Were there Anglo-Saxons in Orkney before the Vikings?

Were “English” settlers in Orkney at least a century before the migration to what was to become England?

According to a book to be published next month, they were.

In The Early English Settlement of Orkney and ShetlandDr Graeme Davis, a specialist in medieval linguistics and history, counters popular historical belief by proposing there was an Anglo-Saxon settlement, in both Orkney and Shetland, from the fourth century AD.

Accepted history has the Angles, Jutes and Saxons “invading” southern Britain, from Denmark and northern Germany, in the middle of the fifth century AD. Over time the Anglo-Saxons took control of vast swathes of land, eventually giving their name to England – Angleland.

Dr Davis proposes, however, that a group of Anglo-Saxons had settled in the Northern Isles at least a century before this, resulting in one of the first English settlements in the British Isles. These Orkney Anglo-Saxons, he suggests, were a minority group who were ultimately subsumed into the Norwegian population, who began arriving in the islands in the eighth century AD.

A number of accounts by classical historians do refer to an early Saxon presence in Orkney and Shetland. Over the years, however, historians have generally ignored these, or dismissed them as errors.

Dr Davis feels, however, that these accounts can’t be simply disregarded.

He said: “References are scant – I couldn’t have written a book on the basis of written references – but there are some good ones. For example, Claudius wrote:

‘What avail against him (Theodosius) the eternal snows, the frozen air, the uncharted sea? The Orcades ran red with Saxon slaughter; Thule was warm with the blood of Picts; ice-bound Hibernia wept for the heaps of slain Scots’

“Or then there’s Nennius, who recorded a Saxon attack on Orkney shortly before the 449AD English ‘invasion’ of Britain.

Hengist, after this, said to Vortigern, “I will be to you both a father and an adviser; despise not my counsels, and you shall have no reason to fear being conquered by any man or any nation whatever; for the people of my country are strong, warlike, and robust: if you approve, I will send for my son and his brother, both valiant men, who at my invitation will fight against the Picts, and you can give them the countries in the north, near the wall called Gual. The incautious sovereign having assented to this, Octa and Ebusa arrived with forty ships. In these they sailed round the country of the Picts, laid waste the Orkneys, and took possession of many regions, even to the Pictish confine beyond the Frenesic Sea.

But although he feels the statements are persuasive, and should therefore not be ignored, Dr Davis is at pains to stress they are not proof in themselves.

“The written records are enough to establish a hypothesis, but no more than this. I could not have written the book on the basis of these written accounts alone, because they are so scant, and because there are scholarly reservations about every one of them. That said, there is no good reason to reject such sources out of hand. Most of the time early writers did aim to write the truth as they saw it.”

Instead, the crux of his theory is linguistics.

He explained: “What first attracted me to the topic was a linguistic argument, and it is language which is the key. Without the evidence of language, I wouldn’t have a book.”

According to Dr Davis, his analysis of features found in Orkney and Shetland Norn, the language spoken in the islands until the 18th century, serves as strong support for the accuracy of the assertions of early historians.

“In its structures, the language shows faint echoes of Anglo-Saxon, heavily overlaid by later Viking influences. Orkney and Shetland Norn is not merely a dialect of the Old Norse language, with local modifications as usually assumed, but rather a predominantly Old Norse language with certain embedded Anglo-Saxon features. It is therefore a language which emerged on the islands and is a unique – and neglected – part of the cultural heritage of Orkney and Shetland.”

He added: “I don’t see any way of explaining the words in Orkney and Shetland Norn other than to conclude that a Germanic people were in Orkney and Shetland from fourth century AD, and the language developed independently in the islands.

“From a language point of view, these people could be English or Norse, or indeed any other Germanic group – though when we go back as far as fourth century it is a moot point how different the different Germanic groups really were, linguistically, ethnically or culturally. The written sources do say Saxon, that is Early English, so I’ve gone with this.

“I present the linguistic arguments in terms fully accessible to the layman. There is nothing difficult to read. That said, the discipline on which I draw has the frightening name ‘neogrammarian philology’, and is able – with many reservations – to reconstruct early forms of a language, or move forward from early forms to more recent forms.

“One example which Orcadians will know is the word Jarl, used as a title for the Earls or Orkney. This word jolly well shouldn’t be Jarl – rather it should be Jerl, the word, which in modern spelling, and with a southern pronunciation, is the familiar English Earl. There are lots of oddities like this in Orkney and Shetland Norn. One or two might just be an accident; the whole demand a different explanation.”

He added: “My arguments are based on language. They don’t conflict with anything in the historical or archaeological record, but they do modify interpretation. For example, language evidence suggests that the Roman poet Claudian is right and suggests that there is an explanation for no archaeological trace of ‘the coming of the Vikings’.

“I don’t rewrite the history of Orkney and Shetland. I do, however, add a new people to the cultural mix, and I do suggest that Orkney and Shetland Norn is a homegrown Orkney and Shetland product. I also suggest that the only substantial text in Norn is a remarkable piece of literature in this language, of which the people of the Northern Isles can be very proud indeed.”

The inevitable question relates to archaeology. Surely an Anglo-Saxon group in fourth century Orkney would leave some trace?

Dr Davis countered: “Any archaeological footprint from early English settlers would be small. We probably already have copious evidence of them, however, in that the present archaeological record cannot see a ‘coming of the Vikings’ around 790AD. There is no abrupt change, which is what we could reasonably expect. An explanation is that a Germanic people were already in Orkney and Shetland well before 790AD. We don’t see one Germanic people, the Vikings, arrive because a very similar Germanic people, the English, were already here.

“These early Anglo-Saxon settlers stayed where they were. When the Vikings arrived they merged with them and with the other ethnic groups of Orkney and Shetland. Because their language was so similar to that spoken by the Vikings there is a process of language mixing, which means that Norn reflects these English language roots, along with the Viking language roots. Among the already rich ethnic heritage of every Orcadian can now be counted a few early English genes. Orcadians are descended from the very earliest English inhabitants of the British Isles, present in Orkney a century or more earlier than their invasion of England.”

The Early English Settlement of Orkney and Shetland, by Dr Graeme Davis, is published by John Donald.

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