Home History The First Scandanavian Period (part 1)

The First Scandanavian Period (part 1)

by Bernadette Weyde

The history of the Isle of Man during the Scandanavian domination naturally divides itself into two main epochs – one before its conquest by Godred Crovan in 1079 and the other after it. The general character of the early epoch is that of “storm and stress” and unsettled rule, whilst that of the later is decidedly more stable and peaceful.

The first epoch may be sub-divided into three periods. During the first of these, between 800 and 880, the Vikings came to Man mainly for plunder; during the second, between about 880 and 900, when they settled in it, the Island fell under the rule of the Scandanavian kings of Dublin; and during the greater part of the third, it was subject to the powerful Earls of Orkney.

It was in 795 that the Irish and Welsh annalists record the first appearance of the Scandanavian robbers in the Irish Sea, and from that time they continued to sweep the countries that were unfortunate enough to be exposed to their excursions of everything that, in the older border phrase, was not “too hot or too heavy.”

That Man was a favourite resort of the Vikings during the period when they thought more of plunder than permanent residence, is clear from nomenclature of its coast, which abounds with wicks (vík), “creeks”, in ghaws (gjá), a name given to narrow inlets, and in clets (klettr) and stacks (stakkr), which refer to detached rocks of various kinds in the sea. There are also the significant Scandanavian words ‘Mull’ (múli), and ‘ness’ (nes) applied to headlands, and ‘ey’ and ‘holm’ (hólmr) to islands; the latter found in Holme-towne (Hólma-tún), “islet-town” which is now called Peel, and the former is part of the name of the town still called Ramsey (Hramns-ey) “Raven’s Isle. There are also the ‘hows’ (haugr) or “mounds” by the sea shore, which indicate the spots where many a Scandanavian warrior found his last resting place.

It is said that the first comers were Norwegians and that they were preponderant amongst the invaders on Man is also rendered probable by geographical considerations seeing that they would naturally come down the western side of the British Islands and the Danes on the eastern. The earliest recorded attack of the Vikings on Man took place in 798 when “Gentiles” i.e. foreigners burned Inis-Patrick (Peel Island), broke the shrine of Dachonna, and took the spoils of the sea…between Erin and Alba. Many other similar incursions there doubtless were but no mention has been preserved.

The recorded history of the relations between Scandanavia and Man begins with the second period, that of settlement, when the Northmen* were escaping from the tyranny of their princes and, like the Puritans of America, were seeking new homes and political freedom across the sea.

The first settler we hear of who had any connection with Man, was Olaf the White, he, according to Landnámabóc, “harried in the West in Viking cruises and won Dyflin (Dublin) in Ireland and Dyflin-shire, and made himself king over it.” This was in 852.

Olaf took his wife Aud, the daughter of Cetill Flatnet, the son of Bearn Buna, a lord of Norway. This Cetill, or Ketil Finn, as he is called by the Irish annalists, was, at a somewhat later date, ruler of the Sudreys. But emigration to Ireland and the Sudreys did not take place to any great extent till after the battle of Hafursfjord, fought about 883, in which Harald Haarfager conquered the petty kings of Norway and made himself sole sovereign of the country. His rule was felt oppressively by the Vikings whom he deprived of their ‘odal’, or freehold, right to the land, and reduced to the position of military tenants. Many of them, rather than submit, emigrated to the Nordreys and Sudreys as well as to Iceland and Ireland, and formed a ruling class there, which gradually amalgamated with the native inhabitants to such an extent that the mixed race was called ‘Gallgaidhel’, or Stranger-Gaels by their Irish and Scottish neighbours.

Harald soon followed the Vikings southward and conquered the Sudreys. On arriving in Man he found that the entire population had fled to Scotland, so great was the terror caused by the report of his coming. That this terror was well founded is shown by the fact that he “laid waste the tilths” there. He then proceeded to extend his rule “so far west that no king of Norway has ever owned land farther, save King Magnus Barefoot.” He divided these dominions into the Nordreys including the Orkneys and Shetlands, and the Sudreys, including the Hebrides, the southern Scottish islands and Man. But as regards the Sudreys at least, his supremacy had hardly been established before it was overthrown by the Vikings who continued to harry and rob far and wide.

Harald’s first deputy in the Sudreys, the Jarl Tryggvi, was killed, as was his successor, Asbjorn, by relatives of the Ketill already mentioned. Ketill took possession of the Sudreys but it is not known if he did this on his own account for whether it was for the king. It is probably that Man, if not the other Sudreys, became subject to the rule of the Scandanavian kings of Dublin who were either identical with or closely allied to the kings of Northumbria of the same race, that kingdom (Northumbria) have fallen into Scandanavian hands in 867. But it is possible that, as long as Ketill’s descendants remained in the Sudreys, the Dublin rule over them was merely a suzerainty and that it was not till after their disappearance that the Island was ruled by the Dublin kings either directly through a tributary king or lord. And it must be remembered that since these Scandanavian rulers were sometimes driven out of Northumbria and sometimes out of Dubin, Man must have been a convenient headquarters for them. Thus between 872 and 885, the Irish king, Cearbhall, reigned in Dublin and between 897 and 919 was again subject to Irish rulers.

It was during this latter interval, in 913, that we hear of a naval battle off Man in which Ragnall, king of part of Northumbria, defeated “the navy of Ulster,” their leader, Barid Mac Ottir, “with almost his entire army being slain.” Ragnall then probably ruled Man till his death in 921 CE.

In the meantime, his brother, Sitric, had conquered Dubin in 919, and, on Ragnall’s death, he appears to have taken over his part of Northumbria and to have left Dublin to his nephew, and Ragnall’s son, Godred. Whether Man was then ruled from Northumbria or Dublin is not known, but after 926, it must have been ruled from the latter because in that year Sitric died and his sons were expelled by the Saxon king, Athelstan. Godred ruled Dublin till his death in 932, when he was succeeded by his son Olaf, who in 938, attempted to turn the Saxons out of Northumbria. He was, however, defeated in that year at the famous battle of Brunanburg, when he fled “o’er the deep water Dublin to seek,” and on his way, plundered Man which seems at the time, to have been under the rule of a certain Mac Ragnall, who perhaps, thought Olaf’s defeat afforded a good opportunity for revolt.

About this time the famous Olaf Cuaran (Sandal), son of Sitric, appeared on the scene as king of Dublin, Olaf, Godred’s son having died in 942. In 949, Eric of Northumbria having been deposed, Olaf got possession of that kingdom also, and held it “by the strong hand for four years.” But in 952, the Scandanavian power being temporarily weakened by internal struggles between Norway and Denmark, he was again expelled and he returned to Ireland. He is mentioned as being ‘Lord of Dublin’ in 969 and he continued in possession of that kingdom till 980 when he was defeated at the Battle of Tara by Maelseachlainn, King of Ireland. We are told that his spirit was so broken by this that he went on a pilgrimage to Iona, where he died “after penance and a good life.”

So ended the supremacy of the Scandanavian kings of Northumbria and Dublin during the continuance of which, Man, as being the centre of their kingdom, must have been of considerable importance.

* Among the names implying the permanent residence of the Northmen in Man may be mentioned ‘by’ (bóer, byr) “a farm or estate,” which is the commonest Scandanavian affix in the Island; ‘hagi’ and ‘garðr’, which are names given to land enclosed by a hedge; kirk (kirkja) “church”, ‘staðr’, a “stead, place, abode”, ‘skáli, “a house, a hut”. There are also numerous surnames of Scandanavian origin such as Cleppr, Geirr, Grettir, Haraldr, Hœringr, Hógni, Hrólfr, Ingimarr, Kraun, Ormr, Narfi, Osmundr, Olafr, Goree, Castell, Cottier, Corkill, Corlett, Christian and Garrett, compounded with farm names.

(source: A History of the Isle of Man by AW Moore (1900); photograph)

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