The Vikings in the Northeast? A Contextualised Overview

Activity: Academic talk or presentation typesOral presentation


The evidence for ‘Viking activity’ in northern and western Scotland has grown steadily in recent decades. Discovery of the so-called ‘Hostage Stone’ at Inchmarnock, and a ravaged, Early Christian monastery at Portmahomack appear to confirm the violent nature of early encounters. But there have been many other finds which point to longer term agendas. Investigation of the boat burial at Swordle Bay, the settlement landscape at Bornais, and the fish-processing debris at Freswick Links, for example, indicates a move towards settled and economically productive, yet culturally distinct communities – an interpretation supported by recent place-name studies and the emerging body of DNA evidence.

When it comes to the northeast of the country, on the other hand, the situation appears to have been radically different. As yet, there is no convincing evidence for a lasting Scandinavian presence beginning at any point during the Viking Age – a situation traditionally attributed to the greater resilience of the Pictish heartlands. But it would be wrong to imagine that the peoples of this area were immune to Scandinavian violence. From the mid-9th century, the ascendant rulers of Norse Dublin embarked on five decades of aggression against the Picts. Interestingly, their campaigns are recorded in far more detail than events in the Scandinavian settlement zones to the north and west. Sources including the Annals of Ulster and the Scottish Chronicle suggest that war was waged from Moray in the north to Dunkeld in the south, and as far east as Dunottar, inflicting large casualties – including kings, taking tribute, and in some cases, such as the campaigns of 866 and 875, leading to extended periods of occupation. In the years and centuries that followed, there are indications that the kings of Alba learned to engage more diplomatically with their Viking neighbours in Dublin, Orkney and York. Apart from some stray finds of (potentially!) Scandinavian artefacts, however, the material footprint of this activity is practically invisible.

This evening’s talk will review the Viking experience of northeast Scotland from a long-term perspective. We will consider the events described by the annals, the potential motivations behind them, and the general types of location where they are likely to have taken place. Time permitting, we will also discuss what might realistically remain to be found.
Period20 Sept 2019
Held atThe Pictish Arts Society, United Kingdom
Degree of RecognitionNational


  • Vikings
  • Picts
  • Northeast
  • Scotland
  • Archaeology
  • Pictish