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18 September 2014
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Viking Colonists: Joining the Community

Map showing settlement patterns of the Vikings
Settlement patterns of the Vikings 

Many of the Vikings who raided these islands remained here rather than returning home, and slowly became part of the community. Pagan graves reveal the secrets of these newcomers, as the everyday objects they contain help us build a picture of the Viking past.

War or peace?

What happened when Viking raiders turned into Viking settlers and took land from the native population to farm? There is considerable debate and controversy even today about the nature of the relationship between these colonists and the locals in Britain and Ireland. The historical sources, however, are clear that the relationship was hostile, and that negotiation was by the sword. Most modern historians argue that the Norwegians who settled in Scotland and the Danes who settled in England simply took what they wanted by force, killing or enslaving anyone who got in their way.

'Place names are an invaluable source of information ...'

But there is also the evidence of place names and archaeology, and they can be interpreted in more than one way. Place names are an invaluable source of information on the extent of Scandinavian (Viking) influence, and their distribution mirrors the geographical spread of colonisation known from historical and archaeological evidence. In England, for instance, Scandinavian names are concentrated within the Danelaw, the area of northern and eastern England that was in Danish hands.

In Scotland, the most densely concentrated area of Scandinavian names is in Caithness, Orkney and Shetland, where a Norwegian earldom was established. But we should not assume that density of place names equals numbers of colonists, or that the creation of place names can be dated precisely. Blanket replacement of native names, as in Orkney and Shetland, may have happened gradually rather than suddenly. Above all, we need to remember that the story is likely to have varied across Britain and Ireland, and that we should balance historical, linguistic and archaeological evidence within a local framework.

Published: 2004-09-11

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