A Narrow Sea - Episode 07
Written by Dr Jonathan Bardon
In the Ecclesiastical History of the English People, written in 731, the Venerable Bede stated that there were four peoples in Britain. All four were to be found in what today is Scotland.
The Anglo Saxons, under the King of Northumbria, had overrun much of the country as far north as Edinburgh; then there the Britons of Strathclyde and Dumbarton; the third group were the Picts who occupied by far the largest area in northern Britain, including the Highlands, the Outer Hebrides and the Northern Isles - including Shetland, Fair Isle and Orkney; the fourth people were the Scots of Dál Riata in Argyll.
Bede stated these four people spoke five languages – including Latin, the language of the Church. The Anglo-Saxons spoke Bede’s own language, Old English: as the language of the kings of Northumbria, a form of Old English (the ancestor of lowland Scots) was being spoken over the Southern Uplands and the east coast up to the Firth of Forth.
In the West of what is now Scotland the Britons of Strathclyde and Dumbarton spoke a ‘P-Celtic’ language. Many words in this language began with a P- and so it is called P-Celtic. It was almost identical to that spoken by the British in Cumbria and Wales, the ancestor of modern Welsh.
The language of the Picts has been lost completely but it seems also to have been a P-Celtic language. It survives only in elements of some place names such as Pitlochry – pett meaning a ‘portion of an estate’.
The fourth people - the Scots - spoke Gaelic, the speech brought by colonists from Ulster to Dal Riata. This was a distinctly Irish form of the Celtic language, known as Q-Celtic. It was used in every part of Ireland and now, across the North Channel, it was spreading widely out from Argyll.
Many words in Gaelic begin with a Q or K sound. For example, ‘Kin’ or ‘Ken’, meaning a headland or boundary, appears in place names all over Ireland and also over much of Scotland, including Kinlochleven, Kintyre and Kinross. The equivalent of the Gaelic element Kin or Ken in British was ‘Pen’ – it is found in place names such as Pentland, Pennersaughs and Pencaitland in Lothian and Penarth and Penrith in Cumbria.
Then at the end of the eighth century a fifth people began to make their mark.
In 793 the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded: On 8 June the ravages of the heathen men miserably destroyed God’s church on Lindisfarne with plunder and slaughter.
The Viking raids had begun. Two years later both Iona and Rathlin were attacked. Then Bangor and Downpatrick were plundered. As a monk wrote some years later:
Everywhere Christ’s peoples are the victims of massacre, burning and plunder. The Vikings overrun all that lies before them and no one can withstand them.
An Irish monk wrote in the margin of his manuscript:
Fierce and wild is the wind tonight,
It tosses the tresses of the sea to white;
On such a night I take my ease;
Fierce Northmen only course the quiet seas.
These Northmen who bore down on Scotland and Ireland were for the most part Viking warriors from Norway. Undefended churches and monasteries suffered most in the early attacks, the raiders being attracted to them not only by precious liturgical vessels but also by their rich stores of corn. These raiders were formidably armed with fearsome battle-axes and long slashing swords edged with superbly welded hard steel. They wore flexible coats of mail and helmets fitted with protective nose pieces. Their longships were designed to cope with the hazards of the ocean but also, with their shallow draught, they were capable of navigating rivers far upstream.
The lands ruled by the Picts suffered most. The Outer Hebrides were overwhelmed and the Picts living in the Shetlands and the Orkneys seem to have been almost completely wiped out. The Vikings came first to plunder - but soon they were settling permanently in these islands which possessed a milder climate than their own homelands.
In southern Ireland the Vikings built the island’s first towns, some to grow later into cities, including Dublin, Limerick and Waterford. But in spite of penetrating deep into the heart of Ulster and, for a time, maintaining fleets of longships on Lough Neagh and Lough Erne, the Vikings never managed more than a few toeholds here, such as Strangford, Carlingford, Ballyholme and Larne. It seems that they met such formidable resistance that they decided to settle elsewhere.
For the year 811 the Annals of Ulster have this terse entry: ‘A slaughter of the heathens by the Ulaid’. This must have been a significant achievement, because the same victory was recorded in the court of Charlemagne. The same Annals of Ulster record that in 866 Áed Finnliath, King of the northern Uí Néill, actually defeated the Vikings on their own element, the sea, on Lough Foyle.
If your surname is McKittrick, McIvor, MacDowell, McSorley, Sweeney, McLeod, MacDonnell, or MacDougall – all of them common in Ulster today – you certainly have Viking blood flowing in your veins. But people with these names were not to appear in Ulster until long after the era of the Vikings was over.