One of the major issues relating to Norse Scotland has been the date and nature of the arrival of the first Scandinavians on Scottish shores. Iain Crawford’s major excavations at the Udal in N Uist unfortunately remain largely unpublished to date (although this is in hand). However his initial interpretation of the cross- over period between Pict and Norse was that this had been a violent interaction (Crawford 1981) contra such sites as Buckquoy (Ritchie 1977; Brundle et al. 2003) or Skaill (Buteux 1997) in Orkney. Excavations at Buckquoy by Anna Ritchie suggested a more peaceful integration and the point is well made that it is highly likely that different situations may well have pertained to different areas and at different stages in Norse intrusion. A major contribution to this debate has been published recently, where the presence of ongoing estates is discussed for Shetland and Orkney (Bond and Dockrill 2016).
Selected at random from the Udal worked bone assemblage are, from the left- four bone pins from Iain Crawford's Early Medieval (Pictish) phase, the next three are Viking, with the four on the right being from the Norse or late Norse period. Although there are differences, the similarities in styles across these phases are more striking © Beverly Ballin Smith)
In the Northern Isles, the publication of the excavations on the Brough of Birsay which began in the 1930s (Curle 1982) but were completed in more recent times by John Hunter and Chris Morris (Hunter 1986; Morris 1996 and forthcoming). Nearby sites on Mainland Orkney in the Birsay Bay area (Morris 1989; 1996) have provided considerably more data on the interface and together with other discoveries on Sanday at Pool (Hunter 2007) have provided a much more detailed picture of the changes which took place in this period. Major new work in Shetland at the site of Old Scatness has provided strong Pictish cultural evidence in the form of distinctive cellular structures and fine stone carving. This is one of the few sites to produce new evidence for the interface between Norse and Pict and significantly indicates the reuse of an Iron Age structure (Structure 11) by incoming Vikings (Dockrill, Bond and Turner et al 2010). In the Western Isles the excavations at Bornais in South Uist, (Sharples 2005), have identified deposits covering the 8th to 10th century interface which is significantly different to that exposed on the Udal (Sharples 2005 and further forthcoming volumes).
Portmahomack has been interpreted as a major Pictish monastery with evidence for the violent arrival of the Vikings demonstrated by destruction of stone crosses (eg Carver et al 2016). This would be a unique discovery in Scotland, where although there are several references to the sacking of monasteries such as Iona, there is little identifiable archaeological evidence to support this. Ongoing reassessment at Iona could redress this situation (pers comm E Campbell and A Maldonado).
An important re-asessment of the site of St Ninian's Isle, including the immediate context for the famous Pictish hoard has shown that several burials dating the Viking period had been placed with the Pictish and earlier cemetery (Barrowman 2011). Scientific consideration of dietary components in relation to the Picts at Portmahomack and the succeeding population groups is a major step forward (eg Curtis-Summers et al 2014).
Excavator revealing the carving on a broken slab of Pictish sculpture reused as a drain cover in the 9th century revived settlement at Portmahomack following a Viking raid © Martin Carver.
More recent excavations by Martin Carver at Portmahomack (Carver 2008) encompassed evidence of the cross over period, and publication of that work sought to bring together the massive destruction of fine carved stone sculpture with the coincident arrival of the Norse.
Excavations at Old Scatness in Shetland by Steve Dockrill and Julie Bond et al.have shown that the first Norse settlers used pre-existing structures as their homes (Dockrill et al. 2010). The number of sites which have been excavated (and published) and which provide data on this crucial interface period is however relatively limited in number in comparison to the Late Norse sites in the country.
The main research questions revolve around the location of relevant sites, issues of political and social interaction, the introduction of new crops, the transformation of the fishing industries and the assimilation or otherwise of artefactual forms.