Menu Travels in Time

Mid-Argyll Theme - 17
Scandinavian Raiders and Settlers

In the last years of the eighth century, a new political and military force appeared in Scotland, sudden and unexpected. In 794 the annals record 'the devastation of all the islands of Britain by the heathens' - the Vikings, raiders from Norway.

Dál Riata was one of the most vulnerable areas, with its islands and its indented coastline, since these new warriors made their attack in ships faster and stronger than anything the Scots were used to. Dál Riata's principal monastery, Iona, was plundered in 795. Seven years later we read 'Iona was burned by the heathens.' More attacks occurred in 806 when 'the community of Iona to the number of 68 was slain by the heathens.' In 825 Viking raiders came to Iona again, killing the abbot Blathmac and the rest of the monks in their quest for treasure.

Notice that these Norwegians are called 'heathens' in these annal entries. They came from a part of Europe which had not yet been brought within the fold of Christianity. It may be that they targeted churches and monasteries, but we shouldn't assume that this was because of their 'heathen' outlook. They were looking for treasure, and churches had precious shrines, book covers, reliquaries and croziers, which were always useful as sources of gold and silver ornament.

No doubt there were also plenty of raids on secular settlements, but attacks on churches are recorded in more detail. Perhaps this is simply because the records were written by clergy and monks, and they lived in the churches which were under attack.

It is possible that before these raids began Norwegians had occasionally come here as traders. But at the end of the eighth century, whatever had gone before, they were raiders and little else. They may have built some early settlements - perhaps in Orkney or Shetland - but these were little more than bases from which Vikings could conduct their piratical raids more efficiently, swiftly descending on coastal settlements in Britain and shipping off their booty.

Some parts of Scotland appear to have been completely overwhelmed by Vikings. Orkney, for example, rapidly became a Norse-speaking realm - and remained so until the early modern period. There it seems that none of the old Pictish place-names have survived. Does that mean that the Pictish inhabitants were slain in the Viking onslaught, or at least put to flight? Or does it simply mean that the occupation was so thorough, and the connection with Norway so close, that the Pictish language simply died out, and all Pictish place-names with it?

In the Western Isles of Scotland, the Norse occupation was also extremely thorough. Following the initial raids, considerable settlement took place, and the native Celtic language was to a great extent displaced. We find some islands where most of the village place-names are in Norse, but a few Gaelic names survive in the moorland areas. Is this because the Norse seized the good farmland and the coastal fishing areas, while the Gaels were marginalised?

In some places it may be that Gaelic was completely displaced by the Norse influx, only to reappear later. As Scandinavians married into local Gaelic-speaking families, as they took land of their own and settled in it, and as they formed alliances with Scottish and Irish rulers, raiding gave way to a more complex social engagement, and the Scandinavians became Gaelicised. They also began to lose their 'heathen' epithet, as they adopted Christian ways. Nevertheless, the area continued to be known, given the Norse ancestry of its rulers, as Innse Gall, 'the Islands of the Foreigners'.

How did these changes impact on Kilmartin and the surrounding area? It must be said that these invasions and settlements are features primarily of island life. The raiders came by sea, they ruled by sea, and their power-base for a long time depended on their naval prowess and sea-trade. So while the sons of the Norsemen eventually built up a kingdom in the west of Scotland, its centre of gravity was in the islands. Remarkably there are hardly any Norse place-names in mid-Argyll, though the islands offshore abound in them - particularly nearby Islay.

Similarly, though many Viking burials are found on the islands off the Argyll shore, only one has been found on the Argyll mainland. The usual indicators of Norse settlement are missing around Kilmartin. For some reason Argyll - the 'coastland of the Gaels' - remained Gaelic.

No doubt, given the proximity of their powerful Norse neighbours offshore, and the Lordship of the Isles which descended from them, Argyll folk were part of that polity. But apart from a few words borrowed from Norse into Gaelic (many of them to do with boats and fishing), little trace has been left here of Norse culture.

Why Norsemen left so much evidence on the islands and comparatively little on the Argyll mainland is not yet understood. Could it be that they could control the sea-ways, but the vestiges of Dál Riata continued to hold sway in the mountains and glens of Argyll and never permitted stable Norse settlements on their own coast - though they could hardly prevent it on the islands? We cannot be sure, and it remains one of the riddles about the Kilmartin glen.


The map shows widespread island distribution of bólstadr place-names (= 'farm') and supposedly 'pagan' Viking burials, but none in the region around Dunadd.

Key References

Check out the following sections of this website for related information.

 

Mayo - Vestvågøy - Mid-Argyll

Travels in Time | Overview | Themes |

Timelines | 700BC to 0 | 0 to 800AD | 800AD to 1100AD |

Landscape | Mayo | Vestvågøy | Mid-Argyll | Archaeology |

Other Media | CD-ROM | Education | Exhibition | Publication |

Information | Bibliography | Project | Links | Contact |

This project has been supported by the EU as part of the Culture 2000 programme.