King Eystein’s Raid on Aberdeen
By Alex Woolf
Conference Paper, Elites in Discord in Northern Europe, c. 1000 – c. 1500, Aberdeen, October 2013
Introduction: In the early 1150s Eysteinn Haraldsson, the eldest son of the late Harald Gille, who shared the kingship of Norway with his younger half-brothers, led a fleet across the North Sea. After surprising Harald Maddadsson, the Scottish backed Orkney dynast, at Thurso, in Caithness, and taking submission from him, he sailed south eastwards and burned Aberdeen before continuing on his way down the east coast of Britain at least as far as Hartlepool and Whitby.
The precise date of Eystein’s expedition has been a matter of debate. Both Morkinskinna, the earliest saga source for it, and Reginald of Durham (also known as Reginald of Coldingham), the only Insular source to record the expedition, date it to the reign of King Stephen of England (1135-1154). The sequence of events as related in Morkinskinna implies that the expedition took place whilst Harald Maddadson’s Orcadian colleague, Earl Rǫgnvald Kali, was on pilgrimage to the Holy Land with Erling Skakke. The Icelandic Konungsannáll dates both the expedition and the pilgrimage to 1151, the year before it notices Cardinal Nicholas’s visitation in Norway. Modern scholars have often been tempted to push the expedition a year or two later to fit with various interpretative agendas.
The burning of Aberdeen by King Eysteinn is almost the earliest mention of the place in the surviving historical record. Aberdeen’s earliest contemporary record appears in a record of a gift of land to the Church of Deer, in the interior of modern Aberdeenshire, by the local mormaer, Latin comes, of Buchan, Gartnait son of Cainnech, and his wife Éte daughter of Gille-Michéil.
First amongst the witnesses is Nechtan, bishop of Aberdeen. The charter is dated to the eight year of King David, which ran from April 1131 to April 1132. In later episcopal lists Nechtan is counted the first bishop to have had his see at Aberdeen having been translated there from Mortlach (now Dufftown, the home of Glen Fiddich whisky).
Prior to this it can be inferred from a charter of Malcolm IV (1153-65) that David’s predecessor Alexander I (1107-1124) had granted a toft in Aberdeen to the Augustian priory he had established at Scone. The grant of Alexander, if genuine, suggests that there was already a mercantile community at Aberdeen, perhaps even one that had burghal status.