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Vikings in Scotland and the Western Isles

Dear Viking Answer Lady:

My family's tradition has always maintained that our family once were Vikings who ruled the Orkney Isles. However, all of the ancestors we have been able to locate are settled firmly in Scotland. Did the Vikings settle in Scotland and the Orkneys?

(signed) Viking in a Kilt

Gentle Reader:

Viking Scotland Viking Age Scotland saw a major influx of Scandinavian settlers and conquerors in Scotland and the surrounding islands. Settlers from Norway came to the Shetlands, the Orkneys, the Hebridies, the Isle of Man, the Western Islands, and parts of the Scottish mainland, attracted because the land and climate were similar to that back home in Scandinavia, with the added attraction of their proximity to the profitable Viking centers in Ireland and England. The Vikings lived next to and intermarried with the native Celtic populations. In large part the Norse settlements in this area comprised the Earldom of Orkney, while the Western Isles were ruled by Celto-Norse settlers.

Scandinavian accounts of the Norse settlement in Scotland and the outlying islands is contradictory. Sources such as Egils saga Skallagrimssonar suggest that the original Viking settlers were fleeing the persecutions of King Harald hárfagri Hálfdanarson ("Harald Fairhair"):

Once he'd gained full control of the provinces that had just come into his hands, Harald kept a sharp eye on the landed men and rich farmers, and anyone else he might expect trouble from. He gave them a choice of three things. They could swear loyalty, or they could leave the coutry, but if they chose the third, they could resign themselves to the most savage terms, perhaps even death. There were cases where Harald people's arms and legs hacked off. In every province, Harald took over both farming land and estates, whether they were inhabited or not, even the sea and the lakes. Every farmer and every forester had to become his tenant, every salt-maker and every hunter on land or sea had to pay taxes to him. Many a man went on the run from this tyranny and many a wilderness became inhabited, both east in Jamtaland and Halsingland and west, in the Hebrides, as well as the parts around Dublin in ireland, Normandy in France, Caithness in Scotland, Orkney, Shetland and the Faroes. And that's when Iceland was discovered. (Egils saga Skallagrimssonar, Chapter 4)

Archaeology and other sources show, however, that the original settlement of the Vikings in parts of Scotland and the North Atlantic islands in many cases began earlier, and was a part of the often violent conquest and settlement of the Vikings outside of their Scandinavian homeland. 

Vikings in Scotland

Lindisfarne Scotland was the site of the first recorded Viking raid when, in 793 AD, the monastery at Lindisfarne was sacked, with Iona and the Isle of Skye being attacked the next year. The Celtic impulse to hermitage and monasticism combined left a string of vulnerable churches and monastic communities on the coastlines, making for easy access for Viking raiders.

The archaelogical evidence for the Vikings in Scotland is overwhelmingly rural. The Norse in Scotland, as elsewhere in the Norse Atlantic, came to settle, to live and farm in an environment that was very similar to that of their homes in Scandinavia.

In 893 AD the Danes waged a major offensive in Scotland in which "the flower of the Pictish nobility was destroyed". This attack allowed Kenneth mac Alpin, king of Scottish Dalriada, to unify the remaining Scots and Pictish peoples. Thereafter, Halfdan broke away from the Great Danish Army to attack eastern Scotland. Viking raiders based in the Orkneys raided into Moray Firth. By 900 Vikings had captured the fortress of Dunottar, south of Aberdeen, while in the west hybrid Celto-Norse warbands mounted assault which contemporary chroniclers state were more bloodthirsty and damaging than even the Vikings themselves.

Southwestern Scotland was devastated by Ólafr and Augísl from Ireland: in 870 they successfully besieged Dumbarton, leaving with a heavy cargo of slaves and looted goods, an attack which is recorded in both the Irish and Welsh annals. Some scholars believe that this was an abortive attempt to set up a center of commerce to rival Viking Dublin.

The densest settlements of Vikings occurred around Caithness, with Strathoykel as the southern frontier. Current archaeological investigations are turning up exciting finds around Caithness, and at the site at the Udal in North Uist.

Just as things were looking bleakest for the Scots, King Constantine mac Aed (900-943 AD) arose and was able to beat back Vikings and Anglo-Scandinavians from Northumbria and the Danelaw alike. Apparently Constantine used every tool of diplomacy, including intermarriages through outright red-handed war in his effort to keep his lands and to hold back the Viking tide, and even expanded his kingdom southwards when the Vikings weakened his Anglo-Saxon neighbors to the south. In the process of doing so the ethnically diverse Scottish peoples began for the first time to have a national identity.

Moray Firth By the mid 10th century, the Viking victories were few and far apart. The Scots successfully destroyed a Viking summer raiding party, after which the name "Somerled" or "Sorley" came to be popular in commemoration of the victory.

On Christmas 986, a vicious Viking raid resulted in the deaths of 15 monks on Iona, however a year later the men of Dalriada took vengeance on the Viking raider-chieftain Godfrey mac Harald, known as ri Innse Gall ("king of the Islands of the Foreigners").

In the North, the men of Moray continued to stand fast against raiders from the Orkneys, until the Earl of Orkney, Jarl Sigurðr digr ("the stout") Hlodvisson was killed in 1014 at the Battle of Clontarf, marking the end of the Viking Age in the Celtic World.

Bibliography for Viking Scotland

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Vikings in the Orkney Isles

Map of Viking Orkney The Orkney Islands lie off the northern tip of Scotland where the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean meet. Comprised of 67 islands, Orkney covers an area of 376 square miles. Orkney lies about 500 miles from Oslo.

There are few sources from the Viking Age which discuss the history of Orkney, excepting Orkneyingasaga, which does not present a very accurate nor unbiased view of the actual history of Viking occupation of the Orkneys.

Archaeological evidence indicates that until the 8th century the inhabitants of the Orkneys were a Bronze Age people ruled by a small class of Pictish nobility. The Historia Norwegiae, written in the 12th century, relates that around the time of King Harald hárfagri Hálfdanarson that a group of Norwegian Vikings attacked the Orkneys, killing the Picts and conquering the islands. This seems to be confirmed by the fact that the Scandinavian settlement in Orkney, unlike other areas in Scotland and the islands, appears to have totally displaced the native Pictish population. Certainly a violent conquest at this time by Norwegian Viking forces would be in keeping with other attacks in Scotland, Ireland and other locations in the northern British Isles during this period.

Some scholars believe that the Historia Norwegiae is incorrect, and that instead the initial Norse presence consisted of farmers, arriving in the 8th century, who peacefully coexisted with their Pictish neighbors, though this is a disputed theory. The theory of peaceful coexistence seems to be supported however by archaeological evidence such as that from the site of Buckquoy.

Orkneyingasaga was written in Iceland in the early 13th century, possibly by Snorri Grímsson (d. 1208), though other possible authors include Bjarni Kolbeinsson, the Bishop of Orkney; Sighvattr, the brother of Snorri Sturluson; or the priest Ingimundr Þórgeirsson from Eyjafjörður in Iceland. As with other Icelandic sagas, Orkneyingasaga perpetuates the Icelandic legend that the tyrrany of King Harald hárfagri was the driving force behind the Norse settlements in the North Atlantic. Indeed, Orkneyingasaga tells that Harald attempted annex the Orkneys for the Norwegian crown (ca. 901):

One summer King Harald Finehair sailed west on a punitive expedition against the Vikings who were raiding the coasts of Norway from their winter-bases in Shetland or the Orkneys; for he had grown tires of their depradations. He subdued Shetland and the Orkneys and the Hebrides, and sailed all the way down to the Isle of Man and destroyed all the settlements there. He fought many battles there, and extended his dominion further west than any king of Norway has done since then. One of those killed in battle was Ívarr, the son of Earl Rögnvaldr of Möer; so when King Harald set sail for Norway, he gave Earl Rönvaldr the Orkneys and Shetland as compensation for his son. Earl Rögnvaldr in turn transferred both countries to his brother Sigurðr, who was King Harald's prow-man. When the king sailed back to Norway he bestowed on Sigurðr the title of Jarl and Sigurðr stayed behind on the islands. (Orkneyingasaga, Chapter 4)

This account cannot be accurate, however, for the Irish annals say nothing of such an expedition, which certainly would have been noticed, so near across the Irish Sea. Scholars feel that this story is an Icelandic attempt to explain why so many of the early settlers of Iceland were second generation Norsemen from Scotland and the islands. Certainly the Norwegian crown exercised royal authority over the Orkneys in the 13th century, but not in Harald's time.

9th or 10th century Westness Woman on the island of Rousay, Orkney Brooches of the Westness Woman, Rousay, Orkney

That the early settlement of the Norse in Orkney included families and not just Viking warriors is seen in the burial of the 9th or 10th century Westness Woman on the island of Rousay. The woman was buried in pagan fashion, with her belongings, including a pair of the typical domed oval brooches in bronze between which were string glass beads, wool combs, weaving tools, a bronze basin, a sickle and a pair of shears, as well as a silver ringed pin of Celtic type.

Lineage of the Earls of Orkney The Orkneys were the kingdom of the Earls of Orkney, "earls" in name but kings in power. The first Earl of Orkney is said to have been Sigurðr, brother of Jarl Rögnvaldr of Möer. Closely related to the ruling family were the gæðingar, "men endowed with goods", the wealthy landowners of the Orkney Isles. The gæðingar were responsible for the maintenance of ships and beacons, critical parts of the defenses of the Orkneys -- essential with the often-hostile Scottish mainland so near.

Orkneyingasaga tells us that the seat of the Earls of Orkney was at the Brough of Birsay, a natural fortress atop rearing cliffs. Originally an early Christian monastery, Birsay was taken over in the ninth century by the Norse invaders. There the Scandinavians built farms on the slopes above the former monastery. Later, as the settlement grew, shops for metal-workers were added, as well as a larger church built atop the old Pictish chapel and the royal hall of Earl Þórfinnr the Mighty of Orkney. These buildings employed sophisticated architectural features, including heating ducts beneath the stone flooring used to warm the buildings comfortably.

The sigil of the Orkney Earls was the famous Raven Banner. The banner was first created for Sigurðr Hlodvisson:

One summer it happened that a Scottish earl called Finnleik challenged Sigurðr to fight him on a particular day at Skitten. Sigurðr's mother was a sorceress so he went to consult her, telling her that the odds against him were heavy, at least seven to one.

Raven Banner 'Had I thought you might live forever,' she said, 'I'd have reared you in my wool-basket. But lifetimes are shaped by what will be, not by where you are. Now, take this banner. I've made it for you with all the skill I have, and my belief is this: that it will bring victory to the man it's carried before, but death to the one who carries it.' It was a finely made banner, very cleverly embroidered with the figure of a raven, and when the banner fluttered in the breeze, the raven seemed to be flying ahead.

Earl Sigurðr lost his temper at his mother's words. He got the support of the Orkney farmers by giving them back their land-rights, then set out for Skittern to confront Earl Finnleik. The two sides formed up, but the moment they clashed Sigurðr's standard-bearer was struck dead. The Earl told another man to pick up the banner but before long he'd been killed too. The Earl lost three standard bearers, but he won the battle and the farmers of Orkney got back their land rights. (Orkneyingasaga, Chapter 11)

It seems that the prophecy about the banner was always true, and eventually the banner became Sigurðr's bane:

Earl Sigurðr arrived at Dublin with all his army on Palm Sunday.... The armies clashed, and there was bitter fighting.... Earl Sigurðr had a fierce struggle with Kerthjalfad, who advanced with such vigour that he felled all those in the forefront. He burst through Earl Sigurðr's ranks right up to the banner, and killed the standard-bearer. The Earl ordered someone else to carry the standard, and the fighting flared up again. Kerthjalfad at once killed the new standard-bearer and all those who were near him. Earl Sigurðr ordered Þórstein Hallson to carry the standard, and Þórstein was about to take it when Amundi the White said, 'Don't take the banner, Þórstein! All those who bear it get killed!'

'Hrafn the Red,' said the Earl, 'you take the standard.' 'Carry your own devil yourself,' said Hrafn.

The Earl said, 'A beggar should carry his own bundle': he ripped the flag from its staff and tucked it under his clothing. A little while later Amundi the White was killed, and then the Earl himself died with a spear through him.(Njal's Saga, Chapter 157)

The rule of Þórfinnr Sigurðarson is considered to be the zenith of the the Earldom of the Orkneys. Earl Þórfinnr the Mighty was a remarkable man who earned his nickname, being huge and powerfully built, swarthy, ugly, sharp-featured, beetle-browed and with a prominent nose, according to the saga. Þórfinnr became earl in 1024 at age five, and ruled until his death in 1064. During his life, Þórfinnr extended his rule through all of the Western Isles and into the mainland of Scotland, one of the most powerful rulers in the north of Britain. It was Earl Þórfinnr of Orkney who battled the historical Scottish King MacBeth.

Brough of Birsay, Aerial View The sagas credit King Ólafr Tryggvason with the forcible conversion of the Orkneys to Christianity in 994:

After his return from Wendland, Ólafr Tryggvason spent four years looting in the British Isles. Then he was baptized in the Scillies.... Ólafr sailed east with five ships and didn't break his journey until he reached Orkney. At Osmundwall he ran into Earl Sigurðr, who had three ships and was setting out on a viking expedition. Ólafr sent a messenger to him, asking Sigurðr to come over to his ship as he wanted a word with him. 'I want you and all your subjects to be baptized,' he said when they met. 'If you refuse, I'll have you killed on the spot, and I swear that I'll ravage every island with fire and steel.' The Earl could see what kind of situation he was in and surrendered himself into Ólafr's hands. He was baptized and Ólafr took his son, called Hvelp or Hundi, as a hostage and had him baptized too under the name of Hlodvir. After that, all of Orkney embraced the faith. (Orkneyingasaga, Chapter 12)

This is extremely unlikely from a number of viewpoints. Medieval church historians such as Saxo Grammaticus in Denmark, or the 11th century German cleric Adam of Bremen paint Ólafr Tryggvason in quite a different light. To them, not only was Ólafr no evangelist, he was not even a Christian, suggesting that perhaps the fame of Ólafr as the great Christian was an invention of the Icelandic saga authors, desirous a native Scandinavian saint rather than crediting the Christian conquest to the Archbishropic of Hamburg and other foreign sources.

Both archaeology and historical sources outside the sagas seem to support the fact that Ólafr was not in fact responsible for the Conversion in Orkney. Prior to the arrival of the Vikings, Celtic monks (Old Norse papar) had established a presence in Orkney, and probably survived the violent take-over by paying tribute and offering no resistence to their Norse conquerors. The process of Christianization, then would have been influenced by these resident Christian monks, and was probably begun much earlier and carried out much more gradually than Orkneyingasaga would seem to indicate.

Although the Viking Age is widely considered to have ended in 1066 with the Battle of Stamford Bridge, some scholars consider that in the Orkneys it lasted as much as a century more. The neolithic burial mound of Maes Howe gives vivid evidence of Norsemen in the Orkneys in the 1100's. The tomb had been broken open by a group of returned Crusaders, searching fruitlessly for treasure, but leaving behind runic grafitti which is treasure enough to modern scholars. Several of the twenty-four inscriptions relect grafitti across the centuries:

  • Thorný bedded; Helgi writes it.

  • Ingigerð is the sweetest woman there is.

  • Ingibjörg the fair widow; many a woman has had to lower herself to come in here, despite her airs and graces. Erlingr. (At a site where the ceiling causes visitors to bump their heads).

Maes Howe Dragon

Another inscription reads:

Were carved
By the greatest runester west-over-sea,
With the axe once owned by Gauk
Trandilson in the southlands of Iceland.

Hermann Pálsson, investigating this inscription, determined that Gauk Trandilsson's axe became a heirloom in the family of the man who killed him, Ásgrím Elliða-Grímsson, and that in 1153 Thórhall Ásgrímsson, a direct descendant of Ásgrím, was the captain of the ship that brought Earl Rögnvaldr Kali of Orkney from Norway on his return from Jerusalem on Crusade. Thus Thórhall owned the famous axe, which was used to scratch the runic inscription.

Bibliography for the Orkney Isles

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Vikings in the Shetland Islands

Map of Viking Shetland The Norse called Shetland Hjaltland. Until the end of the 12th century, when Haraldr Maddaðarson, Earl of Orkney, rebelled against King Sverrir Sigurðarson of Norway, Shetland was a part of the dominion of the Earls of Orkney.

Shetland lies about 60 miles north of Orkney. It was a well-known destination for Scandinavian mariners, about 180 sea-miles or 360 kilometers from Bergen, that could be reached in about twenty-four hours from Norway with a reasonable wind. Shetland served as one of the sign-posts to tell voyagers to Greenland that they were on the correct course, as in these sailing directions found in Landnámabók:

From Hernar in Norway one is to keep sailing west for Hvarf in Greenland and then you will sail north of Shetland so that you can just sight it in very clear weather; but south of the Faroes so that the sea appears half-way up the mountain slopes; but on, south of Iceland so that you may have birds and whales from it.

The only evidence we have for the first 400 years of Shetland settlement comes from archaeology and place-name evidence. The earliest archaeological evidence of the Norse in the Orkeys is a hoard of silver plate from at a site on St. Ninian's Isle, excavated by Professor Andrew O'Dell of the Geography Department of Aberdeen University from Ninian's Isle between 1955-1959.

The find consisted of 28 pieces of ornamented silver including twelve penannular brooches, seven silver drinking bowls and a silver hanging-bowl used as a hand-basin, along with the jawbone of a porpoise, concealed within a larchwood box. It is thought that a wealthy Pictish family hurriedly buried their wealth in the church there during a Viking raid. The Picts apparently did not survive to reclaim their riches.

St. Niniane's Island Treasure, Shetland

Steatite Toy Millstone From Unst, Shetland Emigration from Scandinavia began by the start of the 9th century. Once in the Shetland islands, they began to build homes such as the ones excavated on Unst, the northernmost island of the group. So far 30 Viking house sites have been identified, and excavation began in 1996 revealing two Norse house sites. Work on the later of these houses has uncovered a hearth and an external drain. The earlier appears to have trenches which have been cut into the subsoil. Similar trenches were found when a trial trench was dug across the house site at Hamar in 1994, which suggest a sunken floor. If the floors were sunken, then Viking houses in the Shetland Islands may not have stood as high above ground as the timber houses more commonly known from Scandinavia and British towns, a feature which would be advantageous in areas which lacked large quantities of indigenous wood and where the climate was prone to be stormy. The site has also been found to have many steatite artifacts, and include a toy millstone from a model of a horizontal mill, and a hanging lamp.

Jarlshof Reconstruction J.R.C. Hamilton excavated an area named Jarlshóf ("Earl's-Seat" -- the name was coined by Sir Walter Scott in the early 19th century and is not an authentic Viking Age name). Jarlshóf was a medium-sized fishing township at the southmost time of the Shetland mainland, which had seven distinct phases of settlement between 800 and about the 13th century.

Jakob Jakobsen meanwhile investigated the place-name evidence, and built an etymological dictionary of the Norse language of the Shetlands. Jakobsen discovered that there is an overwhelmingly Norse history to Shetland, with Celtic influence nowhere to be seen: there are no pre-Norse Celtic names anywhere in Shetland. Indeed, until the 19th century, the language of Shetland was a Norse dialect called Norn, which strongly argues the Norse heritage of the settlement.

Jarlshof Aerial View It is believed that until the 11th century, the kings of Norway may have granted Shetland to favored retainers or sýslumenn, and that Earl Þórfinnr II of Orkney may well have acquired Shetland for his earldom after defeating Rögnvaldr Brusason in 1046, who held Shetland previously. There is also contradictory evidence that Shetland was considered to be the þriðjungr, or "poor third" of the Orkney earldom, used by power-seekers as a stepping stone to conquering the independent Norse kingdom of Orkney (although Orkney was called an earldom, it was functionally a kingdom, albeit a small one in terms of landmass).

In 1195, King Sverrir Sigurðarson of Norway stripped the Orkney earls of their Shetland possessions, and Shetland was thereafter administered directly by the Norwegian Crown. By the 13th and 14th centuries, Shetland's legal, political, and economic institutions clearly reflected this Norwegian influence, based on the surviving records of the Shetland law-thing from 1299 and 1307. The 1307 law states that the Shetlands law was derived from laws promulgated by Magnús lagabætir ("law-mender"). Hakonarson. About the same time a new system of land valuation, rent, and taxation seems to have been introduced from Norway based on the East Norwegian markebol unit. There is evidence from the late 13th century and early 15th century of close political and family ties between Shetland and the Faroe Islands, not surprising as both were similarly administered by the Norwegian Crown.

Before the 15th century, Shetland exported fish. The fish was channeled through the Hanseatic League establishment in Bergen. At the same time, individual North German merchants began to ignore the Hansa and traded directly with Shetland, which tended to weaken ties between Shetland and Norway -- Norway's power had always been derived from its economic stranglehold of trade with the Shetlands, since at that distance no other threat would have served.

King Christian of Denmark In 1479, King Christian I of Denmark and Norway mortgaged the Shetlands to the Scottish Crown. Gradually over the next 150 years, Scottish law began to mix and combine with the older Norse traditions. Norwegian nobles, called "Lords of Norway" by the Shetlanders, continued to own large estates in the Shetlands, but were gradually ousted by the Scots by the 16th to 17th centuries. Still, the Shetlanders spoke Norse (or a variant thereof) until the 18th century.

Shetlanders today are still proud of their Viking heritage, celebrating it annually at the festival of Up-Helly-Aa with a dramatic burning of a replica Viking ship by guizers costumed as Norse warriors and song:

Grand old Vikings ruled upon the ocean vast,
Their brave battle-songs still thunder on the blast;
Their wild war-cry comes a-ringing from the past;
We answer it "A-oi!"
Roll their glory down the ages,
Sons of warriors and sages,
Where the fight for freedom rages,
Be bold and strong as they!

Bibliography for the Vikings in the Shetland Islands

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Vikings in the Isle of Man

Map of Viking Isle of Man The Isle of Man is placed in the middle of the Irish Sea, the most perfect outpost from which to base pirates and mobile raiding forces possible. The island itself is small, being about 590 square kilometers in area, but is nearly equidistant from Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales, all of which can be seen from the highest point atop Snaefells.

Perhaps because of the warlike legacy of the Norse in Man, we have very few records of the Norse Settlements in Man until after the Viking Age, although from the late 11th century through 1265, when the Scandinavian kings lost control of the Isle of Man is well-documented in Chronica regum Manniae et insularum (first compiled in the 13th century). Combining this information and its evidence of surviving Scandinavian influence with runestone evidence and archaeological investigation provides a reasonable picture of the Scandinavian period in Man.

There is some dispute among scholars as to the survival of the Celtic Manx population that inhabited the island prior to the arrival of the Norse. There are no pre-Norse Celtic place-names surviving, leaving some scholars to believe that the Celtic population was completely wiped out, with the Gaelic language being reintroduced in the 13th century when Man came under the rule of Scotland. However others dispute this claim, pointing to the archaeological evidence, which seems to show that there was a substantial survival of the native Celtic population under the rule of the Norse. Examination of twenty five Viking gravesites suggest that the first Norse immigrants married native Celtic women. Other evidence shows that their children or grandchildren were brought up as Christians, and often received Celtic names. It seems most likely that while Norse had a strong foothold as the primary language of the Manx, there were always speakers of Brythonic Manx (a Celtic tongue) among the peasantry.

By the 9th century, there were pagan Norse graves, including grave-goods, present on Man. There are two types of graves: mound burials where the central deceased was surrounded by animals, or even slaves and relatives, and typically flat graves of Christian type in preexisting Christian cemeteries.

One pagan burial mound located at Ballateare, dated to the late 9th century, demonstrates the only example of human sacrifice from the Viking period. A wealthy Norse farmer was buried here, with a richly ornamented sword in an elaborate scabbard, three spears, and his shield. The sword and one of the spears was deliberately broken into three pieces before the burial, perhaps to discourage grave-robbers, or else to deprive the dead man of their use if the barrow-dweller returned as a draugr or walking ghost. Atop the warrior's grave was placed the body of a young woman in her twenties, discovered laying face down with her arms above her head, with the top of her skull sliced off by a sword or axe wound. Presumably a concubine or slave, she apparently was sacrificed to accompany her dead master to the afterlife, along with an ox, a horse, a sheep and a dog.

Viking Ruins at Braaid, Isle of Man Viking styles of home-building were introduced as well. Viking Age houses at the Braaid in Man are built along the typically Norse pattern of long houses with curved walls, rather like an upturned boat with the ends squared off. The houses in Man used turf for the long walls and timber construction on the gable ends. In this type of house the roof is usually supported by two rows of posts, with the posts being set upon a large stone at the base rather than being buried. Unlike Norse houses in other areas, the homes at Braaid show no sign of internal walls. In some places in Man, Viking dwellings were placed on cliff-top promontories, within semi-circular banks, well-defended from assault and attack.

The Vikings brought Scandinavian techniques of agriculture with them to Man. Physical traces of plowing with a heavy plow (Old Norse plógr) have been found beneath the Viking burial mound at Cronk Moar. This is one of the very few surviving sites with evidence for this type of plowing in the Norse world. Such a plow would have used a heavy iron plow-share, with a coulter for cutting the turf which would then be lifted and undercut by the share, and turned by a mould-board. It is possible that these plows may have also utilized a wheel.

Experimenting With Wheel Plow, Lejre Denmark
Experimenting With Wheel Plow, Lejre Denmark

In Man and the Western Isles, as well as in Iceland, Viking women developed a weaving technique to produce warm, shaggy cloaks well-suited for the cold Arctic blasts of the North Atlantic. This type of cloak was known as a röggr. These cloaks were woven on the typical upright warp-weighted loom, however as the cloth was being woven, combed tufts of wool were tied into the warp threads, or laid into the shed, producing a garment with the appearance of a large, shaggy fur pelt.

The center of Manx government under the Norse was at Tynwald, originally Þingvöllur, "Plain of the Thing", similar to Thingvellir in Iceland. At the assembly site is situated Tynwald Hill, a four-meter tall tiered circular mound. Here the Viking assembly or þing met each Midsummer, July 5th. From Tynwald Man was governed, legislation created, and courts of judgement were convened in the open air. The Manx Parliament, still sovereign though Man is a British Crown dependency (the British monarch has been "Lord of Mann" since 1765), is the oldest assembly in the world with unbroken traditions, having met first as a þing, and later as a Parliament annually since its establishment in the 10th century. On ceremonial occasions, a processional way leading to Tynwald Hill was strewn with rushes, on which digniaries would walk to ascend the mound. This practice dates back to the Celtic Iron Age, when the Manx worshipped Manannan Beg Mac y Lyr, "Little Manannan, Son of the Sea", the guardian spirit of the Isle of Man.

The Isle of Man figured in the Battle of Clontarf in 1014 AD, when one of the contingents in the Viking alliance headed by King Siggtryggr Silkbeard was captained by Bróðir and Óspak of Man. Óspak, warned by ill omens, abandoned the Viking forces to fight alongside the Irish High King, the Árd Rí Brian Ború. Bróðir stayed loyal to Sigtryggr, and though the Vikings were defeated at Clontarf Bróðir himself slew the Irish High King. Brian Ború had taken no part in the battle, which occurred upon Good Friday, but instead spent the day in prayer in a nearby wood. Bróðir of Man, fleeing with the rest of the beaten Viking forces, came across the Irish king at prayer, hacked through Ború's personal retainers, and killed the Árd Rí:

He ran from the woods and burst through the wall of shields, and hacked at the king. The boy Tadk threw up an arm to protect Brian, but the sword cut off the arm and the king's head. The king's blood spilled over the stump of the boy's arm, and the wound healed at once. Then Bróðir shouted, 'Let the word go round that Bróðir has felled King Brian.' Messengers ran to tell the pursuing forces that King Brian had fallen. (Njal's Saga, Chapter 157)

In retaliation, Brian's men tortured the Manxman to death, slitting his belly and pulling his intestines out, attaching them to an oak tree and forcing Bróðir to walk around and around the oak until he died:

Ulf Hreda and Karthjalfad turned back at once. They surrounded Bróðir and his men, and smothered their weapons with tree-branches. Bróðir was taken alive. Ulf Hreda slit open his belly and unwound his intestines from his stomach by leading him round and round an oak-tree; and Bróðir did not die before they had all been pulled out of him. Bróðir's men were all put to death too. (Njal's Saga, Chapter 157)

Thorwald's Cross, Isle of Man By the 10th century, the Norse Manx were Christianized. The culture was a hybrid of Norse and Celtic cultural influences, a fact well documented by the 70+ runestone monuments containing both Norse and Celtic names. Man had its own bishop prior to 1079, and a bishopric of Sodor and Man was established in the mid 12th century.

The conversion of the Norse in Man resulted in enduring monuments that clearly show both Norse and Christian influences, the Manx crosses. One of the most common motifs found on the Manx crosses is a Borre-style interlace pattern usually known as "Gaut's ring-chain" from the heavy use of this motif on a cross carved by Gaut Björnsson. An example of this motif may be seen on the upright of the cross shaft on Thorwald's Cross, shown here. Pagan Norse elements may also be seen, as in the depiction of the god Óðinn being devoured by the Fenris Wolf. Later Manx crosses began to utilize the Jellinge style of ornament.

Between 960 and 1070, the Manx were wealthy - but not necessarily peaceful. Nineteen silver hordes have been found in the Shetlands, perhaps the results of trade with the Viking kingdom of Dublin. However, around 1079 trade shifted from Dublin and Godred Crovan established the Independent Kingdom of Man and the Isles, after which Manx prosperity declined.

The documented history of Man begins in 1066 with the Chronica Regum Manniae et Insularum, The Chronicle of Mann. The Chronicle begins with the arrival of the Icelander Godred Crovan, who had fought with Harald harðráði ("hard-ruler") at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. Godred Croval made several attempts to conquer Man, finally suceeding on his third try at the Battle of Skyhill, near Ramsay on the northeast coast.

From 1079 - 1265, a Norse dynasty ruled in Man, closely allied to the Norwegian Crown, more so as the Western Isles (formerly a part of the Kingdom of Man and the Isles) was conquered by the Scots. After the Battle of Largs, the Norwegian Crown sold Man to the Scottish crown. The Scottish King Alexander III allowed Magnús to continue as king, an uprising led by Godred Magnússon brought about the death and defeat of Godred, the last Norse King of Man, at the Battle of Ronaldsway in 1275.

After this point the secular government of Man was administered from the Castle Rushen, a rule that persisted until the 19th century. The original Norse form of government can also be seen even today in the forms and usages of the Tydwal, the governing body of Man that meets as a thing at Midsummer (St John's day, June 21st).

Bibliography for the Vikings in the Isle of Man

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Vikings in the Faroe Islands

Viking Faroes Map The Faroe Islands are located on a line from Orkney to Iceland, between 61°20'N and 62°25'N, and accordingly were always firmly a part of the Norse world. The name comes from the Old Norse name, Færeyjar, maning, "Sheep Island" -- very appropriate when one considers that while the human population today is around 40,000, there are about 70,000 sheep.

The story of the Norse settlement of the Faroes is recorded in Færeyinga Saga (The Saga of the Faroe Islanders). Recent scholarship has shown however that many of the historical premises that were once assumed to be fact within the saga are actually not true. Instead of history, Færeyinga Saga must be comsidered a type of historical romance. The largest discrepancy is that Færeyinga Saga suggests that the Faroes were settled as a reaction against the centralization of power in Norway by King Harald hárfagri ("Fairhair") in the Battle of Hafrsfjordr, ca. the last half of the 9th century.

The saga tells that Grímr kamban was the first settler in the Faroes. Grímr is a solidly Norse name, but "kamban" is a Celtic derivation, and indicates that Grímr did not emigrate directly to the Faroes from Norway, but must have moved there from elsewhere in the Celto-Norse world. Furthermore, Landnámabók tells that Grímr's grandson was one of the first colonists in Iceland, which completely upsets the chronology given in the Færeyinga Saga.

The most reliable contemporary source of information about the Norse settlement of the Faroes is the Irish cleric Dicuil, who lived in the Carolingian court and wrote De mensura orbis terrae c. 825 AD in which he describes the Faroes, taking his account from that of a monk who had visited the islands. Dicuil said that for the previous hundred years Irish hermits (Scotians) had made the Faroes their home, but by 825 the hermits had fled because of attacks by Viking raiders. Then the Norse settlers arrived:

But even as the have been constantly uninhabited since the world's beginning, so now because of Norse pirates they are empty of anchorites, but full of innumerable sheep and a great many different kinds of sea-birds.

This is very reasonable when one compares the Icelandic settlement, where Norse settlers displaced Irish hermits (old Norse papar, which is found in Icelandic place names) as well. Thus it would seem that the earliest Celtic settlement of the Faroes was begun around 700 AD, and the first Norse settlement sometime in the 800's.

Viking House, Kvivik, Faroes However, archaeology has not been able to substantiate these dates. The earliest settlement remains date to 900. On the other hand, pollen analysis indicates that permanent settlement actually began as early as 600-650 AD, when the grazing of sheep and cultivation of oats changed the pollen deposits on the islands. Celtic influence is apparent even in the practice of sheep-keeping, however, for the Viking settlers in the Faroes and the other island settlements developed Celtic-like shieling sites (old Norse ærgi) for sheep farming, adopting as well the name, which derives from Irish airghe or Gaelic airgh.

The first indisputably Viking settlement was found in 1942, at the village of Kvívík. There a farm made up of two parallel buildings, a hall and a cow byre/barn, built in the typical Norse "upside-down ship" style with gable walls that curve outwards towards the middle. The walls are made of an inner and an outer layer of turf, filled in between with small stones and rammed earth. This is a large one-roomed Viking hall, 22 meters by 5.5 meters, with raised platforms along the side, a floor of tamped clay and sand over a flagstone base, and a sunken stone-lined long fireplace down the middle of the hall.

After the original settlement, however, archaeologists have determined that the quality of housing seems to decrease, with newer homes being built outside of land claimed in the original Landnám or land-taking using poorer techniques and/or materials.

Additional archaeological evidence is provided by two graveyards, one near Tjornuvik that shows Celtic influence, the other an early 11th century Christian graveyard at Leirvik. Village excavations at the village of Leirvik have turned up Celtic brooch pins, cooking vessels, loom weights and spindle whorls, and soapstone or pumice fishing weights. Bone remains help scientists to understand the average diet of the Viking Age Faroese.

Since the Faroes do not have their own timber, metal ores, or grain, the Faroe Islanders were particularly dependent on trade. Homespun cloth may well have been the chief item of export (as in Iceland). Coin hoards show that trade and commerce could be quite far-reaching and cosmopolitan, even though no ship finds have been turned up yet in the Faroes to corroborate the idea of trade.

Initially, the Norse settlements in the Faroes were pagan. The capital, Tórshavn, was named for the god Þórr ("Þórr's-haven, Þórr's-harbor"). It is assumed that the principal site of worship for the storm-god was at Tórshavn, though other scholars have made a case for locating it nearby at Velbastaður.

Where Færeyinga Saga does prove quite valuable is in looking at social interactions, laws, and politics of the Viking Age Faroese. As in Iceland, large landowners and chieftains ended up with most of the land, and those who were poor or landless worked upon the farms of these men. Laws, punishments and judgments were provided by the Alting (later renamed the Lögting or "law-thing") which met every June 29th at the capital at Tórshavn and was presided over by the lawspeaker (Old Norse lögmaðr) and attended by 36 thing-men (lögrettumenn) who served as judges, lawmakers, senate, parliament, and so forth.

Despite being small, the Faroes did not lack for famous men. Sverri Sigurðsson was brought up in the Faroes, then in 1177 in Norway he took command of the Birkebeiners ("birch-legs") who had been fighting the landed men, and turned them into an elite, mobile fighting force. By 1148 Sverri had made himself king of Norway.

With Christianity came closer, more restrictive ties to Norway. The Faroes were made a part of the Norwegian Church Province in 1152 under the Archbishopric of Nidaross (modern Trondheim). By 1180 the Faroes had become a "tax land" under the direct control of the Norwegian Crown. This relationship was formalized by the treaty promulgated by King Magnús lagabætr ("law-mender") Hakonarson which imposed mutual obligations on both the Faroese and the Norwegian Crown. This was the same time that Iceland (1262-1264) and Greenland (1261) were incorporated into the Norwegian empire (Noregsveldi) as "lands".

Bibliography for the Vikings in the Faroe Islands

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General Works

  • Brøgger, A.W. and Haakon Shetelig. The Viking Ships: Their Ancestry and Evolution. Oslo: Dreyers Forlag. 1951.
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  • Fell, Christine, trans. Egil's Saga (Egils saga Skallagrimssonar). London: J.M. Dent & Sons. 1975.
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  • Fitzhugh, William W. and Elisabeth I. Ward, eds. Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga. Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Press. 2000.
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  • Foote, Peter and David M. Wilson. The Viking Achievement. London: Sidgewick and Jackson. 1970.
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  • Jesch, Judith. Women in the Viking Age. Woodbridge: Boydell. 1991.
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  • Jones, Gwyn. A History of the Vikings. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1968.
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  • Magnusson, Magnus. Vikings! New York: E. P. Dutton. 1980.
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  • Pálsson, Hermann and Paul Edwards, trans. Egil's Saga (Egils saga Skallagrimssonar). Harmondsworth: Penguin. 1976.
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  • Anderson, Alan Orr, ed. and trans. Early Sources of Scottish History AD 500 to 1286. 2 vols. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd. 1922.
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  • Bailey, Richard. Viking Age Sculpture in Northern England. London: Collins. 1980.
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  • Crawford, Barbara E. Scandinavian Scotland. (Scotland in the Early Middle Ages 2) Leicester: Leicester Univ. Press. 1987.
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  • Laing, Lloyd. Studies in Celtic Survival. British Archaeological Reports 37. 1977.
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  • Megaw, B.R.S., "Norseman and Native in the Kingdom of the Isles: a Reassessment of the Manx Evidence." Scottish Studies 20, 1976. pp. 1-44.

  • Nicolaisen, William F.H. "Early Scandinavian Naming in the Western and Northern Isles." Northern Scotland 3/2 1979-80 pp. 105-121.

  • Nicolaisen, William F.H. "Norse Settlement in the Northern and Western Isles." Scottish Historical Review 48 (1969) pp. 6-17.

  • Simpson, Grant G., ed. Scotland and Scandinavia. The MacKie Monographs, 1. Edinburgh: John Donald. 1990.
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  • Smith, Alfred P. Warlords and Holy Men: Scotland AD 80-1000. The New History of Scotland 1. London: Arnold. 1984. Reprint Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. 1989.
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Orkney Islands

  • Lukman, N. "The Raven Banner and the Changing Ravens." Classica et Medievalia 19 (1958).

  • Magnusson, Magnus and Hermann Pálsson, trans. Orkneyinga Saga. Harmondsworth: Penguin. 1978.
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  • Marwick, Hugh. The Place-Names of Birsay. Ed. W.F.H. Nicolaisen. Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press. 1970.

  • Morris, Christopher. "Viking Orkney: A Survey." In: The Prehistory of Orkney. Ed. Colin Renfrew. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. 1985. pp. 210-242.
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  • Sawyer, Peter H. "King Harald Fairhair and the British Isles. In: Les Vikings et leurs civilisation: probláemes actuels, rapports scientifiques. Ed. Régis Boyer. Paris: Mouton. 1976.
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  • Thompson, William P.L. History of Orkney. Ed. Colin Renfrew. Edinburgh: Mercat. 1987.
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  • Wainwright, F.T., ed. The Northern Isles. Edinburgh: Nelson. 1962.

Shetland Islands

  • Buttler, Simon. "Steatite in Norse Shetland." Hikuin 15. 1989. pp. 193-206.

  • Cohen, Bronwen. Norse Imagery in Shetland: An Historical Study of Intellectuals and their Use of the Past in the Construction of Shetland's identity, with Particular Reference to the Period 1800-1914. PhD Dissertation. Manchester University. 1983.

  • Hamilton, J.R.C. Excavations at Jarlshóf. Shetland: Ministry of Public Building and Works, Archaeological Reports No. 1. Edinburgh: Her Majesty's Stationery Office. 1956.

  • Jakobsen, Jakob. An Etymological Dictionary of the Norn Language in Shetland (Celtic Language and Literature: Goidelic and Brythonic). London: Nutt. 1928. Reprint AMS Press, 1978.
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  • Jakobsen, Jakob. The Place-Names of Shetland. London: Nutt. 1936.

  • Smith, Brian. "Shetland in Saga-Time: Re-reading the Orkneyingasaga". Northern Studies 25 (1988), pp. 21-41.

  • Smith, Brian. "Shetland, Scotland, Scandinavia 1300-1700: The Changing Nature of Contract." in Scotland and Scandinavia. ed. Grant G. Simpson. Edinburgh: John Donald. 1990.
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  • Withrington, Donald J. ed. Shetland and the Outside World 1469-1969. Aberdeen University Studies Series 157. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1983.
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Isle of Man

  • List of Publications of the Manx Society. History, Manx grammar and dictionary, and more are included. Most texts are available at least in part on-line here. Accessed 19 December 2005.

  • Bersu, Gerhard and David M. Wilson. Three Viking Graves in the Isle of Man. Society for Medieval Archaeology Monograph Series 1. London: Society for Medieval Archaeology. 1966.

  • Blundell, William. A History of the Isle of Man. Publications of the Manx Society 25. Douglas, Isle of Man: Manx Society. 1876. Accessed 19 December 2005.

  • Craine, David. Manannan's Isle: A Collection of Manx Historical Essays. Douglas, Isle of Man: Manx Museum. 1955.

  • Crellin, A.M. Manx Folklore: Fairy Legends, Customs and Superstitions. Onchan: Chiollagh Books. 1994. ISBN 1898613060.

  • Davey, Peter. Man and Environment in the Isle of Man. 2 vols. British Archaeological Reports, British Series, 54:1-2. Oxford: BAR. 1978.
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  • Dolley, Michael. "The Palimpsest of Viking Settlement on Man." in Proceedings of the Eighth Viking Congress, Arhus 24-31 Aug 1977. ed. Hans Bekker-Nielsen et al. pp. 173-181.

  • Fell, Christine et al. eds. The Viking Age in the Isle of Man: Select Papers from the Ninth Viking Congress, Isle of Man 4-14 July 1981. London: Viking Society for Northern. University College. 1983.

  • Gelling, Margaret. "Norse and Gaelic in Medieval Man: the Place Name Evidence." in The Vikings: Proceedings of the Symposium of the Faculty of Arts of Uppsala University, June 6-9, 1977. eds. Thorsten Andersson and Karl Sandred. Stockholm: Almqvist and Wiskell. 1978. ISBN 9155407064. pp. 107-118.

  • Johnsen, Arne Odd. "The Payments from the Hebrides and the Isle of Man to the Crown of Norway, 1153-1263." Scottish Historical Review 48 (1969) pp. 18-34.

  • Kermode, P.M.C. Manx Crosses: The Inscribed and Sculpted Monuments of the Isle of Man from About the end of the Fifth to the Beginning of the Thirteenth Century. London: Bemrose. 1907.

  • Killip, Margaret I. The Folklore of the Isle of Man. London: Batsford. Hardback 1975. Paperback 1986.
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  • Margeson, Sue. "On the Iconography of the Manx Crosses." In The Viking Age in the Isle of Man: Select Papers from the Ninth Viking Congress, Isle of Man 4-14 July 1981. eds. Christine Fell et al. London: Viking Society for Northern Research. University College. 1983. pp. 95-106.

  • Megaw, Basil and Eleanor. "The Norse Heritage in the Isle of Man." In The Early Cultures of North-West Europe. H.M. Chadwick Memorial Studies. eds. Sir Cyril Fox and Bruce Dickins. Cambridge. 1950. pp. 143-170.

  • Moore, A.W. Folk-Lore of the Isle of Man. Isle of Man: Llanerch Publishers. 1891. Reprint 1994.
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  • Munch, P. A., ed. and Dr. Goss, trans. Chronica Regum Manniae et Insularum. The Chronicle of Man and the Sudreys, from the Manuscript Codex in the British Museum, with Historical Notes. Publications of the Manx Society 22. Douglas, Isle of Man: Manx Society. 1871-1872. Accessed 19 December 2005.

  • Olsen, Magnús. "Runic Inscriptions in Great Britain, Ireland, and the Isle of Man," In Viking Antiquities in Great Britain and Ireland. Part 6. ed. Haakon Shetelig. Oslo: 1954. pp. 151-233.

  • Sacheverell, William. An Account of the Isle of Man. Ed. J. G. Cumming. Publications of the Manx Society 1. Douglas, Isle of Man: Manx Society. 1859. Accessed 19 December 2005.

  • Train, Joseph. History of the Isle of Man. Douglas, Isle of Man: M.A. Quiggin, 1845.

  • Vigfusson, Gudbrand, "Northerners in the Isle of Man." English Historical Review 3 (1888): pp. 498-501.

  • Wilson, David M. "Manx Memorial Stones of the Viking Period." Saga Book of the Viking Society for Northern Research 18 (1970-1971) pp. 1-18.

  • Wilson, David M. The Viking Age in the Isle of Man - the Archaeological Evidence. C.C. Rafn Lecture No. 3. Odense. 1974.
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Faroe Islands

  • Olafur Halldorsson, ed. Færyinga saga. Reykjavik: Stofnun Arna Magnússonar. 1987.

  • Johnston, George. trans. The Faroe Islanders' Saga. Ottawa: Oberon. 1975.
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  • Powell, Frederick York, trans. The Tale of Thrond of Gate, Commonly Called Fareyinga Saga. London: Nutt. 1896.
  • Foote, Peter. "On the Saga of the Faroe Islanders." In Aurvandilsta: Norse Studies. ed. Michael Barnes et al. Viking Collection 2. Odense. Odense University Press. 1984. p. 165-187.
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  • Foote, Peter. "Thrandr and the Apostles." In Aurvandilsta: Norse Studies. ed. Michael Barnes et al. Viking Collection 2. Odense. Odense University Press. 1984. pp. 188-198.
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  • Foote, Peter. "A Note on Thrand's kredda." In Aurvandilsta: Norse Studies. ed. Michael Barnes et al. Viking Collection 2. Odense. Odense University Press. 1984. p. 199-208.
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  • Foote, Peter. "Færeyinga Saga Chapter 40" In Aurvandilsta: Norse Studies. ed. Michael Barnes et al. Viking Collection 2. Odense. Odense University Press. 1984. p. 209-221.
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  • Storm, Gustav. ed. "Historia Norwegia" in Monumenta historica Norvegoae. Kristiana (Oslo): Brogger, 1880.

  • Jacobsen, Jacob, ed. Diplomatarium Faronse. Torshavn and Copenhavn: Jacobsen. 1907.

  • Dicuil. Liber de mensura orbis terrae. J.J. Tierney, ed. Scriptores latini Hibernia, 6. Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. 1967.

  • Dahl, Sverri. "The Norse Settlement of the Faroe Islands". Medieval Scandinavia 14 (1970) pp. 60-73.

  • Young, G.V.C. From the Vikings to the Reformation: A Chronicle of the Faroe Islands up to 1538. Douglas, Isle of Man: Shearwater, 1979.
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  • Arne Thorsteinsson. "On the Development of Faroese Settlements." Proceedings of the 8th Viking Congress Aahus 24-31 August 1977. ed. Hans Bekker-Nielson et. al. Odense: Odense University Press. 1981. pp. 189-202.

  • Johansen, Johannes. Studies in the Vegetational History of the Faroe and Shetland Islands. Torshavn: Færoya Frodskaparfelag. 1985.

  • Kershaw, Nora, trans. Stories and Ballads of the Far Past translated from the Norse. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1921.

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