The Vikings in Orkney

The Vikings in Orkney

By James Graham-Campbell

The Faces of Orkney: Stones, Skalds and Saints, edited by Doreen J. Waugh (Scottish Society for Northern Studies, 2003)

Introduction: In recent years, it has been suggested that the first permanent Scandinavian presence in Orkney was not the result of forcible land-taking by Vikings, but came about instead through gradual penetration – a period which has been described as one of ‘informal’ settlement. Such would have involved a phase of co-existence, or even integration, between the native Picts and the earliest Norse settlers. This initial period, it is supposed, was then followed by ‘a second, formal, settlement associated with the establishment of an earldom’, in the late ninth century. The archaeological evidence advanced in support of the first ‘period of overlap’ is, however, open to alternative interpretation and, indeed, Alfred Smyth has commented, in relation to the annalistic records of the earliest Viking attacks on Ireland, that these ‘strongly suggest that the Norwegians did not gradually infiltrate the Northern Isles as farmers and fisherman and then suddenly turn nasty against their neighbours’.

Others have supposed that the first phase of Norse settlement in Orkney would have involved, in the words of Buteux:

‘ness-taking’ (the fortifying of a headland by means of a cross-dyke) and the occupation of small off-shore islands. Crawford argues that headland dykes on Orkney can be interpreted as indicating ness-taking. However many are equally likely to be prehistoric land boundaries, and no bases on either headlands or small islands have yet been positively identified.

Buteux continues his discussion by observing, most pertinently, that:

While this can not be taken as suggesting that such sites do not remain to be uncovered, the striking fact is that almost all identified Viking-period settlements in the Northern Isles are found overlying or immediately adjacent to sites which were occupied in the preceding Pictish period and which, furthermore, had frequently been settlements of some size and importance.

Buteux has therefore advanced the hypothesis of a three-stage process for the Norse settlement of Orkney; one which has much to commend it in the present state of our knowledge. This comprises:

a ‘pioneer stage’ of contact, raiding and trade, with perhaps some settlement or establishment of winter bases, but still in a land otherwise Pictish; a ‘consolidation stage’, where more permanent settlements become established but much in the way of Pictish culture and institutions survive, and finally an ‘establishment stage’ during which virtually all Pictish culture and institutions are swept away and replaced by those of wholly Norse character.

The second or ‘consolidation’ stage, which was under way in the mid-ninth century, marks the turning-point in this process, with the displacement by the Norse of the Pictish aristocracy and the take-over of their well-placed estates, together with their Pictish workforces. It must be remembered, however, that even if the final ‘establishment’ stage resulted in the Picts of Orkney being ‘overwhelmed politically, linguistically, culturally and socially’, there is possible evidence for the limited survival of the Pictish Church in the Norse naming of Papa Stronsay and Papa Westray after ‘priests’ (papar) – islands on which no pagan Norse burials have yet been found.

Click here to read this article from Scottish Society for Northern Studies

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