The Norse are the early people that are most associated with the Outer Hebrides, and particularly with Orkney and Shetland. All three were invaded by the Vikings from the 8th century onwards, and were then taken under formal Norse control from 1098. ‘Tings’, from the Old Norse þing, were the local assemblies that were set up, where political decisions were taken, laws upheld, weddings officiated and disputes settled without violence. Shetland and Orkney both still have the placename ‘Tingwall’. The Earldom of Orkney was an important centre of political power that influenced the other Scottish Isles.
The Outer Hebrides were the first islands to be returned to the Scottish Crown after King Haakon IV retreated at the Battle of Largs in 1263. Orkney and Shetland both remained under the influence of Norway until the late 1460s when they were given to King James III of Scotland as part of the treaty agreed when he married Princess Margaret of Denmark.
Maybe it is due to these extra 200 years that both Orcadians and Shetlanders often say they feel more Norse than Scottish. The Orkneyinga saga was written at the beginning of the 13th century, and placenames and archaeological remains mentioned in the stories are still recognisable and relevant today. Meanwhile Shetland annually celebrates its Norse heritage with the famous Up Helly Aa festival.
Visitors flock to the western and northern isles to see the well preserved archaeological sites and the amazing finds recovered from them that are presented in their museums. Sites such as The Brough of Birsay and Jarlsholf give visitors a glimpse of what these Norse settlements once looked like. Evidence in the Western Isles is more elusive, however excavations at Bornais and Cille Pheadair in South Uist, and Cnip Headland on Lewis, have produced a wealth of information, helping us to refine our knowledge of life during this period.
Many of the placenames in all three island groups incorporate Norse words, with many in the Outer Hebrides being a mix of both Gaelic and Old Norse. Orcadian and Shetlandic dialects also have many Old Norse words, especially for sea related terms.
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