ECR Case Study: Conversion and Christianity in Viking Age Scotland

A Comparative Study of the Material Culture of Conversion in the Northern and Western Isles

Scott McCreadie 
PhD Researcher, University of Glasgow

The nature and timing of the conversion and Christianisation of the Norse in Scandinavian Scotland – particularly in Shetland, Orkney, and the Outer Hebrides – is still a poorly understood phenomenon. Previous studies in the subject area have primarily focussed on grander political narratives to explain the conversion process, often problematically using later documentary sources (such as Orkneyinga Saga) as a window into this earlier and complex period (Sanmark 2004; Thomas 2004; Vésteinsson 2000). As a result, much of the Christian inroads in these areas have been attributed to outside influence, such as distant, evangelising kings – like Olaf Tryggvason of Norway – and missionary bishops from Anglo-Saxon England and the Continent (Janson 2000, 83-8; Sanmark 2003, 551-8; Abrams 1998, 109-13). There are a small number of studies that have used the archaeological material to attempt to untangle the processes and mechanisms of conversion and Christianisation in Scandinavian Scotland (Barrowman 2011; Morris and Emery 1986, 301-74; Lowe 1998). Unfortunately, these have been predominantly confined to individual chapel sites, dating to the Viking Age and/or Late Norse period, with this single site approach making the identification of wider themes and processes across Scandinavian Scotland difficult.

Kirk ruins made of grey stone
Figure 1: St Magnus’ Church, Egilsay. This is the only surviving example of a fine series of Late Norse steeple kirks that existed throughout Orkney and Shetland, built in the 12th C. ©Scott McCreadie

This research addresses the issues of previous studies of Norse conversion and Christianisation in Scandinavian Scotland by moving past the later historical sources and focusing on the material culture produced by these mechanisms and processes, predominantly in the form of Viking Age and Late Norse period chapel sites (Figure 1). Additionally, this study will move away from the overarching and misleading political narratives and focus on agency on the ground, with native-Norse interactions in these islands being at the forefront of this. Furthermore, chapel sites from across Shetland, Orkney and the Outer Hebrides will be examined in order to identify any trends or distinctions between each of these study areas, and to provide a wider overview of conversion in Scandinavian Scotland. These chapel sites will be put into their immediate and wider landscape context by examining their interactions with the contemporary built environment, such as Norse longhouses, as well as their proximity to upstanding and identifiable ancient monuments that were created before and during the Viking Age.

Despite various technological advancements in the field of archaeology, such as the use of drones and Lidar imaging, essential fieldwork often still requires traipsing about fields in your wellies in the driving rain. Though if you’re lucky, which I often have been, your fieldwork photos resemble holiday pictures from far sunnier climes! My fieldwork trip to Orkney in the summer of 2021 had me experiencing both extremes (Figure 2), whilst I investigated the early medieval chapels and ecclesiastical sculpture of the region. These site visits focused on the landscape context of these chapels and sculpture, as well as their interaction with contemporary secular archaeology in the immediate and wider vicinity.

Sandy shoreline with clear skies
Figure 2: The Westray Riviera. A brief moment of glorious sunshine that created a Caribbean atmosphere, until you went into the water… ©Scott McCreadie

Prior to my fieldwork, I had completed an extensive desk-based assessment into the relevant Viking Age and Late Norse period sites in Orkney, in order to make my time in the field as productive and efficient as possible. This overview included archaeology such as: Viking Age and/or Late Norse chapel sites, find spots of relevant ecclesiastical sculpture and church furniture, early medieval monastic sites etc. The relevance and accessibility of each site was assessed before creating a final fieldwork plan, prioritising sites that could be firmly dated to the Viking Age and/or Late Norse period and produced clear signs of ecclesiastical activity. The original fieldwork methodology had been rigorously tested during an intensive fieldwork season in the Outer Hebrides in the summer of 2020, and was subsequently developed and improved for further seasons of work in Orkney and Shetland. Each site visit consisted of a digital 360 panoramic survey from the most prominent point of the site, and a comprehensive digital photographic survey of the ecclesiastical archaeology (chapels, cross-incised stones etc), as well as any relevant contemporary secular sites in the immediate vicinity. This methodology put these chapel sites into their landscape context (something that is often overlooked) and identified interactions with the contemporary built environment and possible terrestrial and maritime approaches to the site. Additionally, appropriate experiential data was recorded at each site – such as initial impressions, predominant sounds etc – in order to build a picture of how individuals could potentially interact with these sites in the Viking Age and Late Norse period. The results of this fieldwork will be compared and contrasted with data produced from fieldwork seasons in both the Outer Hebrides and Shetland, in order to create a wider survey of Norse Christianisation and conversion in the Northern and Western Isles during the Viking Age and Late Norse period.

A high sea stack covered in moss and with a visible ruin
Figure 3: The Viking Age and Late Norse power centre on the Brough of Deerness, with possible evidence of continuity of occupation from the Pictish period. The Late Norse stone chapel is the only upstanding structure on the stack. ©Scott McCreadie

The archaeology visited on this trip ranged from faint outlines of buried chapel walls in overgrown fields to the overwhelming grandeur of St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall. Some of these sites are located within well known, and often visited, Viking Age and Late Norse power centres, such as the Broughs of Birsay and Deerness (Figure 3). Others are largely overlooked monuments that are now being irreversibly lost to the unrelenting force of the wind and waves. Despite the disparity in survival and levels of archaeological intervention, all of these sites are vital for piecing together the nature and timeframe of the conversion of the Norse to Christianity in these islands, and further afield.

This whirlwind trip consisted of over 21 site visits in around three weeks, producing a huge amount of raw archaeological data that will be analysed and interpreted over the coming months. This data will then be compared with that gathered from the Outer Hebrides and Shetland (Figure 4) in order to discuss the wider trends and narratives of Norse Christianisation and conversion in Scandinavian Scotland. The summer of 2021 was a hugely productive season of fieldwork that allowed me to visit some truly spectacular sites in some incredibly beautiful surroundings, and I am exceedingly grateful to ScARF for providing funds that contributed to making this possible.

small chapel ruin overgrown with moss
Figure 4 : St Ninian’s Isle, Shetland. This site has produced a great deal of Pictish, Viking Age, and Late Norse ecclesiastical activity, and is one of the many Shetland chapel sites that will be compared with those from Orkney and the Outer Hebrides. ©Scott McCreadie


Abrams, Lesley. 1998. History and Archaeology: The Conversion of Scandinavia. In: Barbara E. Crawford (ed.), Conversion and Christianity in the North Sea World. St Andrews: St John’s House Papers No.8, 109-128.

Barrowman, Rachel. C. 2011. The Chapel and Burial Ground on St Ninian’s Isle, Shetland: Excavations Past and Present (The Society for Medieval Archaeology Monograph 32). London: The Society for Medieval Archaeology.

Janson, Henrik. 2000. Adam of Bremen and the Conversion of Scandinavia. In: Christianizing Peoples and Converting Individuals, 83-88.

Lowe, Christopher. 1998. Coastal Erosion and the Archaeological Assessment of an Eroding Shoreline at St Boniface Church, Papa Westray, Orkney. Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing, in association with Historic Scotland.

Morris, Chrstopher D. and Emery, Norman. 1986. The Chapel and Enclosure on the Brough of Deerness, Orkney: survey and excavations, 1975-1977. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 116, 301-374.

Sanmark, Alexandra. 2003. The Role of Secular Rulers in the Conversion of Sweden. In: M. Carver (ed.), The Cross Goes North: Processes of Conversion in Northern Europe, AD 300-1300. York: York Medieval Press, 551-558.

Sanmark, Alexandra. 2004. Power and Conversion: A Comparative Study of Christianisation in Scandinavia. Occasional Papers in Archaeology 34. Uppsala: University of Uppsala.

Thomas, Sarah Elisabeth. 2004. The Christianisation of the Hebridean Norse: An Examination of the process of Christianisation AD 800 to 1100 (Unpublished Masters Thesis). Centre for Viking and Medieval Studies, University of Oslo.

Vésteinsson, Orri. 2000. The Christianization of Iceland: Priests, Power, and Social Change 1000-1300. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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