The Vikings in Scotland and Ireland

The text of Professor Donnchadh Ó Corráin’s 1997 O’Donnell Lecture The Vikings in Scotland and Ireland in the ninth century is available as an online article at the Irish e-journal Chronicon.

Professor Ó Corráin gives an excellent overview of the initial impact of the Vikings. He proposes that the mysterious Lochlainn – a region named in Irish sources – was a large chunk of northern Scotland brought under Scandinavian control before 850. A few topics previously mentioned here at Senchus turn up along the way. The great battle of 839, in which the Picts and Scots were crushed by a Viking army, gets a mention, as does the Pictish marriage of Rhun of Alt Clut. As regular visitors to this blog will know, I don’t share the view (expressed in the article) that the Clyde Britons lost their independence after 870, but that’s only a minor quibble.

Here’s the abstract:
‘This study attempts to provide a new framework for ninth-century Irish and Scottish history. Viking Scotland, known as Lothlend, Laithlinn, Lochlainn and comprising the Northern and Western Isles and parts of the mainland, especially Caithness, Sutherland and Inverness, was settled by Norwegian Vikings in the early ninth century. By the mid-century it was ruled by an effective royal dynasty that was not connected to Norwegian Vestfold. In the second half of the century it made Dublin its headquarters, engaged in warfare with Irish kings, controlled most Viking activity in Ireland, and imposed its overlordship and its tribute on Pictland and Strathclyde. When expelled from Dublin in 902 it returned to Scotland and from there it conquered York and re-founded the kingdom of Dublin in 917.’

And here’s a link to the full-text at Chronicon.


18 comments on “The Vikings in Scotland and Ireland

  1. David Hillman says:

    So the early Norse kings of Dublin, including Ivar, were not connected to the grat Army of Danes from Frisia who invaded England led by Ivar and his brothers, the so called sons of Ragnar Lodbrok. This looks right, but a recent good history of Alba sees them all as one family called something like the Scaldings.

    • Tim says:

      Good point, David. The recent book you mention is, I assume, Alex Woolf’s From Pictland to Alba, in which it is said of the Great Army that ‘it is now generally agreed that they arrived in Britain directly from Ireland where Ivarr, the senior partner by 865, had been active for at least a decade’ (page 71). I might be being over-cautious but I think the jury is still out on the relationship between the Great Army and the Dublin Norse. This makes me wary of joining up the dots and connecting one bunch of Scandinavian raiders with another. The various sources for this period are vague enough to allow a number of different interpretations, such as Ó Corráin’s theory about Lochlainn.

      ‘Scaldings’ is correct. It seems to be another name for the Great Army. Alex Woolf links the name to the River Scheldt in Frisia and suggests that the army originated on Walcheren island, at the river’s mouth, which the Franks had previously given to the Danes.

  2. Richard Bayley says:

    Isn’t tagging C.9th Century Vikings with a particular Scandandavian ethnicity a little anachronistic? There’s a very interesting paper from Clare Downham challenging some of this:-

    • Tim says:

      I wasn’t aware this article was freely available online until you posted the link, Richard. It is indeed very interesting. The first thing I ever saw by Clare Downham was her 2004 article on Erik Bloodaxe which showed she has her finger on the pulse when it comes to making sense of all this York/Dublin stuff. You’re right, of course, about the ethnic labelling, which does now seem to be on the wane.

      To anyone who looks in on this thread I heartily recommend a click on the article-link above.

      On a related note, people may be interested in Downham’s book Viking Kings of Britain and Ireland: The Dynasty of Ívarr to A.D. 1014 (based on her PhD thesis and published in 2007).

      • Dave Kelday says:

        Claire Downham’s Viking Kings of Britain and Ireland is certainly essential reading on this subject and I can heartly recommend it. I’m intrigued by her theory on Eric of York / Eirik bloodaxe, although I think it leaves the question of why the sagas were so adamant on the connection between bloodaxe and Eric of York unanswered. Iappreciate the sagas are sources of variable historical value, some better than others and all often of more use in their asides than in the main story (I think, for example, that the Orkneyinga saga can be more illuminating in the information within that is co-incidental to the main thrust than it is in the main story-line).

  3. esmeraldamac says:

    Thanks for that link. I’ve often tried to get something on the ex-Dublin Vikings who ended up on the Cumbrian coast. Looks like this will be helpful 🙂

    • Tim says:

      Another article by Clare Downham that might be of particular interest to you, Diane, is her study of St Bega (patron saint of St Bees).

      ‘St Bega – Myth, Maiden, or Bracelet? An Insular Cult and its Origins’ Journal of Medieval History vol 33 (2007) pp 33-42

      I haven’t seen it yet, but the Cumbrian connection puts it on my reading list.

  4. David Hillman says:

    Thank you Richard, that paper is very interesting and I think convincing.
    I remember that Stenton in his Anglo-Saxon England makes much of the 942 annal of the ASC, praising the political acuity of the poet.This suited Stenton’s agenda of seeing Anglo-Saxon history as progress towards the achievement of national unity (place scare quote marks where appropriate).
    Questioning the identity of the Dublin Vikings with the Great Army I did not intend to contrast Norse with Dane ethnically. I think its a mistake to equate Ivar son of Gudrod of Dublin, with Ivar Boneless, with a different set of brothers the leader of the invaders of England.(or to identify Irish Ragnall with mythical Ragnar

    • Dave Kelday says:

      I think it is very difficult to place much, if any, weight on the relationships between various of the heroic Norse-age figures. They seem to have attracted numerous, often conflicting, genealogies, elements of which doubtless hold some truth, others pure fiction. Indeed some figures were themselves partly, largely or wholly fictional, such as Ragnar lothbrok who seems to have been something of a composite of various historical figures.

      The entire question of the descent of both Ivarrs (if there were two) and of Olaf of Dublin seems to me to be one about which no sound conclusions can be drawn, although allowing several very good theories to be advanced. I certainly have my theoriesbutI wouldn’t want to bet on them.
      All good fun !

  5. David Hillman says:

    Even if Stenton’s interpretation of the ASC poem is right, this would be spin for the Wessex dynasty. The nobility and church leaders of Northumbria don’t seem to mind what ethnicity their leaders have, as long as they keep Wessex at a distance.
    The York rulers from Dublin would have their own spin: that they were restoring the kingship of the kin of Ragnar lodbrok(the scaldings – Scyldings?).

    • Tim says:

      David, in the middle sentence above you seem to nail the attitude of the Northumbrian elite rather neatly, especially when we look at the antics of Archbishop Wulfstan and his cronies.

  6. David Hillman says:

    Final comment –
    I think there was a lot of genealogical mythmaking going on, and not just by the rulers of York. The latest elaborations of the pedigree of the West Saxon kings show them as Scyldings too (as well as Cerdicings and elasings).

    • Tim says:

      I don’t think many people would disagree with you on this point. Genealogical mythmaking seems to have been a major pursuit. I’m not keyed-up on the West Saxon pedigrees but I’ve delved into their North British equivalents over the years. I’m constantly amazed by the amount of trust placed in them. Some are more useful than others, but too many (of the NBrit/Welsh ones) are regarded as genuine records of inter-dynastic relationships and political history.

  7. Here, that’s a bit cheeky of Prof. Ó Corráin: he put the exact same paper, as far as I can see, in Peritia Vol. 12 (1999), of the same year, and I’m pretty sure he was still editor of Peritia at the time! The Downham article, however, I had not seen, and looks very interesting; she is the coming name, all right. I have altered my reading lists accordingly! Thankyou, Tim and Richard.

    • Tim says:

      Peritia is one of those journals I would like to possess as a complete back-run of bound volumes, for leisurely browsing on winter evenings. Preferably sharing a bookcase with a full set of the Innes Review.

  8. Dave Kelday says:

    Regarding the two Ivarrs – Here’s a theory – and it’s only that, that I came to whilst reaerching the Norse in the Highlands.

    There are many references to men bearing the name Ivarr in Britain in the ninth and early tenth centuries. One was grandson to ‘our man’ and died in 904. It is the remaining Ivarr/s around whom the confusion revolves. There is a saga reference to Ivarr, son of Rognvald of More, who had campaigned in the west, Orkney, with his father and who died there. There is no other reference to this Ivarr among the sons of Rognvald and it has been suggested that the fame of Ivarr of Ireland led to later writers to link these two famous families. Without such further evidence it is best, for the time being at least, to let this connection lie.

    Another Ivarr, generally named ‘Ivarr-Imhar’, is Ivarr of Ireland, partner-in-arms of King Olaf of Dublin from c.857 to 871. The other figure (if indeed there is another) is Ivarr the boneless widely named as the son of legendary, indeed mythical, Ragnarr hairy-breeks.

    Were these two Ivarrs were one and the same person ? What light can be shed on this? Perhaps the best approach is to study the records concerning the ‘two’ men and proceed from that point.

    We find the first reference to an Ivarr some time after 849 in the Fragmentary Annals

    “Also in this year…Amlaib Conung, son of the king of Norway, came to Ireland, and he brought with him a proclamation of many tributes and taxes from his father, and he departed suddenly. Then his younger brother Imar came after him to levy the same tribute.”
    (Fragmentary Annals 239).

    I would suggest that this naming of Ivarr as Olaf’s brother is an error made as the result of Ivarr’s later alliance with Olaf and that this entire entry is simply a misplaced record of the events of 853 and the subsequent years.

    It has been suggested that Ivarr was the leader of those ‘Danes’ or ‘Dubh-gall’, who overran the existing Irish-Norse in 849 and that this Ivarr was driven from Ireland in 853 by Olaf and his ‘Norwegians’ but this was almost certainly not the case. This Ivarr has been given a ‘Danish’ identity through his apparent descent from Ragnarr, a descent founded on myths. Olaf in turn has been given a Norwegian identity based on both the questionable identification of him as Olaf Gudrodsson of Norway, and on the equally debatable idea that Lochlann, the given home of Olaf of Dublin, was in fact Norway. We simply cannot accept such shaky theories when searching for Ivarr’s first appearance.

    The first genuine appearance of an Ivarr in the records is in 857 when Imhar, a partner-in-arms to Olaf, contended in battle with ‘Caitil’ and his Gall-gaidhealls in Munster. The same Ivarr appears a year later fighting alongside the Irish King Cearbhall of Ossory, then again in 859 with Cearbhall and Olaf in Meath and yet again in 863 fighting alongside Olaf and another Norse lord named Audgisl, still in Ireland. These records illuminate the early career of Ivarr of Ireland.

    Then, in 865, a huge army whom the records named as ‘Danes’, crossed the sea to England and over-wintered there. This army crossed the Humber in 866 and conquered York in 867. The army was said to be led by three brothers, Ivarr the boneless, Ubbi and Halfdan, the sons of ‘Ragnarr’. In 869 and 870 Ivarr turned his attention to East Anglia. In that same year 870 the ‘Irish’ Imhar appears again in the records, having been absent from Olaf’s Alban expedition of 866 and indeed from the Irish records in general at that time. In 870 Imhar joined Olaf in the siege of Dumbarton, which reached its conclusion in 871 when the two returned to Dublin.

    A final note on Imhar appears in 873 in the Annals of Ulster noting his death as ‘Rex Nordmannorum totius Hiberniae et Britanniae’, (King of all the Northmen of Ireland and Britain). The title shows Ivarr-Imhar to have taken on the mantle dropped by Olaf in 871.

    Does the naming of Ivarr-Imhar as ‘king of the Northmen of Britain’ refer to his over-rule of the Hebrides and Alban Norse only or does it include rule over the ‘Danes’ of York? This is at the heart of the confusion and debate over the ‘two’ Ivarrs, in other words was Ivarr-Imhar Rex Nordmannorum totius Hiberniae et Britanniae also Ivarr the boneless, leader of the great army? Gwyn Jones again thought this unlikely. Barbara E. Crawford, on the other hand, allows that it is at least possible, while Alfred P. Smyth was certain that the two were indeed one. It is not inconceivable that there were two great leaders named Ivarr active in Britain and Ireland at the same time, but the temptation to link the two is strong. So what are the arguments for and against this link?

    One of the arguments advanced against the two Ivarrs being one and the same is that Ivarr-Imhar of Ireland was, as a ‘brother’ of the Norwegian Olaf, and so himself Norwegian whilst Ivarr the boneless was a leader of Danes. It has also been suggested, if not directly stated, that a Norwegian Ivarr could not have led a Danish army in England as the Norwegians and Danes were mortal enemies, a fact apparently witnessed by the contention over Ireland noted in the Irish annals. However the problem of nationality is easily resolved for the entire concept of Danish and especially Norwegian nationality at that time is erroneous. To put it simply in the mid ninth-century there was no ‘Norway’, only a number of kingdoms within what later became Norway; and barely a ‘Denmark’ and therefore no reason at all why a lord from one of the many Norwegian kingdoms would not ally with a man, or men, from the land of the ‘Danes’. Indeed the apparent nationality of the ‘Danish’ army in England is largely based on the ‘tag’ attached to it by the Anglo-Saxon chroniclers who frequently labelled any Scandinavians as ‘Danes’, regardless if what part of Scandinavia they hailed from. Ivarr of England may not have been a Dane and indeed Olaf of Dublin may not have been from Norway, therefore there is no evidence against them having been brothers. Furthermore I would propose that this ‘brotherly’ connection be explained away as a term akin to ‘comrade’ ‘partner-in-arms’. Surely if a figure as familiar to the Icelandic saga-writers as Olaf of Dublin had a brother as significant as Ivarr of Ireland or of the great army, they would state as much. It is not possible to find blood-ties in any sources other than that Irish reference to tie either of the Ivarrs (if there were two) with Olaf, be he named ‘of Dublin’, ‘the white’ or ‘Gudrodsson’. So, whilst it cannot be stated that the two were not brothers for certain, the connection is a weak one on which to base one’s arguments.

    So, when all is considered carefully, there is no specific, certain, reason why Ivarr of Ireland should not be Ivarr the boneless and a study of the recorded events of the ‘Ivarrs’ shows that indeed one person could have been behind all the entries for with the exception of 870 there is no one-year in which either Ivarr appears in two places at once. It is not impossible that one man could have travelled from England to Strathclyde within the year. Ivarr of Ireland is absent from the Irish records from 863 to 870, coinciding with the period of activity of Ivarr the boneless who in turn disappears from the records in 870 just when Ivarr of Ireland re-appears! Coincidence?

    • Tim says:

      Looking at the relevant parts of Alex Woolf’s From Pictland to Alba, he seems to think it’s more than coincidence.Woolf sees Ivarr as leader of the Great Army from c.856, then campaigning all over Britain and Ireland, before dying as paramount king of all the heathens in 873.

      As you say in another comment, Dave, although no firm conclusions can be made about the Ivarr references it’s fun to bounce a few ideas around.

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