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Arran of the Bens, The Glens and the Brave
Chapter XIII. Arran in the Viking Age

It is unfortunate that, owing to their stormy history and the loss of their records, but perhaps far more to the neglect and suppression of the native language in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the history of the Western Highlands and Islands, which has been of so stirring a character, has not and perhaps cannot be fully written.

Assuredly no greater misfortunes could have happened to the Gaelic people of the West Highlands, advanced as they were in the arts, skilled in the manufacture of beautiful cloths, in the carving of fine monuments; in the illuminating of the most beautiful missals and manuscripts the world can boast; steeped as they were to the lips in the progressive spirit of the new Christian religion, than to have been submerged by hordes of destructive ruffians; and later to have been associated with a race of kings partly alien in blood and wholly alien in spirit. It was a calamity that, under the monstrous idea that it was a superior civilisation, those rulers should have forced upon them the feudal system, than which the mind of man never invented a more wicked and ingenious device for keeping his fellow-man in subjection.

It is true that Scotland, only in parts and to a limited extent, fell in any real sense under the black hand of feudalism. In law, however, it did so, and the assumption that every breach of it was wrongful plunged Scotland, especially in the non-feudalised parts, into endless trouble and disaster. It was largely because of it that the Highlands and the Border districts, differing little from them, like the district of Galloway, were inevitably rebels against a system that was not theirs, which was infinitely inferior to their own system, and which was at no time understood by them. Their rebellion has lasted for all these centuries and exists to-day, as a glance at the recent history of the land question in the Highlands will show.

Without remembering these facts it is quite impossible to understand the history of Arran, or of any other island of the Hebrides, or of the mainland Highland districts. It was the Norsemen of France, who came in Malcolm's and King David's train, who first brought us feudalism, and did something to convert the freeman of the South of Scotland into a serf. The feudal lords were often mere adventurers from the Continent, like the Baliols and the Bruces and the Hastings who claimed the crown of Alexander, or Englishmen whose real interest was in the south, and they showed clearly in the War of Independence that they would have preferred the splendid chains of Edward to independence under a Scottish monarch. As the contemporary Englishman who wrote the Chronicle of Lanercosi puts it:

"... the greater part were for England, probably to save their lands there, for their hearts were with their property."


The Norse incursions commenced, so far as we know, on the west coast of Scotland about the middle of the ninth century or possibly earlier, but the true Viking era was caused by the revolt of the independent chieftains of Norway against the attempt of Harald Harfaager (the fairhaired) to conquer Norway and make himself a great kingdom. This he succeeded in accomplishing about the year 888. The best of the chiefs made for Iceland, which they colonised and cultivated, probably absorbing the small bands of Gaelic monks and settlers they found there. The rest took to the galleys and commenced their attacks upon the coasts of their own country of Norway, and probably of Sweden and Denmark, and made their appearance in the islands of Orkney and Shetland, which they conquered and colonised.

It was then they made their first attempt upon the Dalriadic settlers in Argyll, and the South Isles, who had done so much to graft the higher civilisation of Ireland on to the life of their kindred in the West Highlands during the sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth centuries. The headquarters of their kingdom was Dalaruan, which we now know as Campbeltown in Kintyre, and not far away, in Iona, their countryman, St. Colum or Columba, had carried on his great work of Christianising the west. Many devoted men followed in his footsteps.

With the coming of Harald the Fair-haired to punish his rebellious subjects for their harrying of his coasts, we get upon somewhat firmer ground, though we must allow a little always for the bombastical style of the Saga writers. Harald swept down upon the Southern Hebrides about the year 888, and, after catching the rebels and utterly defeating them in the great battle of Hafursfiord, he laid his heavy hand upon the islands in which they had taken refuge from his rule, and completely subdued them, from Shetland and the Orkneys to the South Isles, where he had many battles. His countrymen who had settled in the isles made their escape to Iceland, and there went with them a considernable number of the islanders, whose Gaelic names, like Nial and Cormac are notable in the Icelandic Sagas.

From the time of Harald until 1256 the Norse sovereignty over the Orkneys and Shetlands was unbroken, but their tenure of the South Isles was less secure. There, as Professor MacKinnon says, the native chiefs disputed supremacy with the Norse magnates. It is notable that the only Norse literature worthy of the name was produced by the mixed breed of Icelanders and Kelts.


In all these doings it is probable that Arran played a prominent part. It was directly opposite the capital of the Dalriadic kingdom, and the great and fertile vales of Shisken and Machrie lent themselves to the cultivation of the arts of peace which were common amongst the Dalriadic people. There is no doubt that at one time the great plain was a populous and busy place, where hammers rang out on the evening stillness, and spinners and spinsters wrought fine cloths, and masons carved fair crosses and stones with the rich and lovely interlaced patterns which belonged to our forefathers, and are part of the neglected inheritance they left us. In this great plain we still find in unequalled abundance the monuments and the burial-places of Pict and Scot and Norseman, and of the men of the remoter Stone and Bronze Ages, from whom we are also unquestionably descended. There was no place in Scotland which, until half a century ago, was so rich in these monuments as Machrie Moor.

Undoubtedly, then, Arran was the battleground during the Norse period, when its exposed position, and the considerable civilisation it had attained owing to this close contact with the Dalriadic kingdom for some five hundred years, made it a rich prey for the hungry subjects of Harald. It is, however, a mistake to assume, as has been done, that because the Norsemen came here they settled and so left their blood behind them. It was specially agreed at the time of the cession of the island by Magnus in 1265 that such subjects of Norway as wished to leave the Hebrides should have liberty to do so, with all their effects. And at other periods the Norsemen probably left, owing to the pressure of the Gaels of Somerled. It has been stated that the Norse type of face and skull is common in the island. To me it seems to be distinctly rare. The familiar Scottish tall red type is seen, but far commoner is the dark, long-headed, blue-grey and brown-eyed type, and the children are notably darker haired than in Kintyre. In my observation, the Arran man is much darker than the Norseman or the mainland Scotsman, and distinctly longer-headed than the mesaticephalic Norse. He is probably rather a blend between the aboriginal, dark, long-headed type of the early prehistoric races whose unearthed skulls his own head so greatly resembles, and the red and fair Scottish types who came and conquered at a later date, and who spoke the Keltic tongue. It is a mistake to suppose, as those who are urging so vigorously the claims of the Norse are in danger of doing, that all the fair races of the world hailed originally from Norway!

The Norwegian of to-day is one of the most trusty and respectable men in Europe, and his influence is excellent, but his ancestors were the very opposite. Their influence was amongst the worst, the least fruitful of good that Europe has known, and the Norseman has himself, until the past twenty years, been glad to forget them and give his sons and daughters names of German origin instead of the old names of the Sagas.

The attacks of the Scandinavian races, we are told, from the time of the half-mythical Ragnar Lodbrog in 856, occurred with "fearful frequency." They were not, of course, confined to the West of Scotland ; England, Ireland, Italy, Germany, and Russia were all sufferers. The Swedes directed their attacks mostly to Russia, the Danes to England, and the "Norroway men," with their smaller numbers and consequent inability to march inland and conquer a hostile country, aimed at Scotland. Where innumerable water-ways and lochs made it easy for them to keep close under the protection of their ships, and enabled them to move with the utmost speed attainable in those days, speed which was utterly impossible for land troops in a mountainous region like Scotland.

The Rev. George Henderson, of Glasgow, and others have endeavoured to show that the Norsemen were able to make considerable settlements; but, keeping in mind the smallness of the population of their country, the heavy death-roll amongst a people whose hands were against all the world, and the fact that their very occupation necessitated their absence on the sea, it is difficult to believe that they settled in a real sense or in any numbers. They probably owed their strength and the terror of their name, as I have already suggested, to their power of concentration, which enabled them to deal with any great coalition in overwhelming force, rather than to their actual settlements. So that the dread of their power brought security to those few whom they could spare to garrison their forts or towers along the bays and harbours in which they sheltered from the storms, or collected their spoils. There seems to be little doubt that they acted as overlords in this manner, and, inducing the natives to join them, they often became allies and allowed the native chiefs to remain in power, as is shown by records, for example, in the case of Galloway.

The Gaels, who joined forces in this way with them, are believed to be referred to in the famous name of Gallgall, or Stranger Gael, given to the people of the Southern Isles by the Irish annalists in the ninth century, or earlier possibly. But this is by no means certain, for any Gael separated from Ireland would be a stranger Gael. A tribe speaking their Gaelic with a slightly different accent or dialect would be marked men, just as an Aberdonian in the Clyde district, or a Lancastrian is in London to-day. On the other hand, it is difficult to believe that Gaels of any kind who had been Christians for some four hundred years would join with the heathen Norse in sacking the island of Iona, which was invaded and devastated and its monks slain by them, according to the annals of Ulster, in the year 794. The names of the Gall Gael chiefs given from time to time are indisputably Gaelic, and the alternative is to suppose they had reverted to paganism under the teaching of their overlords and conquerors. Probably not till we awaken to the importance of a thorough investigation of the vast number of historical documents which are still preserved in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales will we be able to disentangle the extraordinary medley of fact and myth and fable and utter misconception which now makes up this part of our early history.

Assuredly we have no cause to boast of the Norsemen who have been so long and so foolishly idolised in England and Scotland. Their doings have been much exaggerated; they left us little or nothing in exchange for the civilisation they destroyed. As Mr. A. H. Johnson says: "The Northmen never seem to have been original, never to have invented anything; rather they readily assumed the language, religion, ideas of their adopted country, and soon became absorbed in the society around them. This will be found to be invariably the case, except with regard to Iceland, where the previous occupation was too insignificant to affect the new settlers. In Russia they became Russians; in France, Frenchmen; in Italy, Italians; in England, twice over Englishmen, first in the case of the Danes, and secondly in that of the later Normans. Everywhere they became fused in the surrounding nationality. . . ." Again he says, "They borrow everything and make it their own."

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