The Picts and the Martyrs or Did Vikings Kill the Native Population of Orkney and Shetland?
By Brian Smith
Northern Studies, Vol.36 (2001)
Introduction: Nearly a quarter of a century ago Iain Crawford gave a paper to the eighth Viking Congress. His title was ‘War or peace’. Crawford’s essay, about Norse immigration in the Northern and Western Isles, and the immigrants’ relationship with the native Picts, was a smashing piece of work. He was angry and scornful about what archaeologists were saying about the subject in the 19705. For Crawford the matter had been cleared up, for once and for all, in 1962, when Frederick Wainwright’s posthumously published work The Northern Isles came out. In two brilliant essays in that book Wainwright argued that the Pictish inhabitants of Shetland and Orkney had been ‘overwhelmed by and submerged beneath the sheer weight of the Scandinavian settlement’. The Picts, he concluded, ‘were overwhelmed politically, linguistically, culturally and socially.
Crawford didn’t succeed in persuading his audience, or, subsequently, his readers. Since the 1970s the ‘Peace’ School has become more and more voluble and successful. I regret this, because I go further than Crawford and Wainwright. I suspect that the Norse invaders of Orkney and Shetland didn’t just overwhelm’, or ‘submerge’ the native population: I think they killed them.
I begin my critique with Crawford himself. He divided his predecessors into two groups: a traditional War school, culminating in the work of Wainwright, and a relatively modern, effete Peace School. But Crawford’s assessment was simplistic, in three ways.
First, there has been a Peace School for a long time. In my estimation the ‘warriors’ have never been very successful. The idea that the natives settled down amiably, or not quite so amiably, with the invaders, or even that there were no natives at all, was popular right from the start. The Norwegian historian Peter Andreas Munch was arguably the first sensible commentator about the history of the Northern Isles. In 1860 he wrote that the island Picts were ‘absorbed’ rather than exterminated – ‘if, indeed,’ he said, ‘Shetland had any inhabitants before the Norwegians’. In the same way, the saga scholar Sir George Dasent thought that ‘the Northmen really found those islands empty and desolate, and that it was not before their swords that the ancient races vanished away’. ‘How did they vanish,’ he asked, ‘leaving no trace of their nationality behind?’ The great Norwegian archaeologist A.W. Br0gger was still arguing a subtle version of this case in the 1930s. There were proponents of the War theory in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but they were a minority.