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  • Scotland Remembered by Michael Meighan

    Scotland's Viking Past

    It is well known that from the 8th to the 15th centuries, Vikings – the name given to Scandinavians – raided, colonised and enslaved much of the islands surrounding the north and west of Scotland as well as Caithness and Sutherland. This included Orkney and Shetland, the Hebrides and the islands of the Clyde Estuary.

    Viking Longship in Shetland - waiting to be burned. (Author's collection, Scotland Remembered, Amberley Publishing)

    Very recently, on the Ardnamurchan peninsula a rare Viking burial was discovered in which a warrior was buried in a boat along with his decorated weapons. However, there are few solid remains of Viking Scotland but it is well remembered in place names and in language, particularly of Orkney and Shetland. In Shetland the yearly Up Helly Aa winter festivals commemorate Viking days and end with the ceremonial burning of a Viking Longboat.

    There are records showing that Scandinavians had been raiding along the coasts of the British Isles from the 8th century and that settlements may have begun soon after this. In fact it was resistance to the Vikings that resulted in the joining of tribes to form the kingdom of Alba under Kenneth Macalpin in 843.

    Hogback stones in Govan Old Church. (Author's collection, Scotland Remembered, Amberley Publishing)

    Following the sacking of Dumbarton Castle (then Alt Clut) in 878, Govan, now in Glasgow became a major town in their new kingdom – Strathclyde.

    Govan as the centre of the Viking estate is marked by the Govan stones held in Govan Old Parish Church in Glasgow. The most important is a sarcophagus that was found during excavations in 1855. This may contain the remains of Saint Constantine although the carvings are thought to be much later.  The stones are some of Scotland's earliest Christian carvings and include unusual Viking 'Hogback' stones. It is well worth a trip to the Govan Stones visitor centre there. It really is a most beautiful church and new finds continue to be made there and this is helping us re-assess the Scandinavian influence on Scotland

     

    The Battle of Largs 1263

    ‘The Pencil’ marking the Battle of Largs in 1263. (Author's collection, Scotland Remembered, Amberley Publishing)

    While the western seaboard of Scotland had been under Norwegian sovereignty for many years, the Scots had tried to purchase the lands but this had been rebuffed. The Scots then tried to take the lands by force so King Haakon set sail from Norway with a massive fleet to re-assert control.

    On the night of 30 September, 1263, the ships of King Haakon, which were occupying the Firth of Clyde were driven ashore in stormy weather near Largs. On the 2 October a Scottish army commanded by the High Steward of Scotland, Alexander of Dundonald arrived to confront the Vikings. A battle broke out on the beach. After hours of skirmishing the Norwegians were able to re-board their boats, sailing North to Orkney to over-winter.

    It was here that King Haakon took ill and died. His successor Magnus Haakonarson, King of Norway agreed with Alexander III of Scotland in the Treaty of Perth to lease the Viking occupied western shores of Scotland for a yearly sum. This fell through with Norway's civil wars and Scotland simply occupied the west. However, the control of Orkney and Shetland was ceded to Norway, so while the Scandinavian influence diminished in the West of Scotland it was to continue in the Northern Isles and to this day many in the Northern Isles do think of themselves as Scandinavians.

    The Battle of Largs is remembered by 'The Pencil' a tower on Craig Walk on the shore at Largs. The Pencil Walk takes you 2km from Largs to the monument and it is a fine place for a picnic. Each Autumn at the Largs Viking Festival, there is a re-enactment of the battle, held beside The Pencil.

    While you are in Largs you might also like to take the short ferry trip to the delightful island of Cumbrae that is brilliant for both easy walking and cycling.

    Michael Meighan's book Scotland Remembered is available for purchase now.

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