The term Vikings is a collective noun for the bands of Danes, Swedes and Norsemen who inhabited Scandinavia from about the seventh century AD. By the year 800 AD they were successfully raiding and plundering most of the other countries of northern and western Europe.
There are many theories about why the Vikings left Scandinavia. Fierce winters curtailed the length of the growing season making it difficult to farm and limited fertile land meant there wasn't enough land to go around. Others believe that Viking boat-building and navigational skills were catalysts for the Viking migration. Perhaps it was a combination of these factors.
The stereotypical image of Vikings as ruthless plunderers and murderers is not entirely accurate. In Scandinavia the Vikings were farmers and fishermen. Their boat-building skills allowed them to travel and their voyages took them to many countries, first as raiders but eventually as traders.
The first evidence of Viking presence in Ireland comes from the names of places and families. Fjord is a Viking word meaning an inlet of the sea and is usually taken to refer to the deep indentations on the west coast of Norway. When the Vikings came to Ireland they explored our coastline and gave names to inlets such as Carlingford and Strangford Loughs as well as to places like Wexford and Waterford. In Norse Strangfjord means 'the fjord of the strong currents', referring to the powerful tidal currents that run in and out of Strangford Narrows at the south end of the lough.
Many family names that we take to be Irish actually derive from old Norse
|Family Name||Old Norse|
There are many others such as Hammond, Kitterick, McAuley, McKeever, MacManus, McSorley, Quiston, Reynolds, and Sigerson.
Much of Norway is mountainous and inhospitable for human habitation. Most people live near the coast in small towns or cities like Bergen or Oslo, the capital.
Many of the settlements are situated on fjords which have comparatively sheltered waters that provided natural harbours for Viking boats.
Much of the land around these fjords is steep and rocky, leaving little space to keep animals or grow crops. All this provides good reasons why the Vikings looked to the sea for much of their livelihood. They used it to get from place to place travelling to the British Isles and Ireland, the Netherlands, France, Spain, North Africa, Iceland Greenland and North America. They also travelled east as far as Moscow and Constantinople.
Arriving by sea in their long-ships, they penetrated deep into the interior of each country by the use of rivers and lakes. In Ireland, for instance, they sailed up the River Bann into Lough Neagh which they then used as a base from which to dominate the centre of Ulster. It was Vikings from Lough Neagh that sacked Armagh in 832. To the south they entered the centre of Ireland by using the River Shannon and were thereby able to sack Clonmacnoise in 837.
The Vikings lived in long-houses. These were made from wood and had thatched roofs made of straw. In other areas like Greenland where timber was scarce these houses were made of stone.
The hearth was the centre of family life and a fire was kept burning at all times for cooking and to provide heat. Smoke escaped through a hole in the roof. Fish and meat were hung up and smoked to preserve them for the long winter months. Families gathered around the fire to listen to stories or sagas. These sagas included magical tales, legends and stories about the exploits of warriors and chieftains. Much of our knowledge of the Vikings and their world-view comes from these sagas, many of which were written down for posterity.
When Viking chieftains died their bodies were put into funeral ships with their swords and shields, before the boat was set on fire and pushed out to sea. This was to help them on their journey to Valhalla which was the Viking Heaven or afterlife.
Long-ships provided the means by which the Vikings were able to travel great distances in pursuit of plunder and trade. They were clinker built boats, meaning that the hulls were made with overlapping planks of oak and pine. These long-ships were able to weather the worst storms at sea but were still shallow enough to navigate rivers and land on shallow beaches. They were powered by sail and in calm weather by oar.
In the programme we see the Gokstad ship, a Viking long-ship now housed in an Oslo museum. While this was a funeral ship, it was never burnt and lay preserved in blue clay for about 1100 years until it was excavated in the 19th century. We also see a replica of this ship being built by members of the Bjorkedal family who are one of the last of Norway's traditional shipbuilding families. They took 6 months to build this ship and wherever possible tried to use traditional techniques. The new long-ship, named Gaia, is 24 metres long and has a full length shallow keel.
The crew of Gaia had to learn the techniques of handling a long-ship at sea in preparation for a long ocean crossing. They were to take Gaia across the Atlantic to America, following the same route as Leif Eriksson, who is believed to be the first European to land there. To do this they sailed from island to island visiting Orkney, Shetland, The Faeroes, Iceland and Greenland before landing in Newfoundland at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River in Canada.
A Viking long-ship can sail well in the open ocean, reaching speeds of up to 10 knots. This means that in the right conditions it can travel up to 200 miles in a day.
Iceland was one of the most important Viking colonies. Settlers began to farm here and in time set up the first Althing, or national assembly in A.D.930. It is believed to be the first such body in the world.
At a later date 25 boatloads of Icelandic Vikings under the command of Erik the Red sailed on west towards Greenland. Only 14 ships survived the journey and the crews set up a Norse colony in this bleak island. Here the buildings were built from stone and the ruins survive today. The last trace of this isolated colony was in 1408 when there was a wedding in the church in Hvalsey. After the wedding nothing more is known of Greenland's Vikings. The mysterious disappearance of these people has been explained in various ways. Theories include the Black Death, war with the native Eskimos, in-breeding, a drop in the temperature, the end of supply shipments or that young people simply gave up trying to eke out a living in this harsh environment and went back to Iceland.