Vikings and Scotland: 10 lesser known facts

Shetlanders still celebrate their Viking ancestry with the annual festival of Up Helly Aa
Shetlanders still celebrate their Viking ancestry with the annual festival of Up Helly Aa
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THE discovery of the first fully intact Viking burial site in the UK - on the Ardnamurchan peninsula - has rekindled public interest in the Norse legacy on our shores.

The 16ft-long grave containing the remains of a “high-status Viking” who was buried with an axe, a sword and a spear provides a valuable insight into a period of our history which has fascinated Scots for centuries.

But the facts about the Vikings in Scotland bear little resemblence to the stereotypes of helmeted warriors pillaging the land at will. Here we delve a little deeper to examine ten lesser-known traits of our Nordic forebears.

Viking warriors were homemakers who couldn’t wait to ship their wives over to settle the lands they had conquered. Scientists studying Scots of Viking ancestry in Shetland and Orkney have discovered that there must have been far more Viking women in the Dark Ages settlements than originally thought.

• Modern Britons have more in common with the Vikings than was previously thought. More than a thousand years after the first Viking longships landed on British shores, a study has shown the blood of the Norse warriors still flows through the veins of swathes of the population.

The Viking genetic marker - M17 - is also present in the Western Isles in large numbers. Clan names are a visible relic; MacIvors were originally the sons of Ivar, MacSween, the sons of Swein, Macaulay, the sons of Olaf, MacAskill, the sons of Asgeir and so on.

Viking raiders settled alongside the Gaels after seizing many of the islands surrounding the Scottish mainland in the 11th century. The Scots ceded dominion of the Outer and Inner Hebrides to Hakon Hakonson, King of Norway in a treaty, but the Gaels still regarded the isles as their own.

• Terrifying Viking raids in medieval times gave Norsemen a reputation as bloodthirsty marauders, but archaeological finds show they may also have been vain - caring as much for the “pretty” decoration of their teeth as for the bite of their swords. In what could be further evidence that the Vikings were the first Europeans to reach North America, in the 11th century, a study of skeletal remains from 1,000-year-old burial sites in southern Sweden suggests some Norsemen used iron files to carve grooves into their teeth, which they likely coloured red or black.

The Vikings had their own rough guide to Scotland, offering the would-be traveller the following warning. Be very careful there, it says – the natives are dangerous, the language incomprehensible and the weather is awful. This was the advice handed out to 13th-century Norse travellers, according to a new historical study, gleaned from the stories that filtered back from Viking raiders. The medieval chronicles, set down on yellowed calf vellum eight centuries ago, describe Scotland – or Skotland, as it was known – as worth a trip, but only for those willing to risk losing their heads. “Icelanders who want to practise robbery are advised to go there,” says one saga. “But it may cost them their life.”

• Although Scotland was an important trading post, the Viking world stretched from Newfoundland to the Middle East and beyond. Objects moved over thousands of miles across a great network. Not all of the objects survive (silk, spices, etc) but others tell of great adventures. There have even been finds of coins and jewellery from as far away as Baghdad, Samarkand and Tashkent - many in areas now argued to be rural and far from modern trade routes.

• While they undoubtedly struck fear into the natives on their arrival, the Vikings settled in Scotland for around 300 years. They were farmers who kept a variety of animals, including sheep, cattle, and pigs, and grew crops such as barley and oats. They also collected plants for medicinal purposes.

• The Vikings were nervous about sailing up the west coast sea lochs they referred to as the “Scottish fjords”. The only places the Norse could have expected a safe reception was Orkney and Shetland, where the people were basically the same as them and where they would be greeted as kin.

• The Viking influence is so strong and long-lasting that in his novel, The Pirate, Sir Walter Scott named the large Norse settlement near Sumburgh, ‘Jarlshof’, although the site was built on an earlier Neolithic settlement going back 3,000 years.