Scotlands History

Life in a Viking Village: Jarlshof, Shetland

The Vikings began to settle in Scotland from the mid-9th century. They brought with them their own distinctive culture from Scandinavia. They mixed with the local people and soon their communities became one. 

Jarlshof was a successful farm settlement in Shetland. 

When the Vikings arrived here they made some changes.

Evidence found here can tell us a lot about the lives of the settlers. It helps us imagine how life was in the past.

The village offered fertile land and good access to the sea, and both fresh water and building stone were available. 

Now discover how a Viking would have lived.

The Viking House

The first Norse farmhouse was probably built in the mid-9th century, along with a byre and other buildings. 

More houses were built later, and the main house was converted into a longhouse where people and animals lived in one building.

The people made use of the vast local supplies of stone for making buildings and everyday objects like cooking utensils. 

Viking Integration

When the Vikings first came to Scotland they had different beliefs to the native people. They believed in their own gods such as Odin and Thor. 

The native people were already Christian.

Evidence shows that the Vikings soon converted to Christianity.

Some cross slabs can tell stories.

One, for instance, is from another area of Viking settlement – Kilbar on Barra in the Outer Hebrides. It was carved sometime between 900 and 1100. 

It is inscribed with runes. They read 'This cross was raised in memory of Thorgerth, daughter of Steinar'. 

Runes were brought by the Vikings. But the cross was the symbol of Christianity. 

Other languages were used by the native people at this time. Latin, runic and ogham alphabets.
Ogham was used by both the Scots and Picts. It was originally developed by the Irish. Latin was introduced by the Christian church.

Trivia: Did you know that Runes are the basis of the Dwarvish language J.R.R. Tolkien used in The Lord of the Rings?

The Vikings also started to build churches.

Some churches still have Viking names today. 

St Magnus Church and St Magnus Cathedral in Orkney are examples.

Magnus was an Orkney earl. He was murdered by his cousin on the island of Egilsay in Orkney. After his death, he was canonised ‘Saint Magnus’ and a cathedral was built in his honour. 

Trade and Travel

The Vikings were skilled sailors. 

Their ships had a high bow and stern under full sail. These ships were excellent for travelling long distances. This allowed them to trade widely.

At the heart of their living system, the Vikings traded widely with other countries. 

Their boats carried them over thousands of miles across a vast area. Objects reached Scotland from France, Germany and Northern Italy, from the Black Sea and from as far west as Canada. One route led from the Arabian empire into Russia and across the Baltic to Scandinavia. 

Material may not have come here directly; continental material could have been taken first to Ireland, for example, before being moved on to Scotland.

What kind of things did they bring back?

At the heart of their living system, Viking traded widely with other countries. The Viking world stretched from the Middle East to eastern Canada, with traders moving objects throughout these areas. One route led from the Arabic empire into Russia and across the Baltic to Scandinavia, and from there to the west. Objects moved over thousands of miles across a great network. 

These are some of the objects the Vikings brought back from their travels:

A Glass Piece from Italy 

Material reached Scotland from right across the Viking world. Objects came from England, from France and Germany, from Northern Italy, from the Black Sea and beyond. This material may not have come here directly; continental material could have been taken first to Ireland, for example, before being moved on to Scotland.

A Coin from the Middle East 

This silver coin is part of a hoard buried at Storr Rock in Skye around 935 to 940. The mixture of foreign coins and silver from areas as far as the Middle East show that the hoard belonged to a Viking trader or settler. 

Did the Vikings pay to trade? 

In Scotland trade was carried out by bartering one set of goods for another. Money wasn’t used like it is today. Coins that came into the hands of traders were treated as pieces of silver. 

Silver, like this hoard of goods, was the ultimate trade item. What mattered was its weight and purity. Silver wasn’t just used for trading. It was also used to pay taxes and rents.

Trivia: Did you know that Viking helmets didn’t have horns at all? This is a modern depiction and it stuck with them. Archaeologists have never actually found a Viking helmet with horns on it!

You already know the Vikings came to Scotland. 

But why did they come here? 

They didn’t just come to loot and pillage, they also came because they didn’t have enough land in their native countries and needed to find another place to settle. 

When they arrived in a place, they tried to make it their own. 

In the north of Scotland many words can be traced to the Vikings. 

They gave descriptive names to the places where they landed. 

Here are some examples. 

A sandy bay was called Sandwick 
An assembly field was called Tingwall 
A bay was called Wick
South land (and it was south from the Vikings’ perspective!)  was called Sutherland 
Tide stream point of land was called Stromness


The Vikings were great warriors and tradesmen, but it wasn’t just all work and no play. There were activities they would do for entertainment.

How did they entertain themselves?

The Vikings were great story-tellers. A ‘saga’ is an epic poem describing great events or people. 

One of the most famous is the Orkneyinga Saga.

The Orkneyinga Saga was written in Iceland in the 13th and 14th centuries. It celebrates the lives and adventures of Viking leaders and warriors, most importantly the Earls of Orkney. 

Some of the stories would have been passed down from generation to generation, in an oral tradition, for centuries before they were written down. 

Here is a sample:
'Earl Thorfinn now became a powerful chief. He was a most martial-looking man, and of great energy; greedy of wealth and of renown; bold and successful in war, and a great strategist. He was five years old when he received the title of Earl and fourteen when he went forth from his own territory on maritime expeditions.'

When you interpret any historical source, you must consider when it was written, who wrote it and why it was written. Then you can decide if it is reliable. 

Because the Orkneyinga Saga was passed down through the generations by word of mouth the ‘facts’ may not all be wholly accurate. Things may have been exaggerated to make a better story, or to glorify the main character.

Taking this into consideration, the sagas do give us a unique insight into the medieval Scandinavian world.