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Did Vikings kill the native population of
Orkney and Shetland

The Peace School II: Archaeology

Let’s return to Iain Crawford. Most of his wrath in 1977 was directed at Anna Ritchie, who had just excavated a site at Buckquoy in Orkney. Her work gave an enormous fillip to the Peace School. [31]

Ritchie found an impressive Pictish settlement at Buckquoy, and by excavating it began to revolutionise our knowledge of the period.  She also thought that she had found the first Norse house on the site, and she noted with interest that it was full of Pictish artefacts: [32] so full, in fact, that the Norse immigrants had apparently failed to produce any of their own.  Ritchie could only imagine one explanation for this state of affairs.  The use of native artefacts, she argued, ‘implies a close relationship with local native inhabitants.’ 

Crawford was scornful about this interpretation.  He pointed out, correctly, that there could be other reasons for the situation that Ritchie had uncovered: disturbance on the site, for instance, or acquisition of spoil by the newcomers. [33]   But Ritchie didn’t take this possibility on board.  Over the years her exposition of the Buckquoy material became more and more confident.  In 1983, for instance, she said that the native artefacts in the Norse house proved ‘that the native Picts were not only still alive but engaged in some form of active social interchange with the Norsemen’. [34]   Common sense tells us that they prove no such thing.

I shall return to Ritchie’s Buckquoy material later, but I want to look for a moment at the implications of her analysis.  They are far from clear.  In various papers she argues that there must have been something called ‘integration’ or ‘social integration’ between the Pictish and Norse settlers on the site. [35]   That is a strange designation to use.  ‘Integration’, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is ‘[t]he bringing into equal membership of a common society those groups or persons previously discriminated against on racial or cultural grounds’.  Even the most active member of the Peace School wouldn’t contend that that happened to the Picts of Orkney and Shetland in the ninth century.  So what did happen?  In Ritchie’s preliminary paper of 1974 she envisages a ‘relatively peaceful process of Norse colonisation rather than a military conquest’, something like the scenario that Brøgger had written about in 1929.  She admits that a reduction of the natives to servitude is ‘certainly a possibility, but one which can never be proved’. [36] But she doesn’t outline a clear alternative scenario. [37]  

As the years passed, Ritchie claimed that other excavations in Orkney were confirming her analysis.  ‘[A]ll the excavations that have taken place since Buckquoy’, she said in 1993, ‘have told the same story: so much blending of Norse and native culture that it is impossible to envisage a situation in which the Norsemen either killed or enslaved the entire population.’ [38]   Despite careful enquiry I have found as little trace of the putative ‘blending’ at other sites as we found at Buckquoy.  Presumably the sites that Ritchie has in mind are those at the Brough of Birsay, next door to Buckquoy, and at Pool in Sanday.  Mrs Curle did find a few Pictish pins in Norse contexts at the Brough, [39] and hazarded a guess that the Norse settlers there might have a Pictish source for them, but she didn’t labour the point.  In the 1980s John Hunter found ‘[s]everal pottery fragments … in stratified Norse deposits’ there, ‘including hearths’, and speculated that they ‘might testify to a continuing native presence throughout the Norse period’. [40] But the objection to Curle’s and Hunter’s speculations is the same as the objection to Ritchie’s: the survival of native artefacts doesn’t prove that the natives themselves survived.

The evidence from Pool is even more slender.  The best account of that aspect of the excavation available to date is in an essay of 1997 by Hunter. [41]   At Pool, he says, ‘a similar degree of assimilation to that estimated for Birsay has been observed on the basis of structural continuity and the persistence of native pottery’.  On further examination we learn that the population at Pool had contracted before the Norse arrival, and that when the new arrivals made their home there they introduced a reinvigorated and more intense scheme of agriculture.  There is nothing in Hunter’s material that hints at any relationship between the old inhabitants and the new, apart from the persistence of native pottery that we have now come to expect. [42]

Writing about Birsay in 1996 Chris Morris admitted that there were ‘two possible interpretations’ of that persistence.  One was Ritchie’s theory of amiable integration; the other was ‘disturbance of Pictish layers in the Norse period, leaving residual early material in the later deposits’. [43]   Until we have a fragment of evidence that the settlers and the natives fraternised with each other, other than that the second lot used artefacts belonging to the first lot, I am inclined to favour the second of Morris’s alternatives.  I am more inclined to do so because the alleged evidence from Buckquoy itself is showing signs of unravelling.  In their recent book about Viking archaeology in Scotland, James Graham-Campbell and Colleen Batey have hinted that Ritchie’s Viking house full of Pictish artefacts may not be a Viking house at all. [44]

Ritchie has said that ‘archaeology provides the only hope of reaching any understanding of the race relations between Pict and Norseman’. [45]   This is a brave claim, but, as we’ve seen, it isn’t realistic.  Remember that the first Norse house in Scotland wasn’t discovered until the 1930s—at Jarlshof in Shetland [46] —and that we have few enough of them still.  If we are even to speculate about those ‘race relations’ we must consider more than archaeological evidence.  That’s what Raymond Lamb set out to do about 15 years ago.  In a series of articles Lamb has put together a theory about what happened in Orkney and Shetland in the ninth century which deserves our attention. [47]   His starting-off point was what Stevenson had said about Shetland and Orkney sculpture, and he referred to the archaeological material as well; but his main ideas concern historical events in northern Europe. 

Lamb’s proposal is that, far from being a cultural backwater, Pictish Orkney had extremely sophisticated institutions, both ecclesiastical and secular.  During archaeological field-work, especially in the North Isles of Orkney, he spotted a number of ancient churches with dedications to St Peter, some of them closely associated with brochs.  He concluded that these churches were planted in Orkney by Pictish missionaries of the eighth century, under the direction of the influential monk Egbert, and that in due course they established a bishopric in Papa Westray, as part of a plan to evangelise nearby Shetland.

What happened to these institutions when the Norse settlers arrived in the islands?  I quote: [48]

Facing this new force, and failing to organise successful resistance, the Pictish aristocracy in Orkney must have lost status. The key development leading to full Norse settlement would be the displacement of the Pictish aristocracy by Viking war-leaders and their war-crews. This would probably take place, at least in the initial stages, with some diplomatic concession towards the authority of the Pictish administration—the formal granting of an estate to a war-captain, confirming him in the possession of what otherwise he might have taken by force, in return for his oath of allegiance and his enlistment to repel subsequent raiders.

In other words, Orkney passed swiftly from being an orderly Pictish society, via ‘diplomatic concessions’, ‘the formal granting of estates’, and ‘oaths of allegiance’, to being a fairly orderly Norse one.  There was no violence, or at least not much, during Lamb’s transition.  In particular, the Pictish church remained unscathed, still in the hands of Pictish ecclesiastics.

The interesting thing about Lamb’s elegant thesis is that there isn’t any evidence for it.  He frequently uses the words ‘must have’ and ‘would have’, characteristic phrases of the biographer who doesn’t know and can’t know enough about his subject’s life.  It won’t do.  The existence of churches dedicated to St Peter, or St Boniface, in medieval Orkney (or even later) can’t be deployed as evidence that the dedications were bestowed in the eighth century.  It’s like arguing that the church on St Ninian’s Isle was dedicated to St Ninian in Pictish times. [49]   To go on to link Orkney churches to Egbert of Iona, on the grounds that Egbert inspired a mission to the Continent, is even bolder. The proposition that there was a Pictish bishop in Papa Westray in the ninth century is based on the most tenuous of tenuous evidence. [50] And what evidence is there that immigrant Scandinavians in Orkney entered into contracts, diplomatic or legal, with Pictish aristocrats?  None. [51]

The Pictish church clearly had some presence in Orkney in the eighth century, and Raymond Lamb deserves praise for making us think about it. His failure is in imagining that at that time Orkney and Shetland were more sophisticated societies than they could possibly have been.  Vikings certainly made agreements with and extorted tribute from aristocrats in prosperous and densely populated countries. [52]   But Shetland and Orkney by definition were not and have never been societies of that kind. [53]

What Lamb doesn’t ask, and what no member of the Peace School ever asks is: why should we imagine that Vikings in Orkney and Shetland regarded ecclesiastics and their property differently from churches and churchmen elsewhere?  Elsewhere, as we know from record sources, Vikings slaughtered priests and pillaged churches.  As Edward Cowan has remarked, they used churches as ‘drive-in banks’. [54]   But the Peace Scholars expect us to believe that Vikings in the Northern Isles ‘respected’ the Pictish clergy, [55] and permitted them to enjoy their estates throughout the ninth century. [56]

David Dumville has made some caustic remarks about the Sawyer school of Viking rehabilitation.  These remarks strike me as appropriate when I read the productions of the Shetland and Orkney Peace School.  ‘I observe among my academic colleagues’, Dumville says, [57]

a profound disinclination to admit the extent of violence involved in many aspects of mediaeval life and in many turns of mediaeval history.  In this, historians and archaeologists may reflect the attitudes of the social groups from which they are drawn.  This disinclination may become absolute refusal when those whom one identifies as one’s ancestors were involved.

If you want a glimpse of the kinds of violence committed by Vikings in Scotland and Ireland, based on documentary records, you should consult Dumville’s work; but don’t do so if you are queasy.  What Dumville is implying is that archaeologists and historians view the world from the vantage point of the study, the university library or the archaeological excavation.  Violence and genocide seem to be a million miles away from such sanctuaries.  But they happen. 

What Happened? >

[30] The Shetland antiquary Gilbert Goudie wrote eloquently about ‘continuity of occupation [of religious sites], a continuity of resort for the purpose of interment, and the continuity of a recognised religious site from Pictish times, on through the invasion and permanent settlement of the Norsemen, to our own day’ (‘On rune-inscribed relics of the Norsemen in Shetland’, in Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 13, 1878-9, p.139).  ‘It is scarcely possible to conceive such a survival’, he continued, ‘… coincident with the total extinction of the preceding race to which those sites and traditions belonged.’  But since several centuries separated the ‘occupations’ and the ‘resorts’, it is.
[31] It certainly cheered Robert Stevenson, and inspired his 1981 article about the Bressay stone (Robert B.K. Stevenson, note in F.T. Wainwright ed., The Problem of the Picts, Perth 1980, p.168; ‘Christian sculpture in Norse Shetland’, pp.283-4).
[32] Anna Ritchie, ‘Excavation of Pictish and Viking-age farmsteads at Buckquoy, Orkney’, in Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 108, 1976-7, p.192.
[33] Crawford, ‘War or peace—Viking colonisation in the Northern and Western Isles of Scotland reviewed’, p.265.
[34] Anna Ritchie, ‘Birsay around AD 800’, in Orkney Heritage, 2, 1983, p.63.
[35] Anna Ritchie, ‘Pict and Norseman in Northern Scotland’, in Scottish Archaeological Forum, 6, 1974, p.34; ‘Excavation of Pictish and Viking-age farmsteads at Buckquoy, Orkney’, p.64; ‘Orkney in the Pictish kingdom’, in Colin Renfrew ed., The Prehistory of Orkney, Edinburgh 1985, p.200; Viking Scotland, London 1993, p.27.
[36] Ritchie, ‘Pict and Norseman in Northern Scotland’, p.33.
[37] In 1993 she made an especially perplexing statement about the subject.  ‘The Vikings seem to have recognized the strength of native culture’, she says, ‘and to have responded with an instinctive need to dominate rather than to obliterate’ (Viking Scotland, p.25).  That makes sense, although I see no evidence for it. She goes on: ‘In virtually every case, Viking settlements were built literally on top of earlier native farms.’  But that seems to me to be obliteration par excellence!
[38] Ritchie, Viking Scotland, p.27.
[39] Cecil L. Curle, The Pictish and Norse Finds from the Brough of Birsay 1934-74, Edinburgh 1982, p.101.
[40] J.R. Hunter, Rescue Excavations on the Brough of Birsay 1974-82, 4, Edinburgh 1986, p.173.
[41] J.R. Hunter, ‘The early Norse period’, in K.J. Edwards and I.B.M. Ralston eds., Scotland: environment and archaeology, 8000 BC – AD 1000, Chichester 1997, pp.250-2.
[42] For similar claims about a site in Shetland see Stephen J. Dockrill, ‘Northern exposure: phase 1 of the Old Scatness excavations 1995-8’, in R.A. Nicholson and S.J. Dockrill eds., Old Scatness Broch, Shetland: retrospect and prospect, Bradford etc. 1998, p.74. 
[43] Christopher D. Morris, The Birsay Bay Project volume 2: Sites in Birsay village and on the Brough of Birsay, Orkney, Durham 1996, p.253.  Gerald Bigelow offers us the same alternatives (‘Issues and prospects in Shetland Norse archaeology’, in Christopher D. Morris and D. James Rackham eds., Norse and Later Settlement and Subsistence in the North Atlantic, Glasgow 1992, p.15): he asks if ‘potlids’ found at Jarlshof are ‘evidence of lasting Celtic influence, or are they simply residual artefacts from earlier strata of an intensively occupied site?’
[44] James Graham-Campbell and Colleen E. Batey, Vikings in Scotland: an archaeological survey, Edinburgh 1998, p.163: ‘The suggested cross-over nature of this assemblage—an admixture of Pictish and Norse—has provided a central element in the discussion about the nature of the takeover of Pictish settlement by the Norse.  In view of the less clear-cut evidence for the primary phase (House 3), it would seem appropriate to be somewhat circumspect about the use of this small artefactual assemblage from Buckquoy in this connection.’
[45] Ritchie, ‘Pict and Norseman in Northern Scotland’, p.23.  A recent study (James F. Wilson et al., ‘Genetic evidence for different male and female roles during cultural transitions in the British Isles’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, 98, issue 9, 24 April 2001), suggests cautiously that an investigation of DNA in Orkney may provide new evidence for some interbreeding of Picts and Vikings in AD 800. This paper provides evidence for a large Scandinavian component in Orcadian DNA, as we would expect.  But marriage between Scandinavian Orcadians and immigrant spouses with Pictish blood might have happened at any time during the centuries after AD 800. 
[46] Mortimer Wheeler (‘Civil service archaeology’, in Antiquity, 31, 1957, p.236), recalled ‘how, in the middle ’thirties, the discovery of Viking houses at Jarlshof by Dr A.O. Curle brought something nearly approaching a flush of excitement to the honoured countenance of that seasoned and unshakable Scot.  The emotion was sternly checked, but some of us lesser folk were less inhibited.’
[47] Raymond Lamb, ‘Carolingian Orkney and its transformation’, in Colleen E. Batey, Judith Jesch and Christopher D. Morris eds., The Viking Age in Caithness, Orkney and the North Atlantic, Edinburgh 1993; ‘Papil, Picts and Papar’, in Barbara E. Crawford ed., Northern Isles Connections, Kirkwall 1995; ‘Pictland, Northumbria and the Carolingian empire’, in Barbara E. Crawford ed., Conversion and Christianity in the North Sea World, St Andrews 1998.
[48] Lamb, ‘Carolingian Orkney and its transformation’, p.268.
[49] For some salutary remarks about that proposition see Thomas, ‘Sculptured stones and crosses from St Ninian’s Isle and Papil’, p.14. 
[50] Lamb’s evidence is (1) the dedications on the island to St Boniface and St Tredwell; (2) ‘a number of enigmatic late references to early bishops in Orkney’; and (3) Thomson’s suggestion that St Findan may have sojourned on the island with a Pictish bishop (William P.L. Thomson ed., ‘St Findan and the Pictish-Norse transition’, in R.J. Berry and H.N. Firth eds., The People of Orkney, Kirkwall 1986, pp.279ff.).  I am not so confident about this material as Lamb and Thomson.  My reading of Findan’s Vita in particular (for the Latin text and an accurate English translation see Reidar Th. Christiansen, ‘The People of the North’, in Lochlann, 2, 1962, pp.148-64) doesn’t make me less sceptical.  Thomson’s attempt to place Findan on a tiny island adjacent to Papa Westray, following alleged topographical hints in the Vita, is unconvincing.
[51] Lamb’s promotion of his theory has become increasingly imaginative.  In ‘Pictland, Northumbria and the Carolingian empire’, p.44, he paints a striking but fictional picture of a visit to the Pictish court by an Orkney magnate or his representative. 
[52] Niels Lund, ‘Allies of God or man? the Viking expansion in a European perspective’, in Viator, 20, 1989, p.56.
[53] Lamb’s mentor D.P. Kirby, ‘Bede and the Pictish church’, Innes Review, 24, 1973, pp.20, 24, is more pessimistic than Lamb about the prospects of reconstructing eighth century Christian missions in Pictland.
[54] Edward J. Cowan, ‘Destruction of a Celtic people: the Viking impact upon Pictland’, in Celtic Connections, 16, 1989, p.102.
[55] For instance, Ronald Cant, ‘The medieval church in Shetland: organisation and buildings’, in Doreen J. Waugh ed., Shetland’s Northern Links: language and history, Edinburgh 1996, pp.160-1: ‘By the end of the ninth century the incoming Norwegians ... clearly held in papar in some respect’; Val Turner, Ancient Shetland, London 1998, p.103: ‘The incoming population may have respected the “papar”’.
[56] Simon Buteux has taken up Lamb’s theory, and applies it to the archaeological site at Skaill in the east Mainland of Orkney (Settlements at Skaill, Deerness, Orkney: excavations by Peter Gelling of the prehistoric, Pictish, Viking and later periods, 1963-1981, Oxford 1997, pp.261-5).  He is also impressed by the alleged evidence of ‘integration’ at Pool, Buckquoy and the Brough of Birsay.  He concedes, however, that there is no evidence at all at Skaill from the ‘pioneer’ phase of Norse immigration into Orkney.
[57] Dumville, The Churches of North Britain in the First Viking-Age, p.8.

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