The Vikings in Scotland and Ireland

The Downpatrick Cross in County Down, Northern Ireland. Photograph by Fiona Edmonds.

 
 

Politics: The Hiberno-Norse World

Although the term ‘Vikings’ might be associated with the Scandinavian homelands from which these raiders and traders originated, after the first half of the ninth century it is likely that most of those who partook in Viking activity in the British Isles and Ireland were in fact permanent residents of those islands. As the above timeline shows, there are records of permanently settled populations of Scandinavian origin in Dublin as early as 849. For the rest of the Viking Age, these permanent residents developed a distinct culture which is often referred to for convenience as Hiberno-Norse. The Hiberno-Norse (or ‘Ostmen’, in some older scholarship) resided in trading towns and on farms scattered around the coasts of the Irish Sea, from coastal Ireland to the Western Isles and western coastline of Scotland. During the Viking period, these lands coalesced into a polity frequently referred to as the Kingdom of the Isles. Although Dublin may have been considered part of this kingdom for some or all of the latter’s existence, the primary power centre of the kingdom was located on the Isle of Man. This island, which prior to the Viking Age had already exhibited a mix of Gaelic and Brittonic culture, now developed a distinctly multicultural identity, in which Gaelic and Norse bilingualism can be attested on inscribed stones and may have been commonplace. After the Viking Age this kingdom survived for another two hundred years under the nominal overlordship of the king of Norway until the latter ceded it to Scotland in 1266.

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A Manx cross-slab, with Norse runes, preserved in Kirk Andreas, Isle of Man. Photograph by Ben Allport.

Ireland

Prior to the Viking Age, the political landscape of Ireland broadly resembled that of Anglo-Saxon England; numerous kingdoms and ruling dynasties vied for power, often striving to gain the submission of their neighbours and be regarded as the High King of Ireland. Viking incursions had a similarly disruptive effect on local politics, redrawing political boundaries and forging new rivalries and allegiances. Unlike in Anglo-Saxon England, however, there was never an equivalent full-scale invasion of Ireland by a Viking army and no single Irish dynasty able to exploit the disruption to create a unified kingdom in the same way that the dynasty of Alfred the Great was. Instead, from as early as the mid-ninth century, Viking chieftains in Ireland were integrated into the machinations of Irish polities, either being employed as mercenaries by local kings wishing to further their aims or contending with their neighbours as rulers in their own right. The growth of Hiberno-Norse towns—Waterford, Wexford, Cork and Limerick and particularly Dublin—also changed the nature of Irish politics. Control of the towns, whether direct or through alliances with their Viking rulers, gave Irish kings access to considerable wealth and resources. It is therefore unsurprising that Dublin was increasingly drawn into Irish royal competition for the High Kingship in the late tenth century. Canny rulers of Dublin, such as Olaf Cuaran, became adept at playing the field, frequently switching their alliances to attempt to gain the greatest advantage; occasionally this backfired, however, as occasional sieges of Dublin indicate. Nevertheless, Hiberno-Norse Dublin demonstrated its ability to prevail as an entity in Irish politics, even maintaining its independence after the Battle of Clontarf, albeit with reduced power.

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Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Scotland

The area that we know as Scotland did not exist as a unified concept at the outset of the Viking Age. Instead, the area was home to four vying polities, all of which were possessed of a different language and culture. Northeastern Scotland was home to the Picts. No writings survive in the Pictish language, which may have been a form of Celtic, and little attests to their culture besides a series of ornately decorated picture stones. Based on their descriptions in Gaelic sources, the primary Pictish kingdom is often referred to as Fortriu. The coast and islands of western Scotland was controlled by the Gaelic kingdom of Dal Riata, which was ruled by a dynasty with roots in northeastern Ireland. To the southwest was the kingdom of Alt Clut, the capital of which lay at Dumbarton, close to modern Glasgow. The residents of Strathclyde were Britons and spoke a dialect similar to Welsh. Finally, the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria was a looming presence in the southeast, with their influence at times stretching as far north as Edinburgh.

As in Anglo-Saxon England, the course of the Viking Age wrought drastic changes on the Scottish political landscape. In the late ninth century, the Gaelic and Pictish polities of Scotland merged to form the Kingdom of Alba, the precursor to the Kingdom of Scotland. Following the Viking sack of Dumbarton in 870, the northern Britons were forced further south. Thereafter, their kingdom was known as Strathclyde or Cumbria. During the eleventh century this polity was also absorbed into the Kingdom of Alba. As noted on the page Viking warfare and raids in England, Northumbria was conquered by the Vikings in 866.

 

Economy and Society

Prior to the Viking Age, precious metals such as silver and gold played little role in the Irish economy. Instead value was estimated in commodities such as cattle. There were also no urban centres; instead, the social elite (including kings and High Kings) resided on wealthy farms and owned extensive property throughout their territories. The only exception to this were the settlements that sprang up around monasteries to house the lay workmen and craftspeople that were responsible for the everyday running of the sites. Although less is known about the economic situation in Scotland, it is likely to have been similar.

In the mid-ninth century, Viking raiding parties began to overwinter in Ireland in temporary camps known as ‘longphuirt’ (singular ‘longphort’). One of the functions of such sites was to store the goods that the Vikings had acquired during their raids; cattle and slaves, in particular, could not be easily transported back to Scandinavia in the same way that craft items and precious metals could be. It is likely that these sites quickly attracted overseas trade. Dublin began its life as one such longphort, quickly becoming the most important Viking trading emporium in the Irish Sea, if not beyond. However, it was not the only such site: in the early tenth century, other Viking towns sprang up at Waterford, Wexford, Cork and Limerick. Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Waterford remain among the most populous cities in Ireland today. These towns also quickly became craft centres, where Norse art and production styles were incorporated into Irish material culture. From at least 997, Dublin began minting its own coinage, marking the complete transformation of the Irish economy.

Towns such as Dublin fundamentally changed the landscape around them. The residents of the town performed specialised jobs such as craft production or vending and could not provide their own food. Consequently, the surrounding areas became economic hinterlands, with the local farms’ surplus providing food and raw materials for the towns.

Although slavery was already a reality in pre-Viking Ireland, it was never practiced on the scale that the Vikings initiated. Although they are known for their appetite for church silver (a desire which could, perhaps, be more readily fulfilled in England), slavery proved a far more lucrative market in Ireland. From early in the ninth century, Viking raids in Ireland were planned to maximise the number of prisoners that could be ransomed (in the case of the upper classes) or sold. Dublin rapidly became the biggest slave market in Western Europe.