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