After the first raids around AD 800, some Vikings clearly settled, especially in Caithness, Sutherland and on the north and west coasts, as evidenced by pagan Viking graves. This material is currently being reassessed as part of the Pagan Norse Graves of Scotland project by James Graham-Campbell and Caroline Paterson, but summaries of much of the evidence can be found in Batey (1993) and Graham-Campbell and Batey (1998, 113ff). There is also ongoing work on aDNA analysis of some Viking graves in the British Isles, which includes samples taken for the Balnakeil burial (Case Study Balnakeil Viking Burial, Sheridan et al 2018).
Unfortunately, very few Viking burials have been excavated in recent times in the Highlands apart from a young male from Balnakeil buried with weapons (Batey and Paterson 2012; Case Study Balnakeil Viking Burial) and a boat burial from Ardnamurchan (Harris et al 2017). These two finds, together with the Scar boat burial on Orkney, allow for archaeologists to glean information on burial rites, including a pattern of the deliberate breaking of weapons (Harris et al 2017, 200).
Of the Highland pagan burials, only Balnakeil has been radiocarbon dated. This gave a date of cal AD 680–860; even at its upper end this date is earlier than the expected traditional dating based on some of the artefacts (Batey and Paterson 2012). No radiocarbon dating was done for the two teeth surviving from the Ardnamurchan burial. Despite the number of known and possible graves (see Table 8.6), skeletal material only appears to have been preserved from Balnakeil.
Some burials were inserted into prehistoric cairns for example Tote on Skye (MHG5134; Case Study Tote Cairn Burial). Most graves have been excavated as single entities, but they are likely to have belonged to larger cemeteries, as at Reay and on Eigg. The grave goods in Highland Viking burials show connections with the wider Viking world. Some were clearly people of status and distinction: the brass sword hilt with silver and gilt decoration from Eigg is one of the finest of its class in Scotland or Scandinavia and joins a group of unique Norwegian, Irish and Carolingian objects from the two mound graves near Kildonnan Chapel (Graham-Campbell and Batey 1998, 84). The dating remains controversial, but most Viking graves appear to be from mid 9th through the 10th centuries, perhaps representing individuals from a couple of generations after the initial raids. They include approximately as many wealthy female burials as male burials. Once the Scandinavian settlers adopted Christianity this source of evidence disappears.
In some cases, isolated finds especially oval brooches have been proposed as from disturbed graves (Table 8.6). The Pagan Norse Graves of Scotland project will hopefully provide further contexts for these graves and allow regional perspectives.
Despite a long tradition that Sigurd the Mighty, an Orcadian jarl featuring in the Orkneyingasaga, was buried at Cyderhall in Sutherland in the late 9th century (Crawford 1987, 58), there is no evidence to confirm this. An inhumation burial found during recent excavations was dated to cal AD 998–1155, showing this was clearly not Sigurd (Young et al 2019).
A datasheet is available for Pagan Viking Graves in the Highlands.
|FIndspot||Area||What was found?||Dating||Comments||Ref|
|Castlehill||C||Skeleton? Plus some grave goods||Female, Buried in top of possible broch mound||MHG39803; Batey 1993|
|Reay Links||C||Grave goods||At least 3 burials||MHG2529;
|Watten||C||Skeleton and spearhead||19th century finds, poorly recorded||MHG2348; Batey 1993, 151|
|Longhills, Westerseat||C||Oval brooches||Found in a cist on top of a gravel mound. No mention of a body||MHG2162; Batey 1993|
|Huna||C||Timber, rivets, metal objects, now lost||Possible boat burial under a mound recorded by Curle in 1935||MHG2525; Graham-Campbell and Batey 1998, 68|
|Thurso Bay||C||Oval brooch||Possibly from disturbed grave||MHG1472 Graham-Campbell and Batey 1998, 69|
|Murkle Bay, Olrig||C||Human bones, iron spearheads||Found 1840 in area with long cists and ‘cartloads of human bones’. No finds survive||MHG653; J. Graham-Campbell pers comm|
|Housle Cairn, Halkirk||C||Human remains, bronze rings, iron spearheads, earthenware dish, animal bones||Discovered c. 1850 in cairn, and included several cists. No finds survive||MHG661; J. Graham-Campbell pers comm|
|Lower Dunn North, Halkirk||C||Bones, sword and other objects||Discovered 1848 in mound thought at the time to be a broch. No finds survive||MHG2325; J. Graham-Campbell pers comm|
|Harrow||C||Scandinavian penannular brooch||Possibly from disturbed grave||MHG2535 Graham-Campbell and Batey 1998, 69|
|Caithness||C||‘Scandinavian’ brooches||No further information. In Cambridge Museum Archaeology & Anthropology but not seen.|
|Ospisdale||S||Oval brooch, found with urn||Possibly from disturbed grave||MHG11788; Batey 1993|
|Dunrobin Castle||S||Oval brooches; axe||Probably from disturbed graves||MHG10866; MHG10845; Batey 1993|
|Kintradwell Broch||S||Skeleton, iron spearhead, lead ring||Found in outbuilding. Other human remains also from the broch||MHG9777; MacKie 2007|
|Balnakeil||NWS||Body & grave goods||
659–768 (cal AD)
|Artefacts suggest late 9th or even 10th century. Boy, c. 13 years old; aDNA sampling||MHG11310; Batey and Paterson 2012; Case Study; Balnakeil Boat Burial|
|Keoldale||NWS||Possibly brooches||Cairn opened 1832, possibly with brooches||Batey 1993, 155|
|Tote||Skye||Grave goods||10th century (artefacts)||Viking male buried at top of Bronze Age cairn. Cremation||MHG5134; Case Study; Tote Cairn, Skye|
|Ardnamurchan||L||2 teeth; grave goods, boat rivets||10th century (artefacts)||Isotope analysis undertaken||MHG55331; Harris et al 2017|
|Kildonnan||Eigg||Grave goods, including textiles||10th century (artefacts)||Two adjoining cairns, one possibly reused prehistoric cairn||MHG3968; Graham-Campbell and Batey 1998, 84|
|Crois Mhor, Kildonnan||Eigg||Grave goods including fine sword||Found c. 1830 in a ‘hillock’ near Kildonnan Chapel, with some intrusive material||MHG14373; Graham-Campbell and Batey 1998, 84|
All dates cal at 95.4% probability. For full details of dates, see Datasheet 2.1