2.3 Norse Scotland

The multi period site of Jarlshof, Shetland, seen from the air. The site appears to have been in almost constant use for almost four thousand years; with later developments being built upon and around the older structures. Today, the Norse buildings are some of the most visible elements of the site. ©RCAHMS


The seminal publication of the multi-period excavations at Jarlshof in Shetland by JRC Hamilton (1956) marked the beginning of larger-scale excavation publications of Viking and Late Norse settlement in Scotland. For generations the accepted dating of the published Jarlshof stratigraphy provided a basis for more recent studies of the period, most particularly in relation to material culture. More recent investigations at the site (Dockrill, Bond and Batey 2004) will in due course enable a more refined dating sequence. However, this is just one strand of the revision which has taken place in more recent decades. The study of Norse Scotland through major excavation programmes since the late 1970s has revolutionised our understanding of the nature of the Norse settlement, the areas occupied and the people who died and were buried in the pagan tradition.

It is customary to view the areas settled by the Norse as being confined to the Northern and Western Isles, however ongoing research by S. Taylor at Glasgow University is broadening this perspective. The identification of Norse place-names in Fife, for example suggests some presence (Taylor 1995; 2004) and the stray finds recorded through the Treasure Trove procedure (e.g. Buchanan, PhD thesis, University of Glasgow) and the re-visiting of museum collections (e.g. Hall 2007c, 391-93) are going some way towards fleshing out this suggestion.  Likewise, place-name study in Argyll and the West Coast of Scotland also indicates Norse activity in combination with new finds such as the boat grave from Ardnamurchan (Harris et al 2017) and isolated stone sculptural pieces such as Kilmartin (RCAHMS 1992 Vol 7, no 68 stone D4, 130-31 ) and Kilfinnan, Mid Argyll (RCAHMS 1992 Vol 7, no 61 stone C3, 107-8 ).

Excavating the boat burial at Ardnamurchan ©Ardnamurchan Transitions Project

A number of synthetic works on the Scandinavian impact on Scotland have been published, most notably by Barbara Crawford (1987), Anna Ritchie (1993), Olwyn Owen (1999) and James Graham-Campbell and Colleen Batey (1998). Additionally over-arching syntheses on hoards (Graham Campbell 1995) and on the pagan graves of Viking-age Scotland (Graham-Campbell and Paterson forthcoming), bring together both antiquarian finds and more recent discoveries. 

The available evidence and the potential areas for further research can be sub-divided into the three main sub-sections:

Section 2.3.1: the Picto-Norse interface;

Section 2.3.2: the Viking-age;

Section 2.3.3: the Late Norse period.



I feel that the medieval panel's contribution is too Norse and Pictish heavy at the expense of other early historic groups.  In particular, Anglian Northumbria (the progenitor through influence of much of early historic culture in Scotland) is all but absent from the document.  The Norse contribution has a whole section devoted to this important, but not altogether integral or universal, element of the period.  I feel that equal weight should be given to other groups (Picts, Scots, Angles), or no weight given to any if a more general framework is preferred.

Chris Bowles 

Balancing the account was tricky and while there is a lot of discussion of the Picts throughout the document, the Norse sections are particulalry clearly demarcated. We have a volunteer to create a page on the Picts, drawing together a lot of topics spread through the document and also considering other aspects that we didn't have space to cover in-depth. Would you be interested in doing something similar for the Angles? Perhaps just suggesting a broad structure of topics under which we could get people to constribute to?

Interesting talk at First Millennia Day conference yesterday on exploring subtle Norse influences on state formation e.g. Strathclyde, Alba - how best to explore archaeologically?