Western Isles
Saga Video

The activities of the Vikings in the Western Isles are brought to life by the Icelandic saga accounts. Many of these sagas contain vignettes about individuals who went raiding in England and Ireland, and more detailed information can be found in the sagas about the Norwegian kings. There is also a saga on the Vikings in the Western Isles, called Orkneyingja Saga (Saga of the People of Orkney). These sagas reveal how much the Western Isles had become part of the Viking world. Viking descendants in Iceland retained knowledge about places, events, details of landscapes and people showing that the Western Isles were almost as important in their lives as Norway, and certainly better known than Sweden or the East. By revealing the complexity in the lives of individuals who acted variously as raiders, traders, settlers, and farmers, the sagas paint a more realistic view of actual people and events than can be reconstructed from historical or archeological sources.
RealAudio Listen to an excerpt of the Orkneyingja Saga (RealAudio).

Egil Skallagrimsson
Egil Skallagrimsson
Egil's Saga
Viking raids in England are a recurring motif in a number of sagas. Young male saga characters frequently went 'a-viking' in England and Ireland as a 'rite of passage' that turned boys into men who would return to Iceland with money, prestige, slaves, and stories to tell. The most famous example is found in Egil's Saga. Egil was a great Viking warrior, a poet, and a successful farmer and family man. His father had been exiled from Norway, and Egil went to great pains to antagonize the Norwegian king, Erik Bloodaxe, in retribution. After one such foray in Norway, Egil stopped in England and joined forces with King Athelstan, who was battling King Olaf of Scotland. Thanks in large part to Egil's skill on the battlefield, Athelstan emerged victorious. To commemorate the victory Egil composed a poem which reads in part, "Even the highland deers' path belongs to mighty Athelstan now" ("highland deers' path" being a poetic reference to Scotland). Egil's Saga is also well-regarded because it is thought to have been first written down by Snorri Sturluson, the famous medieval Icelandic author.

Saga of the Orkney Islanders
Orkneyinga Saga also describes permanent Viking settlement in the Western Isles. According to the story, Viking raiders set up base camps in the Orkneys, and from there raided the Hebrides and northern Scotland. The action in the saga unfolds over many generations, with more and more Vikings arriving in these northern lands. One of the many Viking earls who battle for control is Magnus, a pious, well-respected Christian. The saga tell that several miracles occurred after his death. Magnus was later recognized as a saint by the Catholic Church and was worshiped in Scotland until the Reformation. Even better known today is another character in this saga, a Viking chieftain named Thorfin who gained control of most of northern Scotland, but who had to defend his title against rival earls and the Norwegian king. Thorfin, whose Christian name was MacBeth, became the subject of Shakespeare's play of that name.

Vikings, Scots, & Irish Seamen

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Although this, like other sagas, cannot be read as a history, the core of the story can hardly be other than true. Its purpose is to tell of long-term Viking efforts to secure political control and prosperity in the Western Isles. In addition to battles and intrigues, we learn of daily life set on the farms and in the homes of the Vikings living there. To the saga audience, the saga justified the new political reality that these lands were now part of the broader Viking world. This heritage was carried forward for centuries. Shetland and Orkney remained part of the Dano-Norwegian kingdom until the fifteenth century and until the 19th century its inhabitants spoke Norn, a language that had more in common with Norwegian than with English.