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The Vikings

Vikings along the Moray Firth

The Vikings arrived on Scottish shores around 800 AD, first as raiders, and then later as settlers. They settled mainly in Orkney, Shetland, the Western Isles, and along the coasts from the Inner Hebrides, up along mainland Scotland’s northern coast, and down to Sutherland in the south.

The name Sutherland comes from Old Norse ‘sudrland’ - the southern lands, from an Orcadian Viking perspective. Their presence was longstanding in the north, with the Orkneys under Norwegian overlordship until 1472.

The extent and duration of the Scandinavian settlement south of the Dornoch Firth is much disputed. No archaeological evidence of settlement survives south of Tarbat at Portmahomack, but there are Norse place names in Easter Ross, including the important name of Dingwall, suggesting an administrative district.

Remains of the Vikings include pagan graves, settlements and place names. At Portmahomack east of Tain, you can see a replica Viking silver hoard, c.1000 AD, in the Tarbat Discovery Centre. Dunrobin Castle Museum contains remains found in the 18th century, probably from disturbed Viking graves, including two bottom shells for the characteristic oval brooches women used to pin up their pinafores. Further north, the coast at Freswick Links in Caithness was the site of a large Norse farm in Viking and Norse times. A cross-slab in Thurso has an inscription in Norse runes, as does a recently found fragment from Dunbeath.

Viking influence can also be traced from place names. Many names ending in – dale reflect the Old Norse word for a strath, eg. Swordale near Evanton. Names ending in – bo are often from the Old Norse bólsta_ir, meaning farm, and therefore suggesting a more settled presence, eg. Skibo and Embo north of the Dornoch Firth. Most enigmatic of all is Dingwall, meaning the field of the thing, i.e. the public assembly of freemen.