In Depth

The Fate of the Picts in the Northern Isles

by Stephen Jennings

The following article is an examination of a divisive topic for some in the Northern Isles. As the author, I am often puzzled over the passions this subject stirs up and what I see as the peculiar need to litigate events from 1200 years ago. At the same time, I am also struck by the way in which the archaeology itself is often presented in an effort to answer a question for which it is not presently best equipped to do. For myself it feels a lot like revisionist history, a preferred answer in desperate search of evidence. Perhaps for that reason alone it is valuable to 'wade in'.


The article is densely referenced with a great deal of time spent unpicking the issue. By all means engage in debate but before doing so review the source information. In addition to those referenced below, it is highly worthwhile to read many of the annals for yourself. A comprehensive link to almost all with relevance can be found here.

The fate of the Picts in Shetland and Orkney with the arrival of the Vikings is a formidable topic with entrenched and passionate positions. In consideration of the frustratingly vague or strident language each side of the debate uses, this is hardly surprising. Assimilation, accommodation and integration - terms preferred by the colloquially known ‘peace school’ - evade definition in any meaningful way whilst annihilation and genocide - terms favoured by the ‘war school’ - inflame the issue by evoking images of 19th and 20th century acts of extreme violence on a mass scale. The intensity of the argument has frequently led to the use of ambiguous documentation and questionable interpretation of archaeological evidence. It may simply be that a balanced investigation of the issue is too clouded with current cultural baggage and positions staked out in line with the programme of study from which it is approached. The reasonable answer to the fate of the Picts in the Northern Isles is very likely there, the debate unnecessarily carrying on along particular margins to welcome new modes of thought even when they are poorly evidenced.

The peace school, led mostly by archaeologists, owe much to Anna Ritchie’s excavations at Buckquoy in Orkney from 1970-71. Though seminal in defining the figure of eight house as Pictish, it was the later overlying structures with mixed midden material that excited the debate in favour of peaceful coexistence and “social integration” (Ritchie 1977: 192) with the arrival of the Vikings. However, the evidence from the dig is rather inconclusive. No carbon dates or soil samples were obtained and there was a failure to examine soil stratigraphy based on a sense there was none. Section recordings were deemed not useful enough to be published. The only method left to determine site chronology and interpret the various contexts was artefacts. These acknowledged problems were further complicated by an estimation half of the site had disappeared with coastal erosion and the remainder damaged by stone robbing and ploughing. From this the site was interpreted as unequivocally demonstrating integration.

To unpick this interpretation based on uncertain evidence it is first necessary to look at some contradictions in the internal logic. In many ways, the artefacts alone should have been a warning the analysis might be on the wrong track. Mixed assemblages on a site that has experienced stone robbing, levelling and ploughing damage should be expected. Building a model of accommodation and integration from this is quite challenging and suspect. Moreover, very few of the artefacts unearthed can be attributed to a Norse origin, the lead weight an exception (Graham-Campbell and Batey 1998: 163). Ritchie herself notes this when she reviews the faunal bone assemblage and sees no real difference between Pict and Norse livestock (1977: 209). Moreover, there is acknowledgment the Norse levels are “dominated by native products” (Ibid: 192) and there is a lack of artefacts diagnostically Scandinavian in the three phases of supposed Norse occupation. Despite this and the general problems with site interpretation, there remains a rather puzzling statement a few lines later that there can be “no doubt” integration took place.

The buildings used to develop an integration model have also come under considerable debate (Barrett 2008; Batey and Sheehan 2000; Graham-Campbell and Batey 1998; Smith 2001). Some of the architecture from the last three building phases may in fact be rather more Pictish which would explain the absence of Scandinavian artefacts (Batey and Sheehan 2000). Sub-rectangular buildings are indeed known in later Pictish styles in general (Hunter 1990: 190; Barrett 2008: 418) and Orkney specifically where they are found at other sites with mixed assemblages such as the Brough of Birsay, Pool and Skaill (Barrett 2008: 418; Graham-Campbell and Batey 1998: 13, 171; Hunter 1990: 189). Ritchie herself discusses sub-rectangular Pictish building styles in Caithness and Sutherland (1993: 23) and additional features including benches along the interior walls (Ibid: 49). Moreover, with chronology in question due to a lack of stratigraphy and carbon dates, reliance on a presumed 10th century burial in the last phase is used to work backwards and assign culturally specific architectural styles to the first five phases. As an added complication, the ogham-inscribed spindle-whorl from the earliest phase has since shown to be Old Irish (Forsyth 1995) rather than an unintelligible non-Celtic language as previously believed (Ritchie 1977: 222). This pushes the earliest phase back a conservative 50 years so overall site chronology determined this way may legitimately be viewed as guesswork.

The rather lengthy interrogation of the Buckquoy data is important because it forms the basis of the peace school and, arguably, points to a much larger problem that arises from time to time; rather than allow the evidence to guide interpretation, the interpretation shoehorns evidence into a pre-existing thought process. To be critical, the mental gymnastics Anna Ritchie goes through in her interpretation is reminiscent of the work conducted in the excavation at Norwick, Unst in 2003 (Ballin Smith 2007). Also used by the peace school, the very earliest possible dates from the radiocarbon range are inexplicably introduced as proof of pre-Viking Norse settlement in Shetland. Presenting the data in this way is erroneous because the actual range of acknowledged dates is as far out as 950AD. Unfortunately, this raises questions of the credibility of evidence for the peace school and, in some cases, perpetuates further problematic interpretation. For example, aided by Ballin Smith, Lindsey Stirling and Karen Milek (2016) sought to examine the impact of Viking arrival on Orkney through textile production and implements. They noted substantial changes took place with the arrival of the Vikings in both function and style, an almost complete shift in tools used and over a very short period yet still managed a conclusion of accommodation. This happens with Jessica Bäcklund (2001) where she goes through an unconvincing and difficult to follow discourse about placenames, land administration and genetics to prove accommodation with the help of Ritchie. Such examples provide an opening for the war school who understandably view it as an unfathomable need to rehabilitate the Vikings rather than an unbiased look at the evidence.

A troubling aspect to this rehabilitation agenda, and the peace school specifically, is the minimising of the very real situation in which women would have found themselves with Viking incursions. The irony in this approach, assuming it stems from notions of agency where people take central stage, is it either concludes women were consensual or it completely erases female personhood and self-determination from the debate. Some recent mitochondrial DNA studies (Krzewinska et al. 2015; Margaryan et al. 2020) appear to affirm what the internal and external sources of the Viking Age explicitly express, sexual slavery and large-scale movement of women was a widespread practice. In this light, what exactly does an accommodation model look like? At its most absurd it is happy families having children (Bäcklund 2001: 40) or Pictish women peacefully continuing along with their own sewing (Stirling and Milek 2016: 13). The interpretation of the latter is made more disturbing because their own research showed the short time span of mixed implements was no more than a generation. These examples have the appearance of an effort to put minds at ease and further a sense that it was not all that bad but doing so requires wilful disregard for the very real suffering these women would have likely gone through.

Much of the rest of the excavated archaeological evidence is similarly problematic and a build of the same narrative. Pool and Skaill have stratigraphy and interpretive issues (Barrett 2008; Hunter 1990) with the latter showing signs of violence (Batey et al. 1994: 150). The Brough of Birsay may have been taken over by the Vikings early as it has strong evidence of being the seat of Pictish power in Orkney (Ritchie 1993: 58; Graham-Campbell and Batey 1998: 11, 169). The dichotomy of interpretation here is best illustrated by a Chris Morris quote from Brian Smith (2001: 17) where he admits there are two ways to look at the Pictish material in later assemblages, continuity or disturbance and both are equally valid. A curious consideration of the archaeological evidence comes from James Barrett who cannot seem to decide to where it points. Quoted by Andrew Jennings and Arne Kruse (2001: 290), in 1999 he believed in the sizeable migration of Norse producers rather than integration in the Western Isles based on offshore fishing economy, something he would repeat regarding Orkney (Barrett 2001: 152). He then later waters this down by being equivocal and leaving the door open for accommodation in some form (Barrett 2008). Most recently David Griffiths (2019) ignores much of the archaeology in Orkney and all the written source material to theorise there was little activity in the Northern Isles until much later in the Viking Age. He further attempts to absolve their responsibility for the destruction of the monastery at Portmahomack on the Tarbat peninsula, some 75 sailing miles south of Orkney, around the year 800 AD with no convincing evidence and in contradiction to the excavator (Carver 2004: 25).

Refreshingly, the landscape and placename approach by Alison Leonard (2011) has been one of the more compelling attempts to interrogate the issue. She explores the Viking/Norse interaction with the landscape and monuments of Orkney bringing in theories of memory and inhabitation to what would have been to them a new place. She believes building atop existing structures was a dispossession strategy in a situation where the incomers were contending with a native population in a divided and built environment. Moreover, the reuse of these structures for the creation of ancestral rights was an attempt to legitimise the land-claim in a situation where challenges would likely come from fellow colonisers. Burial atop existing Pictish structures was one such method which has obvious shades of Buckquoy. This also included placename changes as a part of the ancestral narrative and a “device and product of colonisation” (Ibid: 46) where the only cultural mixing was the language and practices of their homeland with the new landscape to which they had come.

This placename evidence is one of the strongest arguments used by the war school. A recent analysis on Skye by Joseph Ryder (2020) determined 86% of placenames derived from Old Norse indicating intense colonisation. He asserts a total replacement of names, such as experienced in the Northern Isles, is unprecedented in history which brings up the idea of a virgin landscape due to the forcible removal of its native inhabitants. These ideas have previously been explored in the Western Isles (Jennings and Kruse 2005) where placename changes argue for violence when taken in consideration of the complete architectural and artefactual makeover by the incoming population. Akin to Leonard, they believe building atop the existing structures was an act of violence itself rather than evidence of continuity. A weakness in the placename argument is chronology and especially as it pertains to Orkney and Shetland. It may be an indication of 11th/12th century consolidation rather than duration from the 9th/10th century (Barrett 2008: 413). Moreover, some, such as Bäcklund (2001: 37-8), have argued the native Picts may have adopted the names themselves since they were the product of a new dominant class.

The variety of evidence from contemporary annal sources remains the strongest argument of the war school. A side by side reading of a variety of Irish sources such as the Annals of Ulster and Annals of Innisfallen provides details of escalating Viking raids with the devastation of all the British islands in 794, Iona and Skye in 795, the taking of large riches from Ireland and Scotland in 798 and back to Iona in 802 and 806. As time went on the frequency and size of the raids increased and diversified so by 821 the non-monastic site of Howth near Dublin was raided where the Annals of Ulster and Annals of the Four Masters both claim they carried away large numbers of women. On the east coast of Scotland, Portmahomack was likely raided around 800 (Carver 2004) and Lindisfarne in 793 as recorded in the Peterborough Manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. From then the largescale raids ceased on the east coast until 835 with the Isle of Sheppey. This is simultaneous to an increase of raids in Germany and France detailed by the Royal Frankish Chronicles and Annals of St Bertin with the Siege of Paris occurring in 845.

The cessation of east coast raiding is important. These sites were likely better defended against the early smaller scale Viking raids of the late 8th and early 9th centuries where nearby Pictish power centres could draw on more robust military resources. Instead, the Vikings concentrated on the west coast with repeated raids on Iona and widespread island targets in both Scotland and Ireland. These areas likely served as convenient places from which to gather and continue forays whilst growing wealth could be used as a recruiting tool. Gathering pace, the variety of annals speak of widespread, enormous damage and loss of life amongst both clergy and secular peoples such that by 825 the frequency becomes quite astonishing. From here it can be rather convincingly deduced the Western Isles were firmly under control and most likely the Northern Isles as well. The violence visited upon the areas documented in the annals would have almost assuredly been visited on Orkney and Shetland as island groups perfectly situated between Norway and the wealthy west coast targets. In his presentation, Joseph Ryder (2020) speculated the rich land of Skye may later have been a pull factor for settlers by the mid-9th century. Almost certainly Orkney (Batey et al. 1994: 151) and parts of Shetland would have been the same.

These events are confirmed in a very generalised way by the insular sources such as the Orkneyinga Saga and Historia Norwegiæ. Though the veracity of both internal and external source material for Viking Age activity has often been questioned, the variety of external annals contain little in the way of editorialising which gives them a credibility a little tougher to get to with insular sources (Dumville 2008). Nonetheless, the depicted scenario of a sparsely populated land of frightened people who hid during the day may echo the real events happening in the Northern Isles at the hands of raiding Vikings. As Alison Leonard points out (2011: 62), by the time these sources were written the Picts had been dispossessed of communal memory and any association with the land was being kept alive instead through folklore such as trows and their mounds. This notion of hiding underground still resonates today, souterrains commonly referred to as ‘Pict hooses’ (Graham-Campbell and Batey 1998: 10).

Considering the underpinnings of each school of thought, the reasonable answer to what happened to the Picts when the Vikings arrived on Orkney and Shetland strongly points to a level of violence and forcible removal of the native inhabitants. A preponderance of the archaeology favouring a harmonious accommodation favoured by the peace school suffers from highly uncertain artefactual evidence and questionable interpretation of material culture lacking convincing stratigraphy and radiocarbon dates. Some of this is understandable, it is difficult to look for a precise moment in time with imprecise dating techniques. However, trying to force the evidence only serves to undermine the case. The weight of placename evidence and historiography does point convincingly to a complete Viking takeover favoured by the war school even if it too can be equally difficult to define. Though slavery is almost certain, as is removal from the land, terms of genocide and annihilation are perhaps too weighty for the evidence to bear. In all likelihood, a part of the population fled with the increasing raids and those who could or would not were accommodated by an invitation to be killed or become a slave, especially if female.


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Barrett, J. (2001) ‘Diet and ethnicity during the Viking colonization of northern Scotland: Evidence from fish bones and stable carbon isotopes’. Antiquity, 75 (287), 145-54.

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Stirling, L. and Milek, K. (2015) ‘Woven Cultures: New Insights into Pictish and Viking Culture Contact Using the Implements of Textile Production’. In Medieval Archaeology, 59 (1), 47-72.

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