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Did Vikings kill the native population of
Orkney and Shetland

The Peace School: Language and Religion

My first remarks, then, are about language and religion, and about what Wainwright and his school made of them.

Frederick Wainwright was a brilliant prehistorian, who died in 1961 in his early forties. In 1952, when he was head of history at University College Dundee, he inaugurated a series of summer schools in archaeology. The first dealt with what he called 'The problem of the Picts'.

Fifty years ago nobody knew much about the Picts, and Wainwright and his colleagues, especially Robert Stevenson and Kenneth Jackson, threw a flood of light on the subject. Stevenson and Jackson spoke about Pictish art and language, respectively. None of them discussed the subject I am tackling here; but some of their conclusions have had a major impact on the War and Peace debate.

Stevenson, for instance, touched on the well-known sculptured stone from Bressay in Shetland, which was discovered in the early 1850s.

The Bressay stone has always been a puzzle.

In 1855 the Irish archaeologist James Graves examined the ogham inscription on its edge, and proposed that the stone was a joint memorial to the daughter of someone called Naddodd, and to the son of a Druid called Benres. Graves thought that Naddodd was probably the Viking of that name who discovered Iceland in the ninth century, and he concluded that the inscription must be a mixture of Irish and Icelandic [10]. His view that the Bressay stone is late, and that its inscription contains words from two or even three languages, was influential [11].

Robert Stevenson proposed, in a short paragraph, that the design on the stone was definitely late. He considered that the stone had been produced in the late ninth or even the tenth century, because of its 'haphazard scatter of decoration and a marked clumsiness of drawing'.

He reckoned that it was a poor copy of a much more impressive sculpture from Papil, in the isle of Burra, to which he now assigned 'a date … only just, if at all, prior to the Norse occupation of Shetland [12].' The Bressay stone was, he concluded, part of the 'dregs of Pictish tradition' [13].

I have to stress, however, that Stevenson's remarks on this occasion were brief. They certainly didn't amount to a theory about War or Peace in ninth or tenth century Shetland, although the implication of them was that the person who inscribed the stone had a foot in both Pictish and Norse camps.

Stevenson's views were immediately taken up by his colleague Kenneth Jackson. Jackson's paper to the Dundee summer school was revolutionary. Until 1952 many scholars had assumed that all Picts spoke a Celtic language related to Welsh, Cornish and Breton. Jackson now rejected that view. He liked understanding things, and there were Pictish names he couldn't understand. So he concluded that the Picts must have had two languages: a Brittonic language, and an unintelligible pre-Indo-European tongue with its origin in the Bronze Age. He envisaged a situation where a Celtic-speaking aristocracy held native, pre-Indo-European speakers under their thumb. [14]

During his discussion he too considered the Bressay stone. He spotted the word 'meqq', meaning son, on it, and assumed it was a primitive Gaelic word. He argued, following Stevenson's dating of the stone, that the oghamist had used a Gaelic rather than a Pictish word because the stone was very late. On the other hand he regarded the word 'dattrr' on the stone as the Norse word for 'daughter'. '[T]he whole thing', he concluded, much as Graves had said in 1855, 'seems to point to a very mixed language in Shetland in the late ninth or early tenth century, after the Norse settlements there' [15].

Jackson's remarks about the Bressay stone, like Stevenson's, were brief, but they have had an inordinate effect on the War and Peace debate. So has his view that the Picts spoke an ancient and unfathomable language.

Wainwright was the first to apply his colleagues' views to the War and Peace question.

Like everyone else who deals with the arrival of Norse settlers in the Northern Isles, Wainwright had to face the fact that there are apparently few or no pre-Norse place-names there. This is a very curious situation, and requires an explanation. Wainwright now argued that the Picts in the islands spoke Jackson's mysterious non-Indo-European language. As a result, he hinted, we can't recognise their place-names, because we don't know what to look for. He implied that there are such names in Shetland and Orkney, but that we can't see them. He went on to accept Stevenson's dating for and argument about the Bressay stone [16].

Wainwright pointed out, too, that the Norse settlers had established chapels on the sites of Pictish chapels in the islands. 'Under these circumstances', he said, 'we cannot accept the view that the Picts and their Christianity were exterminated' [17]. He concluded that '[i]n one field only, that of religion, is it reasonably certain that the Picts exercised any great influence on the Scandinavian way of life' [18].

I sense unease in Wainwright's writing when he arrives at this conclusion. Everything else he wrote about the Viking irruption into Orkney and Shetland points to a different prognosis. Wainwright had reported that the Picts were 'overwhelmed by and submerged beneath the sheer weight of the Scandinavian settlement' in the islands. But if the Picts survived, with their language and religion intact, what precisely do these strong words mean?

As I said, Wainwright imagined that Shetland and Orkney contain pre-Indo-European place-names that we can't recognise [19]. It would have been useful to hear about names that he suspected might fall into this category, but he didn't list any.

There are plenty of place-names that we can't explain, of course, but there are better reasons for our failure than the existence of a mysterious language. The main reason that we can't explain names is that we aren't clever enough, or that the names have become corrupt over the centuries, or both.

Is there any evidence at all that the Picts of Orkney and Shetland, or anywhere else, spoke a pre-Indo-European language? Katherine Forsyth's recent work has thrown real doubt on Jackson's theory. She has carefully re-examined the words and inscriptions which Jackson regarded as non-Celtic and unintelligible, and paints a different picture [20]. Her main area of expertise is the ogham inscriptions of northern and eastern Scotland.

According to Forsyth, scholars have 'underestimated the problems of interpreting texts in a poorly attested language written in an unfamiliar orthography, usually without word-division'. Moreover, ogham is peculiarly prone to misreading: 'if part of an ogham letter is missing it becomes a completely different letter'. Forsyth shows that some of the inscriptions incorporate personal names, and makes cogent suggestions about the likely form of others.

Her conclusion is that the Picts spoke a Brittonic language, as most of Jackson's predecessors assumed, and that Jackson's non-Indo-European language is a chimera. If there are pre-Norse names in Shetland and Orkney they are likely to be Celtic, not pre-Celtic in form, and some of them at least-if there are any-ought to be recognisable!

And what of the Bressay stone? Is it as young as Stevenson imagined? Is its language as 'mixed' as Jackson proposed? Stevenson reopened the question in 1981. In the meantime Charles Thomas had written an important article about Shetland's sculptured stones. Thomas didn't mention Bressay, but he concluded that the Papil stone was sculptured sometime after AD 750: that is, before Scandinavians arrived in the Northern Isles [21]. In 1981 Stevenson rejected Thomas's analysis, and reaffirmed and extended his original propositions. He still dated the Papil stone to the very end of the eighth century, and he now said that the Bressay stone 'seems to be a considerably later copy'. He claimed that the Bressay stone was a grave-marker for what he called a 'half-Pict', and concluded that 'there were in Shetland active Christians erecting sculptured monuments in the tenth century' [22].

Stevenson's and Jackson's views have been influential. Three years ago Michael Barnes wrote a little book about Orkney and Shetland Norn; his section on the early days of that language is based on the arguments that Jackson and Stevenson deployed in 1952.

Barnes says that '[t]here is really nothing in the linguistic evidence to conflict with the view that the incoming Scandinavians reached some kind of accommodation with the native population'. But our sole linguistic evidence is the Bressay stone! In fact, the evidence that there is Norse influence in that artefact is very meagre indeed. Katherine Forsyth has suggested that the name that looks like Naddodd on the stone may be Pictish [23]; and Barnes himself has speculated that the word 'dattr' on it may be Pictish as well [24]. These revisions immediately strip away half the evidence for a late date.

Without Norse words Stevenson's date based on the sculpture begins to look suspect. Remember that Stevenson's chronology assumed a very late date for the Papil stone; and if we consider Thomas's arguments we have to acknowledge that there is at least doubt about that. It will be a long time before the problems of the Bressay stone are solved. But as things stand we certainly can't use it as linguistic or artistic evidence for cultural contact between Picts and Vikings [25].

Why did the Pictish language of Shetland and Orkney disappear? Gillian Fellows-Jensen suggests that it was because there was 'no communication' between Vikings and natives in the islands [26]. Barnes disagrees. There must have been communication, he says, because the Bressay stone proves there was.

Barnes concludes that the names disappeared because of a 'low regard by the incomers for the language or languages of the people they displaced' [27]. Both suggestions are unconvincing. The Norwegian linguist Arne Kruse has asked [28]:

"how such a long period of co-existence could take place without the native Pictish language leaving a large trace behind in the language of the newcomers. … [I]s it credible [he enquires], that the Picts would have kept up their own onomasticon for such a long time without contaminating the Norse place-names? Just to say that the Norse must have had a 'low regard' for the Pictish language certainly does not satisfy this reader."

What Wainwright imagined, following Stevenson's lead, was that the Norse settlers in the islands regarded Pictish culture with contempt, to the extent that they failed to borrow a single word or place-name from them.

But he also thought that the invaders respected the Pictish religion, and eventually adopted it themselves.

These propositions are incompatible. They depend on one artefact-the problematical Bressay stone-and on the re-use of Pictish Christian sites in the islands by Norse settlers. There are indeed Pictish sites in the islands which later became Norse Christian sites; but centuries separate the two events. St Ninians Isle in Shetland is a good example. As Charles Thomas points out [29]:

[T]he chapel on St Ninian's Isle was unquestionably rebuilt, but apparently not before the late eleventh or twelfth century A.D.; and no structural phase can be seen between this horizon and the eighth century.

These facts are not an argument in favour of continuity; they point unmistakably to interruption.

The Peace School II: Archaeology >

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