The Orkney Islands form a small archipelago on Scotland’s northern coast. Though they may seem remote and desolate to those who don’t live there, these islands have been the center of civilation for its inhabitants for thousands of years. The islands are famous for containing some of the richest archaeological heritage in Great Britain.
When the Vikings set forth from Scandinavia in the 8th century, the Orkney Islands acted as an excellent base for raiding and trading throughout the rest of Europe and beyond. Norse Vikings quickly took control of the Orkney Islands from the local Pictish population and made it a permanent settlement site. From there, they expanded across the north Atlantic, using the Orkneys as a base for expansion, raiding, and trading with the rest of Scotland, Ireland, Greenland, and Iceland.
Though some areas where the Vikings settled were uninhabited, others such as Orkney were not. Different groups of Vikings dealt with indigenous peoples in various manners. The late 12th-century Latin history text Historia Norvegiae records that the Norse in Orkney had to defeat the local Picts in order to settle there. Place names, one of the most useful indicators of Norse presence in Scotland, indicated that nearly all Pictish names were replaced by names of Norse origin in Orkney. Though there is still academic debate as to the exact nature of Viking and Pictish interaction, the wealth of archaeological material, historical evidence (in the form of documents such as the Orkneyinga Saga), and place names reveals that Viking presence in the Orkney Islands was very strong.
From the late 8th century until the mid-15th, the Orkney Islands were dominated by the Norse. Though the islands have been Scottish for more than half a millennia, Norse influence is still felt today in many areas, including the boat-building traditions and Udal law, the Viking maritime law that is still in use.
We have begun a research project aimed at looking at Norse expansion in the Orkney islands, specifically the maritime nature of life on the islands. Archaeologists and historians have been studying Viking Orkney for decades. We would like to join this endeavor, but with a maritime focus. There are many fascinating research questions that prompted this research, such as, how does the landscape and environment of Orkney change the way that Norse colonizers utilized the sea? What types of maritime traditions did they carry over from Norway, and which were changed? Boat building, and boat burials (three of which have been found on Orkney) remained very important to Orkney Vikings. This is particularly interesting because Orkney is essentially treeless. Broader questions include: how does one look at change in maritime traditions as a group of people adapt to a new environment and way of life?
This will be a partner project to our work in Norway and may develop into field work in cooperation with Orkney and other Scottish archaeologists. Ideally, we would like to use our research in Norway as a basis for comparative studies so that we can contribute to the knowledge base and better understand Viking Orkney.
Click on the links below to learn more about the Orkneyinga Saga
Click on the links below to learn more about the Vikings in Scotland
Click on the link below to learn more about archaeology in Scotland