Travel guide warns Vikings of hostile Scottish natives

Drawing By Oscar Wergeland – Guerber, H. A.(1909)

An Icelandic ‘travel guide’ from the 13th century gave warning to any Viking thinking of heading to ‘Skotland’ to do a bit of plundering that they should be wary of the aggressive natives with their incomprehensible language, and, of course, the country’s dreadful weather.

This information was gathered from the experiences of a number of travelling Icelanders and Norsemen who had been to Scotland and it was written on a yellowed calf vellum sometime in the 1200s. The sagas give an impression of a very violent country, saying ‘Icelanders who want to practise robbery are advised to go there. But it may cost them their life.’ They did add, however, that Orkney and Shetland provided a friendlier welcome, and that Orkney was a handy base camp for pillaging trips to the Scottish mainland. Though this could be in part due to the fact that Orkney and Shetland were under the control of the Norse Earls of Orkney at the time.

These stories have been interpreted by historian Gisli Sigurdsson at Reykjavik University. Sigurdsson believes that a lot of these sagas are a mixture of fact and fiction, but do give some insight into the times and experiences had by the Vikings on foreign shores.

Another story mentions a Scot referred to as Grjotgard, a relative of Melkolf (Malcolm II), who, along with a dozen ships filled with angry locals, came across some Icelandic merchants. The Icelanders had sailed into a sea loch on the west coast, and when met by Grjotgard they were told, ‘You have two options. You can go ashore and we will take all your property, or we’ll attack you and kill every man we lay our hands on.’ These sort of tales made the travellers particularly hesitant about sailing along the sea lochs, which they called ‘Scottish fjords’.

The warning tales were originally passed orally from Viking to Viking over hundreds of years before they were eventually written down. The stories would generally include cautions of the weather, dangerous landings, and natives who were hostile and would probably attack on sight. The Icelandic sagas acted as an effective guide for any would-be traveller, and covered not only Scotland, but a lot of mainland Europe and parts of the Middle East too.


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