Vikings’ travel routes and landing places in Scotland will be mapped like never before


The harbors and landing stages used by Vikings in Scotland should be researched on a scale never seen before. PIC: Contributed.

The coastal entry points of the Scandinavian settlers, as well as the overland routes where they dragged their boats to shorten journey times and avoid unnecessary dangers, will be examined on a scale never seen before.

Viking experts at the University of the Highlands and Islands and their academic counterparts in Germany will use a mix of Viking place names, geophysical studies and archaeological excavations to map the travel and communication routes used by Scandinavians in Scotland between 790 and 1350 AD.

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The study will focus on sites primarily on the west coast, but a handful in Caithness and Sutherland will also be considered.

Professor Alexandra Sanmark from the Institute for Nordic Studies at the University of the Highlands and Islands will lead the research, which will also involve German academics. PIC: Contributed.

Hundreds of potential locations linked to the Scandinavian settlers are expected to be identified, with some of them subsequently to be thoroughly researched.

Professor Alexandra Sanmark, from the Institute of Northern Studies at the University of the Highlands and Islands, who will lead the research project, said: “My previous work has focused on the Viking settlements in Scotland and the type of society that ‘they were creating here in relation to Scandinavia. .

“There was always a gap – and that was the trip.”

The Vikings first landed in the Shetland and Orkney Islands at the end of the 8th century, followed by further migration as the islands became overcrowded.

Hoy Island, Orkney Islands. Its name is derived from Old Norse for High Island. PIC: Creative Commons./

The arrivals, initially looting and pillaging, have become more peaceful over time, their culture and language starting to leave their mark on their new homeland.

Viking place names are of major interest to the research team and have the ability to unlock a “mind map” of the routes to Scotland and the landing spots then in use, Professor Sanmark said.

The Orkney Island of Hoy – the last land that separates the Orkney Islands from the Atlantic – takes its name from the Old Norse word “háey”, Hoy translating to High Island.

Meanwhile, Lerwick translates to “muddy bay” and Kirkwall translates to “church bay”.

The Vikings are also notorious for taking their boats out of the water and land to shorten travel times and avoid unnecessary danger, this way of travel being of interest to the research team as well. PIC: Creative Commons./James Johnstone.

Professor Sanmark said: “Place names tend to be quite descriptive. There is so much evidence of place names and it is so important too. We can break them down into Old Norse and they can tell us so much

“We know there were travel descriptions as well. An account of how to navigate from Bergen to Greenland describes how to set out west, then north Shetland which could be seen on a clear day and southern l ‘Iceland where there were birds and It’s like a mind map and I think it would have been the same for those heading to Scotland, this idea that the journey is made by tying these key pieces together. “

As researchers reconstruct the Viking movements, the place names that derive from Old Norse for the port (hafn) will be of particular interest. Those carrying the knörr element (a type of ship), such as the Knarston in Orkney, might reflect a mooring place for ships.

“Gaelic place names can of course contain elements in Old Norse, so we’ll be looking at those as well,” Prof Sanmark said.

Of great interest to the research team are the place names in Old Norse. Pictured is Lerwick in Shetlands, which translates to Muddy Bay. Gilles Messian / Flickr.

The relationship between sea and land will also be examined, with Viking use of portages – narrow strips of land between streams – also of major interest.

Language will again be a key guide for such places, with Eday in Orkney Islands translating from Old Norse for the Isle of Portage, for example.

It was in places like Eday that Viking ships, with their low keels, could sail directly onto a beach, and a large crew could drag their ship across land to shorten the time and distance of the voyage.

Professor Sanmark said many portages were likely used by the Vikings in Scotland.

She said: “No one has really looked at them before. The Viking ships were really, really light and they could be pulled across land very easily. The Vikings created shortcuts. We know that when the Vikings were in Russia and were going down rivers, hitting many rapids, they would get out of the boat and walk.

“These boats were so light that they could be pulled for about a mile without much effort.”

Small ships were sometimes put on wooden poles and carried by the crew with larger ships sometimes moved on rollers.

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Research on Viking voyages is expected to start “in earnest” in February, with one of the first sites of interest being Loch na h-Airde on the Rubha an Dunain Peninsula in Skye.

In 2009, archaeologists discovered boat antlers in the early 12th century, a stone quay in the loch, and a system to maintain a constant water level to allow boats, possibly birlinns, to enter the river. sea ​​at high tide.

The site, which has since been scheduled, is believed to have served as an important anchor point for the west coast with other Scandinavian and medieval ship remains potentially lying in the loch.

Professor Sanmark will lead the project, with the team also including Dr Andrew Jennings, Program Manager on MLitt Viking Studies at UHI, who has a particular interest in Viking place names.

Dr Sven Kalmring from the Baltic and Scandinavian Archeology Center in Schleswig and Dr Dennis Wilken from the University of Kiel will join the research team from Germany.

Dr Kalmring has long studied Viking Age ports and has written extensively on Hedeby on the east coast of the Jutland Peninsula, once a hugely important place of commerce in Viking Age Denmark.

It also builds equipment specifically to manage the conditions presented by port sites. Meanwhile, Dr Wilken is an expert in geophysics.

The research is funded by the Humanities Research Council for the Arts and Humanities (AHRC) and the German Research Council (DFG)

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