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The Picts and the Martyrs
Did Vikings kill the native population of Orkney and Shetland
A paper by Brian Smith

'"Good heavens!' I cried. 'Who would associate crime with these dear old homesteads!"'
Conan Doyle, 'The adventure of the copper beeches'.

Nearly a quarter of a century ago Iain Crawford gave a paper to the eighth Viking Congress.

His title was 'War or peace' [1]. Crawford's essay, about Norse immigration in the Northern and Western Isles, and the immigrants' relationship with the native Picts, was a smashing piece of work. He was angry and scornful about what archaeologists were saying about the subject in the 1970s. For Crawford the matter had been cleared up, for once and for all, in 1962, when Frederick Wainwright's posthumously published work The Northern Isles came out.

In two brilliant essays in that book Wainwright argued that the Pictish inhabitants of Shetland and Orkney had been 'overwhelmed by and submerged beneath the sheer weight of the Scandinavian settlement' [2]. The Picts, he concluded, 'were overwhelmed politically, linguistically, culturally and socially.' [3]

Crawford didn't succeed in persuading his audience, or, subsequently, his readers. Since the 1970s the 'Peace' School has become more and more voluble and successful. I regret this, because I go further than Crawford and Wainwright. I suspect that the Norse invaders of Orkney and Shetland didn't just 'overwhelm', or 'submerge' the native population: I think they killed them.

I begin my critique with Crawford himself.

He divided his predecessors into two groups: a traditional War school, culminating in the work of Wainwright, and a relatively modern, effete Peace School. But Crawford's assessment was simplistic, in three ways.

First, there has been a Peace School for a long time. In my estimation the 'warriors' have never been very successful. The idea that the natives settled down amiably, or not quite so amiably, with the invaders, or even that there were no natives at all, was popular right from the start.

The Norwegian historian Peter Andreas Munch was arguably the first sensible commentator about the history of the Northern Isles. In 1860 he wrote that the island Picts were 'absorbed' rather than exterminated-'if, indeed,' he said, 'Shetland had any inhabitants before the Norwegians'. [4]

In the same way, the saga scholar Sir George Dasent thought that 'the Northmen really found those islands empty and desolate, and that it was not before their swords that the ancient races vanished away'. 'How did they vanish,' he asked, 'leaving no trace of their nationality behind?' [5]

The great Norwegian archaeologist A.W. Brøgger was still arguing a subtle version of this case in the 1930s. There were proponents of the War theory in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but they were a minority. [6]

Crawford's second error was to assume that his hero Wainwright was a fully-paid-up member of the War School. Wainwright argued cogently that the Picts were 'overwhelmed' in their native islands, but, as we'll see in a moment, he left the door slightly ajar: he envisaged a situation where they and their language, and even their religion, survived the Viking onslaught. Crawford's failure to examine Wainwright's views critically is an important defect in his argument.

Finally, Crawford underestimated his modern target.

He didn't spot that the climate of Viking studies in Britain had been massively altered by the appearance of Peter Sawyer's book The Age of the Vikings in 1962, the same year as Wainwright's Northern Isles. Sawyer argued that the Vikings came to the west in relatively small numbers [7], and that contemporary churchmen who complained about their methods were biased and unreliable [8]. Sawyer's approach was extremely congenial to modern scholars, especially British ones. It fitted perfectly with a reaction by archaeologists, then under way, against the idea that cultures change because of invasions [9]. In particular, archaeologists working in Shetland and Orkney have been especially unwilling to envisage berserk invaders at work there.

For some of these archaeologists the islands are idyllic, and it seems to be painful to them to imagine bloodshed among the 'dear old homesteads'.

There is no documentary or even archaeological evidence about these matters, to weigh up or re-examine. I can't produce new material of that kind. Instead I shall look in detail at what scholars have said on the subject, especially during the past fifty years, and ask if they have arrived at rational conclusions.

I divide the commentators into two groups: those who have written about language and religion, and those who have concentrated on archaeology. I conclude by explaining what I think happened to the native inhabitants of Orkney and Shetland in the ninth century.

The Peace School: Language and Religion >

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