Early Viking pirates in the Scottish Highlands.
The Vikings in Scotland started in the late 8th century by robbing the churches around
the West coast. The richest of them, Iona Abbey, was robbed in 795, 802 and 806.
After this the Island Scots kept few valuables in churches, and did not build new
ones. The West coast Vikings came from Norway, in longships which were sailed and
rowed by crews of up to 60 men and occasionally included women. Initially they attacked
only the Island coasts. Scottish East coast Viking invaders were Danish.
Information about the Viking Terror in the Western Isles – the facts
The raids were awful. They sailed in the long Summer days, but attacked at night.
They burned the houses, decapitated the men, killed the children and laid waste to
the land. By this terror they planned that communities would not resist. The Vikings
in the 9th century spread their invasions throughout Europe. They established markets
for their stolen goods first of all in the Orkney Islands, which was the initial
clearing centre, then across Europe to the Middle East. Glencoe would have been too
difficult to raid
A little known truth is that Vikings engaged in the slave trade. Once the churches
had been robbed out they took other items they could sell on world markets, such
as women and young men as slaves and they stole animals for their farms back home
and weapons for their raids. The Viking pirates were not farmers, but their kinsmen
were. A Viking slave was treated as an animal and could be killed without punishment.
Interestingly, when a female slave partnered a Viking man their children would be
free Vikings. But the children of male slaves remained slaves.
Viking Women earned the respect of their men
A few women took part in the raids and did their full share of rowing and killing.
A Viking wife lived with her husband’s family, but always had the right to leave
him and return to her own family. Viking women were treated with great respect.
The Viking settlements in the Scottish Western Isles
By the 9th century a major Viking settlement had been established in the Orkneys,
their unmolested base for raiding. They established other major Viking centres in
the Isle of man and they founded Dublin in Ireland. These centres were on fertile
ground, better farming land than in Norway. The climate was warmer then, better for
farming, but the storms were as atrocious then as now. Viking pirates lived a dangerous
and often short life. Ultimately they became the political masters of the whole area.
They ran Mull and Skye for centuries.
Viking raiders took men and women as slaves, mostly from Ireland but some from Scotland.
They were shipped back to Orkneys first, then sold on to traders who took them first
to Sweden and then down the rivers as far as the Constantinople slave markets, to-days
Istanbul. In those days Vikings were everywhere in Europe.
The Vikings in Scotland settled gradually. Viking often fought Viking
The Scots developed counter measures. Some Vikings were undoubtedly captured. If
they survived they might be themselves used as slaves of the Scots. Some might be
used to defend the community with knowledge of the Viking tactics. Glencoe might
have had a few Viking setlers.
Later Viking raiders would use extortion and blackmail. They might surround a village
and offer to “protect” it from raiders in exchange for land and help. This was a
good deal for the locals. Later generations of the settlers would intermarry which
is why you get the Nordic Y chromosone in so many of the Island people. The Norse
bloodline lasts until to-day particularly in the Islands and in the Western coastal
The Scots fight back against the Viking Terror.
By the 11th century the Scots were fighting back seriously. The Highland ships,
called “birlinns” modelled on the longship pattern, were small but quick and the
locals knew the waters even in the dark. The Scots and some Viking allies improved
communications between the settlements, so the villagers were ready and prepared
with scouts, runners, and lookouts from the headlands. The Islands were already colonised,
but the rich coastal strips of the mainland such as Glencoe and Lochaber developed
Scottish Viking mercenaries fight Viking invaders
Both Scots and the Picts communities hired Viking mercenaries. The Norsemen who wanted
to settle were given the chance if they turned against their own people. These adopted
Christianity. There was great rivalry between the Viking tribes. Winning was everything,
it did not matter to them who was the enemy.
Viking invasion fleets in Scotland
In the 11th century it was difficult for Vikings to succeed by raiding. It became
more difficult for the Vikings to colonise the mainland by force alone. So many areas
were well defended. By the start of the 11th century the Danish Vikings had been
driven out of the North east of Scotland. At the start 12th century however, the
Norse Vikings still had political control over all the Islands from the Outer Hebrides,
to Skye, Mull, Islay, down to the Isle of Man.
Was a Viking battle at Glencoe a turning point?
The following is educated guesswork, but have a look at the circumstantial evidence.
1) Glencoe has been inhabited from early bronze age times. There are earthworks,
duns, and burial sites all around. It was a very fertile and secure area.
2) There is an old legend handed down about a battle between the forces of a King
Erragon of Norway who lost to the men of Glencoe. The story is probably based upon
word of mouth Lochaber stories.
3) There is also a Norse Saga story of a rock at the entrance to Loch Leven which
is submerged at high water but upon which a Viking ship foundered and a Prince was
4) Glencoe would have been a major target for a Viking settlement in the 11th century.
The climate was good, the area was easy to defend from the hinterland. There are
good, sheltered, deep water anchorages both on the South and the North of Loch Leven.
The legend says that 40 Viking ships sailed in Loch Leven. This would mean an invasion
force of over 2400 warriors. There was no well-defended castle to get past at the
entrance to the loch.
5) But the Viking arrival could not have been kept secret. The locals would have
noted their passage up Loch Linnhe from sighting their fleet at Dunollie Castle near
Oban onwards for 20 miles, and they would have needed an overnight stop somewhere.
The Island of Shuna would have been favourite. But four Scottish runners would cover
the distance in eight hours or less.
6) The legend says the defenders built trenches in the woods at the foot of the Pap
7) In pitched battles the Vikings used Shieldwalls, a line or circle of interlocking
shields which they used to press forwards again their opponents. But these would
be useless if the defenders moved back to the woods. The Vikings in battle liked
to get their opponents on to the shoreline at low tide so that they would be helpless
as the tide rose, and would be encircled if the Viking ships sailed in behind them.
8) So if the Glencoe people could lure the Vikings into attack towards the woods
from the beach into the covered ditches they would control the fight. We cannot say
if this is true, and we will never know.
The archeological evidence for the Glencoe Viking battle
A substantial submerged rock can be seen close to the shore 200 yards to the North
of the Ballachulish bridge, easily capable of wrecking a large wooden ship. This
supports the Viking Prince story. You can see the rock for yourself.
There were eleven graveslabs found at Laroch, now called Ballachulish, and these
are believed by experts to be of Viking origin. Possibly settlers.
Signs of earth ditches and stone works have been found on the Eastern slopes of the
Pap of Glencoe where the woods exist. The woods are natural and are likely to have
been there for centuries with the prevailing South-westerly winds.
No Viking place names exist so the Glencoe
area had never been subjected to long term Norse control.
The final conqueror of the Vikings in the area was Somerled, himself of Viking stock.
It is historically recorded that the final victories in the 12th century started
around Morven - the land opposite Loch Leven.
The final rout of the Viking invaders started in Oban Bay.
In 1263, King Haakon IV of Norway assembled a huge fleet of longships in Oban Bay,
They sailed South past Jura, Islay, around the Mull of Kintyre and gathered for invasion
opposite Largs in Ayshire in early October. But the Autumn gales were exceptionally
strong and wrecked the ships on the shore. Finally, the South Westerlies were their
undoing. There was a huge Scottish army waiting for them. The King was killed and
the Viking raids ended after 400 years.
But the Vikings were already integrated in Scottish West Coast society. A Viking
descendant, Somerled, was acknowledged King of the whole area – not Orkney, though.
His great grandson, Angus Og, was famous for leading a wing of the Scottish army
in Robert the Bruce’s heroic battle of Bannockburn in 1314, the biggest defeat of
English arms on British soil. Robert the Bruce granted him the lands of “Durror,
Glencoe, and the Iles of Tiree and Mull” as a reward. So the Viking descendants are
all around us in the West Coast still. His family line went on to become the MacDonald
PS Recently a DNA test was done on the descendants of the Glencoe MacDonalds. They
were found to suffer from a disease which affects the hand, called Dupuytens Contracture.
It wasa originally a Norse Viking disease.