Twelve hundred years ago, Portmahomack was one of Scotland’s most prosperous and important communities. Very few people have heard of it today, but it was one of the earliest points of Christian settlement in Scotland. It’s in a protected bay east of Ross, right on the edge of the Highlands.
This article is an edited transcript of Vikings Uncovered Part 1 on Dan Snow’s History Hit, first broadcast 29 April 2016.
It was beautifully placed as a waypoint for merchants, and travelers, and pilgrims, everyone traveling down the east coast. A recent excavation revealed the presence of a wealthy monastery, where scriptures were copied onto carefully prepared animal skins, skilled craftsmen created beautiful jewel-encrusted religious plates and ornaments and sculptors carved intricate Celtic crosses. Trade was the source of these riches.
We know from what archaeologists have revealed that Portmahomack was suddenly and utterly destroyed. The sea brought trade and with it, wealth. But in around 800 AD, the sea also brought violent destruction.
We know from what archaeologists have revealed that Portmahomack was suddenly and utterly destroyed. We can see smashed pieces and fragments of the sculptures mingled in amongst the ashes of buildings that seem to have been completely burned down. The settlement was effectively wiped out.
Of course, we can’t be certain, but it seems that the likeliest explanation was that this settlement, this monastery was attacked and looted. Some pieces of human remains were found. A skull was found. That skull had been shattered and there was still a mighty cut on it. A sword blade had left a deep gouge. It was almost certainly a violent death. Either at or near the point of death, this body was terribly hacked by swords.
Who were these people who came and destroyed this monastery? Who were these people that disrespected the Christian God and ignored this holy site? It seems fairly likely that these people were from across the North Sea. These people sought gold and sought riches. These people were Vikings.
The Portmahomack attack is the only Viking raid on Britain that we have actual archaeological evidence for. Famously of course, there’s Lindisfarne, which is a monastery further down the east coast of Britain, off the coast of Northumberland. That raid, which happened at around the same time, roughly 790, echoes terrifyingly through the reports of the Christian chroniclers.
This was the beginning of an era of attacks by a people we now describe as the Vikings. These were Norse people from Sweden, Denmark, and Norway, approximately. They were using hugely sophisticated navigational skills, ship-building technology, and they pushed out from their homelands.
The Vikings expanded far beyond Scandinavia
We talk a lot about the Vikings in the British Isles, but they also conquered what became Normandy, in France, which is literally, Land of the Northmen. They conquered parts of Italy and parts of the the Levant on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean.
Fascinatingly, Russia may even have been named after the Vikings. One of the earliest written sources, a Frankish chronicle, calls people the Rus’ dating back to the 9th century AD.
It seems that Russia, the name Russia, and indeed, the Russian people originated as Viking rowers, who travelled down the great rivers of what is now Russia then settled and colonised it.
The Frankish authorities identified these Rus’ as a sort of Germanic tribe called the Swedes. And now, the modern name of Russia, which came into use in around about the 17th century is derived from the Greek Rōssía which is derived from root Rhôs, which is the Greek for Rus.
So it seems that Russia, the name Russia, and indeed, the Russian people originated as Viking rowers, who travelled down the great rivers of what is now Russia then settled and colonised it. The Vikings then raided as far as the Caspian Sea, from the Atlantic right the way into Central Asia.
They founded Dublin, made deep inroads into England and Scotland, settled in Iceland and crossed to Greenland where the remains of Norse settlements can still be seen.
Did the Vikings settle North America?
The big question mark concerns North America. We know there was one site, L’Anse aux Meadows, on the very northern tip of Newfoundland, which was discovered in 1960.
We know they were there but was it a fleeting visit or was it a colony? Was it a regular place they went to look for natural raw materials or wildlife or perhaps other things? Centuries before Christopher Columbus set foot there, were the Vikings regular visitors to North America?
The descendants of the Vikings left sagas, beautiful works of literature in which fact and fiction are often poetically intermixed. They state that Leif Erikson led an expedition to the east coast of North America and they describe good harbours and all sorts of interesting details.
How much accuracy is there in those sagas? After identifying that first North American site in 1960, not a huge amount of work has been done on Viking sites in North America, because it has been impossible to find them. The Vikings didn’t tend to leave much behind. They didn’t build massive triumphal arches, bathhouses, temples.