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New study to look at Norse farming on the Orkney Isles

A year-long study will begin this fall that will look  look at herding economies in the Orkney Isles from the 8th to the 15th century AD. This period is believed to have been significant for the isles as they played a pivotal role in the socio-economics of the Norse world, linking Scandinavian Ireland and England with Norway, Denmark and the western Atlantic.

17th Century map of the Orkney Islands

The study will be carried out by Dr Ingrid Mainland, a senior lecturer based at University of the Highlands and Islands. She has been awarded a British Academy Mid-Career Fellowship to research how livestock farming underpinned Norse society and if problems with these herds caused a decline in the economy of the islands during the late Middle Ages.

Dr Mainland explained, “Although perhaps better known for their raiding activities, ‘Vikings’, the Scandinavian peoples who settled on the islands of the North Atlantic from the 8th century, were essentially farmers whose society had the rearing of the herd animals, cattle and sheep, at its heart. During my fellowship, I will be exploring how livestock farming sustained and maintained Viking and Norse ways of life in the Orkney Islands.

“Amongst other things, I will be looking at the role of cattle and sheep in promoting status and social networks through feasting and gift-giving and at the use of commodities like wool and butter in the developing Early Medieval long-distance trading networks. I will also be assessing how farmers in the Northern Isles coped with climatic instability, including increased storminess, as this time was a period of major climatic change. This should help to shed light on links between vulnerability, sustainability and risk in island communities, both in the past and today.”

Norwegian settlers arrived on the Orkney Islands during the late 8th and early 9th centuries. While the islands were a good starting point for conducting Viking raids on the British Isles, most of the settlers were involved with raising cattle and sheep.

Dr Bill Ross, principal of Orkney College UHI, added, “I am delighted that Dr Ingrid Mainland has been awarded this prestigious Fellowship. Ingrid has made a considerable contribution to the archaeology department over the past few years, leading on the introduction of our undergraduate archaeology degree which is proving very successful at attracting students to the region. This is a well-deserved opportunity for Dr Mainland to spend an extended period of time undertaking research that will be of both local interest and international significance.”

 

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