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Did Vikings kill the native population of
Orkney and Shetland

What happened?

So what happened in the Northern Isles?

I don’t think that the Picts were ‘absorbed’ in Viking Shetland, or Viking Orkney, unless we stop being mealy-mouthed about such terms.

‘That comforting and blessed word “absorption”!’ remarked a Shetland antiquary, during a controversy in the Shetland News in 1896.  ‘Disputants who use this term in this connexion stand in need of being frequently reminded that when one people absorbs another it is usually the native and indigenous folk that do most of the absorbing.’ [58]  

I don’t think the Picts were just ‘overwhelmed’, or ‘submerged’, as Wainwright put it, while continuing to practise their religion and speak an unintelligible language at home.  I certainly don’t think that they achieved ‘social integration’, or that they ‘blended’.  And I am especially sceptical that they entered into legal contracts with their new neighbours, as Raymond Lamb would have us believe.

Some scholars who can’t face the idea of extinction go for enslavement instead. [59]   I reject that option, for two reasons. Here we come back to that central question of language.  If the Norse immigrants in Orkney and Shetland had enslaved the native inhabitants, or enslaved the males and married the women, some of their words and lots of their names would have survived. That’s what happens when conquerors arrive in a country.  Colonisers are lazy, and they are only prepared to coin a certain number of new names. [60]   Even in cases of genocide native place-names survive to a small extent. [61]   The corollary of these well-known facts is that something unusual, something ‘ominous’, [62] happened in the Northern Isles.

There is only a handful of pre-Norse names on record in Shetland and Orkney: names of a few large islands like Unst.  As Bill Nicolaisen has said, [63]

[t]o all intents and purposes the Norse incomers were from their point of view confronted with a virtually nameless cultural landscape which, in order to make it possible to perform the speech act of identifying reference, had to be provided with place names from scratch, and instantly.

My other reason for rejecting the argument about enslavement is an anthropological one. 

In his recent acclaimed work Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond presents a typology of reactions by colonisers to the people whom they colonise. [64]   He describes three scenarios:

  • conquest in regions inhabited by hunter-gatherer bands, which are thinly populated;
  • in areas where food-producing tribes are established, which are moderately populated
  • in intensive food-producing regions occupied by states or chiefdoms, which are densely populated. 

In the first type of situation the native inhabitants simply move away to a new location.  In the third type the conquerors enslave the natives, or force them to pay tribute. 

But in the moderately populated food-producing societies—the type of society that we know existed in Orkney and Shetland in the ninth century—there is usually a more drastic outcome.  ‘Where population densities are moderate’, says Diamond:

as in regions occupied by food-producing tribes, no large vacant areas remain to which survivors of a defeated band can flee.  But tribal societies without intensive food production have no employment for slaves and do not produce large enough food surpluses to be able to yield much tribute.  Hence the victors have no use for survivors of a defeated tribe ….  The defeated men are killed, and their territory may be occupied by the victors.

Nearly forty years ago the Shetland toponymist John Stewart made a striking comparison between what might have happened in our islands in the ninth century, and what happened in Tasmania in the nineteenth. [65]

The incompatibility of language [he said], cannot have been greater than that between the Australian aboriginal tongues and English, but only in Tasmania are aboriginal place-names absent, and it is a historical fact that the Tasmanians, by disease and deliberate slaughter, in spite of efforts to save them, were wiped out to the last man.  It seems a fair judgement that something similar happened to the Shetlanders who did not make their escape before the Norse.

I propose that what happened to the Tasmanians is exactly what happened to the Pictish Shetlanders and Orcadians. [66]   Shetland and even Orkney are small—extremely small—‘crofting counties’, and they always have been.  When conquering Vikings came to the Northern Isles, 1200 years ago, they had no wish or intention to share the land with their predecessors.  There was no space for sharing, and there was nowhere to hide. [67]   As Alfred Smyth has put it, ‘all the evidence suggests that the Scottish Isles bore the full brunt of the fury of these invaders who were instantly conspicuous to Scots, English and Irish alike, for their brutality and heathenism’. [68]

The best source of information about what happened is a document.

It isn’t a contemporary record; but it was written a few centuries after the event, by someone who seems to have had first-hand knowledge of Orkney. The author of the so-called Historia Norwegiae describes vividly how pre-Norse Orkney and Shetland were inhabited by Picts and priests. The Picts, he says, [69] ‘did marvels in the morning and in the evening, in building towns, but at mid-day they entirely lost all their strength, and lurked, through fear, in underground houses’.  Perhaps he had visited Scatness in Shetland, which probably still looked like that in the twelfth century.  ‘But in due course’, he continues, ‘certain pirates … set out with a great fleet … and stripped these races of their ancient settlements, destroyed them wholly, and subdued the islands to themselves.’  (My italics.)

That limpid anonymous statement is the most likely explanation for the disappearance without trace of Pictish Shetland and Orkney.  We may even have a clue to the date when the process started: the Annals of Ulster announce in the year 794 ‘the devastation of all the islands of Britain by the heathen’. [70]  

I don’t understand why modern scholars can’t envisage such a situation.  After all, our own era is the most bloody since the world began.  During the twentieth century, when we were all born, 600,000 Armenians were slaughtered by Turks; Pol Pot exterminated two million Cambodians; a million Tibetans died and are still dying under the Chinese occupation.

The Orkney historian Storer Clouston gave a brutal but accurate response to our problem seventy years ago. [71]   Confronted by A.W. Brøgger’s work of 1929, which, as I have said, painted a picture of peaceful Norse immigrants, Clouston shook his head. 

‘Surely the common-sense of the matter ... is evident’, he said. 

The first Norsemen ... proposed to settle in these islands, whether the existing inhabitants liked it or not.  They brought their swords, and if the inhabitants were numerous and offered resistance, they fought them.  If they were few and fled, they took their land without fighting.  They did, in fact, exactly what we ourselves have done in later centuries, in India, America, Africa, Australia. ... That is the only way in which we can settle a new land—chance your luck, but always bring your gun.

Some archaeologists have asked me: where is the archaeological evidence for annihilation?  We have no mass graves of Picts, no shattered Pictish sculpture.  But every archaeologist should recall Gordon Childe’s ominous words: ‘negative evidence is worthless’. [72]   The fact that we haven’t found traces of genocide, among the few sites that have been investigated, is beside the point.  Remember: it isn’t long since a historian was arguing in a British libel court that there’s no archaeological evidence that genocide took place in the Third Reich.

It is hardly necessary to go over the argument again. 

  • If the Picts had survived, as part of a social integration programme, as Anna Ritchie would have us believe, some of their place-names would have survived. 
  • If their leaders had come to an accommodation with the Norwegians, as Raymond Lamb imagines, the islands would be full of Celtic names. 
  • If the Pictish religion and priests lingered, as Frederick Wainwright seems to have thought, their place-names would have lingered too.

But there are no such names.  All we find are the sites where Picts used to live and worship, and fragments of their pottery and pins in the conquerors’ houses.  There is no reason to suppose that Viking behaviour in the Northern Isles was more amiable than Viking behaviour in Iona or Lindisfarne.

We should expect the worst.

[58] Letter by ‘T.E.’ (probably the stockbroker Thomas Edmondston), Shetland News, 22 February 1896.  In the Shetland News of 7 December 1895 he had suggested that the Norse ‘absorbed’ races ‘as Joshua was ordered to make of the Canaananites, and as Kentucky backwoodsmen made of the Shawnie Indians’.
[59] A much-quoted example is James Graham-Campbell, The Viking World, London 1980, p.68.  In recent years the proposition that Viking society was sustained by large numbers of slaves, shared by Marxists and reactionaries, has come under scrutiny.  For a sceptical view see Niels Lund, ‘Viking age society in Denmark—evidence and theories’, in Niels Skyum-Nielsen and Niels Lund eds., Danish Medieval History: new currents, Copenhagen 1981, pp.22-3, 27, 32-3.
[60] Uriel Weinreich, Languages in Contact: findings and problems, New York 1953 repr. The Hague 1974, p.57.
[61] Forsyth, Language in Pictland, p.22
[62] ‘It is ominous’, said F.W.L. Thomas in 1884 (‘What is a pennyland? or ancient valuation of land in the Scottish Isles’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, vi, 1883-4, p.269), ‘that not one Celtic place-name can be surely recognised, nor could there have been, at that time, much intermarriage, or the Celtic speech would have overborne the Norse, as the Norse has been overborne in the Hebrides by the Gaelic’.
[63] W.F.H. Nicolaisen, ‘Early Scandinavian naming in the Western and Northern Isles’, in Northern Scotland, 3, 1979-80, p.110.  My italics.
[64] Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel: a short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years, London 1998, pp.291-2.
[65] John Stewart, Shetland Place-names, Lerwick 1987, p.19.
[66] In this connexion it is worth looking at N.J.B. Plomley, Tasmanian Aboriginal Place Names, Occasional Paper 3, Queen Victoria Museum & Art Gallery, Tasmania, n.d.  Plomley has only one suggestion to make about why Tasmania’s native names disappeared.  He puts it down to (p.3) ‘the almost total want of real communication between Aboriginal and settler’.  Where have I heard that excuse before?  Fortunately, or unfortunately, we know exactly what happened to the native Tasmanians, and ‘lack of communication’ isn’t an appropriate description of it.  For the sorry story see Mark Cocker, Rivers of Blood, Rivers of Gold, London 1998, pp.115-84.
[67] Maybe an exception was Da Pettasmog (= ‘the Picts’ hiding place’), at the foot of cliffs near Saxavord in Unst, ‘a slope to which the passage down from the rocky wall above is easier than in any other neighbouring place, while, on the other hand, they who remain down here are hidden from those who remain above’: Jakob Jakobsen, The Place-names of Shetland, London 1936, p.169.  Only someone in extremis would climb into this chasm.  Of course, the name may simply have been bestowed by an Unst storyteller in more recent times.
[68] Alfred P. Smyth, Warlords and Holy Men: Scotland AD 80-1000, Edinburgh 1984, p.146.
[69] Gustav Storm ed., Monumenta Historica Norvegiae: Latinske kildeskrifter til Norges historie i middelalderen, Oslo 1880, p.90.
[70] Seán Mac Airt and Gearóid Mac Niocaill eds., The Annals of Ulster, Dublin 1983, p.250.  Alfred Smyth assumes that this entry refers to Orkney and Shetland: Warlords and Holy Men: Scotland AD 80-1000, p.145.
[71] J. Storer Clouston, ‘A fresh view of the settlement of Orkney’, in Proceedings of the Orkney Antiquarian Society, ix, 1930-1, p.38.
[72] V. Gordon Childe, Social Evolution, London 1951, p.55

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