In part two of Jim Henderson’s history of the Vikings, we learn about the period they spent in western Scotland, beginning at the time when they landed on Iona in the late 8th century for the first time.
The Viking Period in Western Scotland
By Jim Henderson
It is considered by historians that the first Viking foray on Iona occurred around 794 AD. The pagans from Scandinavia found buildings of religious abbeys or monasteries easy targets as few of these had defences to ward off such adversaries.
However, as the Norse first settled in the Shetland and Orkney Islands, it can be assumed that their excursions down the West Coast of Scotland began from there as well as their voyages to Iceland and Greenland.
The following year after Iona they established a base on the coast of Northern Ireland from where they explored the Clyde and travelled south as far as Wales colonising an area near Swansea and the Isle of Man and other areas of Ireland including Cork, Waterford, Dublin, Belfast, Limerick and Wexford. In the year 802 a return attack on Iona slaughtered the brethren and the timber abbey was raised to the ground by fire.
Around 839 AD the Norse targeted the River Tay, sailing well into the heart of Pictland defeating the King of the Picts ‘Fortriu’ and his brother who was the King of ‘Dal Riata’. The kingdom of the Picts fell apart and the stable existence of over 100 years, since the time of Oengus mac Fergusa (732-761) came to an end.
Over a period of many years the scene all down the west Coast of Scotland taking in Lewis, Harris, South Uist, Benbecula, Barra, Skye, Islay and Kintyre was similar. The Vikings established settlements and forged relationships with the locals with their many longships at anchor or beached in some of the protected bays and inlets whilst most of the keeps or castles by the coast were captured and occupied.
In all of the occupied Islands the Norsemen established homes, intermingling with the locals and establishing agriculture to augment their diet of game and fish. The Scotch language was mainly Gaelic, but everywhere the sound of the Norse could be heard, in most of the Islands including Arran, Isle of Man and Ireland. The leaders were appointed to oversee the occupancy with King Olaf the White governing the Clyde area from around 807 AD.
Language and place names are another legacy of the Viking period. Over a thousand words derived from the Nordic became part of standard English. For example: landing, score, beck, fellow, take, busting, steersman, skirt, awkward, birth, cake, dregs, fog, freckles, law, moss, ransack, sister, sly, smile, and window. Many place names in Yorkshire are of Scandinavian origin as are many personal family names in use today. Many of the place names in Arran are also from the Viking period.
A Viking ship burial, identified as being from the 9th Century, containing whalebone, iron rivets, nails, fragments of bronze and a coin marked ‘Olaf’ was found at Kings Cross at the southern end of Lamlash Bay. This age of the Vikings coincided with the Origin of Alba.
As a result of the Viking invasions, the Kingdom of Dal Riata, located on the western reaches of Scotland was forced to move eastwards when Kenneth MacAlpin became King of the Picts in 843 AD. Dalriadic western Scots expanded their territory both east and north to divide the Pictish Kingdom, which reformed into a united kingdom of Scots and Picts, taking the name of Alba from which was created the Kingdom of Scotland.
During the 11th century Arran became part of Sodor or South Islands, the kingdom of Man and the Isles. Following the death of Godfred Crovan (Ruler of Dublin and King of Man) in 1095 all the islands came under the rule of Magnus 111 of Norway.
During the 12th century Somerled 1113 -1164 was King of the Hebrides. Somerled and his family were banished to Ireland by the Viking because his grandfather had direct claim on the Royal accession. In 1135 Somerled assisted the Scots King David 1 1124-1153 to expel the Norse from Arran and Bute. Around 1140 Somerled was acknowledged as the King of Kintyre and married the daughter of Olaf King of Man.
In 1153 both David 1 and Olaf died creating much confusion. Somerled saw his opportunity and began wars against both the Vikings and the Scots. By 1156 he established a base at Loch Finlaggan on Islay and took on the mantle of King of the Isles. His many successes were based on the use of the ‘Birlinn’.
The ‘Birlinn’ was a ship designed by Somerled based on the Viking longship. The Scottish design was a small galley with sail and 12 to 18 oars. At the stern the craft had a central mounted rudder held by a metal pin ( design still in use to this day).The Central rudder made the smaller ‘Birlinn’ much easier and quicker to navigate, especially in shallow waters. Its size and weight also made it simple for the crew to transport over land.
In Part Three we learn more about the use of the Birlinn, and the ongoing battles for the Scottish kingdoms between the Vikings and Gaelic communities, including the Battle of Largs in 1263.