Vikings in the Highlands
Updated: Feb 23
For those visiting who have an interest in medieval history, the Highlands is a great place to come to find out more about the Viking settlers in the British Isles! More and more is being found about the impact on Vikings in the Highlands, from the first Viking boat burial found on the shores at Ardnaurchan, to the Viking shipyard on the Isle of Skye. And here you can find out where to visit to learn more, and the location of the sites!
Some history first:
-793AD – Viking raiders attack Lindisfarne. This is thought to be the first attack by raiders on British soil and marks the start of the Viking Age.
-802 & 806AD – Isle of Iona is attacked by raiding Viking
-9th century – More attacks on Scotland lead to the removal of the relics of St Columba in the monastery on Iona.
-Middle of 10th century – Denmark is converted to Christianity, paving the way for other Scandinavian countries to convert as well.
-1000AD – Iceland is converted to Christianity.
-12th century – 5000-year-old chambered tomb in Orkney is broken into and graffiti-ed in runes.
-Mid 12th century – the end of the Viking Age approximately.
With the first recorded attack by Viking raiders, the Viking Age is thought to have begun. The Viking Age generally thought to have started around 793 AD. – the first recorded attack by raiders on British soil. The attack on foreign isles marks the beginning of the Viking Age because it is the start of the migration and diaspora which marks the Viking mind and life.
Whilst in popular culture the Vikings have a reputation for raiding, killing and Norse belief system in Gods like Thor, they were in fact also settlers and traders and explorers. They adventured from what they called Vinland (now known as Canada) to the Byzantium Empire via Russia. In doing so, their impact can be seen today particularly through the vessels they used. In recent years in Scotland, and the Highlands especially, more archaeological evidence of boats whether in ports or boat burials is coming to light.
2 hour & 20 minute drive from The Highland Club
Viking Canal at Loch na H-Airde on the Isle of Skye:
Dated to around the 12th century, this site is one of the most recent and major finds in the Highlands. The site is based around Loch na h-Airde on the Rubh an Dunain peninsula on the Isle of Skye, a small outreach extending off the main Isle. Viking evidence has been found in the stone-lined canal, as well as objects like anchors. There are also medieval boat remains in the Loch itself.
Loch na H-Airde and the canal Source
This loch and canal is similar to others found in Scandinavia. Its importance potentially as a port, boat-store or boat building area is still being assessed and discovered.
Loch na H-Airde on the Isle of Skye Source
To find out more about the history of the site, visit: https://canmore.org.uk/site/11028/skye-rubh-an-dunain-viking-canal
2 hours and 30 minute drive from The Highland Club
The Port an Eilean Mhòir ship burial was found on Swordle Bay in the Ardnamurchan peninsula on the west coast of Scotland. A ship burial was made often for people in high status and represented the death voyage, whether to Valhalla or not. The warrior in the ship was buried with a sword, axe, spear and assortment of goods for the afterlife, indicating his wealth and status. Whilst the artefacts are not in a permanent exhibition yet, the area is only a 2 ½-3-hour drive from Fort Augustus, and the location will open your eyes to what the Vikings saw when they ventured onto Scottish soil.
Ardnamurchan boat burial Source
3-hour drive from The Highland Club
Admittedly a little further up and harder to get to than the other sites, Orkney’s importance in the Viking Age should not be miscommunicated. The island even has an Icelandic saga about it and the history of the Vikings there: Orkneyinga saga.
A version of Old Norse, Norn, was also spoken in Orkney which suggests the significant impact of Viking raiders and settlers on the area: linguistically, the original Pictish and Gaelic languages were displaced.
One of the most interesting sites that you can visit on Orkney is Maeshowe, a 5,000-year-old Stone Age cairn. Though it externally appears like a mound, inside is a stone chamber that is now covered in 12th century runic graffiti by Vikings. Of the 30 runes, some read: Sá haugr var fyrr hlaðinn heldr Loðbrókar. Synir hennar, þeir váru hvatir, slíkt váru menn, sem þeir váru fyrir sér. This mound was constructed before Loðbrók’s. Her sons, they were daring; such were men as they were of themselves (they were the sort of people you would call men).
There is also a unique but explicit runic inscription describing how: “Thorni f*****. Helgi carved.”
As well as other name-tags, immortalising Ottarfila, Haermund Hardaxe and other Viking men who carved the runes. And, one rune was discovered near the roof of the cairn. When finally transcribed, it was translated as: Tholfr Klossienn’s son carved these runes high up.
What is interesting is that the runic inscriptions confirms an account in Orkneyinga Saga when raiders sheltered from a storm in a tomb, carving inscriptions into the wall to pass time. And it is quite clear that graffiti humour then and now has not changed! Maybe these men were the original Banksy’s of their time?
To find out more about opening times, please visit: https://www.historicenvironment.scot/visit-a-place/places/maeshowe-chambered-cairn/
Govan Stones, Glasgow
The Govan Stones are medieval stones that were carved in the middle of the Viking Age. At the time, Glasgow was part of the Kingdom of Strathclyde. The 31 stones come in many different shapes: crosses or segments of crosses, to hogbacks – rounded stones that are meant to look like the Viking long houses, but to many they look like the shape of a pig! The centre piece of the stones is the one of a kind sarcophagus, empty now but though to once contain Christian relics. Many of the stones have distinct Viking or Norse patterns and are worth a visit. We would recommend visiting this site on your way up or down from the Highlands. Whether you’re flying in or driving up, it is a perfect stop to break up the drive and learn more about a fascinating side of Scotland’s history!
Tel: 0141 440 2466 Govan Old Church 866 Govan Road Glasgow G51 3UU Please check opening times as the church is shut during some months of the year.
Museums with current displays of Viking artefacts:
3 hrs 30 mins drive from The Highland Club
National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh
Having recently permanently acquired the Galloway Hoard, the museum contains some of the most unique Viking artefacts found in Scotland and the British Isles, such as the Lewis Chessman or the Hunterston Brooch. You can even try object handling sessions to ignite the archaeologist and historian in you! If Vikings aren’t for you, there is a vast range of other displays to visit as well!
Tel: 0300 123 6789 Chambers Street, Edinburgh, EH1 1JF
Shetland Museum and Archives
Though far away, which is why this post has not included artefacts and information on Vikings in Shetlands, the Shetlands contain a large collection and exhibition of Viking artefacts, as well as Viking sites. To get to the Shetland, you will require a plane journey or a ferry journey. However, if you are interested in doing a tour up to Shetland, stop over at The Highland Club to break up the long journey and enjoy the history surrounding our beautiful location.
For more information: www.shetland-museum.org.uk
Tel: 01595 695057 Hay’s Dock, Lerwick, Shetland