Monday, 14 August 2017

Viking Scotland I

When writing historical novels with Vikings as central characters there is much scope for where to place a story. I like to place them in the north-west Highlands because I have enjoyed so many holidays there. Vikings settled in the northern and western isles and along the coastline of Scotland from Caithness to Argyle during the early part of the ninth century. By the middle of that century a Viking kingdom had been set up.
I soon found that research in this area is sketchy and conclusions were hard to come by. For example, Laithlinn was the Viking name for Scotland. Laithlinn is also written as Lothlend, Laithlind and later Lochlainn, and not all scholars believe the name refers to Scotland. Information in the Irish Annals, the Icelandic Sagas and Norse histories of South West Norway often contradict each other. Old languages present further problems and to add to the confusion, writing itself was not the precise thing it is today. Spelling of names was inconsistent and punctuation often absent. There are also all the problems of who is writing, who paid him to do so and how one-sided was the view put forward. In all of history it is usually the victor who dictates the story.

Scholars continue to argue about terms such as Dane, Norseman and Viking, who they were and where they came from, but proof is sadly lacking. Viking itself isn’t really a name, but a verb; to go “a-viking” was to travel by ship in search of adventure and reward. It is easy to see how the term became a description of a shipload of hungry men waving axes.

The first systems of writing developed and used by the Germanic peoples were runic alphabets and the runes that were carved in stone still exist. Paper evidence of the period is almost none existent. When Edward I invaded in 1296 he ordered all the symbols of Scots nationhood removed to London. A treaty provided for the return of the records but they remained in London until 1948. Only about 200 documents remained.

The archives had an unlucky life. The records that built up after Edward’s time remained safe in the Castle until its capture by Cromwell's army in December 1650, when they were removed to Stirling Castle. When Stirling fell in 1651, the records were carried off by the garrison, or sent to London. Some were returned in 1657, other were sent back in 1660, but the 'Elizabeth', one of the two ships carrying the archives, sank in a storm off the Northumbrian coast.

The surviving records were deposited again in Edinburgh Castle then transferred in 1662 to the Laigh Hall on the Royal Mile. Damaged by damp and vermin, the great fire of 1700 saw them removed to St Giles Church. Eventually they were given a safe and permanent home, but early records pre 1296 are almost non-existent. The King lists survive, but little else.

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