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The Island Clans During Six Centuries
Chapter I - The Norse Occupation of the Hebrides


The Norse occupation of the Hebrides and of some of the mainland of Scotland has left much more important and lasting results than is generally realised. If we consider the length of time during which this occupation lasted it would be strange if it had not exerted a great influence in many directions.

The raids of Norse pirates began at a very early period. There may be some doubt as to whether the burning of the religious houses at Eigg in April 617 was the work of Norsemen, but the repeated attacks on Iona between 794 and 825 were certainly carried out by them, and, indeed, all the West Coast of Scotland as far as Galloway in the south was being constantly laid waste by Norse rovers during the first half of the ninth century.

Probably the brochs and duns were built by the Celtic inhabitants during this period as places of defence against the Norse raiders. These are found in large numbers where-ever the Vikings are known to have come, and they are found in no other part of Scotland. We may look on them, therefore, as records of the appalling period during which the Western Isles were being ravaged by the Vikings.

These raids, however, destructive as they were, could have no permanent results on the character of the people who suffered from them; but, towards the end of the ninth century, the Norsemen began to settle in the Western Isles. Harold Haarfagre had made himself Master of all Norway, instigated by the ambitious lady he wished to marry. The numerous petty kings who had ruled as independent sovereigns on the Fjords of Norway, unable to resist, and unwilling to submit, sailed forth to carve out for themselves new principalities in the west. Some went to England, some to France, some to Italy, some took service in the famed Varangian guard at Constantinople, many found new homes in the Isle of Man and in Ireland, and towards the end of the ninth, and during the tenth century, the Vikings were settling in the Hebrides, reducing the Celtic chiefs to obedience, and making the Islands their own.

They did not exterminate the Celtic inhabitants of the country. It was not to their interest to do so; their own numbers were not very large, and they needed people to cultivate the soil, to row their dragon ships, and to perform other menial duties. Probably some of the Celtic tribes may still have retained possession of their lands, but it is certain that by the end of the tenth century the Norwegians had become predominant in the Western Isles ; as indeed they were in the Orkneys and Shetlands, in the north-east of Scotland, on the seaboard of Ireland, and in the Saxon kingdom of Northumbria.

The early Norse settlers in the Western Isles were independent chieftains; they had thrown off the authority of the Norwegian kings, and owed obedience to no one. But their situation made it necessary that they should combine together for purposes of mutual defence, and some union of this sort, under kings of Norse descent, became an accomplished fact at an early period. In the middle of the tenth century, Magnus MacArailt was rex plurimarum insularum. His brother Godred was King of Man and the Isles in 979. We find several others mentioned as Kings of the Isles, and in 1066, Godred Crovan founded the dynasty which was destined to rule for 200 years over Man and the Isles.

Meanwhile the King of Norway was taking steps to assert his authority. As early as 890 he sent an army under Ketil Flatneb, who reduced the Norsemen on the mainland to obedience, and 200 years later the expeditions of Magnus Barefoot, the first of which took place in 1092, settled the question of Norwegian supremacy over the kings of Man and the Isles. Whatever they had been before, hence-forth these were tributary kings owning obedience to the King of Norway, and paying him "Scat."

Not only were the islands Norwegian from a political point of view, but they were also Norwegian ecclesiastically. The see of the Syderies and Man (now corrupted to Sodor and Man) was in the province of Throndjhem, and its Bishop was under the control of the Norwegian Archbishop. This state of affairs lasted till 1266, when the Western Isles were ceded to Alexander III., King of Scotland, by Haakon, King of Norway. Thus for more than four hundred years the Western Isles were under Norse rule. So prolonged an occupation was bound to have very important results, and I shall consider these under five heads.

I. I take first the race to which the people of the Islands belong. There can be no doubt that the Norse and the Celtic people of the country freely intermarried. It is probable that Somerled, the famous founder of the great MacDonald family, was of mixed descent. His own name is Norse, as are the names of his sons, Reginald and Olave, and though he may have been a Celt in the male line, he certainly had Norse blood in him. Probably even the clans which appear to be purely Celtic have Norsemen among their ancestors. In spite of Skene's opinion, after carefully sifting all the available evidence, I am convinced that the MacLeods are mainly of Norse descent, though they too probably have Celtic blood in their veins.

As with the chiefs, so with the masses of the people. I am convinced that they are not pure-blooded Celts. The Islesmen of the present day show qualities very different from those of the Celtic races, and those qualities are due to the mixture of Norse blood in them.

Firstly, compared with the Irish, the West Highlanders are a law-abiding people. For many years, owing to the pressure of hard economic facts, they have lived in great poverty. They have believed that they were suffering great injustice, and for a time they had agitators among them who urged them to take the law into their own hands, and right their wrongs by force. In a very few cases they acted on those pernicious counsels. They drove the stock off land which they desired to occupy as small-holders, and took possession of some farms. But there were no murders of landowners or factors, there was no maiming of cattle, there were no outrages, there was no secret drilling with a view to an armed rising against the Government. Even when the crofter agitation was its height, there was only very little of the lawlessness which was such a deplorable feature of similar crises in Ireland.

Some years ago a remarkable instance of the West Highlander's reverence for law came under my observation. I was told that a number of men proposed to raid a farm in the neighbourhood. I asked them to meet me and talk the matter over, and we had a long and most friendly discussion. In the course of this I used every argument I could think of to dissuade them from their proposed action. Among other things I pointed out that to drive off a man's stock, and seize the land of which he was lawfully possessed, was to rob him of his means of living, and practically amounted to a breach of the Eighth Commandment. They accepted this, and refrained from raiding the land. I do not think it can be denied that on the whole the West Highlanders are a law-abiding people.

Secondly, when they go abroad they make most excellent emigrants. They do not like going, they have the Celtic love of home very strongly developed in them ; they are not an enterprising people, and it cannot be said that they are very strenuous and hard-working at home. Therefore, one would not credit them with possessing qualities likely to make them successful pioneers in a new country. But, when West Highlanders get into one of the Colonies, all their lack of energy disappears as if by magic. They become vigorous workers, they almost invariably do well, and, though from generation to generation they retain their love of their old homes in Skye or the Long Island—in many cases they still speak the language of their fathers—they have become invaluable citizens of the colony in which they live.

In one respect it is strange that the Norse blood in their veins does not appear to have influenced them. The Norse were essentially lovers of the sea. "The hardy Norseman's home of yore was on the foaming wave," and their descendants in Norway itself and on the East Coasts of England and Scotland continue to carry on the old tradition; but it cannot be said that the Scottish Islanders, though they live on the sea, take kindly to a seafaring career.

II. The language of the Highlanders at first sight seems to be purely Celtic, and, if this were really the case, it might be argued—Gaelic being the language of the people—that no Norse conquest of the country had ever taken place at all. But the Norse influence on the Gaelic language has really been very strong. In his Norse Influence in Celtic Scotland, Dr Henderson gives a list of several hundred Gaelic words which are derived from the Norse. Many of the surnames still borne by Highlanders are Norse. MacLeod, MacCaskill, Maclvor, Macaulay, Gunn, Tolmie, McCrailt. are a few instances out of many which might be named. A large number of the Christian names which occur in West Highland history, some of which are still borne by living Highlanders, are Norse names. Tormod, anglicized to Norman, is the Norse Thor-modhr, Thor minded; Torquil is the Norse Thorkill, Thor's kettle; Godfrey, the Norse Gudrod; Reginald is the Norse Rognvaldr, Ruler from the Gods; Ronald is another form of the same name. Somerled is a Norse name meaning "the summer sailor," that is, the Viking who went on ravaging expeditions in summer.

Here again many other instances could be given. But it is in the place-names all over the Islands that the Norse influence has been strongest. In Lewis and Harris three-fourths of the important place-names are Norse, in Skye a very large proportion. All the place-names terminating in bost, nish, and a, ay, or ey are Norse, "bost" meaning a township or stead, "nes" meaning a point or promonotory, "ey"meaning an island. As most Highlanders know, these are very common terminations. Indeed, ninety per cent. of the Islands have names terminating in some form of the Norse "ey." Many other places are known by Norwegian names. Uig is the Norse "Vik," a bay, from which comes the word Viking; Sleat or Slate in Skye is the Norse "Sletta," a plain; Staffa and Staffin are both derived from the Norse. Staffa means a staff, or rod, to which their basaltic rocks bear a resemblance. Uist is the Norse Ivist, a habitation. Eriscay is Eric's island, Barra is Barr's island, Barr being a contraction of St Find-barr, a saint whose day was kept on September 25th. Though Mull has retained its pre-Norse name, half the place-names in the island are of Norse origin. Jura is pure Norse, and means deer's isle. [For further details on this subject I refer the reader to Dr Henderson's valuable book on " Norse Influence in Celtic Scotland."]

Some names which seem to be Gaelic may possibly be really Norwegian. Such a one is Dunvegan. It appears at first sight to be Gaelic, dun bheagan, "the little dun," but it may really be "Bekan's Dun." There is a place in Iceland called Bekansstad, and it is possible that this Bekan may have been one of the sturdy pagans who left the Hebrides and went to Iceland, because they were disgusted at finding themselves surrounded by people who had embraced Christianity.

Still, however much Gaelic may have been influenced by Norse; it is the language of the Highlanders now, and according to the last census it is the only speech of over four thousand people in Inverness-shire.

It is an interesting fact that when a race, comparatively few in number, conquers a country and does not exterminate the people, the conquerors gradually adopt the language of the conquered people. This happened in Normandy. The Northmen conquered that province of France in 912. In a hundred and fifty years they had forgotten Norse, and were speaking French. The Normans conquered England in 1066, and in a generation or two they had forgotten French, and were speaking English. Exactly the same thing has happened in the Western Isles; the Norse conquerors forgot Norse, and Gaelic became the language alike of conquerors and of conquered.

III. The numerous engraved stones, and articles of metal work, such as brooches and sword hilts, of undoubted Norwegian workmanship, which have been found in the Highlands and Islands, bear eloquent witness to the fact that the Norsemen were settled there in early times, and show the high level of workmanship to which their artists had attained. Doctor Henderson describes, in more or less detail, a number of these old relics of the past, which have been found in the Hebrides, and gives illustrations of five of them. Besides these, he illustrates three Norse stone slabs found in the Isle of Man. The Norse origin of some of these is proved by the Runic inscriptions which they bear. In others it is indicated by the subjects depicted. Thor's hammer, and a pair of scales, typical of the justice of the gods, appear on some, and the Sigurd legend is represented on the Manx stones, and on one at Iona.

This old Norse story relates how Sigurd killed a huge dragon, and toasted its heart over a fire. In doing this he touched the hot dragon's heart, and, burning his finger, put it in his mouth, with the result that he immediately became possessed of "all the knowledge of the two worlds." According to another version of the same legend, it was a great serpent which he killed; while boiling its flesh in a cauldron, the same misfortune befel him, and he adopted the same remedy, and this time he suddenly found that he understood the language of birds. On the old stones we see Sigurd engaged in combat with the dragon or the serpent, cooking the heart of the dragon, or boiling the flesh of the serpent, and putting his finger in his mouth.

In some cases the nature of the objects themselves is enough to stamp them as being of Norse origin. An image resembling old Norse idols was found near Ballachulish in 1880, and Norse swords and helmets have been found in many places. A very fine sword was found in Islay, a spearhead was found at St Kilda, a sword-hilt of extraordinary beauty on Eigg. Of this Dr Anderson says:—"I know of no finer or more elaborate piece of art workmanship, either in this country or in Norway." Many other similar finds have been made all over the Hebrides.

In Norway several grave mounds have been excavated, which contained the Viking ships in which their owners had been buried. The best preserved of these ships was found at Gokstad on the Oslo Fjord, and is now in the Museum at Oslo. As far as I know, very few of these mounds have been discovered in the Western Isles. One, however, at Killoran Bay, in Colonsay, was excavated by Mr Galloway in 1882. The Vikings' ship had rotted away, but the nails, with which it had been constructed, were there, and the following objects were also found:—The Viking's skeleton, that of his horse, some cross-marked stones, an iron sword, and some coins, two of Eandred, 808-840, and two of Wigmund, Archbishop of York, 831-854. These last make it probable that the Viking buried here lived in the latter half of the ninth century.

Among the most interesting relics of the Norse occupation are some brooches. One was found in a Norse grave mound on Eigg; it is a bronze brooch, silvered over. Another of quite extraordinary beauty was brought to light at West Kilbride, in Ayrshire. It is known as the Hunterston Brooch, and Professor Stephens refers to it as "Scotland's finest fibula."

Besides these things, which are certainly of Norse origin, are many others, generally believed to be Celtic work of the 16th century because they have been found in Celtic Scotland, but which may possibly be Norse work of a much earlier period. One of the most interesting of these is the old horn preserved at Dunvegan. On the silver rim of this are seven medallions. A very curious pattern appears in three. Weird animals which are often seen in undoubted Norse work, are depicted on three; and on the seventh, where the join comes, half the pattern and a curiously-shaped animal are portrayed. Professor Brogge, head of the Museum of Antiquities at Oslo in Norway says:—"Without hesitation this is Norse work of the Island variety dating from the 10th century."

It is not very easy to describe the pattern. It appears to represent, in stone or metal, a number of long narrow strips arranged in a series of curves, and passing under or over each other where they meet. It was first met with in Russia in the fifth century, and it appeared a little later in every country in Europe. It is a marked feature in some antiquities, supposed to date from the seventh century, which were found quite lately at Abingdon, in England. It was certainly a favourite with the Norse artists who were working in the Hebrides between the tenth and the twelfth centuries, for it was used in one form or another on six out of the eight objects of which Doctor Henderson gives illustrations, and this to some extent supports Professor Brogge's opinion that the Dunvegan horn is Norse work of the tenth century.

IV. The ownership of land. At one time Skene was regarded as the most reliable authority on this subject. I shall first deal with his theories. He maintained that among the Celts there was no individual ownership at all; the land belonged to the tribe, and the property was divided in certain proportions amongst the male branches of the family, though the principal seat of the family, together with a certain extent of property around it, was not included in the division. The Chief besides this retained a sort of right of superiority over the whole possessions of the clan, and received a proportion of the produce of the soil as an acknowledgment of chief ship.

Even this Celtic law seems to imply that the chief possessed some more or less limited rights of ownership in the lands belonging to the tribe. But they were not personal rights; they belonged to him as the elected chief of the community.

Under the old Norse law, called the "Asaedesret," the individual was the personal owner of the land. He "held it in absolute dominion without rendering any fealty or service to any one." This is now called the "allodial tenure." Possibly some Celtic chiefs may have retained their lands after the Norse conquest, and continued to hold them under Celtic law, but the evidence is very strong that most of the land in the Hebrides in early times was owned by Norse conquerors, who held it under Norse law, and were the personal owners of their estates.

An old charter, dated 1292, tells us that Glenelg belonged to the Norse King of Man and the Isles. We know that a Norse chief named Ljotulph was in possession of Lewis, or a portion of it, in the twelfth century, and that a little later Olaf the Black, afterwards King of Man, owned at all events part of the same island. Some light is thrown on this subject by an interesting MS. history of the MacLeods which came into my hands some time ago. It was probably written by Dr Bannatyne MacLeod, in the early nineteenth century, but I incline to the opinion that he got his information from a sixteenth century document, which is now lost. The author of this describes the possessions of Paul Baccac, otherwise known as Phaich, undoubtedly the Paal Baalkeson of the Sagas, who was killed in 1231. These included Waternish, which had originally belonged to a branch of the Nicol-sons of Lewis; Trotternish, which had originally belonged to the Clan Vic Val or Mal, a Norwegian tribe who had settled at Duntulm; Sleat, which had previously belonged to the Clan Vic Gurimen, a Celtic tribe; and Snizort, part of which had been church land, while part had belonged to the Clan Vic Varten (now known as Martin). He also owned Harris, the north part of which, the Frith or Chase, had been possessed by the Clan Vic Shittich, the centre by the Clan Vic Varrachie, and the south by the MacCrimmons, who afterwards became the famous pipers of the MacLeods. " All these different tribes had been subdued by Paal's ancestors, and acknowledged his authority. Remnants of each of these are still to be met with in the country, and some of their descendants are now men of wealth and position in other parts of the world." If such large tracts of land, on the mainland, in Skye, and in the Long Island, were owned by Norsemen, probably much other land in the islands belonged to them also, and indeed the place-names point to this having been the case.

It is often maintained that the Highland chiefs wrongfully got possession of their estates when the feudal system came in, getting charters from the king to themselves of the estates which really belonged to their clans. I am, however, myself convinced that, by the beginning of the thirteenth century, the Norse laws, which governed the ownership of land, had been incorporated in the code of law under which the West Highlanders lived, and that, under this law, all the chiefs were personal owners of their estates. If this be true, the charge that they unfairly obtained possession of the property falls to the ground, for the land had been the personal property of their ancestors long before the establishment of the feudal system. This view of the status of a Highland chief in regard to his property is entirely borne out by the rules of succession which have prevailed amongst the West Highland clans from the earliest times.

V. The Norse law of succession may be briefly summed up. The eldest son always succeeded his father, and, if there was no son, a daughter was allowed to succeed. I have not been able to ascertain what rules governed the appointment of a guardian to a minor under Norse law. According to Skene, very different laws governed the succession in Celtic communities. There are four of these:

1. "There can be little doubt that among the Celts the chiefship was hereditary in the family, but elective in the individual. That is, a member of the ruling family must always be chosen, but which member of that family was to be chief was settled at a meeting of the tribe, generally held before the death of the reigning chief."

2. "In choosing a chief, under the law of tanistry, ' a brother of the ruling chief was preferred to a son, on the ground that he was one degree nearer the original founder of the family.' "

3. "If the heir who ought to succeed, and would have been elected, was under age the nearest male relation succeeded, and retained the chiefship during his life, although the proper heir had in the meantime attained his majority."

4. "Females are altogether excluded from the succession either to the chiefship or the property."

I have taken these laws which governed Celtic succession from Skene's Highlanders of Scotland, and have indeed quoted his own words. If the West Highland clans had been purely Celtic communities, and their lands had belonged to the tribe in accordance with Celtic custom, we should expect to find these laws of succession being observed among them. As a matter of fact we find none of them.

1. Among the West Highlanders the office of chief was certainly not elective. The eldest son, or, failing a son of the deceased chief, either a daughter or the nearest male heir always became chief. But he did not take up the rights to which his birth entitled him until he had been formally accepted by the clan. In the MS., from which I have already quoted, is an interesting account of the instalment of a chief. It reads:—"After the funeral of the late chief all the clan present sat down to a funeral feast. At this it was the duty of the bards to rehearse the genealogy of the deceased, to praise his achievements, and to lament his loss. It was then their duty to give an exordium on the qualities of his successor, and express the expectations of the clan as to his valour and other virtues. This done the new chief rose in his place and demanded his father's sword. This was always placed in his hand by the first man in the clan, and then the new chief was hailed by the acclamation of all present as their leader in peace and war." It is possible that this ceremony may have been mistaken by some writers for an election.

2. I am not aware that among West Highland clans a brother was ever preferred to a son. A search in the pedigrees of West Highland families has revealed no single case of a brother being so preferred to a son. The phrase becomes almost monotonous: "He was succeeded by his eldest son."

3. In the MacLeod history, the family with whose records I am better acquainted than with those of any other, there are several instances, one as early as the fourteenth century, of a son who was a minor succeeding, and the authority as chief being exercised by a "tutor," generally an uncle of the young chief, and this tutor invariably surrendered his office when the chief attained his majority. I have no doubt that similar instances could be adduced from the history of other families.

4. Several instances can be given of an heiress succeeding to an estate when she had no brother, her husband becoming the chief. About 1340, the daughter and sole heiress of Nicolson of Assynt married Torquil MacLeod of Lewis, and carried the estate into the Lewis family. About 1385 Janet and Isabel, daughters and co-heiresses of John de Ergadia, married two brothers, Sir John and Sir Robert Stewart, and brought the Lordship of Lorn into the Stewart family. About 1469, Isabel, daughter of Sir John Stewart, carried the same lordship into the Argyll family, having married the Earl of Argyll. Isabel was the heiress because her brother was illegitimate, but her father at the close of his life had actually legitimised him by marrying his mother. The story of this marriage is a tragic one. As the bridal procession was entering the church, Sir John was stabbed by some one who had an interest in preventing the marriage. Though mortally wounded, Sir John was able to go through the ceremony, and his son was legitimised. But there was a slur on his birth, and that enabled Argyll to make good his claim to the Lordship of Lorn. These cases are sufficient to show that, in West Highland practice, females were not " altogether excluded from the succession."

On the other hand, when William, ninth Chief of MacLeod, died in 1553, the clan absolutely refused to acknowledge the claims of his daughter Mary, who later on married Campbell of Castle Swinny. The efforts of Argyll, her guardian, to obtain the estates for her signally failed, and she finally resigned her claim, her uncle becoming Chief, and obtaining possession of the estate. This shows that, while the succession of females was sanctioned by West Highland usage, it was not invariably allowed. I think that probably each case was decided on its merits, the personal popularity of the heiress and her husband, the character of the next male heir, and such matters as these, being important factors in the decision which was arrived at.

If Skene's theories are correct, the laws which governed the ownership of land and the succession to dignities amongst the West Highlanders were very important results of the Norse occupation.

But Skene is no longer accepted by learned men as an infallible authority on these subjects. In 1921, Professor John MacNeill, a very distinguished historian, published a book, entitled "Celtic Ireland." Unfortunately, I do not possess a copy of this work, and it is not among the books in the only public library to which I have access. Therefore, I have not been able to make myself acquainted with the conclusions at which Professor MacNeill has arrived. But a learned friend writes concerning this book as follows:— "The author has a chapter on the ownership of land, in which he deals with the tribal and communal ideas, and explodes them. He has another chapter on the Irish law of succession. His work quite supersedes previous treatment. It is work which could be done only by an Irishman who really knows the country and its early literature."

Now that Skene's theories have been discredited, it is possible that the Norse influence in forming the land laws and rules of succession which prevailed in the West Highlands may have been less strong than I previously supposed. But considering how closely the Norse and West Highland codes of law resembled each other, I think that probably the latter was to a great extent derived from the former, and that in this, as in other matters, the Norse influence was very strong.

But if the Norsemen profoundly influenced the Celts in many directions, the Celts also exercised a great influence over the Norsemen. As has been already pointed out, the language of the Celts, as somewhat modified by Norse influence, became the speech of the West Highlanders. I incline to the opinion that the belief in fairies and water-kelpies, in magic and witchcraft, which was so firmly held amongst our ancestors, is mainly due to the Celts, for it is clear that they were a much more imaginative people than the Norsemen. The "frith," which was a kind of divination used in the Highlands to discover the whereabouts of an absent person, and which was also an incantation by which a person could be made invisible, may have been learnt from the Norsemen. The Sutherland traditions which describe the way in which "Fearchar Leiche," the Gaelic name of the famous physician Beaton, obtained his marvellous powers of diagnosing and healing disease, is clearly derived from the Norse story of Sigurd, which I have already related. Probably some other Highland superstitions may be traced to a Norse origin, but on the whole I think that the imaginative side of the West Highlander's character is mainly derived from his Celtic ancestors.

Undoubtedly the most important gift which the Celts bequeathed to their descendants was their religion. They had been Christians for something like 300 years, when the Norse settled amongst them, having learnt the truths of Christianity from St Columba and his disciples. On the other hand the Norse invaders were worshippers of Odin, Freya, and of all the gods of Valhalla. They were inspired by an intense hatred of the White Christ, and how, or when, these enemies of Christ became His servants, we cannot tell with any certainty. The influence of the Christians amongst whom they lived no doubt had a great effect, and in course of time the Norsemen in the Hebrides forsook the service of their old gods, and accepted Christianity.

Thus, slowly and by degrees, during the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth centuries, the Celts and the Norsemen, living together, marrying with each other, influencing each other in many ways, were drawing closer and closer together, and by the beginning of the thirteenth century the two races had been welded into one, and, to some extent, the Norse element had been absorbed in the Celtic. But it must not be forgotten that the West Highlanders of to-day are a hybrid race, and that, while they owe much to their Celtic forebears, they also owe much to the hardy Norsemen who ruled over the Isles for 400 years.

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