A brief introduction to Norse expansion in Scotland

A brief introduction to Norse expansion in Scotland

Dates of Contact

Viking migrations began at the end of the 8th century.  Contact with northern Scotland began relatively early as the islands of northern Scotland (Shetland and Orkney) were a natural base for the Norse due to location.  The islands are located approximately half way between Ireland and northern England, two of the most profitable raiding and trading locations; Iceland and Greenland are a bit farther away.   With a good wind, the journey from western Norway to the Shetland Islands was a mere 24 hours.  After that, Orkney, the Hebrides, and the Isle of Man were but a short journey.  Much of the path to the Irish Sea was sheltered by the Scottish skerries and islands, making it possible to stop at night.  The proximity to Norway made it possible for traders and raiders to spend the summer season in the British Isles but return to Norway for the winter (Roesdahl 1999).  However, other than the raids on the monastery on Iona (795, 802, 806), the date of contact and settlement with Scotland is unknown.  While it is possible that there was contact prior to the raid on Lindisfarne in 793 AD (the traditionally accepted date for the beginning of Viking contact with Great Britian), evidence for this has yet to be found.

Reasons for Expansion

Different sources provide various reasons for Viking expansion.  According the rune stones and Scandinavian skaldic poems, honor and loot were the primary motivation for expansion.  Historic sources from western European have suggested that Vikings first sought “easy money” in the form of looting.  With time, they began to establish trading bases that allowed them to become permanent residents, sometimes overtaking land inhabited by indigenous peoples (Roesdahl 1999).

Another cause for expansion is attributed to climactic change at the end of the first millennium AD.  A warmer climate during the Viking era made sea travel and westward expansion a more viable option than it had been in the past.  In addition, it contributed to the development of more advanced agricultural practices that lead to better access to resources and population growth (Vikings in Orkney Guide).

Nature of Contact

Much of Scotland would have looked familiar to the Vikings, with its steep mountains and low, fertile fields.  Depending upon the region of origin of the Norse settlers, they may have had to make very few modifications to their lifestyle to survive and thrive in Scotland. In particular, James Graham-Campbell theorizes that “the lush greenery of Orkney, parts of northern Scotland and the machair of the west would have seemed attractive to incomers from other parts, who had left behind small farms wit fragmented holdings” (Graham-Campbell 1998).

Initial settlement in Great Britain was often in the form of over-wintering for raiding and trading parties (Roesdahl 1999).  Though some areas where the Vikings settled were likely uninhabited, others, such as Orkney, were not.   The Historia Norvegiae, the late 12th-century Latin history text, records that the Vikings had to defeat the inhabitants of Orkney in order to settle there.  Archaeological evidence has revealed local farms that were overtaken by Vikings.  Udal on North Uist contains “signs of unrest”, while a number of graves in Norway had Scottish goods (Roesdahl 1999).

2017-03-02T10:53:41+00:00Research Projects|0 Comments