Scotland played an important role in Viking raiding, trading, and colonization; and the Vikings played an important role in the history and national identity of Scotland. While several references in surviving sagas and other Norse lore strongly state that Scotland was best avoided – being a land of fierce savages and abominable weather – many Vikings obviously ignored the advice. In addition to the rich supply of archaeological evidence, Scotland boasts some of the highest Nordic DNA outside of Scandinavia, and shares many cultural similarities with Norway. Within a relatively short period of time in the early ninth century, Vikings had taken enough territory in Scotland to form their own kingdom there (called Lothlend, or Lochlainn), which at its height extended influence from Dublin to York. For the natives of Scotland, it was not just the active influences of this Norse presence, but also their reactions towards it, that forged many disparate tribes into one people.
The motivation for Viking conquest/colonization in Scotland is immediately apparent upon studying any world map. In the Viking Age (roughly 793-1066) much of the energy of Scandinavia was focused outward. The Norse realized that through daring, and the use of their technologically-advanced dragon ships, they could gain far more wealth and land than they could ever expect to gain at home. Sailing out from Norway, Denmark, and Sweden towards the rich monasteries, fertile fields, and abundant resources of Ireland and Britain, the archipelago of islands that form the west of Scotland would make perfect base camps for armies to amass and trading posts to flourish.
These 790 Scottish islands, including those of Orkney, Mann, Skye, Shetland, and the Hebrides are also perfectly situated to receive goods (and retreating forces) back from Ireland and Britain, as well as Iceland and lands further west. The fjords and hills of these windswept havens even looked a little like the homelands the Norse had left behind. Meanwhile, the natives of these islands – while certainly brave and hardy people – could rarely have possessed the military organization to resist Vikings that landed in any significant number. Western Scotland, therefore, offered what we could call the Viking dream: in the pioneer days of the early ninth century, someone who owned a few ships could possibly win themselves their own island, and the freedom to pursue their ambitions as far as their fate would take them.
The mainland of Scotland was another story, though. Centuries before, a few failed campaigns had taught the Romans (even at the height of their imperial strength) that it was better to build a wall to keep the natives of Scotland out than to try to conquer them. The Romans even had to pull back from their Antonine Wall and build the better Hadrian’s Wall further south. The Saxons had fared no better, and so their dominion stopped in Northumbria. By the time the Vikings came on the scene, what is now Scotland was a patchwork of competing kingdoms, and each of these kingdoms was a patchwork of competing tribes and clans.
These diverse tribes fell into two basic categories: Picts and Scots. The Picts were the aboriginal peoples of Scotland, especially the north (including the Highlands) and east. Allegedly, the Romans had called them Picti (from the Latin word for ‘paint’), referring to their tendency to run into battle “naked” and painted blue. In the intervening several-hundred years they had perhaps become more sophisticated but were still very frightening. The Scotts were a Gaelic people that most experts believe had migrated into Scotland from Ireland.
The Romans referred to Irish raiders in Britain as Scoti, and the ninth century Scottish Kingdom Dal Riata stretched from western Scotland to northern Ireland (adding weight to the Irish origins theory). The Picts and the Scotts were constantly at war with each other, as well as some of the tribes of Britons in the region, and of course the Saxons of neighboring Northumbria. Religion was one of the few areas where most parties agreed, and so monasteries (such as the famous abbey in Iona) thrived despite the discord throughout the rest of the land.
This all was – as we have seen in Ireland – the natural habitat in which Vikings become apex predators. The Vikings took advantage of the war and strife bubbling between native tribes, and while the Picts and Scotts fought each other the Vikings robbed the monasteries of gold and snatched more and more territory. Within about 50 years of the first Viking raids, there was enough Norse strength in mainland Scotland to threaten the existing powers there. That threat, however, had an outcome that no one – especially not the Vikings – could have anticipated.
How the Vikings Inadvertently Created Scotland
In 839, King Ailpín of the Dal Raita Scotts met a confederation of several Pictish kings in battle. Ailpín’s Scotts were routed, and the king was killed. As the Picts impaled the hapless ruler’s severed head on one of their spears, however, a large force of Vikings broke from cover and rushed them. It is not really known why the Vikings were there in such force, but it is likely that they were waiting to take further advantage of the turmoil to weaken the native resistance to their expansion. The Vikings smashed the Picts, scattering their army and killing their kings.
Ailpín’s son, Cináed (remembered to history as Kenneth MacAlpin) took his father’s place as king of the Dal Riata Scotts. Taking advantage of the power vacuum the Vikings had just created amongst the Picts, Kenneth (who may have been half-Pict himself) began successfully taking over Pictish kingdoms. By 848, Kenneth MacAlpin was being called the king of the Picts and the Scotts. This unification of Picts and Scotts (however incomplete it may have been) did not come a moment too soon, for a massive Viking fleet of 140 ships descended upon the Scotts’ kingdom of Dal Riata.
The Scotts were able to retreat east, into Pictish territory where they were now more welcome, depriving the Vikings of total victory and further unifying Kenneth MacAlpin’s kingdom. Soon people did not speak of Dal Riata and Pictland anymore, but called the whole region Alba. While various political changes throughout the next few centuries led to the country being called Scotland, it is still called Alba in the native Scottish-Gaelic language today. While it would take many years, many wars, and many great leaders to turn a land of warring tribes into one people, it was the Vikings that catalyzed this change.
The Vikings in Scotland
Though the Vikings established supremacy in the western islands, and ended the Scottish kingdom of Dal Riata, the emergence of a more unified Alba changed their designs. Conquering the land no longer seemed possible, and so as they had in Ireland, the Norse began to become more enmeshed in the ethnic, cultural, and political landscape. For example, the most successful Scottish ruler of the Dark Ages, Constantine mac Áed (Constantine II) crushed a Viking offensive led by Dublin’s Ivar the Younger in 902, only to surround himself with Viking allies against King Aethelstan of England some decades later. Common cause and joint interest became more important than ethnicity, and Norse, Scotts, Picts, and Britons intermarried in Scotland on all levels of society. Eventually, it was not only the Picts and the Scotts that were Scottish, but the Vikings, too.
Once more, the islands were different, and remained a bastion of Viking activity and Norse customs long after the Viking Age ended. It was to islands like Orkney, the Shetlands, and the Isle of Mann that the Irish king Máel Mórda drew many of his allies against Brian Boru in the Battle of Clontarf (1014), and it was back to these islands that the Viking survivors returned. The Hebrides were officially territories of Norway, not Scotland, until the 13th century, as was Orkney and Shetland until the 15th. Today these places are still as rich in Norse culture as they are in Norse blood. DNA studies show that the Shetland Islands are 44% Norse, and Orkney is 30%, and offer firm evidence that these areas of Scotland were settled by Scandinavian families, and not just male adventurers. Other islands, like the Hebrides, are around 15-20% which is still very high considering that we are talking about a migration that occurred a thousand years ago.
In recent years, as Scotland began to consider independence from the United Kingdom, ideas about Scandinavian roots and identity gained renewed attention in that country. In 2014, the people of Scotland voted to stay in the UK, deciding (by a narrow margin that their shared history and culture with their neighbors was more important than their differences). Most Scotts would probably agree, however, that kinship with England or Norway defines them far less than their own unique national identity. The Scotts, like most of us, are a composite people, tempered by a long history. Scotts, Picts, and Norse all helped shape the national character of Scotland, and the Viking legacy can be seen clearly in the many Scottish contributions to the world since that time.
David Gray Rodgers is a career fire officer who holds a bachelor’s in history and a master’s in business administration. He has published several books, including Usurper: A Novel of the Fall of Rome.
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