The Vikings in Scotland

We have learned a lot about the Vikings in Scotland from historical sources, which have provided some dates and names of notable people and their achievements. Place names can also show something of the extent of the areas once inhabited by the Viking people. On the Orkney Island and Shetland we have Egilsay (Eigil's Island) and also Buckquoy, in which the first syllable is derived from the word for barley and the last from the word kvi, which means enclosure. This coupled with the material remains found during archaeological investigations have helped to create a fuller picture of Viking life. We now have a better understanding of their ships, religions, burial rituals, building designs, industry and trade, life on the settlements, dress and weaponry and what they ate and drank.

The Vikings were probably one of the most important influences in Scotland. Sailing west across the open waters from Norway, their initial aim was to pillage and plunder and their first point of contact would have been the Shetland and Orkney in the Northern Isles. As the Viking homeland became over-populated, migration soon followed and the first more peaceful settlers arrived. They had come to set up homes in a land very similar to their countries of origin. It was not long before Viking culture, language and community became established; particularly in the Scottish islands. There they established many settlements, but they also continued their attacks on other areas of Scotland.

Vikings houses in Scandinavia were built from mainly wood, however many areas in Scotland did not have a good enough supply of trees. This meant that the Vikings had to use other materials: stone for the walls, turf for insulation in wall cavities, driftwood for large load-bearing beams to support the roof, grasses, turf and heather to cover the roof, and peat and branches for fuel.

The end of the Viking Age is traditionally set to the mid-11th century, although in Scotland Scandinavians continued to rule the islands. After three centuries of Viking occupation in Scotland, the Scottish Kings made great efforts to recover the Western Isles from Viking rule. Eventually in 1263 the Viking King Haakon IV decided that a show of strength was required to overcome the persistent aggression from the Scots. On the 1st of October 1263 they met in the Battle of Largs, which was a victory for the Scots and a defeat for the Vikings, who set fire to their stranded ships and retreated. This was the last Viking raid on mainland Scotland, but Scandinavian influence lasted into the 15th century and aspects of their influence still lingers today.

Monica Callaghan, Hunterian Museum & Art Gallery, University of Glasgow



Richie, Anna: Viking Age Scotland, 1993


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Viking sights in Scotland

Pentland Firth

Penthland Firth is the name of the treacherous strait between Caithness and the Orkney Islands. It was- and is - a very dangerous area for shipping because it has one of the most powerful tidal currents in the world. This can create tidal swell waves several metres in height. In trhe eastern part of the strait, currents up to 16 knots have been measured.

Areas where the current and the tidal swell are particularly pronounced have been given names such as The Merry Men of May and The Swilkie. The latter also sometimes creates a maelstrom or whirlpool. The name Swilkie has Nordic origins meaning something like “the swallower”. According to a legend, said to date back to Viking times and also known from the Younger Edda, the maelstrom is created by a sea witch rotating the quern that grinds salt for the sea – hence the word maelstrom (mael = grind; strom = current). The Swilkie originates from a point on the small island of Stroma, whose name also has Nordic origins: “Strøm Ø” (Current Island). The place names clearly speak of the dangers of the strait!

Right up to the demise of sailing ships, sailing through the Pentland Firth was avoided if possible. The great ocean-going voyages, for example from Denmark and the Netherlands to the Colonies in the West and East Indies, went far out beyond the Orkney Islands. Since 1822 it has been possible to sail through Scotland via the Caledonian Canal, at least with ships of up to 45 m in length. 

Mikkel H. Thomsen

The Brough of Birsay is a tidal isalnd off the north-west coast of mainland Orkeny, which is only accessible by foot at low tide. The defensibility of the island and the open access to the ocean made the area very attractive to settle. 

The earliest settlement on the island dates back to the 5th century and was possibly built by Christian missionaries. By the 7th century however, it had become a Pictish stronghold. The 9th century saw the arrival of Vikings settlers, and in the 12th century a monastery was founded. The remains of the walls of the monastery have survived, as have several interesting architectural features, the central part of the church, the space around the altar and the apse. Most of the remains that can still be seen today on the Brough of Birsay date from the Viking period.

Fact: According to The Orkneyinga Saga, Earl Thorfinn (Earl from 1014-1065) 'had his permanent residence at Birsay, where he built and dedicated to Christ a fine minster, the seat of the first bishop of Orkney' (chapter 31). It is not clear whether or not his residence or the minster were on the mainland or the island.

Viking settlements

The remains on the island show how the settlement developed during the time of the Viking occupation, although coastal erosion has caused loss of part of the area. The settlements were concentrated of the lower slope of the Island, away from the cliffs and the Atlantic waves. The earliest houses were on the western slope of the island, with the later structures down by the cliff edges on the eastern side.

The Viking hall-houses were made from stone and turf. These houses were often 20m or more in length. They consisted of a living area and kitchen separated by a wooden screen. Later additions would have been built onto the sides of the main house. The smaller buildings would have been outhouses. On the east of the island, remains have been found of a very large hall-house with a sauna or bath-house attached. It has a central hearth, benches and evidence of a drain.

The house had no byre in the end like the traditionel longhouses from the Viking Age. The Vikings here didn't need a byre because the island had had very limited grazing for animals. Cattle and sheep bones have been recovered during archaeological excavations, but the particular bones found suggest that they were from joints of meat rather than complete carcasses. This implies that that the animals were not slaughtered on the island. The islands was not a self-sufficient island and therefore dependent on the mainland for supplies 

Evidence of iron working has also been found on the island. This would have been essential for the maintenance and replacement of tools and weapons. Steatite or soapstone moulds have also been found which suggest that more precious metals were melted down and cast on the site.

Monica Callaghan, Hunterian Museum & Art Gallery, University of Glasgow & Sofie Jensen, The Viking Ship Museum

Colonsay has one of Scotland's greatest concentrations of Viking graves. One of the more spectacular graves was found at Kiloran bay and demonstrates the interaction between the pagan and Christian faith in the time og Viking settelement in Scotland. 

Viking remains in the Western Isles have often been found by chance when land erosion over time has revealed evidence of burials; through the unearthing of human bones and grave goods, or settlements; through the middens, walls or building foundations. There are a greater concentration of Viking burials remains in Colonsay, Oransay and Islay than on any of the other islands. The strength of the Viking influence on the islands and the west coast of Scotland can be seen from place names, many of which are Scandinavian, suggesting a considerable Viking presence in the area.

In 1882 one of the most important discoveries of a Viking burial site was found in the sand dunes at the Kiloran Bay on the northwest coast of Colonsay. With a rocky precipice, sandy beach with grass covered sand dunes; the bay was the perfect landing place for the Viking long ships. Excavations of the area revealed the burial of a man with a horse, along with a selection of grave goods.

The Viking Burial

The man had been placed in the grave on his left side in a crouched position in the corner of a rectangular enclosure measuring around 4.6m x 3.1m (15ft x 10 ft), constructed with stone slabs in an upright position. The horse was outside the enclosure. Evidence of iron rivets surrounding the animal and scattered about the grave-structure suggests that an overturned boat had covered the whole grave. The boat must have been at least 9m (30ft) in length.

Buried alongside this Viking warrior were a number of weapons and other possessions including;

  • a sword
  • a spearhead
  • an axehead
  • a shield boss
  • two arrowheads
  • a knife
  • a buckle 
  • sherds of a pot
  • a whetstone
  • and a silver pin. 

There was also a selection of tools vital for trading, scales, weights and measures and a selection of coins, which dated the burial after the year 850.

Also found in this burial site, at either end of the enclosure, were two slabs, each roughly carved with a Christian cross. Had they been built into the original grave-structure, it would imply that despite being a thoroughly pagan burial site, there were also Christian influences and beliefs evident within the Viking colony.

As well as the Kiloran Bay grave, there have also been two other burials with animals found at Machrins on Colonsay.

Monica Callaghan, Hunterian Museum & Art Gallery, University of Glasgow

The island of Eigg has yielded a number of Viking finds, the one with the most far-reaching consequences being two unused yet shaped stempost for a boat of typical Scandinavian design.

The Vikings used the small fertile island of Eigg, after their initial raiding parties, as a settlement and base for peaceful trading with Ireland and beyond. Many of the island's place names are Scandinavian in origin and the island has revealed a number of Vikings finds.

The Eigg stemposts

In 1878, while a peat bog was being drained on the island, an unusual find of two shaped stem-posts dating from the Viking Age were discovered. Each was made from a single piece of oak, with the inner edge cut into steps to take the planks of a boat. This find has become crucial to the interpretation of the Viking ships and the way they were built.

Though the stems were cut to their final shape there were unused as there were no nail holes in them. They were presumably placed in the bog to keep them wet until they were to be used. This find proves that the Viking shipwright did not just play it by ear but had a pre-conceived idea of the shape of the ship's hull, since he knew the number of planks and their lines before the ship was built.

Faktum: In the case of the completely preserved stempost from the Skuldelev 3 ship it has been possible to demonstrate how this pre-conceived design is based on a set of circle segments with radii that relate proportionally to each other and to the keel length.


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Monica Callaghan, Hunterian Museum & Art Gallery, University of Glasgow & Mikkel H. Thomsen

The Isle of Lewis was the most densely populated Viking colony in the west of Scotland. The number of Scandinavian village names are evidence of many Viking settlements - 99 out of 126 still exist today. 
In 1831 a great hoard of chessmen was found in a stone cist on the beach at Uig. 

There were at least 93 pieces, skilfully formed from walrus ivory and whales' teeth. It appears that they were made in Norway sometime between 1150 and 1200. They can be dated by the artistic style of the designs on the chair backs of the kings, queens and some of the bishops.

We know very little about why the Lewis Chessmen were concealed in the sand dunes, and how they were actually discovered. We do know that these unusual and beautifully carved characters from the game have become one of the most popular images of the Viking age. Each piece represents a human figure, except for the pawns, which are shaped as simple obolisks.

The knights are mounted on small horses, carrying spears and shields. Each figure has a dour expression on its face, with staring eyes and strong features. Three of the rooks are shown as the legendary savage berserkers, wild-eyed with huge teeth sunk into their shields with battle fury. Although the rook has the fierce bloodthirsty appearance we would imagine from a Viking warrior, the appearance of the kings, queens and bishops provide a more accurate image of life in the 12th century.

Fact: Of the 92 Lewis chesspieces known to us today, 11 pieces are housed at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh with the other 82 in the British Museum in London.

Monica Callaghan, Hunterian Museum & Art Gallery, University of Glasgow



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Orkney, Shetland and Caithness comprised a Viking Earldom ruled from Orkney. Nowhere in Britain does the Viking influence shine through as strongly as here. 

The majority of place-names on the islands are of Norse origin, bearing testimony to the profound Scandinavian influence, which began in the late 8th century when sporadic raids began and exiled regional leaders fled the emerging unified monarchy in Norway. To curb the piracy exerted by these exiled war-bands the Norwegian king allegedly took the islands and made them an earldom, which eventually grew strong enough to threaten Norway itself not to mention the surrounding Scottish territories. Norway regained control over Orkney, but in the 13th century its importance dwindled and it was, partly through kinship ties between its rulers and Scottish nobility, assimilated into Scotland, though Scandinavian influence continued into the 15th century.

Orkney was the seat of the earldom and when the murdered earl Magnus was canonised and his bones moved to the newly erected St. Magnus Cathedral Kirkwall became the Island's capital. 

Fair Isle halfway between Orkney and Shetland is reported in the Orkneyinga saga to have had a beacon to warn Orkney of attacks from Shetland, but the island has not revealed any archaeological evidence of Viking settlement. 

Shetland on the other hand is rich in Viking remains. While no written sources speak of Viking settlement or military activity on Shetland, the archaeological record as well as language and place names draw a picture of a rich Scandinavian legacy.

Fact: The earldom extended into the Scottish mainland with a 'bridgehead' on Caithness, where the few excavated settlements seem to indicate that Viking influence began in the 10th century.

Maes Howe (or Maeshoe) is a burial chamber on the mainland Orkney, built around 3000 BC. Though not from the viking period, it is of particular interest because of the examples of Viking grafitti on the walls. 

During the 12th century, Viking groups broke into this prehistoric tomb and carved 30 inscriptions into the walls. They left runic graffiti telling of their exploits, including descriptions of treasure, crusaders and beautiful women as well as carvings of animals on the walls.

In 1861, when the burial chamber was being excavated, it was impossible for the archaeologists to get into the original entrance passage, so instead they had to cut a shaft from the top of the mound. They soon realised that they were not the first to have broken into the tomb. All over the walls in the central chamber were these runic inscriptions.

Maes howe is one of the largest and most famous collections of runes found in Europe. The discovery at Maes Howe has confirmed what had been written in the Orkneyinga Saga. According to the story, a group of Harald Maddadson's men had tried to take over Orkney in 1150, while Earl Rognvald had gone off crusading. The raiding party had taken refuge in Maes Howe from a violent storm, as they made their way from Stromness to Firth. As they waited for the storm to blow over, the men amused themselves by carving graffiti into the walls of the tomb. The second break-in to this ancient burial chamber was in 1153, when members of Earl Rognvald's party returned from their Crusades.

Inside Maes Howe burial chamber there is a 9 m long passage, which leads to a wide main chamber, with three side-cells. The entrances to the side-cells are above floor level. The directions of the passage points to the midwinter sunset, and in December the sun shines into the chamber. The Viking graffiti comprise 30 runic inscriptions and on a corner pillar three engraved figures; a dragon or a lion, a walrus and a knotted serpent.

Writings on the walls

Some of the inscriptions talk of treasure. Examples include; 'It is long ago that a great treasure was hidden here''Happy is he who might find the great treasure''Hakon alone bore the great treasure out of the mound'. Others inscriptions show names of the men, boastful tales of their exploits and jokes.
Some of the graffiti are rather amusing; 'Ingigerth is the most beautiful of all women'. This was carved alongside a rough drawing of a slavering dog. Other examples include;

Fact: Maes Howe is not the only prehistoric monument to have been marked by runic graffiti. One of the stones of the 'Ring of Brodgar' has also been marked by the Vikings.

Monica Callaghan, Hunterian Museum & Art Gallery, University of Glasgow

  • 'Ofram the son of Sigurd carved these runes'
  • 'Haermund Hardaxe carved these runes'
  • 'Tholfir Kolbeinsson carved these runes high up'
  • 'Arnfithr Matr carved these runes with this axe owned by Gauk Trandilsson in the South land'.



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