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Vikings in the North East

A Viking LongshipA saga about a Viking jarl called Einar Skulason who’s longboats sacked and pillaged the place in 1153 where it is referred to in Old Norse as ‘Apardion’. The Vikings being men of action and very few words ‘Apardion’ actually means ‘The place where we rowed to for  three bloody days into the teeth of a North Sea gale and came away with a lump of very hard stone, a gourd of some greasy black stuff that tastes like shit and a big fish’  Slim Pickings from the cradle of Thrift!

Viking Aberdeenshire and Moray
Between 950 and 960, Vikings from Orkney were led by the sons of King Eric Blood-Axe on raids upon the Buchan coast. They were defeated and sagas suggest it was on the slopes of the Aldie Hill at Cruden.  Gamrie (or Gardenstown) was attacked in 1004 by Norsemen in search of provisions for their storm-bound fleet. They were defeated and the skulls of their leaders were built into the walls of St John's Church.  Danes under the command of Canute landed at Cruden in 1012. They built a fort on the links, but King Malcolm II gathered an army and engaged the Norsemen. Casualties on both sides were high, and the peace treaty following this battle agreed:

  • The Vikings had to evacuate the North-east of Scotland.

  •  During the lifetime of King Malcolm & King Sueno of Denmark, neither country would wage war on the other.

  • The field of battle was to be consecrated and made a burial place for the dead.

  • The Danes as well as the Scots were to receive a decent and honourable burial.

"is said to have extended four miles to the interior and along the south side of the water of Cruden; but the hottest part of the conflict is supposed to have been on the plain skirting the bay, and along the valley, about half a mile in breadth, where the remains of he dead and many kinds of warlike instruments have been found"

The King of Denmark sent a blue marble stone to be placed on the graves of some of his high ranking officers. This stone was later placed against the wall by the east gate of the parish church at Cruden.  Some of the Danes, instead of leaving Cruden by boat decided to join their countrymen in Moray by going overland. They were involved in fighting at Memsie. Cairns were erected to mark the graves of the dead and can still be seen at Memsie today.  Some say the name Cruden derives from Chroch Dain, Croja Danorum, Croya Dain or Crushain which in different languages means 'slaughter of the Danes'.  Along the Coast, near Inverness, on the Black Isle is a bay called Port an Righ which means 'Bay of the Kings'. Legend says that three sons of Danish kings that were drowned here during an expedition in the 10th century.  It is said that the name Cruden derives from Chroch Dain, Croja Danorum, Croya Dain or Crushain which in different languages means 'slaughter of the Danes'.

Battle of Mortlach

The battle of Mortlach was fought in 1010 by King Malcolm ll against the Danes. The Vikings approached from Carron House on Speyside four miles to the West of Dufftown and camped at a place called Little Conval, while King Malcolm's army had come from the East via Glenfiddich and camped on the other side of the river at Auchindoun. The two armies met near the monastery of Mortlach beside a river called the Dullan Water which ran in between the two armies. The battle took place near the Giant's Chair and the monastery of Mortlach. The Giant's Chair is a bit cut out of a rock that looks like a chair fit for a giant.

Catching sight of the assembled Vikings the Scots attacked with more hast than sense! Three of their leaders were killed, the 3 leaders were Kenneth, Thain of the Isles: Dunbar, Thain of Laudian and Graeme, Thain of Strathern. They became rather confused and fell back a little.  At this critical moment King Malcolm fell on his knees facing the chapel and prayed to God and St. Moluag for victory. In return the King vowed to build a cathedral church on the site of the chapel to testify that with God's support, Scotland had been defended.  In fact he made the chapel 3 spear lengths longer. (a spear length is 4 metres). The Scots attacked again and the Vikings retreated. King Malcolm is supposed to have thrown the Danish general Enetus off his horse and strangled him. The Scots pursued the Vikings up towards Balvenie Castle with great slaughter by the victorious Scots!  Afterwards in the grounds of the castle they dug the grave pits where the dead bodies were thrown.  Mortlach is a parish name which came from St. Moluag. Dufftown is a much more recent name for the village.

The archetypal Highland black house, of low stone construction, shows strong Norse influence and is typical of early Viking dwellings. Even the warfare methods show a form of cohesiveness, for although the shields slowly reduced in size to that of the targe, the Dane axe lengthened and changed shape to become the much-feared Lochaber axe. It might also quite reasonably be postulated that the feared Highland Charge developed from the seeming death-wish behaviour of the Norse berserkers. The overall notion of “honour” was very much a common factor, and to be held as being a man without honour was one of the greatest shames in both cultures. Honour led to fame, and this was always desirable – for it promised a form of immortality.

During the 9th Century King Donald II was killed defending Dunnottar Castle from a Viking invasion. The Vikings seized and destroyed the Castle.

Scandinavian accounts of the Norse settlement in Scotland and the outlying islands is contradictory. Sources such as Egils saga Skallagrimssonar suggest that the original Viking settlers were fleeing the persecutions of King Harald hárfagri Hálfdanarson ("Harald Fairhair"):  Once he'd gained full control of the provinces that had just come into his hands, Harald kept a sharp eye on the landed men and rich farmers, and anyone else he might expect trouble from.  He gave them a choice of three things.  They could swear loyalty, or they could leave the country, but if they chose the third, they could resign themselves to the most savage terms, perhaps even death.  There were cases where Harald people's arms and legs hacked off. In every province, Harald took over both farming land and estates, whether they were inhabited or not, even the sea and the lakes.  Every farmer and every forester had to become his tenant, every salt-maker and every hunter on land or sea had to pay taxes to him.  Many a man went on the run from this tyranny and many a wilderness became inhabited, both east in Jamtaland and Halsingland and west, in the Hebrides, as well as the parts around Dublin in Ireland, Normandy in France, Caithness in Scotland, Orkney, Shetland and the Faroes, and that's when Iceland was discovered. (Egils saga Skallagrimssonar, Chapter 4)

Osberg Longship

The hulls had more of a V shape and the length expanded from gunwale to gunwale.  These new hulls had poor lateral stability but made up for it in speed. It had wood fastened together instead of single pieces which allowed greater stability and agility.  The Oseberg has a length of 21.5 meters, a width of 5 meters and a total weight of 11 tons.  The Vikings were excellent sailors their boats were called longships.  Longships were light, sleek, stable, strong and easy to manoeuvre. Being long and thin they made great warships. The hull cut through the water fast.  The boat was also flexible, so it moved with the action of the waves.  The longship has a flat bottom with a shallow draught which allowed the Viking to sail into shallow waters bays and even the shore line.  Longships are around 28 – 30 metres long in size and built to hold more than 100 men. The boats speed can get up to 30 – 35 kilometres per hour because the Vikings had both oars and sails so they could keep going in any weather condition.  They were constructed out of raw timber.  The kneel (the bottom of the boat) was made out of a single trunk, planks were made from split timber, sternposts are cut from large curved logs, angled sections were cut from strong branches and curved sections were cut from curved branches.

The grace arid beauty of, these ships was achieved by men who had an intuitive instinct for good aesthetic taste, influenced by the nature of the material with which they worked.  Wood can be carved into grotesque shapes, but it cannot be bent into ugly bends and curves without damaging or rupturing the fibres, and in consequence shipbuilders throughout the ages have used the natural tendencies of the wood to achieve their ends.  A vessel such as a Viking ship was not designed beforehand to have beautiful sweeping curves: the shape was the result of the natural bend and twist of the planks with the minimum of cutting away and tapering until the eye judged it to be right.

Archaeology and other sources show, however, that the original settlement of the Vikings in parts of Scotland and the North Atlantic islands in many cases began earlier, and was a part of the often violent conquest and settlement of the Vikings outside of their Scandinavian homeland.

Moray Firth

Scotland was the site of the first recorded Viking Raid when, in 793 AD, the monastery at Lindisfarne was sacked, with Iona and the Isle of Skye being attacked the next year. The Celtic impulse to hermitage and monasticism combined left a string of vulnerable churches and monastic communities on the coastlines, making for easy access for Viking raiders.

The archaeological evidence for the Vikings in Scotland is overwhelmingly rural. The Norse in Scotland, as elsewhere in the Norse Atlantic, came to settle, to live and farm in an environment that was very similar to that of their homes in Scandinavia.

In 893 AD the Danes waged a major offensive in Scotland in which "the flower of the Pictish nobility was destroyed".  This attack allowed Kenneth mac Alpin, King of Scottish Dalriada, to unify the remaining Scots and Pictish peoples.  Thereafter, Halfdan broke away from the Great Danish Army to attack eastern Scotland.  Viking raiders based in the Orkneys raided into Moray Firth. By 900 Vikings had captured the fortress of Dunottar, south of Aberdeen, while in the west hybrid Celto-Norse war bands mounted assault which contemporary chroniclers state were more bloodthirsty and damaging than even the Vikings themselves.

The densest settlements of Vikings occurred around Caithness, with Strathoykel as the southern frontier. Current archaeological investigations are turning up exciting finds around Caithness, and at the site at the Udal in North Uist.

Just as things were looking bleakest for the Scots, King Constantine mac Aed (900-943 AD) arose and was able to beat back Vikings and Anglo-Scandinavians from Northumbria and the Danelaw alike. Apparently Constantine used every tool of diplomacy, including intermarriages through outright red-handed war in his effort to keep his lands and to hold back the Viking tide, and even expanded his kingdom southwards when the Vikings weakened his Anglo-Saxon neighbours to the south. In the process of doing so the ethnically diverse Scottish peoples began for the first time to have a national identity.  By the mid 10th century, the Viking victories were few and far apart. The Scots successfully destroyed a Viking summer raiding party, after which the name "Somerled" or "Sorley" came to be popular in commemoration of the victory.

On Christmas 986, a vicious Viking raid resulted in the deaths of 15 monks on Iona, however a year later the men of Dalriada took vengeance on the Viking raider-chieftain Godfrey mac Harald, known as ri Innse Gall ("king of the Islands of the Foreigners").  In the North, the men of Moray continued to stand fast against raiders from the Orkneys, until the Earl of Orkney, Jarl Sigurðr digr ("the stout") Hlodvisson was killed in 1014 at the Battle of Clontarf, marking the end of the Viking Age in the Celtic World

Archaeological evidence indicates that until the 8th Century the inhabitants of the Orkneys were a Bronze Age people ruled by a small class of Pictish nobility. The Historia Norwegiae, written in the 12th century, relates that around the time of King Harald hárfagri Hálfdanarson that a group of Norwegian Vikings attacked the Orkneys, killing the Picts and conquering the islands. This seems to be confirmed by the fact that the Scandinavian settlement in Orkney, unlike other areas in Scotland and the islands, appears to have totally displaced the native Pictish population. Certainly a violent conquest at this time by Norwegian Viking forces would be in keeping with other attacks in Scotland, Ireland and other locations in the northern British Isles during this period.

The blood of the Vikings lives on in Scots families and Clans to this day and is an important part of our heritage. The Viking heritage centre at Largs even shows how our clan system was adapted and improved by the Nordic clan system brought by our Celtic cousins from the Nordic countries.

About 1180, Esteyn, 1 of the Norwegian kings, in a piratical excursion along the British Coast, landed at Aberdeen and plundered the town,

Lewis Chessmen

We will takk the whale road
The gale road, the sail road
Ower the seas the hale road
Wi Odin at the prow.

Forrit will oor keels rowe
Oor keels rowe
Oor keels rowe
Forrit will oor keels rowe

The Vikings fae the North
We will cam as traders
Invaders an raiders
We will cam as settler
Weel may oor boaties rowe!

We will kill the kirk fowk
We will flegg an dirk fowk
We will capture slave fowk
In ilkie knowe an howe.

Perhaps the most famous icon of the Scandinavian era in Scotland is the Lewis chessmen, found in Uig, Lewis in 1831. Some 93 pieces were found in total, representing large parts of 4 sets. The circumstances of deposition cannot now be known, but they are made of walrus ivory which may have originated in Greenland. It has been suggested that they were made in Trondheim in Norway. Perhaps they were a merchants hoard, placed in the sand for safe-keeping,  Of the 93 pieces known to us today, 11 pieces are in Edinburgh at the National Museum of Scotland, and 82 are in the British Museum. The chess pieces consist of elaborately worked walrus ivory and whales' teeth in the forms of seated Kings and Queens, Bishops, Knights on their mounts, standing Warders and Pawns in the shape of obelisks.

Pagan ritual: A sketch of how the boat burial would have lookedThe Vikings at a glance

The Fire Festival of UP_HELLY_Aa is held every year in Lerwick, Shetland on the last Tuesday in January to celebrate the end of Yule.

The Vikings could often be savage and merciless, there is also a reasonable amount of evidence to show that their integration into the northern areas of Scotland and the Isles could have been relatively peaceful in places. By the time of Somerled, Lord of the Isles, the one-time Vikings in the Isles, by now the Gall-Gaidheal, were indigenous by means both of intermarriage with the local population and by adoption of not only some of the language but also the customs. The Vikings traditionally had always had a very close relationship with their kith and kin, which mixed easily with the then developing clan system. Viking longships were evolving into birlinns, Celtic artwork and carving had adopted many of the Vikings animalistic motifs and was already becoming easily recognisable as the style we today recognise as Celtic knot work, and the language was now becoming a mixture of Gaelic and Norse. Very similar integration had taken place in North-east Scotland, particularly Kincardineshire and the Moray coast, where many previous raiders had settled and become 1 with the indigenous population. This integration was also taking place in the South-west and Argyll, the original mainstay of Somerled. There were undoubtedly many similarities in the styles of farming and husbandry techniques, especially with regard to the care and utilisation of commonly kept domesticated animals such as sheep, goats, cattle and pigs.

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Last modified: 01/09/2013