8.6.2 Pagan Viking Burials

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).

Hand drawing depicting a Viking burial scene. In the image, a man is crouched over an open grave pit holding a large, round shield. In the grave, a deceased Viking man is holding a blade, lying on his side with his feet bound in rope. In the background, the ocean with a boat sailing can be seen.
Reconstruction drawing of the Viking boat burial at Balnakeil. ©Alan Braby

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.

A photograph of a bronze and silver coloured sword handle with tarnishing across the artefact, taken diagonally against a black background. The handle has two rectangular ends, with a vertical rectangular section connecting the ends. Intricate designs are difficult to see due to the amount of erosion and rust, however, it is clear that the whole item is covered in intricate line designs.
Bronze Viking sword hilt inlaid with silver, from Eigg, 9th century. ©National Museums Scotland

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.

Photograph of oval, intricately designed brooches taken in black and white against a white background. Both brooches are very similar in appearance and size. The brass has been moulded to resemble a lace pattern, with a central sphere and the design creating piers towards the edge of the brooches. Both brooches also have four spheres of brass at the top, bottom and two sides. A plain border surrounds both items.
Brass oval brooches found eroding out of the sand hills at Reay in Caithness, discovered with other objects typically found in Norse Pagan graves. ©National Museums Scotland

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).

Map 8.4 Pagan Viking Graves

Map 8.4 Pagan Viking Graves

The distribution of Pagan Viking Graves in the Highlands. Use your mouse or touchpad to zoom in and out of the map. Click on the data point for more information about the find and a link to the HER record. This map is based on the information in Datasheet 8.4 (please note that some finds in this datasheet may be missing from the map, for example where there are no co-ordinates for antiquarian finds, so please view the datasheet for the further information).

A datasheet is available for Pagan Viking Graves in the Highlands.

FIndspotAreaWhat was found?DatingCommentsRef
CastlehillCSkeleton? Plus some grave goods Female, Buried in top of possible broch moundMHG39803; Batey 1993
Reay LinksCGrave goods At least 3 burialsMHG2529;
Batey 1993
WattenCSkeleton and spearhead 19th century finds, poorly recordedMHG2348; Batey 1993, 151
Longhills, WesterseatCOval brooches Found in a cist on top of a gravel mound. No mention of a bodyMHG2162; Batey 1993
HunaCTimber, rivets, metal objects, now lost Possible boat burial under a mound recorded by Curle in 1935MHG2525; Graham-Campbell and Batey 1998, 68
Thurso BayCOval brooch Possibly from disturbed graveMHG1472 Graham-Campbell and Batey 1998, 69
Murkle Bay, OlrigCHuman bones, iron spearheads Found 1840 in area with long cists and ‘cartloads of human bones’. No finds surviveMHG653; J. Graham-Campbell pers comm
Housle Cairn, HalkirkCHuman remains, bronze rings, iron spearheads, earthenware dish, animal bones Discovered c. 1850 in cairn, and included several cists. No finds surviveMHG661; J. Graham-Campbell pers comm
Lower Dunn North, HalkirkCBones, sword and other objects Discovered 1848 in mound thought at the time to be a broch. No finds surviveMHG2325; J. Graham-Campbell pers comm
HarrowCScandinavian penannular brooch Possibly from disturbed graveMHG2535 Graham-Campbell and Batey 1998, 69
CaithnessC‘Scandinavian’ brooches No further information. In Cambridge Museum Archaeology & Anthropology but not seen. 
OspisdaleSOval brooch, found with urn Possibly from disturbed graveMHG11788; Batey 1993
Dunrobin CastleSOval brooches; axe Probably  from disturbed gravesMHG10866; MHG10845; Batey 1993
Kintradwell BrochSSkeleton, iron spearhead, lead ring Found in outbuilding. Other human remains also from the brochMHG9777; MacKie 2007
BalnakeilNWSBody & grave goods659–768 (cal AD)

Artefacts suggest late 9th or even 10th century. Boy, c. 13 years old; aDNA samplingMHG11310;  Batey and Paterson 2012; Case Study; Balnakeil Boat Burial
KeoldaleNWSPossibly brooches Cairn opened 1832, possibly with broochesBatey 1993, 155
ToteSkyeGrave goods10th century (artefacts)Viking male buried at top of Bronze Age cairn. CremationMHG5134; Case Study; Tote Cairn, Skye
ArdnamurchanL2 teeth; grave goods, boat rivets10th century (artefacts)Isotope analysis undertakenMHG55331; Harris et al 2017
KildonnanEiggGrave goods, including textiles10th century (artefacts)Two adjoining cairns, one possibly reused prehistoric cairnMHG3968; Graham-Campbell and Batey 1998, 84
Crois Mhor, KildonnanEiggGrave goods including fine sword Found c. 1830 in a ‘hillock’ near Kildonnan Chapel, with some intrusive materialMHG14373; Graham-Campbell and Batey 1998, 84
Table 8.6  Viking Pagan Graves in the Highlands
All dates cal at 95.4% probability. For full details of dates, see Datasheet 2.1


Case Study: Balnakeil Viking Burial


Case Study: Tote Cairn Burial


Leave a Reply