Viking Settlements in Orkney and Shetland

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The Orkney and Shetland archipelagos were among the smallest regions settled by Norwegians during the Viking Expansion that took place c. a.d. 800–1100. However, many years of multidisciplinary research have revealed that these northernmost British Isles played significant roles in the politics and economies of the Viking World of the North Atlantic and the North Sea. From their earliest settlements by Neolithic agriculturalists in the fourth millenium b.c., the "Northern Isles of Scotland," as Orkney and Shetland are known collectively, served as the northwestern frontier of the Eurasian landmass, and any westward movements of people, ideas, and domestic plants and animals stopped there. When the islands were settled by the Norse in the early medieval period, their peripheral status was transformed as they became the first stepping stones in an epic transoceanic migration that ended in North America. At that point, Orkney and Shetland became the gateway to the North Atlantic and a crossroads between Britain and Scandinavia.

environmental context

To better understand the first Viking contacts with Orkney and Shetland and the eventual Norse settlement of the islands, it is necessary to examine the larger geographical contexts of the archipelagos. First, Shetland is the part of Britain which is geographically closest to Norway; as such it was a logical first landfall for Norwegian Vikings who sailed south to British and Irish locations. Thus, Shetland and nearby Orkney were likely staging points for Viking raids in the ninth and tenth centuries a.d., when these attacks were most frequent.

Second, although some archaeological evidence suggests that the islands were settled by people from northern Norway, broader sources point to the west coast of Norway as the home of most of the Viking colonists. The Northern Isles have a gentle landscape compared with much of Norway's mountainous west coast, with relatively richer resources for raising crops and herding domestic animals. However, like the west of Norway, the coastlines of the islands are quite indented, providing residents easy access from the shore to the deep sea. From a Norwegian perspective, Orkney and Shetland would have been desirable lands for practicing the familiar mix of farming and maritime resource exploitation found in most Viking settlement regions.

Third, although Orkney and Shetland are often discussed together, reflecting their sometimes shared political unity as a Norwegian, and eventually Scottish, earldom at various periods, the two archipelagos are geographically quite dissimilar in many ways. Most of the ecological differences are founded, literally, on bedrock. Orkney is underlain largely by the Old Red Sandstone, which breaks down into well-drained, fertile soil capable of supporting productive and stable agriculture. In Shetland, however, the Old Red Sandstone occurs largely in southern Mainland, and much of the rest of the archipelago is blanketed with poorer soils that formed on igneous and metamorphic substrates. These soils have been improved in many places through 5,000 years of cultivation, but in general, Orkney has always been a better environment for raising crops, while the Shetland landscape has fostered more pastoral adaptations.

The archipelagos' marine environments also differ. Waters of the great North Atlantic current system, which give the British Isles unusually warm temperatures for their northern latitudes, mix with the cooler and less saline North Sea around both Orkney and Shetland. However, Shetland lies quite close to the edge of the European Continental Shelf, where the currents are strongest and where upwelling of nutrient-rich water is greatest, while Orkney is surrounded by relatively shallow waters. The sum of these differences is that Shetland has a more diverse and dynamic marine environment that has always had the potential to compensate for the region's marginality for cereal agriculture.

historical evidence

There is little straightforward textual evidence regarding the Norse settlement of Orkney and Shetland. Icelandic statesman and historian Snorri Sturluson's Heimskringla states that the islands were settled in the reign of the Norwegian king Harald I Haarfager (Finehair) by Vikings wishing to escape his growing political power, but the account was written centuries later by an Icelander with contemporary concerns about Norwegian royal influence. The Orkneyinga Saga, the only Icelandic saga that was centered on the Northern Isles, contains little information on the causes and processes of the early Norse settlement, and largely focuses on the political history of the Orkney Earldom in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. A scattering of other sources touch on the islands' Viking history in discussing the activities of Orkney Earls outside the islands. One such account is found in Njál's Saga, which concerns Earl Sigurd the Stout's death in Ireland at the battle of Clontarf in 1014. Written records of life in the islands increased dramatically in number and descriptive content in the later medieval and early post-medieval centuries.


Place-names are a type of originally verbal evidence that may preserve many cultural continuities from the Viking Period. The place-names of Orkney and Shetland are overwhelmingly Scandinavian in origin, demonstrating that the earlier Pictish language was replaced, not blended, with Old Norse in the decades after the landnám (first land-taking). Early place-names may include those incorporating the words or elements "bu" (), "-bister" (bolstaðr), and "skaill" (skáli), whereas the names of farms ending with "-ster" (seter) and "-gard" or "-garth" (garðr) may mark secondary establishments. Although place-names are impossible to date precisely, in some cases they may record changing land use. For example, place-names incorporating the words "pund" and "quoy" refer to livestock pens of various types, pointing to grazing as an early land use. In a more general way, the high density of place-names testifies to a very intensive exploitation of the island landscapes: for example, it is estimated that Shetland has over 50,000 Norse place-names distributed over a total land area of only 1,425 square kilometers.

archaeological evidence

When the Norse arrived both island groups were inhabited by a Celtic population usually referred to by archaeologists and historians as the Picts. Various forms of archaeological evidence demonstrate strong cultural ties between the Picts of Orkney and Shetland and those of mainland Scotland. (Those on the mainland were first referred to as "Picts" by the Romans in the third century a.d.) Much remains to be learned about the Northern Isles Picts, but archaeological research conducted since the 1970s has shown that there must have been a considerable population in the centuries just before the Norse colonization. In this regard the Northern Isles of Scotland differed dramatically from the largely uninhabited places that the Vikings later colonized, including the Faroe Islands, Iceland, and Greenland.

However, with the exception of scattered pre-Norse place-names and perhaps some distinctive elements in landholding organization, there are few elements in the cultures of Norse Orkney and Shetland that seem to be holdovers from the Pictish past. The lack of pre-Norse cultural traces in the Viking period has led to speculation that the meeting of the two peoples must have been violent, resulting in the extermination of the Picts. Currently available archaeological evidence regarding this complex issue remains ambiguous, and the nature of Pictish-Norse interaction is still an enigma.

Indeed, the general scarcity of documents relating to local events in the Norse settlement period makes archaeological evidence critically important. Viking-period settlements and burials have been uncovered, either accidentally or through formal excavations since the 1800s, and much has been learned about Norse life in Orkney and Shetland. This brief discussion will outline only the largest and most significant sites and finds that have revealed important information.

The earliest excavated Norse settlements in Orkney include those at Buckquoy, the Brough of Birsay, Pool, Westness, Skaill in Deerness, and Saevar Howe. In Shetland, the only excavated sites with extensive demonstrated Viking period remains are at Jarlshof and Old Scatness. At present, the only relatively well-preserved buildings in Shetland that were not reused Pictish constructions are at Jarlshof. Norse occupation levels at all of these sites were underlain by the remains of Pictish settlements. Yet only at Buckquoy, and possibly Pool, was there plausible evidence of continuities between the Pictish and Norse occupations; others revealed a possible hiatus in settlement before the Norse arrival. Dating evidence for all of the sites varies in quantity and quality. In general, these Viking settlements seem to have begun in the later ninth century, a considerable time after the onset of Viking raids in southern Britain would have brought Norwegians to the Northern Isles. Thus, on the one hand, the long-term assumption that settlement began with Viking raiding in the early ninth century is not supported so far by the archaeological record. On the other hand, further field studies and analyses may change this picture: the settlement evidence for the Northern Isles a.d. 800–1100 is still relatively slight, especially in the Shetland Islands.

Burials also may provide much information about Viking cultures, but this type of evidence is much more common in Orkney than in Shetland. Major cemeteries existed at Pierowall on Westray and at Westness on Rousay. Apparently isolated graves have also been found at other locations in Orkney and in Shetland. Pagan Viking burial forms in the Northern Isles included inhumations in long and short rectangular, stone-lined trenches or cists, flexed burials in stone-lined, ovoid pits, and boat burials that incorporated small, inshore vessels. The variety of included grave goods matches those found in other areas of the Viking World, and typical artifacts include weapons of various sorts and equipment for making textiles. Shetland has far fewer pre-Christian Norse graves than does Orkney, and far fewer than have been found in Norway and Iceland. This is a striking pattern that is difficult to explain: the conditions of preservation and the likelihood of discovering such sites would seem to be the same on Shetland as in the other locations. The acceptance of Christianity by the Norse would have curtailed the equipping of burials with grave goods, but there is no evidence that suggests that the Shetland Norse were Christianized earlier than those of Orkney. Likewise, there is no evidence that Orkney was settled earlier and would thus have had a longer "pagan period," with greater numbers of pagan interments.

regional economy

When the regional archaeological evidence is interpreted with the aid of historical records of the Northern Isles and Norway, and with ethnographic information from later centuries, a picture emerges of the ways in which the Norse settlers of Orkney and Shetland provided themselves with food and shelter. However, it is important to recognize that relatively few sites from the 800–1100 era have been thoroughly excavated with modern methods. Even fewer sites contain both well-preserved architecture and bioarchaeological evidence from associated middens, or refuse deposits. Both types of evidence are valuable for reconstructing human economies. It is likely that current projects, such as the Old Scatness Broch investigations in Shetland and the Quoygrew excavations in Orkney, will produce this type of complementary evidence. (Such sites are more common in Iceland and Greenland, where entire Viking period settlements were quickly abandoned, leaving better-preserved remains.) It is currently impossible to define a typical Viking period settlement type for either Orkney or Shetland. Some excavated settlements apparently supported multiple households in separate but adjacent dwellings, while other sites seem to represent single-household farms. Over time, Orkney and Shetland developed a more concentrated settlement pattern, eventually forming loose clusters of farmsteads similar to what would later be termed townships, but it is difficult to specify the forms these settlement units took in the period between 800 and 1100. Place-name evidence and later settlement distributions suggest that one key requirement for establishing an early Norse farm was proximity to a shoreline where boats could be landed.

Bioarchaeological and artifact evidence from excavated sites indicates that the Viking-period Norse of the Northern Isles relied on diverse sources of food, including domestic livestock, cereals, and wild foods, including fish, seals, seabirds and mollusks. Cattle and sheep were the most important mammals, but some pig bones have been found on all sites. In contrast with Viking Norway and Greenland, there is little evidence that goats were ever important in Northern Isles' economies.

Both the grains and the quern stones used to process them have been recovered from Viking period sites, and they demonstrate that cereals were a key resource in both Orkney and Shetland. Bere (two-rowed barley—Hordeum vulgare) was the most important crop, as in later centuries. Barley is well suited to cultivation in the archipelagos because it is salt-tolerant, and much sea spray is deposited on the islands, especially in Shetland.

The role of marine fish in Viking and later medieval Orkney and Shetland economies is currently under intensive investigation. Some types of bioarchaeological evidence suggest that fish may have played an important role in Northern Isles economies of the Viking period. But given the limitations of the available evidence it is difficult to sort out the dietary contributions of all of the various categories of marine foods, which also included sea mammals, birds, and mollusks. Also, the environmental contrasts between Orkney and Shetland suggest that the relative importance of marine and terrestrial resources may have differed between the two island groups. Much more archaeological research will be required before this complex issue is resolved, and in the meantime it is probably unwise to generalize about Orkney and Shetland as a single settlement region. Certainly, by the end of the medieval period, fishing for food and for trade was much more important in Shetland than it was in Orkney. In general, it is likely that as more sites are investigated, especially early settlements, Viking Orkney and Shetland will emerge as areas with distinct cultural patterns. These traits were probably fostered by ecological diversity and the lack of later integrating forces such as the medieval church, strong kingdoms, and large, structured market systems.

See alsoPicts (vol. 2, part 7); Viking Settlements in Iceland and Greenland (vol. 2, part 7).


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