The Kingdom of the Isles - Part 2

Posted by admin 14/07/2020 0 Comment(s)

So we learnt in part 1 that the old kingdom of Dal Riata was supplanted by incoming Vikings after 849AD. Raids on the Isles had started from 793, and over time island by island were gradually taken over as bases and places for settlement. By 885 the Isles had been incorporated into the kingdom of Norway, but a rebellion led to the Vikings here asserting independence and a Ketil Flat Nose is said to have declared himself king of the Isles.


The sources are very vague about the proper establishment of the kingdom, and its boundaries and indeed its independence were probably very fluid, expanding and contracting depending on the fortunes of the ruling elites. Life would presumably have been a mix of peaceful settlement, fishing and violent raiding. Local Gaelic traditions merged with the incoming Viking culture. One of the most enduring symbols of this was the Birlinn. These were a long-lived adaptation of the old Viking longships, with the important addition of a rudder at the back. These were perfectly adapted for life in the west, being fast little vessels that could be rowed or sailed as the need demanded, and then light enough to be pulled ashore. Whether used for trade or war, these were the workhorses of the islanders.



A series of Vikings fought over the Isles for the following centuries, with the kings of Norway attempting to assert their control. In many ways the most notable ruler of the kingdom was its last: Somerled. From obscure origins, likely a mix of Gael and Norse, he fought for over forty years, to seize the kingdom. To consolidate his conquests, he secured the marriage to Ragnhild, daughter of King Olav the Red, Norse king of Man and the Isles. He exploited divisions within the ruling house of Scotland to further build his power, although tensions would eventually lead to Somerled’s death at the Battle of Largs in 1164. From Somerled and the Lords of the Isles descend the famous Macdonald, Macdonnell, Macrory, Macalister and Clan Macdougall.


A romantic Victorian depiction of Somerled