About Orkney
 About the Site
 Search Site 
  Viking Orkney

Pict, Papar and Viking:
settlement or slaughter?

"A furore Normannorum, libera nos Domine."
From the fury of the Northmen, deliver us O Lord

Viking Sword. 3d Illustration by Sigurd TowrieAlthough the Orkneyinga Saga glosses over the pre-Norse inhabitants of Orkney, the Historia Norvegiae states that the invading Vikings found the islands to be inhabited by Picts and papar.

The term ‘papar’ was the name given by the Norse to the clerics of the pre-Norse church.

“These islands were at first inhabited by the Picts and Papae. Of these, the one race, the Picts, little exceeded pigmies in stature; they did marvels, in the morning and in the evening, in building walled towns, but at mid-day they entirely lost all their strength, and lurked, through fear, in little underground houses.

" . . . And the Papae have been named from their white robes, which they wore like priests; whence priests are all called papae in the Teutonic tongue. An island is still called, after them, Papey."

The Historia then goes on to describe how the Picts and the papar were wiped out by the Norsemen.

“In the days of Harold Fairhair, King of Norway, certain pirates, of the family of the most vigorous prince Ronald, set out with a great fleet, and crossed the Solundic sea; and stripped these races of their ancient settlements, destroyed them wholly, and subdued the islands to themselves.”

But it has to be remembered, that the Historia’s account can only be treated as a reflection of the beliefs of the time it was written – the late 12th or early 13th century.

When it comes to the question of what happened to Orkney's Picts when the Norsemen took the islands, there is only one thing we can say with certainty - there is no agreement on the answer.

Analysing all the arguments and debates over the years, we are generally left with two opposing viewpoints - the Vikings either slaughtered Orkney's Pictish inhabitants or settled and integrated peacefully with them.

Both arguments can be shown to be backed up by historical, archaeological and other evidence, but in some cases this evidence can also prove to be a downfall.

What this goes to prove, in my opinion at least, is that the situation was not necessarily as "black and white" as some would have it. Instead I suspect that elements of both theories came into play, at different times and different locations.

The genocide theory

The "genocide theory" has it that the Viking "invaders" treated Orkney and Shetland no different to the other areas of Britain they "visited" - what they wanted, they took, either slaughtering, enslaving or driving away the indigenous population.

Scandinavian historical sources seem to add weight to this theory, stating variously that Orkney was deserted at the time of the earliest Norse settlement, or that the Norsemen fought with, and slaughtered, the inhabitants.

The apparent lack of pre-Norse placenames in Orkney would also seem to corroborate the idea that the Norse "overwhelmed" the native Orcadians. Had they integrated with the original inhabitants, claim supporters, even as slaves, surely a few native placenames would have survived as the newcomers adopted them.

For more on this theory, see Brian Smith's paper: The Picts and the Martyrs - Did Vikings kill the native population of Orkney and Shetland

Peaceful integration?

On the opposite side of the fence are those who favour the idea of a peaceful co-existence. They have it that the incoming Norsemen settled peacefully and gradually integrated with the local population.

Countering the genocide theory, they cite the archaeological lack of battle sites, as well as the uncertainty surrounding a number of Orcadian placenames - which they say could actually have Pictish origins - as evidence for this peaceful integration between Pict and Norseman.

Again, the interpretation of archaeological evidence can back this up - discoveries at Buckquoy in Birsay in particular. There, in houses of a later Norse design, were found a number of Pictish artefacts, including pins, combs and pottery. This find has long been held up as proof that Norseman and Pict lived together.

But although we have evidence that Pictish artefacts were still in use in early Norse settlements, does that necessarily imply a peaceful coexistence? Perhaps the Norse "invaders" had simply taken the items. Or did we have a situation where Pictish slaves were simply servicing their new masters? The idea is open to interpretation.

An abandoned haven?

A third scenario is that the population of Orkney was so low and scattered that the subsequent Norse settlement soon absorbed the indigenous islanders.

As mentioned above, some Scandinavian historical sources are clear that Orkney was deserted at the time of the earliest Norse settlement. What, if anything, could have decimated the islands population, or at least forced large numbers to move away?

Again, the answer is open to debate but historical documents of the time do provide some intriguing possibilities.

According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, for example, Britain suffered a "great plague" in 664AD. Did this affect the Northern Isles? And if so, was its effect severe enough that the population in Orkney never recovered?

Aside from any potential natural disasters, Orkney also suffered at the hands of a number of invaders during the time of the Picts.

In 682AD, for example, the Irish Annals of Tigernach record that Orkney was "destroyed" by the Pictish High King Bridei mac Bile. Seventeen years later, in 709AD, the Annals of Ulster tell of an Irish expedition to Orkney. This warband, led by a character known only as Artablair, was victorious over the "Orkneymen".

And even if none of the above had any effect on the population of Orkney, the start of Norse raiding could have. If the Norse settlement was preceded by a time of raiding, did the Orcadian Picts drift away to the comparative safety of the Scottish mainland?

Early Norse contact and integration

All these theories imply a sudden influx of Norwegian settlers, based on the Viking invasions elsewhere in Britain. As far as the English chroniclers were concerned, the Viking age began in 793AD, when the Lindisfarne Abbey was raided. Because of this it has generally always been assumed that the Norsemen began arriving in Britain in the latter years of the eighth century.

But in Orkney in Shetland, both of which are a mere day's sailing from Norway, it is likely that there were Norse visitors before this date. Although we can't say how extensive this contact was, archaeological evidence does seem to confirm it took place.

In Orkney, Pictish combs made from deer antler are fairly common. Although the early Norwegians also manufactured antler combs, theirs were made from reindeer antler and not the native red deer antler used in Orkney.

However, examinations of a number of combs held at the Orkney Museum in Kirkwall revealed that some of the Pictish combs found in Birsay were actually made from reindeer antler.

Did early Norse traders or settlers import the reindeer antler into Orkney? It seems to confirm that, in one area of Orkney at least, the Norse were trading long before the traditional date of their arrival.

Section Contents

See Also

External Link

Back a page