Lindisfarne Stone
Lindisfarne Stone
Because Vikings did not have a literate society, early knowledge of them is found in historical documents written outside their homelands by non-Scandinavians. In fact, the term 'Viking' was popularized in the 9th century by the English to describe Vikings in unflattering terms. The information contained in these histories has greatly colored our understanding of the Vikings and their activities in the Western Isles. These documents focus almost exclusively on Vikings as raiders and invaders. But modern historians have learned that this is only one side of the story.

There are many historical sources for information about the Vikings in the Western Isles, most of which were written by monks and clerics. King Alfred the Great had issued a royal command that monasteries keep yearly records, called Annals, and many monasteries had a long tradition of creating beautifully illustrated records meant to stand the test of time. One such monastery was on a small spit of land in northeastern England, called Lindisfarne or Holy Island. In June of A.D. 793, this monastery became the center of attention when "heathen men miserably destroyed God's church on Lindisfarne." Modern historians have taken the sacking of Lindisfarne, the first in a wave of attacks, as the start of the Viking Age.
RealAudio Listen to the account of the Sack of Lindisfarne (RealAudio).

Invasion of Danes
"Invasion of Danes"
Documents from the British Isles and France record numerous such raids in the two centuries that followed, always expressing horror over the destruction of defenseless churches and monasteries. Alcuin of York, writing to the king of Northumbria, Britain, told "never..was it thought that such an inroad could be made from the sea," indicating the surprise nature of these hit and run attacks. Other annalists described raids perpetrated by "Danes." Although it is unlikely they were all from Denmark, this helped historians identify that the raiders were seaborne Scandinavian pirates - essentially our modern definition of Vikings today.

The term 'Viking' is actually rather rare in comparison to other terms: Heathens, pagans, Danes, or Northmen. Linguistically, it is related to an Old Norse verb meaning 'to turn sharply' and the noun 'vik' meaning 'bay' or 'harbor'. Current opinion is that the term refers to Scandinavians from the large and prosperous vik known today as the Vestfold area of Oslo Fjord, Norway. This may explain why only English historians used that term, whereas other annalists writing from the continent identify the raiders as Northmen, Danes or heathers, since it was these Vikings who attacked their lands.

Historians have discerned changes over time in the record of Viking activities. Whereas early accounts tell of a single or repeated raids on individual sites, later accounts reveal a more organized Viking effort. One report describes the "micel here" (great army) that marched through England in A.D. 866. According to Colleen Batey, this event, "marked the change from sporadic small-scale attacks to massive army campaigns with the goal of permanent settlement. This army remained in England, battling the kings of Wessex, East Anglia, Mercia, and Northumbria, until finally, in A.D. 885, terms were reached by which Vikings were given an area known as the Danelaw which stretched along the eastern half of England north of London almost to the Scottish border. Vikings not only ruled the Danelaw, they also extracted tribute and according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, "proceed to plough and support themselves".

A similar pattern was documented in Ireland. The Irish Annals report the first Viking raid in A.D.795, when three monasteries were attacked. The attacks continued unabated for the next 40 years, concentrated on the northern Irish coast. Beginning in the 840s, the Annals report that the Vikings were overwintering and building harbors called longphorts, including one located where the modern city of Dublin lies. From their footholds in Ireland, Vikings staged attacks on England and France, but not without increased harassment from the Irish who managed to drive out the Vikings temporarily in A.D.902. Vikings re-established control again after A.D.915, with the result that Viking kings of Dublin became major players in the politics of early medieval Ireland. Similar developments in England and Scotland led to long-term Viking contributions to their economy and political life.


Choose your next voyage stop from the map at the left.