The Vikings settled extensively across Scotland, including the western and northern parts of the mainland and many of the islands around the country. Unlike Ireland, whose Viking presence suffered as a result of widespread English invasion, Scotland didn’t experience a similar conquest. This allowed for a more a more ethnically and linguistically diverse Viking presence, which is reflected in what has been left behind.
From the remarkable collection of ancient buildings at Jarlshof to the ornate and mysterious Scar Boat Burial, there are a number of sites which are essential viewing. Here’s our pick of 5 of the best.
What are the best Viking Sites in Scotland?
Located in Shetland, Scotland, Jarlshof is the best-known prehistoric archaeological sites in the UK. Containing remains dating from 2500 BC up to the 17th century AD, Jarlshof has been described as ‘one of the most remarkable archaeological sites ever excavated in the British Isles.’
The site was discovered after severe storms in the late 19th century washed away part of the shore, revealing existence of the ancient buildings. Visitors can visit the Iron Age broch and wheelhouses, oval-shaped Bronze Age houses, and the visitor centre which contains a rich collection of artefacts which span different eras. It’s also stunningly scenic, being located on a headland overlooking the West Voe of Sumburgh.
The Scar Boat Burial is a Viking boat burial near the village of Scar, on Sanday, in Orkney, Scotland. Dating to between 875 and 950 AD, the burial contained the remains of a man, an elderly woman, and a child, along with many grave items which formed a part of the site’s many important finds.
When it was discovered, all that remained were marks left in the sand by over 300 rusted iron rivets which marked out the shape of the boat, which would have been 6.5m long, wooden, plank-built, and oared rowing boat known as a faering. The boat had been buried in a stone-lined pit which formed a burial chamber. Alongside the human remains were a treasure trove of grave goods which are unparalleled in Britain in terms of their state of preservation, including a decorated whalebone (now known as the Scar Plaque).
Located at the south end of Shetland’s Mainland, Old Scatness is an Iron Broch and Village, although aspects of the site demonstrate that it was occupied for two millennia. It contains medieval, Viking, Pictish, and Iron Age remains. Excavations revealed an Iron Age broch, surviving to nearly 4m in height, and a substantial post-broch village built around it.
A Pictish carving of a bear was discovered on the floor of one of the wheelhouses. Other finds include a Pictish boar, an arch and V rod, and a number of painted pebbles. The later Iron Age buildings have unearthed Viking-period artefacts which suggests that the Norse reused of the buildings.
No guide about Scotland’s Viking and Nordic past would be complete without talking about the famous Lewis Chessmen. Discovered in 1831, a great hoard of chessmen which date from some time between 1150 and 1200 were found in a stone cist on a beach on The Isle of Lewis. The Isle of Lewis was the most densely populated Viking colony in the west of Scotland, with the number of Scandinavian village names being evidence of many Viking settlements – 99 out of 126 still exist today.
In 1831, 93 chessmen were found on the beach at Uig. They had been skillfully carved out of walrus and whales’ teeth, and were likely made in Norway some time between 1150 and 1200. They can be dated by the artistic style of the designs on the chair backs of the kings, queens, and some of the bishops.
Originally built in Sweden, intended for the United States, and now residing in the Shetland Islands, The Skidbladner is a full size replica of the Gokstad ship which was found in a Viking burial mound in Norway in 1880.
The Gokstad ship was built around the year 890 AD during the busy and seafaring Viking Age. It is thought to have been built during the reign of Harald Fairhar, who is said to have landed in Unst, and after whom the bay of Haroldswick is named. The ship would have originally been used for a variety of purposes including trade, warfare, and general travel.