Scotland’s Viking heritage is hiding in plain sight

A large body of water

The Royal Society of Edinburgh, Scotland’s National Academy, is holding a free event this September to give people the chance to dig in to Scotland’s Norse past as part of its flagship event series Curious.

Curious – running from 4-17 September this year – is a completely free and open series of tours, talks and workshops that brings together some of Scotland’s finest minds in various academic fields with the aim of getting under the surface of some of the most important issues of the day.

This free and open online talk, presented by Professor Donna Heddle, Director of the Institute for Northern Studies at the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI), will give people the chance to understand how Scotland’s past has been enriched by the Norse influence – and it hides in plain sight to this day.

Professor Heddle said: “Viking Studies is perhaps our most popular Masters – because Vikings are sexy, right? It has always been very interesting to me that people don’t seem to know a lot about Norse heritage in Scotland.

“Although the Norse occupation of Scotland lasted longer than the Roman era, there isn’t a name for it. In England there is the Danelaw – and everybody knows what we’re talking about. We’re talking about Sheffield, we’re talking York, we know what we’re about.”

In Scotland, there is much less that is obviously Norse related, Professor Heddle explained. The evidence is there in Scottish place names and in the language and even in our architecture. Place names like Uig, Wick or Dingwall, or second names like MacLeod or MacSween, have origins in Norse, but these origins are very deeply buried, Professor Heddle said.

She added: “The great heroes of Scottish history are the southwest boys like Bruce and Wallace and people like that – we are not talking Norse. Very little was written down contemporaneously by themselves, their stories were written by other people.”

Tales of Norse history were typically written long after, leading to the perception that Vikings were dirty marauding savages and little more. The weel-kent quote about invading Norsemen goes:“From the fury of the Norsemen, Good Lord deliver us.”

To Professor Heddle this quotation is a half-truth. Brutal as the conquests may have been, there is also a richness that the Norse brought that can still be seen and felt today.

Professor Heddle added: “For example, the Norse parliament, the Thing, which gives its name to Dingwall, was a conflict resolution meeting. They were very organised – the word “law” comes from the Norse. They were scary, let’s not mistake this, it was a brutal foreign policy but once they have conquered somewhere they governed with absolute legality.

“What I want people to get from this is an understanding of how entrenched the Norse heritage is in Scotland, and why we don’t realise it.”

The event Digging up our Norse past will be held online at 6pm on Monday, 11 September. Visit www.rse-curious.com to book your free ticket.

A person posing for the camera
Professor Donna Heddle will give a talk on Scotland’s Norse heritage

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