«'''Good heavens!' I cried. 'Who would associate crime with these dear old homesteads!' - Conan Doyle, 'The adventure of the copper beeches'. ...»
The Picts and the Martyrs
Did Vikings Kill the Native Population
of Orkney and Shetland?*
'''Good heavens!' I cried. 'Who would associate crime with these dear
- Conan Doyle, 'The adventure of
the copper beeches'.
Nearly a quarter of a century ago lain Crawford gave a paper
to the eighth Viking Congress. His title was 'War or peace'.1
Crawford's essay, about Norse immigration in the Northern
and Western Isles, and the immigrants' relationship with the native Picts, was a smashing piece of work. He was angry and scornful about what archaeologists were saying about the subject in the 19705. For Crawford the matter had been cleared up, for once and for all, in 1962, when Frederick Wainwright's posthumously published work The Northern Isles came out. In two brilliant essays in that book Wainwright argued that the Pictish inhabitants of Shetland and Orkney had been 'overwhelmed by and submerged beneath the sheer weight of the Scandinavian settlement'.2 The Picts, he concluded, 'were overwhelmed politically, linguistically, culturally and socially.'3 Crawford didn't succeed in persuading his audience, or, subsequently, his readers. Since the 1970s the 'Peace' School has become more and more voluble and successful. I regret this, because I go further than Crawford and Wainwright. I suspect that the Norse invaders of Orkney and Shetland didn't just 7 NORTHERN STUDIES' 36 'overwhelm', or 'submerge' the native population: I think they killed them.
I begin my critique with Crawford himself. He divided his predecessors into two groups: a traditional War school, culminating in the work of Wainwright, and a relatively modern, effete Peace School. But Crawford's assessment was simplistic, in three ways.
First, there has been a Peace School for a long time. In my estimation the 'warriors' have never been very successful. The idea that the natives settled down amiably, or not quite so amiably, with the invaders, or even that there were no natives at all, was popular right from the start. The Norwegian historian Peter Andreas Munch was arguably the first sensible commentator about the history of the Northern Isles. In 1860 he wrote that the island Picts were 'absorbed' rather than exterminated - 'if, indeed,' he said, 'Shetland had any inhabitants before the Norwegians'.4 In the same way, the saga scholar Sir George Dasent thought that 'the Northmen really found those islands empty and desolate, and that it was not before their swords that the ancient races vanished away'. 'How did they vanish,' he asked, 'leaving no trace of their nationality behind?'s The great Norwegian archaeologist A.W. Br0gger was still arguing a subtle version of this case in the 1930s. There were proponents of the War theory in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but they were a minority.6 Crawford's second error was to assume that his hero Wainwright was. a fully-paid-up member of the War School.
Wainwright argued cogently that the Picts were 'overwhelmed' in their native islands, but, as we'll see in a moment, he left the door slightly ajar: he envisaged a situation where they and their language, and even their religion, survived the Viking onslaught. Crawford's failure to examine Wainwright's views critically is an important defect in his argument.
Finally, Crawford underestimated his modern target. He didn't spot that the climate of Viking studies in Britain had been massively altered by the appearance of Peter Sawyer's book The Age of the Vikings in 1962, the same year as
8 BRIAN SMITH
Wainwright's Northern Isles. Sawyer argued that the Vikings came to the west in relatively small numbers,7 and that contemporary churchmen who complained about their methods were biased and unreliable. 8 Sawyer's approach was extremely congenial to modem scholars, especially British ones. It fitted perfectly with a reaction by archaeologists, then under way, against the idea that cultures change because of invasions. 9 In particular, archaeologists working in Shetland and Orkney have been especially unwilling to envisage berserk invaders at work there. For some of these archaeologists the islands are idyllic, and it seems to be painful to them to imagine bloodshed among the 'dear old homesteads'.
There is no documentary or even archaeological evidence about these matters, to weigh up or re-examine. I can't produce new material of that kind. Instead I shall look in detail at what scholars have said on the subject, especially during the past fifty years, and ask if they have arrived at rational conclusions. I divide the commentators into two groups: those who have written about language and religion, and those who have concentrated on archaeology. I conclude by explaining what I think happened to the native inhabitants of Orkney and Shetland in the ninth century.
The Peace School I: Language and Religion
My first remarks, then, are about language and religion, and about what Wainwright and his school made of them.
Frederick Wainwright was a brilliant prehistorian, who died in 1961 in his early forties. In 1952, when he was head of history at University College Dundee, he inaugurated a series of summer schools in archaeology. The first dealt with what he called 'The problem of the Picts'.
Fifty years ago nobody knew much about the Picts, and Wainwright and his colleagues, especially Robert Stevenson and Kenneth Jackson, threw a flood of light on the subject.
Stevenson and Jackson spoke about Pictish art and language, respectively. None of them discussed the subject I am tackling
9 NORTHERN STUDIES· 36
here; but some of their conclusions have had a major impact on the War and Peace debate.
Stevenson, for instance, touched on the well-known sculptured stone from Bressay in Shetland, which was discovered in the early 1850s. The Bressay stone has always been a puzzle. In 1855 the Irish archaeologist James Graves examined the ogham inscription on its edge, and proposed that the stone was a joint memorial to the daughter of someone called Naddodd, and to the son of a Druid called Benres.
Graves thought that Naddodd was probably the Viking of that name who discovered Iceland in the ninth century, and he concluded that the inscription must be a mixture of Irish and Icelandic. tO His view that the Bressay stone is late, and that its inscription contains words from two or even three languages, was influentia1. 11 Robert Stevenson proposed, in a short paragraph, that the design on the stone was definitely late. He considered that the stone had been produced in the late ninth or even the tenth century, because of its 'haphazard scatter of decoration and a marked clumsiness of drawing'. He reckoned that it was a poor copy of a much more impressive sculpture from Papil, in the isle of Burra, to which he now assigned 'a date... only just, if at all, prior to the Norse occupation of Shetland./ t2 The Bressay stone was, he concluded, part of the 'dregs of Pictish tradition'.13 I have to stress, however, that Stevenson/s remarks on this occasion were brief. They certainly didn't amount to a theory about War or Peace in ninth or tenth century Shetland, although the implication of them was that the person who inscribed the stone had a foot in both Pictish and Norse camps.
Stevenson's views were immediately taken up by his colleague Kenneth Jackson. Jackson's paper to the Dundee summer school was revolutionary. Until 1952 many scholars had assumed that all Picts spoke a Celtic language related to Welsh, Cornish and Breton. Jackson now rejected that view.
He liked understanding things, and there were Pictish names he couldn't understand. So he concluded that the Picts must have had two languages: a Brittonic language, and an unintelligible pre-Indo-European tongue with its origin in the
10 BRIAN SMITH
Bronze Age. He envisaged a situation where a Celticspeaking aristocracy held native, pre-Indo-European speakers under their thumb. 14 During his discussion he too considered the Bressay stone.
He spotted the word 'meqq', meaning son, on it, and assumed it was a primitive Gaelic word. He argued, following 5tevenson's dating of the stone, that the oghamist had used a Gaelic rather than a Pictish word because the stone was very late. On the other hand he regarded the word 'dattrr' on the stone as the Norse word for 'daughter'. '[T]he whole thing', he concluded, much as Graves had said in 1855, 'seems to pornt to a very mixed language in Shetland in the late ninth or early tenth century, after the Norse settlements there'.IS Jackson's remarks about the Bressay stone, like Stevenson's, were brief, but they have had an inordinate effect on the War and Peace debate. So has his view that the Picts spoke an ancient and unfathomable language.
Wainwright was the first to apply his colleagues' views to the War and Peace question. Like everyone else who deals with the arrival of Norse settlers in the Northern Isles, Wainwright had to face the fact that there are apparently few or no pre..;Norse place-names there. This is a very curious situation, and requires an explanation. Wainwright now argued that the Picts in the islands spoke Jackson's mysterious non-Indo-European language. As a result, he hinted, we can't recognise their place-names, because we don't know what to look for. He implied that there are such names in Shetland and Orkney, but that we can't see them. He went on to accept Stevenson's dating for and argument about the Bressay stone. 16 Wainwright pointed out, too, that the Norse settlers had established chapels on the sites of Pictish chapels in the islands. 'Under these circumstances', he said, 'we cannot accept the view that the Picts and their Christianity were exterminated'.17 He concluded that '[i]n one field only, that of religion, is it reasonably certain that the Picts exercised any great influence on the Scandinavian way of life,.IS I sense unease in Wainwright's writing when he arrives at this conclusion. Everything else he wrote about the Viking irruption into Orkney and Shetland points to a different
11 NORTHERN STUDIES· 36
prognosis. Wainwright had reported that the Picts were 'overwhelmed by and submerged beneath the sheer weight of the Scandinavian settlement' in the islands. But if the Picts survived, with their language and religion intact, what precisely do these strong words mean?
As I said, Wainwright imagined that Shetland and Orkney contain pre-Indo-European place-names that we can't recognise. 19 It would have been useful to hear about names that he suspected might fall into this category, but he didn't list any. There are plenty of place-names that we can't explain, of course, but there are better reasons for our failure than the existence of a mysterious language. The main reason that we can't explain names is that we aren't clever enough, or that the names have become corrupt over the centuries, or both. Is there any evidence at all that the Picts of Orkney and Shetland, or anywhere else, spoke a pre-Indo-European language? Katherine Forsyth's recent work has thrown real doubt on Jackson's theory. She has carefully re-examined the words and inscriptions which Jackson regarded as non-Celtic and unintelligible, and paints a different picture. 20 Her main area of expertise is the ogham inscriptions of northern and eastern Scotland. According to Forsyth, scholars have 'underestimated the problems of interpreting texts in a poorly attested language written in an unfamiliar orthography, usually without word-division'. Moreover, ogham is peculiarly prone to misreading: 'if part of an ogham letter is missing it becomes a completely different letter'. Forsyth shows that some of the inscriptions incorporate personal names, and makes cogent suggestions about the likely form of others. Her conclusion is that the Picts spoke a Brittonic language, as most of Jackson's predecessors assumed, and that Jackson's non-Indo-European language is a chimera. If there are pre-Norse names in Shetland and Orkney they are likely to be Celtic, not pre-Celtic in form, and some of them at least if there are any - ought to be recognisable!
And what of the Bressay stone? Is it as young as Stevenson imagined? Is its language as 'mixed' as Jackson proposed?
Stevenson reopened the question in 1981. In the meantime Charles Thomas had written an important article about
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Shetland's sculptured stones. Thomas didn't mention Bressay, but he concluded that the Papil stone was sculptured sometime after AD 750: that is, before Scandinavians arrived in the Northern Isles. 21 In 1981 Stevenson rejected Thomas's analysis, and reaffirmed and extended his original propositions. He still dated the Papil stone to the very end of the eighth century, and he now said that the Bressay stone 'seems to be a considerably later copy'. He claimed that the Bressay stone was a grave-marker for what he called a 'halfPict', and concluded that 'there were in Shetland active Christians erecting sculptured monuments in the tenth century'.22 Stevenson's and Jackson's views have been influential.
Three years ago Michael Barnes wrote a little book about Orkney and Shetland Nom; his section on the early days of that language is based on the arguments that Jackson and Stevenson deployed in 1952. Bames says that '[t]here is really nothing in the linguistic evidence to conflict with the view that the incoming Scandinavians reached some kind of accommodation with the native population'. But our sole linguistic evidence is the Bressay stone! In fact, the evidence that there is Norse influence in that artefact is very meagre indeed. Katherine Forsyth has suggested that the name that looks like Naddodd on the stone may be Pictish;23 and Bames himself has speculated that the word 'dattr' on it may be Pictish as well. 24 These revisions immediately strip away half the evidence for a late date. Without Norse words Stevenson's date based on the sculpture begins to look suspect.