Background (500-1100 C.E.)

ce 500: Dál Riada   After several centuries of gradual cross-Channel settlement, the Dál Riadic[1] kings (probably in the person of Fergus Mór, son of Erc) take up residence in Argyll; late 6th-early 7th C sees the first effort of these Scots to conquer the Picts [MacDonald, Kingdom, p. 23; McKerral, p. 2; Gregory, p. 2; Nieke, p. 60].[2]

mid-600s: Three groups (or kindreds) are in existence among the Dál Riadans (“although it is possible that the divisions among them [a]re not as clear cut as the sources might suggest”): the Cenél[3] nOengusa (probably in Islay), Cenél nGabáin (occupying Kintyre, Cowal, Bute, and possibly Gigha), and the Cenél Laoirn (Lorn, Ardnamurchan, Mull, Coll, and Tiree). The latter two are competing for supremacy by the beginning of the 8th century [MacDonald, Kingdom, p. 22; McKerral, pp. 2-3].[4]

741: Chronicles record the “overthrow of Dál Riada” by the Picts [MacDonald, Kingdom, p. 23].

793: Irish annals mention “a series of Viking incursions into the Hebrides” [Grant & Cheape, p. 12].

c. 800-1100: Viking raids, attacks and settlement  Raids along the west coast of Scotland become “a seasonal occupation for the Vikings, and the raiders beg[i]n to make permanent settlements [Grant & Cheape, p. 12]. Norse settlement begins in the mid 9th century “and appears to have been fairly extensive, especially around the sheltered harbours of the east coast” [McKerral, p. 2]. Settlement after 880 is probably led by opponents of Haralt Harfager, who has established himself as king of all Norway and subjugated the petty kings there. These Norse settlers in Scotland begin harassing the Norwegian coast from Scotland as they had been harassing the Scottish coasts from Norway. After this, control of the Western Isles goes back and forth between various Norse, and occasionally Irish, overlords [Gregory, p. 4]. “It seems likely that on the whole the vikings took over the tributary structures of Dál Riata and attempted to stress continuity in governance. Their main desire at this stage [i]s for a secure base from which they could raid the more prosperous lands to the south and east” [Woolf, p. 95].

843: Scots and Picts Merge  Kenneth mac Alpin, king of Dál Riada, becomes king of the Picts as well; this may have been a legitimate succession (his mother was Pictish), but probably involved some degree of violence. Dál Riadic centres of power shift eastward, in part because of Viking pressure. However, “[t]he tenacity with which the connexion with Irish civilisation persist[s] in the Highlands [i]s an essential feature in the history of [Highland] culture. . . . . Until the seventeenth century, this Gaelic civilisation was common to all people between the Butt of Lewis and Cape Clear” [Grant & Cheape, p. 12; Gregory, pp. 2-3].[5]

847:  A Frankish chronicle (the Annals of St-Bertin, compiled by Prudentius, Bishop of Troyes) records that in this year the Northmen “g[e]t control of the islands all around Ireland and sta[y] there without encountering any resistance from anyone”. Alex Woolf suggests that taken with other evidence from the period, this refers to what was essentially a partitioning of Dál Riada, with the island portions coming under Norse control while the mainland portions of Argyll “pas[s] into the protection of the kings of the Picts” [Woolf, pp. 94-5].

mid-9th C: Emergence of the Gall-Gaidhil, “warriors of mixed blood” whose homeland is “almost certainly” the Hebrides; the Irish sources describe them as “Scots fostered by Norsemen”, and the name they are given by the annalists, Gall-Ghaidheal (‘Stranger Gaels’), indicates that they are seen as both alien and native [MacDonald, Kingdom, p. 29; McKerral, p. 2; Grant & Cheape, p. 13]. Alex Woolf suggests that “By the 930s and ’40s . . . all the leaders of the vikings in the Irish Sea region and Argyll had not only been born in Britain and Ireland but were probably the sons of men who had been born there. Many, perhaps most, would have had native mothers and grandmothers” [Woolf, p. 95]. Whatever the genetic details, a “medieval Celtic-Scandinavian cultural province” emerges at this time from which “modern Gaelic Scotland is ultimately descended” [Marsden, p. x].

late 9th–10th C: emergence of individuals in the Hebrides and the Isle of Man bearing the title of ‘king’ or ‘lord’ of the Isles: “the extent and nature of this kingship [i]s fluid, and there c[an] be several kings in the region at once” [MacDonald, Kingdom, pp. 30-31; Gregory, p. 17]. Barrow points out that this “regular use of the title ‘king’ for the principal lords” is a “notably non-Scandinavian feature of the hybrid ruling class” of the Hebrides [pp. 131-2].

1093: Kintyre, along with the Hebrides, ceded to Norway

1098:  Magnus Barelegs, the Norse king, “invade[s] the West Highlands, and successfully consolidate[s] all the scattered Norse possessions under his rule”. Among the Gall-Gaidhil chiefs expelled by the Norse king is one named Gillebride [McKerral, p. 4; MacDonald, Kingdom, p. 47], though it is possible that Gillebride’s lands were lost a few years earlier as a result of his support for Donald Bane in the struggle for succession which followed the death of Malcolm Canmore (1093) [MacDonald, Kingdom, ibid.; Gregory, pp. 11-12]. Of Gillebride we know little, “nor are we informed of the extent of his possessions, or where they lay, but they are believed to have been on the mainland of Argyle” [Gregory, p. 12].[6] A treaty in this year between Edgar, king of Scotland, and Magnus Barelegs “confirm[s] Norwegian suzerainty over Man and all the islands of Scotland west of Kintyre and thence northward to Lewis” but the treaty “could only be important if the Norwegian crown had been able to enforce its authority”. Instead, for most of the late 11th and early 12th century Norway is “torn by civil war and distracted by revolts (involving the northern isles)” [Barrow, p. 130].


[1] Dál Riada (or Dál Riata) was a small tribal kingdom in northern Ireland which spread into Argyll and the western isles; one king ruled both sides of the kingdom—first from Antrim and later from Argyll—until Viking incursions separated them in the 9th & 10th centuries. Even beyond this period, “[t]he Gaels of Alba were closely associated with those of Erin” (Grant & Cheape, p. 11).
[2] Scotii was the name given to raiders from Ireland; eventually it was applied to the Irish Gaels of Dál Riada, and from them Scotland takes its name. The Picts (Pictii, “painted people”) were a different group entirely, possibly the earliest inhabitants of Scotland; at the time of the Dál Riadic settlement they inhabited most of north & central Scotland and the Northern Isles. Very little is known about them; most scholars now believe they spoke a P-Celtic language, similar to Welsh and Breton, and genetic testing reveals that their DNA is present in most of today’s Scottish population (Sykes, pp. 181-2, 209). The two groups fought each other constantly until some time in the mid-9th century, when the Picts simply vanish from history, leaving almost no material trace of themselves or their culture.
[3] Cenél (modern cineal): similar in meaning to the more familiar clann (clan); Dwelly defines it “offspring”, “progeny”; “species”; “race”, “tribe” or “clan”.
[4]“[L]arge numbers of folk lie behind the three kindreds . . . and they cannot have been the direct descendants of Gabran, Loarn and Oengus. How the land was distributed among them we cannot be sure” (Grant & Cheape, p. 18).
[5] The authors add, however, that “it is not safe to assume that any Irish institution, custom or law survived unchanged in the Highlands at a later time” (p. 12).
[6] “[A]lthough we know that Somerled’s father was called Gillebrigte we know little else about him. The stories told in the seventeenth century linking him to Morvern are almost certainly late fabrications, and Somerled’s own base and that of his son Ragnall [Ranald] seems to have been Kintyre” (Woolf, p. 102).

Compilation/Commentary © 2009-2015 by Lynn McAlister, MA, FSA (Scot)

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