norway. There were various stages from raiding to conquest, from settlement and integration to collapse and withdrawal, but the legacy is massive and the influence reaches to our own time.

The Viking influence in Europe

Following the surprise attack on Lindisfarne in 793 the Vikings then hit the mother abbey on Iona itself a year later; wreaking havoc. Iona was part of the Gaelic Kingdom of Dalriada, which was itself a subordinate realm to the Kingdom of the Picts in the east and north. It was unable to cope, or come to Iona’s defence, and so the Vikings came again and again, including the great slaughter of the monks in 806.

Dalriada had once been an extensive sea kingdom, linking the coastline of Argyll with the fertile lands of Ulster through a network of islands and sea lanes; and the Viking warlords saw the true potential here of combining their nautical abilities with this natural crossroads. They had already established a strong bridgehead and base on the Orkney and Shetland Islands, and the Hebrides would provide them with a fertile platform to continue their raiding into the Irish Sea; and to Ireland itself. The west coast landscape of island and fjord was also similar to their homeland, which must have been a further attractive feature in securing this area.

Fjords of Scotland – so similar to Norway

Throughout the first half of the 9th century more and more Norsemen, and women, were settling out the Hebrides, Orkney and Shetland; in some cases replacing the local population and removing all trace of native languages. These were no longer the wild warriors coming in on the morning tide, pillaging and heading home. These people were here to stay. This created tensions with rulers in the rest of the country. In 839 a Norse army defeated a combined Gaelic-Pictish army somewhere in central Scotland: a disaster that allowed the MacAlpine dynasty to fill the vacuum created; and forge a union between Dalriada and Pictland to form Alba, the embryonic Scotland.

Unification was also sweeping across Scandinavia. In the 870s Harald Finehair consolidated the various Norwegian estates into one single kingdom; and in 875 he annexed Orkney, Shetland and the Hebridean Islands to his crown. The greatest hour of the Viking Age in Scotland was dawning. Orkney was raised to a great earldom, befitting its prized strategic location, and under the rule of powerful earls it was at times semi-autonomous, extending its authority all the way down the west of Scotland to the Isle of Man. The Hebrides were more of a loose confederation, nominally controlled by Norway, but often pulled between the lordships of Man and Orkney. Yet the islands of Argyll, particularly Islay played a significant role as a base by which the Norse could shore up their rule in Ireland and launch attacks on Alba.

By the 10th century the Norse throughout the Hebrides and parts of the Mainland had settled, intermarried, exchanged language and culture and had become the native stock; known as the Norse-Gaels. To the Irish and the Gaelic speakers of the Highlands they were the Gall-Ghàidheil, or the ‘foreign Gaels’. Even today the Hebrides are known as Innse Gall in Gaelic, meaning the ‘Islands of the foreigners’. This mixed group were clearly seen as being of different heritage and language; and contemporary chroniclers in Ireland and England identified them as a population differing from the Gaels and Norwegians equally. This enigmatic group are the ancestors of the Gaelic speaking Hebridean peoples today.

By comparison, the Northern Isles of Orkney and Shetland were fully Norse in manner, custom and law; having been thoroughly settled from early on, and by the middle of the 10th century the mighty Earldom of Orkney included large tracts of mainland Scotland as well. This was the high water mark of Viking Scotland. In the south a new star was rising.

Throughout the 9th and 10th centuries the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England had toppled like dominoes to the Viking Danes, who established a huge empire centred on York. The Scottish kings took advantage and snatched Lothian from Northumbria. The Kingdom of Strathclyde, having too been battered by Vikings and Scots alike was assumed into the ever growing country; and by 1050 the Scots had even forced the Norsemen from Sutherland and Caithness. In 1058 Malcolm III became king; and his dynasty, the Canmores, had but one ambition: to build their rule and territorial holdings to the greatest extent possible. It would put his descendents on a collision course with the powerful insular Viking lords, with far reaching consequences.


It was the summer of 1158, and two rival navies faced each other across the Sea of the Hebrides; one led by Godred, King of Man, the other by his brother-in-law the upstart Somerled, Lord of Argyll. It was yet another clash between warlords in this most contentious of arenas where Gaelic Scotland met Viking empire; but the outcome of this battle would alter the balance irrevocably.

For nearly 400 years Norwegian Vikings had first raided and then settled the Irish Sea, Hebrides and the Northern Isles, establishing a substantial territorial empire of sorts. Across this Norse world several large earldoms and semi-kingdoms had emerged by 1100, all vying for power and focused on controlling as much of the west as possible. The Kingdom of Mann, centred on the Isle of Man was a realm that included parts of Ireland and all of the Hebrides; and a force to be reckoned with. Nominally, the king was subordinate to the Crown of Norway; but Norway was far away, and often her kings were weak. So Mann, like her symbiotic twin in the north, Orkney, ruled the Atlantic with impunity. The perpetual thorn in their sides however was their near neighbour, the ever expanding Kingdom of the Scots.

The first half of the 12th century had seen the rise of the Canmore dynasty; and no Canmore exemplified the authority and control of the state more than David I. As the younger son of Malcolm III he’d been brought up as a hostage in the court of William II of England for his father’s good behaviour. However, David ingratiated himself into the Anglo-Norman world and learned its philosophy on kingship and nation-building; and learned well. By the time he reached maturity he was the perfect image of a feudal lord; and following his brother’s death he headed north to claim his throne.

Across Lowland Scotland he established Royal Burghs, built cathedrals and monasteries, and made the native nobility from the Tweed to Caithness part of a structure of obedience. In a stroke he swept away the essence of the old Celtic aristocracy, it was quite the coup. David was an astonishing monarch, perhaps the greatest in Scotland’s history. He extended his authority south into England, almost to York and elevated St Andrews to an archbishopric. It is a spectacular reign. He also recognised good allies when he saw them, and Somerled was top of the list.

Somhairle MacGillebride, or Somerled, was born in the Norse-Gael world of Argyll early in the 12th century. He was the son of a Gaelic nobleman and a Norse mother, a typical union in those days. Somerled means ‘summer wanderer’ and is a purely Viking name; yet for all that, his passion and drive was entirely Gaelic. His father Gillebride, who for whatever reason had been robbed of his land by the Norse, was forced to Ireland; and the fire in Somerled’s belly as he returned to Scotland in the 1120s was to restore those lost estates. He was spectacularly successful, and so he kept going. By 1130 he was Lord of Argyll, Kintyre and Lorne; it was an incredible achievement. Holding the mainland was one thing, controlling the islands however was quite another.

Ever the political barometer, David I began to suspect a sea-change in the west: this Somerled was no ordinary warlord. He may have been a gall-gàidheil, or Norse-Gael, but his loyalty was biased to his Scottish ancestry, so David began making friendly noises. Somerled wasn’t fighting to extend the authority of the Scottish crown, but pursuing his own agenda of conquest and political authority. That said, the Scottish king would make a powerful ally, and was far away enough so not to be a nuisance. For David, here was a loyal man who might overthrow the Norse in the Hebrides; and at no personal cost to himself. Both cut from the same cloth, the two men hit it off; and Somerled placed his sword in the king’s hand as his free vassal in the west.

In 1140 the strongest warlord in the west was Olaf of Mann; and that year Somerled married his daughter Raghnailt. This gave him some control over the Inner Hebrides, and placed him in the heart of the Manx court. Over the course of the next decade he created lasting alliances, secured his powerbase, built a substantial fleet and moved his chess-pieces into position. In 1153 Olaf was killed by his nephews, and his son Godred became king. However there was discontent and his cousin Dugall Ottarsson planned an overthrow. He and his brother approached Somerled and asked for his support, which he wholeheartedly gave.

David I had also recently died, and was succeeded by his 12 year old grandson, Malcolm IV. There was a scramble at court between various factions looking to control the boy. So, with division in the east and internal strife in the Isles, Somerled saw a chance to further his own ambitions, and went to war. A showdown was looming, and the future of Viking Scotland hung in the balance.

South Islay and the Battle of Epiphany

In early January 1156 the two fleets met off the south coast of Islay, and Somerled attacked. The Battle of Epiphany, as it is called, was inconclusive; so the two leaders sat down and reached a compromise agreement. Somerled would have the islands of Argyll including Mull and Islay, while Godred would keep the rest including the Western Isles and the Isle of Skye. But it was an uneasy peace, and two years later they were back at it again with a second sea battle. This time the result was in no doubt: Somerled had smashed the Manx fleet, and Godred fled the scene.

Somerled’s empire now stretched from Lewis to Man, and he styled himself as the ‘King of the Isles’. Nominally he held the islands from the Norwegian Crown, but in reality he ruled as a free prince, and gave his loyalty to the Scottish king. That loyalty did not stretch to royal advisors, and one family in particular – the Stewarts were flexing their own muscles and encroaching into Somerled’s mainland territories in Argyll. So, in 1164 he mustered an army to take on the Stewarts in their homeland of Renfrew. Little is known about the Battle of Bargarran, except that Somerled was killed or assassinated and the Stewarts were victorious sending the Islesmen fleeing.

With the mighty Somerled dead, Godred, and probably with the aid of the king of Norway seized the moment and launched an attack against the Isles, and took back control. As per the agreement, Somerled’s descendants, the MacDonalds and MacDougalls were granted the islands of Argyll, while Godred and his descendants governed Skye and the Outer Hebrides; all theoretically under the Norwegian Crown.

The MacDonalds however gave loyalty to the Scottish Crown for their mainland processions, and in reality this extended to the islands as well. That said, they like Somerled before them did so free and not as feudal vassals. They would style themselves the Lords of the Isles. By 1200 authority in the west and Inner Hebrides had shifted to Scotland, and was extended to Skye by mid century leaving only the Outer Hebrides. Throughout the 1250s and 60s Alexander III launched attack after attack throughout the Hebrides, and Norse authority slowly ebbed. Finally, in 1263 he defeated the Norwegian king, Haakon IV at Largs. At the subsequent Treaty of Perth, signed in 1266, Norway relinquished all claim to the Hebrides. The Age of the Vikings in the west, which had lasted for 400 years, was over. Now only Orkney and Shetland remained.

In late 1263 the Norwegian king, Haakon Haakonarsson, and his storm-damaged fleet limped into the sheltered waters of the Orkney Islands: the old man was ailing, and with him the dreams of a Viking empire.

Vikings of the Hebridean Islands

Scapa Flow

Earlier in the year Haakon had left Norway and crossed the ocean to stamp his authority over the Hebridean Islands, west of Scotland; which had been assailed and claimed by the Scottish king, Alexander III in 1262. For decades, the Scots had tried to buy the islands from the Norwegians, and time and again Haakon refused – he and Norway were at the height of their power, and he was determined to maintain it. Frustrated, and with his own lofty ambitions, Alexander seized the islands, forcing a response. Eventually, the two forces met off the coast of Largs on the Clyde. The battle was inconclusive, but being so far from home and with winter approaching Haakon decided to take his fleet north to Orkney and launch another campaign the following spring. En-route his ships were smashed by Atlantic gales and ferocious seas; and both he and his fleet arrived broken into Kirkwall. On the 16th of December he died.

His only surviving son became king; but unlike his warrior father Magnus VI was a peacemaker, and he decided to enter into talks with Alexander over the future of the islands. The protracted negotiations resulted in the Treaty of Perth in 1266, whereby Norway recognised Scottish authority and sovereignty over the Hebrides and Scotland acknowledged Norse sovereignty over the Northern Isles. Scotland was also obliged to pay an annual fee to Norway to compensate their loss. With the signing of the treaty, the once great Viking world of the Atlantic was reduced to the Orkney and Shetland Islands. Here the strongest affinity lay, and they remained a truly valuable asset.

Shetland Islands

Shetland actually lies closer to Norway than Scotland, and Orkney had long been a pivotal crossroads between the Atlantic and the North Sea; so it is no surprise that these island groups were captured by the Vikings early in their expansion southwards. It is not clear whether the Norse, who first came as raiders and then as settlers, wiped out the local population, assimilated with them or a combination of both – evidence points to all three depending on the island. Orkney quickly grew to a position of power in the new Viking world, controlled by fierce warlords. In the late 9th Century, and probably in response to attacks against the homeland, the Norwegian kings extended direct rule, and established an earldom loyal and subject to their own Crown. That was the theory anyway; very often however they were a law unto themselves, requiring chastisement from their distant masters.

Like the kings of Dublin and Mann, the earls of Orkney were powerful Norse rulers of what was effectively a sea kingdom, with their authority often extended deep into mainland Scotland as well. At one point both Caithness and Sutherland as far as the River Oykel came under their jurisdiction. But, these halcyon days were long gone as the ink dried on the Treaty of Perth. The first Earl was Rognvald Eysteinsson who died around 890; and from there a series of dynasties ruled until 1231, when Earl Jon Haraldsson was killed. Shetland was ceded from the earldom in 1194 and brought under direct royal control following the Battle of Florvåg; and by 1200 the earls held their lands in Caithness from the Scottish Crown directly. The winds of change were blowing through the north, and in 1236 Haakon bestowed the earldom on Magnus, Earl of Angus – a Scot.

St Magnus Cathedral – Kirkwall

The Scottish Earls of Orkney still held their lands as vassals of the Norwegian crown; but there is no doubt that influence was shifting to the south. Many Scots now began to settle in the islands, and held important clerical positions within the governance of the earldom; the bishops of the mighty St Magnus Cathedral also came from the south and with them came a taste of feudalism. In 1379 this relationship and the centralising of power was cemented when the Sinclair family took office under Earl Henry, Baron of Roslin.

The Sinclairs were textbook feudal lords on the make – they originated in France, came to England with William the Conqueror and made their way to Scotland by the end of the 11th century, where they carved out some territorial holdings. William Sinclair led the Scottish army against Haakon’s forces at Largs, and a grateful king gifted him the rich lands of Roslin near Edinburgh as a prize. Now the spectre of the Sinclairs rose once more, and held claim to the last bastion of Norse rule: Orkney itself.

A year following the accession of Henry Sinclair as earl, Norway and Denmark entered a personal union under one crown. Known as the Kalmar Union, influence was weighted heavily towards Denmark, and Norway along with its possessions came effectively under the rule of the Danish kings. In 1468 the Scottish king, James III married Margaret of Denmark, daughter of Christian I. As part of the marriage agreement, the Danish king handed Orkney and Shetland over to James as a goodwill gesture in lieu of the usual and expected dowry payment. The dowry was never paid, so in 1470 the last earl holding the title from Norway, William Sinclair handed over control to the Scottish Crown. A year later James granted him lands in Caithness and raised him to Earl of Caithness (which the Sinclairs still hold) as compensation: it was a done deal.

In 1472 the Danes formally agreed that Shetland and the Earldom of Orkney were forever ceded and part of the realm and crown of Scotland. And thus, a simple marriage debt secured the last piece of the Norse jigsaw – a land held by Norse warlords for over 500 years: where kings, earls, princes and priests had fought and died for control of the north. Never had a land been more fiercely held, and given away so cheaply in the end.

The End of Norse Rule

Up Helly Aa

Although formal Norse rule in Scotland ended in 1472, the influence of the Vikings, their language and culture has endured here in the Northern Isles, and to a certain extent in the Hebrides as well. 600 years of rule left an indelible mark: from the celebrations of Up Helly Aa on Shetland to the tiny remnants of Udal Law still contained in landownership; from the Scandic Cross on the flags, to Nordic place names and a dialect that just about retains a hint, a flavour of Norn – a language spoken until about 1850 (similar to modern Icelandic). Orkney and Shetland are caught between two worlds: at once, both Scandinavian and Scottish. Here the legacy of the Vikings isn’t carved on ancient tombs, or remembered in crumbling, dusty chronicles; no, here in the long shadows of the north  it lives on with a vibrancy in the people of these unique islands.

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