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Issue 96 - Land of Vikings

Scotland Magazine Issue 96
December 2017


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Land of Vikings

Christopher Coates on Scotland’s Norse heritage

The impact of Viking society upon ancient Scotland cannot be understated. Travelling around the region of Caithness, up and across the Pentland Firth to Orkney, and further still to Shetland is truly a lesson in that heritage. But who were the Vikings?     

Hailing predominantly from Norway, the term Viking strictly speaking only applies to the Nordic pirates who raided foreign shores. A more appropriate name for the people who actually settled down is simply 'Norse'. Whatever you call them, those pioneers who left their homes behind and struck out for new territory during the latter part of the 8th Century became an important part of Scotland's society.     

In time, the Norse came to rule over Shetland, Orkney, Caithness, Sutherland, Kintyre, the Hebrides, and even the Isle of Man as part of a far-reaching Earldom. The stories of the Earldomís creation and the Earls themselves are told in the Orkneyinga Saga, a medieval text written by an anonymous author around AD1200. It must be said that the sagas themselves cannot be taken as entirely factual, as they incorporate elements of both history and myth. Nevertheless, a great deal of the saga's content has been verified by other historical sources and modern-day archaeology.     

By the 13th Century, however, Scotlandís leaders were beginning to assert themselves. This led to a conflict between Alexander III of Scotland and Magnus VI of Norway that culminated in the Treaty of Perth, which saw all mainland areas and most of the isles come under Scottish rule. Orkney and Shetland remained Norwegian until 1468 when King Christian I of Denmark and Norway was forced to relinquish both island groups in order to settle a debt. By this point, Orcadians and Shetlanders had over 500 years of Norse history behind them and were resoundingly un-Scottish in their ways. To some extent, their cultures still stand apart to this day.     

In order to shed further light on the fascinating history of Scotlandís wild north (Viking and otherwise), Charles Douglas has taken a tour of Caithness, while Keith Fergus completed his tour of the North Coast 500. Meanwhile, John Hannavy, Steve Roberts and myself have all been exploring Orkney. Sadly, we didn't get as far as Shetland but I hope to give those most northerly isles the focus they deserve in a future issue.

Further south, James Irvine Robertson has been investigating the most noble Clan Macpherson. After that, he hit the archives to uncover the shady dealings of a 17th-Century duke. Finally, Roddy Martine has interviewed two incredibly gifted men, Edward Hasell McCosh and Calum Stewart, who are both undeniably masters of their respective arts: painting and piping.  

I find myself in awe of the exceptional talents that live in, work, and hail from Scotland. In future, I intend to feature more of our living and breathing creatives; please do write to me if you have any suggestions.