Roberta’s Celtic Corner: Celts and Vikings living together in the Kingdom of the Isles

Here’s more about Celtic Britain, dear friends, from really far up north! The Scottish islands have got a very long and fascinating history; long before the Celts came, way back in the Stone Age, they were part of a great megalithic culture – more about that some other time. One of the most fascinating and most beautiful aspects of those islands, though, is the emergence over the centuries of a Norse-Celtic culture – when Celts and Vikings learned to live together peacefully and produce a wonderful new mixed heritage.

Kingdom_of_Mann_and_the_Isles Map

The Celts were there before, of course; around 500, Gaels from Northern Ireland conquered the Inner Hebrides together with parts of Western Scotland and soon founded a powerful kingdom called Dal-Riata. They also undertook expeditions to Orkney and the Isle of Man! Then, around 550, Columba brought Christianity to the area and founded a monastery on Iona (Inner Hebrides) – which accumulated lots of riches which caught the attention of the Vikings in Norway who were always up for some raiding…

793 was the year the Vikings first invaded the Hebrides and plundered monasteries and villages, and in 802 they sacked Iona. A couple of generations later, though, they started settling on those islands that were warmer and more fertile than their home country of Norway: in 847, they conquered the whole of the Inner Hebrides, while around the same time Rognvald Eysteinsson founded the jarldom of Orkney (you can read about it in the Orkneyinga Saga) – and things began to change.

The Viking colonists start marrying the native Celts, and a mixed culture begins; their high festivals merge into what we know nowadays as the Wheel of the Year – they add up perfectly, one every 1 ½ months!


Soon, many of the Vikings are converted to Christianity by the Celts who are already largely Christian, and Gaelic traditions prevail along with the language. Many Viking features remain, though, such as names and place names and a very communal way of government (example: the Tynwald on the Isle of Man, the oldest continuous parliament in the world) and a high status of women in society by the standards of the time!

Celts and Vikings learn a lot from each other concerning farming and craftsmanship; the Nordish settlers build rather modern facilities on the islands – my darling husband and me saw one stunning example ourselves during our trip to the Outer Hebrides last year: on the Isle of Lewis, there is a Norse mill and kiln that’s being preserved as it was in the Middle Ages!

Naturally, their arts and crafts also merge: their jewellery develops a distinctive Norse Gaelic style, and the Vikings also bring in new games; the famous Lewis Chessmen, also from the Isle of Lewis, are one of the greatest examples of medieval Norse Celtic carving.

A combination of two races as fierce as this naturally makes their neighbours tremble in their boots – even their own relatives, like the Vikings over in Dublin, and the Scots on the mainland! In 1079, Godred Crovan founds the Kingdom of Mann and the Isles, seizing the Isle of Man from Dublin Vikings, and it soon becomes an independent power to be reckoned with – until, in 1098, Magnus III conquers the Kingdom and makes it part of Norway.

Two generations later, though, the most famous of all the Norse-Gaelic warlords enters the historical stage: Somerled, married to Ragnhild, a descendant of Crovan, who fights against the Norwegian hegemony and in 1156-58 conquers the Kingdom of the Isles after a period of anarchy and wars; he also keeps the Scots at bay, fighting a battle against Malcolm IV. at Argyll in 1160. He goes a bit too far, though: when he tries to invade the Scottish mainland in 1164, he is killed in the Battle of Renfrew; after his death, his kingdom falls apart among power struggles of his successors. His battles are documented in the Chronicles of Mann, as well as in the Irish Annals of Tigernmas and Ulster.

By around 1450, the islands have finally become Scottish – but the Norse elements in culture remain until this day! The Scottish, especially on the islands, and the Manx are very proud of their Viking heritage: many Viking style festivals are held every year, like the Up Helly Aa at Yuletide on Shetland.


Also, the mixed heritage of the people in the Scottish Isles is clearly documented in recent DNA analysis: on the Hebrides, it’s 20% Norse, on the Isle of Man 29%, on Orkney 30%, and on the Shetlands 44%! The rest of the DNA in those places is almost exclusively Celtic – a mixture to be proud of…

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