Dr David Griffiths – How Scandinavian was the Viking Age in the Northern Isles?

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Author: Katharine McCrossan

On Tuesday 17th December the Centre welcomed Dr David Griffiths, who delivered the final seminar of the semester on the question ‘How Scandinavian was the Viking Age in the Northern Isles?’. A Reader and Director of Studies in Archaeology at the University of Oxford, Dr Griffiths’ research interests include Viking-Age and medieval archaeology; the method, theory, and practise of landscape archaeology; and environmental and coastal landscape change in the Northern Isles of Scotland, England, Wales, Scandinavia, and the Irish sea. A former Visiting Fellow, Dr Griffiths stated that he was delighted to make his return to the University of Glasgow and hoped that his message would be well received.

Through his research and recently completed field project, Dr Griffiths was able to offer an immediate answer the question posed: the Northern Isles, during the Viking Age, were less Scandinavian than previously thought. In offering this conclusion, Dr Griffiths hoped to pull apart the existing shibboleths that surround the Northern Isles during the Viking Age, and also challenge the reasons why such orthodoxies have endured.

Orkney and Shetland, as areas of Britain that have maintained the strongest Scandinavian cultural ties into the modern age, have almost automatically been perceived as the locations of the earliest and most vigorous Viking settlement. This hypothesis has been further bolstered by their geographical proximity to Scandinavia and the late formal adoption of the Northern Isles into the kingdom of Scotland. But was this really the case? Dr Griffiths recommended approaching this assumption with caution. Archaeological evidence of an early Viking presence in the Northern Isles remains tenuous, with the established date of c.800 for colonial acquisition based solely upon guesswork.

As he went on to say, however, this did not mean that Scandinavian influence in the Northern Isles was entirely absent during the Viking Age, though the extent of this influence has been somewhat wilfully misunderstood. In the twelfth century Norwegian accounts preoccupied with presenting a narrative of historical political legitimacy bestowed an artificial coherence to the Viking expansion in Orkney and Shetland, with these accounts later elaborated on by scholars (such as Oluf Rugh and Jan Peterson) during the nineteenth century Scandinavian nationalist resurgence. Contemporaneous evidence, however, remains limited.

While archaeologists have claimed to have identified an undocumented Viking raid on a Pictish monastery in Portmahomack in the north east of Scotland around the early ninth century, with further Viking Age destruction also found in nearby Burghead, no such evidence has been uncovered in the Northern Isles. Indeed, Dr Griffiths highlighted that there is little to no identifiable evidence for Viking raids in the Northern Isles, including the destruction of pre-Viking settlements or churches. Additionally, no indicators of early Scandinavian dominance (such as burials, hoards, or longhouses) have been dated earlier than the later ninth century, with most examples dated from the mid-tenth century onwards.

This is further compounded by the findings of the Birsay-Skaill Landscape Archaeology Project. Despite extensive archaeological investigation into the coastal landscapes of the Bay of Skaill and Brough of Birsay, Dr Griffiths (along with research partner Dr Jane Harrison) found very little that suggested a strong Scandinavian presence during the Viking Age. Instead, artefacts and fragments uncovered appear to have originated in England, Ireland, and even France. Furthermore, the early hints of Scandinavian settlement in the Northern Isles are rather muted, with no great imprint of invaders apparent. Recent excavations of multi-period settlements, such as those present at Old Scatness in Shetland, have suggested a phase of possible early Viking re-use of earlier structures, with evidence also apparent in the Northern Isles of pre-Viking structures incorporating possible Scandinavian elements (such as long central hearths).

In concluding, Dr Griffiths stated that this adoption of Scandinavian traditions in the Northern Isles appears to have been more subtle and occurred later than previously thought. Instead, greater influence was exerted from the insular world, with Scandinavian influence only becoming dominant from the mid-tenth century onwards. For Dr Griffiths, this is consistent with the notion that the early targets of the Vikings were instead based in the Southern Irish sea, with areas like the Northern Isles a secondary target only.

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