27 May 2016

My Characters Lived in Viking controlled Scotland

My characters (or rather my current set of characters) live in the Viking controlled Hebrides during the mid-9th century. This is when the expansion of the Vikings really took hold. It is when Norway, in particular, became unified, pushing many warriors out of their homelands. It is when the Vikings went and settled in Britain, and France as well as colonising Iceland. Because they did not use the Latin alphabet and were not as literate as the monks they were terrorising, we tend to a skewed view of the Vikings.

The Hebrides from wikicommons
The Western Isles which includes Islay were part of the Dal Riata confederation and closely allied to Ireland at this point.  To make things really confusing – the word Scot in this time period means someone from the Western Isles and Northern Ireland.  Until Kenneth McAlpine kills most of the Pict hierarchy at supper, and founds Alba, there isn’t really a Scotland. It isn’t until his grandsons become king that the word Scotland is used in the modern context.

While Kenneth McAlpin was causing turmoil on the mainland, the Vikings as they so often did in this period took full advantage and captured territory – namely Shetland, Orkney, and the Western Isles or Hebrides as well as the Isle of Man and parts of the west which are now referred to Galloway. Galloway means the foreign Gaels.  The area around Man and the Hebrides is often referred to as the Kingdom of the Isles. The kingdom of the Isles dates roughly from the mid-ninth century until it is broken up in the 13th century. It is sometimes referred to as the Southern Isles as the Northern Isles of Shetland Orkney were often under different rulers.

We know under the Vikings the Hebrides were ruled from the Isle of Man. The overlord of the King of Mann varied quite a bit. Sometimes it was Norway, others it was England, the Orkneys, Ireland or Scotland.  But go to Islay or Jura today and little besides place-names remain from that time. The Islay museum has only a few relics.

The references are often very shadowy as with much of Viking history. Because most of their structures were wood, little remains. Some archaeology has been done but because sites often had multiple uses over the period sometimes it can be very inconclusive. It is assumed that the buildings were similar in style to those found in Norway and Iceland. They were built around the idea of a great hall with other smaller buildings and workshops supporting the great hall.

The paps of Jura
It was a clash of two cultures in many ways. The Gaels had been Christian since St Columba in the fifth century. They had their own traditions such as the Celtic stone crosses and artwork. The Vikings were raiders and merchants. They were pagans and their traditions were markedly different.  However the Vikings were mainly men and they did tend to intermarry with the Gaels. These foreign Gaels or Gall-Ghaeil  tended to be Christian and follow the traditions of their mothers. But they also followed the profession of their fathers and became great seafarers and warriors.

A Celtic cross
To understand this time, you need to think in terms of sea roads and trade, rather than land travel. It wasn’t horses on roads so much as ships. Summer was the season for warfare. A farm planted his crop in the spring, and left his wife and slaves to tend it while he went to war during the summer. He would then return in time for the harvest and would over-winter on his land. In fact the 12th century warrior Somerlad, who is credited with driving the Vkings out of the Western Isles and founding the Clan Donald is a corruption of a Norse name meaning summer warrior or Viking. He was not some Gaellic hero but the product of the Norse-Gael ruling culture. He simply was able to wrest control of the Isles from the King of Man and became the self-styled Lord of the Isles. In short the Vikings did not leave the Western Isles but became part of the fabric of the society. They settled and adapted to their new homeland.

So my characters lived in a time of flux. When a man could carve a kingdom with the point of his sword and his sons could lose it just as quickly. They would have recognised the mountains and hills of Islay and Jura but little else.

Michelle Styles writes warm, witty and intimate historical romances. SHe is currently revising her next Viking set romance which is set in Islay.  Her most recent Viking Summer of the Viking was published in the US and England in June 2015. It will also be published in Norway and Sweden in June 2016 and France. You can learn more about Michelle and her books on www.michellestyles.co.uk