Sandwick is a fertile parish in West Mainland, Orkney with limited access to the sea and no peat. Several millennia before the arrival of the Vikings, the archeological record shows Orkney to have been settled and farmed in the Neolithic. E.g. Skara Brae, near the Bay of Skaill in Sandwick, was occupied for 700 years from ca. 3180 BC - 2500 BC - considerably longer than European migrants have occupied America. Skara Brae, hitherto a uniquely important European site, must now share the laurels with Links of Noltland on Westray, which has recently been shown to be equally as important and comparable in date and scale with Skara Brae. Neolithic Orkney was buzzing.
There is some evidence of even earlier human activity in Orkney during the Mesolithic [i.e. pre 3,800 BC], but whether that of seasonal migrants or settlers is unclear. [See Wickham-Jones] Neolithic settlers [ca. 3,800 - 1,800 BC] may have included at least two co-existing but culturally distinct populations. One constructed stalled cairns associated with Unstan ware; another, possibly slightly later culture, built chambered cairns and favoured grooved pottery. The stalled tombs have similarities with those found the length of western Europe and as far south as Malta; the chambered tombs share characteristics with Irish cairns. Similarly, burials around Stonehenge also reveal two distinct populations and cultures. Neolithic tombs in Orkney are sited on or overlooking prime agricultural land and it has been argued that they may have demarcated individual or family ‘estates’. There is also general agreement that all these earely settlers were Celts of one sort or another.
Tacitus, in his ‘Agricola’ written ca. A.D. 97-8 observed: Who the first inhabitants of Britain were, whether natives or imigrants, remains obscure; one must remember we are dealing with barbarians. Bearing in mind how much closer chronologically Tacitus was to his subject than we are, the answer to his question is almost as elusive as ever, but one thing is certain; they were all ‘imigrants’ because until c. 15,000 BC Orkney was glaciated.
Picts were not mentioned by name until AD 297 by Eumenius. This was some 200 years after Tacitus' death. Caesar wrote in general terms about central European Celts. Tacitus, writing of Agricola's campaigns singals out the ‘Caledonians’ as Agricola's principle enemy, but names other tribes such as the ‘Boresti’. These last did not feature in the list of tribes occupying ‘Scotland’ compiled from heresay in the 2nd C AD by the Greek geographer Ptolomey. He never visited Scotland, but Ptolomey named over a dozen tribes occupying land north of what would be the line of Hadrian's Wall. The Picts were not among tribes named by Ptolomey. It seems now generally agreed that the people we know as Picts, even though they may not have called themselves that, emerged as the dominant group of Celtic tribes who opposed the Romans, then competed with incoming Irish settlers establishing an enclave in Dalriada, basically Argyll, who became known as the Scots. In almost exactly AD 843 Picts and Scots apparently merged in the face of increasing Viking incursions. Thereafter, as far as the Picts are concerned, the lights went out, although they account for approximately 10% of DNA north of the border.
Although we know more of the Picts than did Tacitus, much about them remains as elusive as their predecessors - so much so that the still influential and highly readable classic work on them by F.T. Wainwright has the evocative tile ‘The Problem of the Picts’ [Edinburgh, 1955] Orkney history starts with the Picts, first named by Eumenius in 297 AD as inhabiting the islands. What little is known about the Picts is contentious. For example, it is not known what, if anything, they called themselves. They left many fine carved stone monuments distributed over much of the Scottish mainland as well as Shetland and the Hebrides but interpretation of the meaning and purpose of these carvings is speculative. Their antecedents are also contested but, from their use of at least two languages, they may have been an amalgam of different races. Ptolomey named 18 Scottish tribes, seven or eight of which he placed north of the Great Glen including the Caledonii. What little is known of the Pictish language has characteristics identifiable as P-Celtic and might have been an amalgum of languages spoken by migrating proto-Picts. Their language may contain elements from an unidentified non-Indo-European language which may have been that of the population before the arrival of migrants. Picts were in the ascendant from about 300 AD until their union or absorbtion, for equally mysterious reasons, with the Dalriada Scots under Kenneth MacAlpin in 843 A.D. Thereafter they vanish. Only their monuments remain.
The exact date the Vikings arrived in Orkney is as uncertain as that of the Picts, but at about the same time the Picts united with the Scots, much of coastal Britain was under pressure from the Vikings, who by about 850 AD had established themselves in Orkney, a strategically important base mid-way between Scandinavia, the Western Isles and Ireland, as well as conveniently close to mainland Britain - all targets worth plundering. It is probable that Norsemen had frequented Orkney long before settling.
The Picts had an identifiable culture and were recognized by other competing cultures, including the Vikings but, as if beneath their notice, there is no mention of Picts in the sagas. Tacit acknowledgement of their existence is in the Norse name PettlandsfjǪrðr, meaning Pictland Fjord, for the stretch of water that has been crossed by almost every visitor to Orkney before or since the Picts, and now called the Pentland Firth. What the Picts might have called it is unknown and, barring a contested handful, no Pictish place-names survive in Orkney. Towards the end of Norse suppremacy in the islands, the Picts were described in unflattering terms in Historia Norwegiae, a document with its own puzzles. “The medieval text Historia Norwegie has been subjected to thorough and frequent scrutiny since its first publication in 1850. Nevertheless it remains to be established when, why, where, for whom and by whom it was written.” [Inger Ekrem 1998] The only extant manuscript copy, the Dalhousie ms., now in the National Archives of Scotland (MS GD 45/31/1), is thought to date from around 1500 and is identified with the scribe of the Haye manuscript, which includes the only surviving copy of the Kingis Quair. However, from internal evidence the text must have been composed much earlier; e.g. the account of islands that paid tribute to Norway suggests 1266 as the latest possible date. “The majority of scholars... favour... dates between 1170 and 1220.” [Phelpstead & Kunin 2001] Inger Ekrem argues for an even earlier composition date, between 1140 and 1154. Historia Norwegiae describes Orkney and the Picts thus; The Orkney Islands. These islands were first inhabited by the Picts and the Papar. [Monks, probably Irish] The Picts, who were only a little bigger than pygmies, worked great marvels in city-building each evening and morning, but at noontide they were utterly bereft of their strength and hid for fear in little subterranean dwellings. At that time moreover the islands were not called the Orkneys but Pictland, and this is why still to this day the sea dividing the islands from Scotland is called the Pictland Firth by the local people. The greatest of all whirlpools is to be found there, which engulfs the strongest ships, sucking them in at ebb tide and spewing out their fragments with a belch at flood tide. [The Swilkie, off Stroma] We do not know at all where these people came from. [Trans. by Devra Kunin]
Like many convincing lies this description of the Picts has elements of truth, but the assertion that they were ‘pygmies’ is downright libelous. The adult male occupant of a Pictish grave at Buckquoy stood 5’ 7” in his ploots - equal in stature to the Norse who, “in general were relatively short.” [Berry & Firth 1986] The Norse buried on Deerness in Orkney averaged 5’ 7¼” In comparison, modern Deerness males average 5’ 8½” and modern Norwegians 5’ 7½” [Ibid.] Some Picts were certainly skilled stone-carvers but some of their building appears to have been in early cowboy style; “the Pictish structures are so poorly built that previous excavators would not have noticed them” according to John Hedges writing of his excavation of Howe Broch. [Renfrew 1990] The brochs themselves were not constructed by Picts, a common error and one possibly also made by the author of Historia Norwegiae; radiocarbon dates from finds at the Bu Broch (Stromness) show it to have been occupied around 600 BC “half a millennium earlier than the conventional date” [Renfrew 1990] and thus a thousand years before Pictish supremacy. Having said that, with possible mixed ancestry from earlier occupants of Orkney and migrants, the Picts might have some legitimate claim that their ancestors had a hand in building brochs. More certain is that they constructed “subterranean dwellings” - souterrains or weems as they are called locally. Whether “at noontide they were utterly bereft of their strength” is impossible now to know, but if true, is a weakness with which, from time to time, I have been afflicted myself, and may be proof of descent from Picts rather than their supplanters, the vainglorious Vikings.
What happened to the resident Pictish population when the Vikings colonized Orkney is unknown, but there is no archaeological evidence of a pogrom or ‘ethnic cleansing’. This does not prevent theorizing about genocide and/or enslavement, but peaceful integration or coexistence must have been a possibility, if for no other reason than the Vikings would have needed breeding stock. I don't imagine Viking long ships had much in the way of female accommodation. According to Bede, the Picts themselves had stocked up with women in Ireland, the quid pro quo being, again according to Bede, that the Picts adopt matrilineal succession. Pictish matrilineality is now largely dismissed. Orkney was not without home-grown pin-ups, certainly at least in the case of Westray. The image at left is of Miss Orkney ca. 3000 BC, a.k.a. ‘The Orkney Venus’, and is the oldest representation of a human in Scotland and also the earliest depiction of a face from anywhere in Britain. Cognoscenti have pronounced that the right breast is squarer and more emphasised than the left, which is considered diamond-shaped, and that there are similarities between this figurine and carving in the chambered cairn on the Holm of Papa Westray - something about the eyebrows apparently. Personally, I find her legs a bit on the short side. ‘The Orkney Venus’ was found at the Links of Noltland, near the appropriately named Grobust Bay on the north of Westray, and was promptly purloined by the National Museum of Scotland rather than displayed in Orkney. The Links of Noltland is comparable to, and of a similar age with, Scara Brae and, while one of Orkney's richest archaeological sites, is also one of the most threatened by erosion.
It is noteworthy that when the Vikings arrived in Orkney they were pagan, whereas the Picts were Christian. Within a hundred years or so Orkney Vikings had converted to Christianity, with a bit of back-sliding on the part of certain individuals and more than a backward glance culturally to Odin and his merry crew. They even produced a couple of home-grown saints, Magnus and Rognvald, albeit of very dubious saintly credentials. Vikings occupied and used Pictish settlements just as the Picts themselves had used earlier settlements, that at Buckquoy being one example, and Clouston, among others, maintained that the Vikings adopted aspects of Pictish land division and management. [Clouston 1932] However, the legal system in Orkney evolved from Norwegian practice, as also happened in Iceland, and property ownership was allodial, the antithesis of feudal. Such property and its rights were udal or odal and their owners were udallers or odallers - but not both; they are the Swiss! There is a tendency among commentators to favour u when writing of allodial rights in Orkney or elsewhere in Scotland, e.g. Jamieson's Dictionary, but Clouston and Balfour prefer o which makes etymological sense, stemming, as the word does, from the Norse oðal. When quoting others I preserve their spelling. I go with the flow and use udal and udaller. The udaller held his land without any written title, subject to no service or payment to a superior, and with full possession and every conceivable right of ownership. The udaller was a peasant noble; he was the king's equal and not his vassal. He owed king or jarl no services, duties or payment for his udal lands, which he held as an absolute possession, inalienable from him and his race. [Gunn n.d.]
Inalienable, that is, until the islands fell under Scottish tyrrany. Too strong? “Who shall say that any terms can be too strong to characterize such an unparalleled series of oppressions, in a district so poor and so unable to struggle against them as these islands?” [Mackenzie 1750] The very Christian Bishop, William Tulloch was rewarded with a favourable Tack of the Earldom and Royal revenues in 1472 shortly after the Impignoration, was not the first cleric to abuse his power. Bishop Adam had set a fine precedent in the 13th century, when by rigorous exaction and arbitrary increase of payments [Balfour 1860], he was finally rewarded with his own personal auto da fe and was burned to death in 1222 by outraged Orcadians. Sadly avoiding the same fate, Bishop William Tulloch pursued a similar policy of extortion to which he added the refinement of illegal erosion of udal rights to which end he unvaryingly favoured Feudal principles over what were to him the barbarous anomalies of Odalism... It was fatal to the interests and independence of Orkney, that, at such a crisis of transition, [i.e. the Impignoration] the power to interpret and fix the existing and future rights of parties should have been intrusted to such an arbiter.” [Balfour 1860] This abuse became the norm, if anything compounded and refined by the notably un-Christian Stewart earls, starting with Lord Robert, bastard in every sense of the word because the illegitimate son of James V. Despotism reached its apogee under his son's tenure, Earl Patrick a.k.a. ‘Black Pate’ whose “whole life and proceedings formed one continual breach of the island laws” [Mackenzie 1750], and Patrick's son, another Robert. Both deservedly ended up “two merry boys in a hempen string, under the gallows tree” tra-la - not “for (their) violent and masterful oppressions, committed upon his Majesty's peaceable and good subjects” [Mackenzie 1750], but for treason against their king. “The ministers who tried to prepare (Patrick) for death, finding him so ignorant that he could not say the lord's prayer, asked the council to delay his execution for a few days, till he could be better informed.” [Gunn n.d.] Then they hanged him.
© 2018 Duncan Linklater Custos Rotulorum.