The Sea Road: A Viking Voyage through Scotland

The Sea Road: A Viking Voyage through Scotland

The Sea Road: A Viking Voyage through Scotland

The Sea Road: A Viking Voyage through Scotland


Initially they came as raiders and traders, but soon they built links with other civilizations and settled among them. They served as mercenaries at the court of Byzantium and discovered America five hundred years before Columbus. They established towns and a network of communications, exploited the riches of the East and explored the uncharted waters of the North Atlantic, colonizing uninhabited or sparsely populated lands on the margins of Europe. And early during this great outpouring of people from the Scandinavian homelands, the Vikings also came to England, Ireland and Scotland. The Sea Road takes the reader on a voyage through Viking Scotland. From Norway in the ninth century, the Vikings travelled to the Northern Isles of Orkney and Shetland, and established the Orkney earldom as a powerful base from which they could make inroads into northern and north-east Scotland. Continuing the voyage around the north-west coast of Scotland, the next land-fall is the Western Isles, which the Vikings came to rule as surely as they did the north, and from where their influence was to penetrate into the westerns part of mainland Scotland. Finally, the ever pragmatic Vikings established a base in south-west Scotland and forged links with a mix of peoples in the Irish Sea area. Here the Isle of Man, a Viking kingdom, was pivotal in a cultural crossroads between Ireland, northern England and south-west Scotland. But it was in the north that their influence endured. The Viking Orkney earldom came to be an important player in the politics of the emerging nation of Scotland, and its influence was felt into medieval times and beyond. Even today, the traveler to Orkney and Shetland enters a Scandinavian Scotland. This book is part of a new series produced by Historic Scotland and Canongate which provides lively, accessible and up-to-date introductions to key themes and periods in Scottish history and prehistory.


There was no such place as Scotland at the dawn of the Viking Age around AD 800 – only a territory of varied geography that eventually became the Scotland of history, inhabited by different peoples, each with their own culture and customs. There was not one king, but many kings and chieftains. There were no borders; the modern boundaries of Scotland would have been meaningless to its ninthcentury inhabitants. And to the sea-faring Vikings from Scandinavia, whatever contemporary territorial boundaries there were in Scotland would have been completely irrelevant. Against this background, one of the main aims of this book is to bring alive the context in which the Vikings operated in Scotland, and to show what part Scotland played in the Viking world.

For the Viking world was huge. From just before 800, for over 300 years, Scandinavian peoples from the modern countries of Norway, Denmark and Sweden took to the sea road in great numbers. They travelled further than Europeans had ever gone before and established a sophisticated network of communications over great distances. They exploited the riches of the East and explored the uncharted waters of the North Atlantic. They settled as farmers in the barren western lands of Greenland and discovered America 500 years before Columbus. They took part in the development of successful commercial centres from York to Kiev, and served as mercenaries at the court of Byzantium. They ravaged Christian Anglo-Saxon kingdoms; penetrated to the very heart of continental Europe and deep into Russia; and stole, extorted and traded massive quantities of silver and gold from their victims.

To be a 'Viking' during this period was to be a Scandinavian raider or adventurer, although the name probably has its root in the word vik, meaning inlet. To these 'inlet people', the boat or ship was their natural ally. Through their mastery of the sea they could fish, trade and communicate with their neighbours; without it, they could not survive. In their magnificent ships, they embarked on the sea road in the late eighth and ninth centuries and burst on to the European stage as raiders, warriors, traders, colonisers and political wheelers and dealers. Their contribution in extending the frontiers of Europe, in re-shaping political structures and forming powerful states, and in stimulating commerce and encouraging the growth of towns, was immense. And in many places – including Scotland – their legacy endures today.

All of this was possible only because of the strength and vibrancy of Scandinavian civilisation and culture in the Viking Age. This, then, is the other main aim of this book: to describe the way of life and imported culture of Scotland's Vikings and, in so doing, to qualify the barbaric image of the Vikings in popular imagination.

So let us now board our ship and sally forth with the Vikings on a voyage of discovery and colonisation – westwards, to the British Isles, and to the country we now know as Scotland.

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