When the first Viking ships arrived in northern Britain in the 790s, those who rode the unforgiving whale-road from Scandinavia and the shores of the Baltic encountered a land splintered by geography and ethnic identity.
The British kingdom of Alt Clud (“the rock of the Clyde”) had its fortress capital at Dumbarton Rock with territory extending south into Cumbria. To the north-east, the kingdom of the Picts held sway over the north and east, and the islands of Orkney and Shetland. To the south, the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria extended to the Forth. Finally, in the west, sprawled the kingdom of Dál Riata, a Gaelic-speaking realm that spanned the Irish Sea, including Argyll, Lochobar and the north-eastern part of Ulster, as well as an ill-defined spatter of western islands.
By 900, all of this was gone.
The earliest contact between the Vikings and the people of northern Britain was fraught and bloody. At Portmahomack, the small fishing settlement at the north-eastern tip of the Tarbat peninsula, excavations of a Pictish monastery has revealed extraordinary evidence for the wealth and productivity of that kingdom in the eighth century: manuscripts, carved stones, silverwork. It also revealed how, in c.800, the monastery ended in flames, its great inscribed cross-slab monuments thrown down and shattered and the monks – some of them at least – slaughtered.
That this was the work of Viking raiders has not been seriously disputed. Around the year 800, Viking raiders targeted monasteries at Lindisfarne (793), Jarrow (796) and Iona (795, 802 and 806), as well as targeting other coastal settlements in northern Britain and Ireland.
These raiders came, first and foremost, for plunder. The precious metal of church ornaments and the bindings of holy books, personal ornaments, the reliquary caskets of saints – these portable treasures have all been found in Scandinavian graves and hoarded treasures, many of them recovered from British soil: the Galloway Hoard, recovered in 2014, is a striking recent example. But they also came for commodities that left fewer archaeological traces.
On Inchmarnock, however, an insignificant island of the Clyde, a group of inscribed slates were found – evidence of a monastic school of the eighth and ninth centuries. One of them bears chilling testament to what was, perhaps, the most lucrative of all Viking traded commodities: slaves. The slate depicts armed men dressed in mail shirts, surrounding the image of a ship with oars and sail. One of the men dominates the composition. Intimidating and confident he drags in his wake a fourth figure: pathetic, chained and broken – a captive taken into bondage.
Though the raids continued, there a few records that survive from the north of Britain to shed light on these critical decades of the ninth century. It is not until 839, for example that we learn of the serious danger into which the northern realms had been plunged: in that year, the Pictish king Wen, his brother Bran and his ally Áed, king of Dál Riata, fell in battle against the heathen. Wen’s successor, Cinaed son of Alpín (Kenneth McAlpin), had to deal with more of the same: in 847, Vikings ravaged the Pictish kingdom and in the same year took control of the western isles (probably Tiree, Mull,Islay, Arran and the Kintyre peninsula), shattering the Dál Riatan realm and cutting it off from Ulster for good. From then on, the remainder of the two battered kingdoms – Picts and Gaels – were forced into an ever closer union. In 900, Cinaed’s descendant was slain at Dunnottar by the Vikings. The notice of his death records the birth of new kingdom: “Domnall son of Constantín,” the Irish chronicles relay, “king of Alba, dies.” Within a few decades, the English were referring to this realm as the kingdom of the Scots.
For the other people of the north, things were no less dramatic. Northumbria was conquered by a “great heathen horde” in 866, its northernmost region becoming a disputed territory, fought over by Vikings, Picts and the English dynasty of Bamburgh, before the land north of the Tweed was ultimately absorbed into the Scottish realm. In 870, a Viking fleet (led in part by members of the same heathen horde that was wreaking havoc across the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms to the south), besieged, ransacked and destroyed the mighty fortress of Dumbarton Rock. Alt Clud was no more, replaced by a new kingdom of Stratchclyde.
Centred further upriver, Strathclyde had its base at Govan, the site of its royal mausoleum nestled amongst the post-industrial shipyards of the Clyde. Govan Old Church is now home to a collection of stone carvings that bear the unmistakable traces of Scandinavian tastes and craftsmanship. It was the birth of a Viking-infused realm – one of many – that wove native and immigrant communities and cultures to form a new tapestry: infinitely varied in pattern and colour, radically innovative and utterly British.
Elsewhere in the north, however, the changes were starker. In the decades that followed the fall of Alt Clud, and in circumstances obscure, the Orkney and Shetland islands were subjected to fundamental upheaval; native populations appear to vanish, their languages and place-names replaced by an Old Norse lexicon, ancient cultural forms eradicated – Pictish wheelhouses replaced by Scandinavian long-houses. The people who effected these changes brought their burial practices with them. The only known Viking boat burial from mainland Britain was excavated at Ardnamurchan in 2011. A man was buried with sword, axe, spear and shield, laid out in a boat 16 feet in length; in death, he presents the image of a wealthy and powerful pagan warrior, a warlord of the ocean’s edge. At Scar on Orkney a woman in her seventies was buried in a boat 25 feet long, alongside a man in his mid-thirties and a child.
These were people for whom their communities sought a familiar afterlife, the world of the dead that their parents and grandparents in Scandinavia had known. But they were amongst the last to be buried in this way. The world was changing. Christianity was asserting itself – even in the most remote fringes of Europe – and with the cross marched ever more assertive forms of government. By the mid-11th century, Strathclyde had been conquered by the Scottish king. But in the island strongholds of Orkney, Shetland and the Hebrides, Norse lordships endured and prospered long into the Middle Ages, building ties that often remained closer to Scandinavia than to Britain. The Lords of the Isles (Man and the Western Isles) remained independent from Scotland until 1266. The earldom of Orkney, comprising Caithness and the Northern Isles, was even longer lived; Orkney and Shetland remained a part of the kingdom of Norway until 1467 and 1468.
By the end of the Viking Age, northern Britain has been irrevocably altered, and the Vikings had been the harbingers of this change: they had wrought terrible destruction and mayhem, and from the ashes a new world had been born. They were Scotland’s bloody midwives.
Viking Britain: A History by Thomas Williams is out now (William Collins, £9.99)