Norse Legacy in Scotland

I recently took a trip out to the Highlands to get away from the smog, cultural enrichment, and blue hair dye streaked sewage of Leeds. The north of Scotland, from Inverness to Caithness, has some fine hiking and plenty of historical sites to see. It is truly beautiful - a much needed reminder that this island is well worth saving. To my general surprise, given all the slavering anti-imperial sentiment down south, the Scots here seem to admire their history, the courage, and the manliness of their ancestors.

Overall though, there is very little acknowledgement of the Norse legacy of the region in comparison to the Picts who are lauded for their fascinating archaeological curiosities, but in contrast to the Norsemen left a less tangible impact on the region due to Christianity and the fury of the Northmen having taken its toll. The settlement of the region by the Northmen is well known to have taken place in the outer islands, but it is rarely mentioned that the Norse Earls of Orkney at one time held a tenuous dominion over the mainland as far south as the Moray firth. During this period there was significant settlement by vikings on the mainland as well. Many of these settlements have retained their Norse names, including Dingwall (Þingvöllr), Thurso (Þorsa), Wick (Vik), and Helmsdale (Helmsdalr).

The legacy of the Northmen in this region extends far beyond placenames, and they have contributed substantially to the well established warrior culture of the Highlanders. Urqhart Castle, pictured here, sits on the shores of Loch Ness in its 16th Century State and bears testament to the Norse legacy. It was pillaged in 1395 by Norse-Gael raiders, descendants of Norse settlers who intermingled with the native population of the Western coast and islands of Scotland. The accounting of the raid states that the Hebrideans, who had been a recalcitrant thorn in the side of the Scottish Kings, took everything of value from the castle, including the locks and fittings on the doors. One presumes this was to use the iron to make more weapons.

The Norse-Gales differentiated themselves from other Scots in many ways. They trace their arrival in the islands of Scotland to the days of Harald Harfagri when many prominent men left Norway to escape his despotic regime. Ketill Flatnose is later said to have taken control of the Hebrides, followed by Somerled (Sumarliði) from who the MacDonald Lords of the Isles were descended until the 15th century. Like the men of Okney, they sailed in fleets of clinker built, shallow-draft ships modeled after those of their Norse predecessors. Unlike the Orkneymen, who were largely co-operative with the Kings of Scotland and Norway in the medieval period, the Hebrideans would settle for nothing less than total freedom. The Hebrides formed a part of a number of sovereign entities - Suðreyjar, the Kingdom of Man, the Lordship of the Isles - which were always viewed as independent. They operated their own foreign policy, even going so far as to openly sign a treaty with King Edward III of England to assist in the war against the Scottish throne. And most notably, there were the Galloglaigh, gaelic for "foreign warriors." These were young warriors from the Western coast and islands of Scotland who served as mercenaries in Ireland and further afield in continental Europe. They were renowned for their prowess as fighters, using traditional Scottish weapons in combination with modern developments on the Norse double-bladed ax. They are known to have faced down cavalry charges using the long-handled axes to cleave through the riders and their mounts. A clear continuation of the Norse tradition of adventure combined with mercenary work, the Galloglaigh reached the peak of their activity in the the 13th and 14th century, long after the close of the Viking era. They continued to be an essential component of many armies in the region until the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland.

The Norse-Gales, and the Highlanders who followed in their footsteps, are a reminder of the warrior spirit embodied by the men of northern Scotland. Even after they were subjugated by the Scottish crown in the 15th century, the Hebrides remained a hotbed of sedition and rebellion. The islands were the first mustering point for both the Stuart pretenders to the throne, for it was known that without the support of the wild men of the north, any attempt to secure the throne from the English would be futile. It was these men who, with claymore and targe, marched to the gates of London and who fearlessly charged the English at the battle of Culloden Field in 1746, not far from Urqhart Castle.
Culloden, a military disaster by any standard, marked a turning point for the Highlanders. The English crown instituted a policy to eradicate Highlander culture in an effort to "civilize" them. Many were exiled or forced to leave due to economic conditions in Scotland under English rule, and migrated west to settle the wilds of eastern Canada and Appalachia.

The remote Highlands offer a reminder of a wild and proud men, and their lasting impact on Western world. It should come as no surprise that most people, when thinking of the Scots, think first of their eternal struggle for freedom and dedication to self-reliance. Their great feats were accomplished by their stalwart nature inherited from two warrior cultures, the Picts and the Norse.