ECR Case Study: Norse strategies of reuse in the palimpsestic landscapes of the Western and Northern Isles

Jake Clarke, University of Highlands and Islands


Memory is deeply intertwined with place – the very structure of our brains creates a natural relationship between our sense of location and our ability to remember (Schiller et al, 2015). Landmarks such as monuments provide physical reminders of our place in the world, and memories are easily associated with places. Monuments are often testaments to power and community, but they can also act as anchors for communal memory, particularly when embodied in ritual or story. 

A view of the Broch of Gurness, which was reused as a burial mound during the Viking Age, looking over to the Isle of Rousay © Jake Clarke

At home in Viking Age Norway, interaction with the monuments and ruins of the past was an important part of settlement and mortuary practice, and this interplay between past and present, ancestors and descendants, appears to have been an important part of Viking Age Scandinavian culture and legislative practice (Thäte 2007; Hållans Stenholm 2012). Taking place a few scant centuries before Norse arrival in the Isles, the Anglo-Saxon reuse of prehistoric monuments in England points to the importance of culturally contextualising and redefining the landscape as a colonial practice in early medieval Europe (Semple 2013). 

Moving into the palimpsestic landscapes of the Scottish Isles, the Norse would have encountered places filled with unfamiliar reminders of the past – a landscape filled with the memories of those who lived there previously, and, quite probably, of people who still lived there. Memories of different cultural practices, different power structures, different languages. Memories that may have clashed and conflicted with the worldviews of the incoming settlers. 

The aim of my thesis was to glimpse how Norse landscape practices and cultural perceptions intersected with the remains of past settlement, and how this intersection shaped Norse settlement and landscape practices within the Western Isles and Orkney. As such, I focused on the role of memory and perception as factors in landscape use alongside functionalistic factors. I investigated two study areas – Loch Ròg in Lewis, and the Isle of Rousay in Orkney – both areas that have seen extensive excavation of Viking Age settlements and sites. 

Maps showing the extents of both study areas © Jake Clarke

Important to this thesis was its theoretical background, which had posthumanistic considerations. Multiple sources suggest that the Norse worldview was understood through a lens of animism (Hedeager 2008; Raudvere 2008). To the Norse, their homesteads and the landscapes around them were filled with spirits with their own wants, needs and agency. Coupled with the importance of law in Norse culture, this influenced aspects of settlement practice – for example, the odal system of inheritance in which the presence of a burial mound within the bounds of a farmstead legitimised the land claim of the occupants, while the ancestral spirit within the mound was seen to protect the steading (Thäte 2007; Raudvere 2008). Another important consideration was the concept of memory practice in regards to monuments – particularly useful here was Ann-Mari Hållans Stenholm’s exploration of this in a Swedish Viking Age context (2012). It should be acknowledged that the approach and aims of my thesis is very similar to that of Alison Leonard’s paper ‘Vikings in the Prehistoric Landscape’ (2011), which used the area around Birsay Bay and the Heart of Neolithic Orkney as its study areas, which was valuable in contextualising my own findings. 

Due to the complex nature of the questions I was asking, and the inevitable incompleteness of the archaeological understanding of the landscape, I had to take a holistic approach to research and analysis. As such, I reviewed the geographic, archaeological and toponymic backgrounds of both study areas, populated GIS maps of the study areas using Historic Environment Scotland’s Canmore HER and toponymic sources, created a corpus containing information on all notable sites within the study areas, and used these resources to perform spatial analysis. Circumstances meant I was limited to coarse 30m/pixel DTMs, complicating terrain-based analysis such as least-cost-path analysis but still useful for examining settlement distribution and monument visibility. 

Some of the maps produced as part of the thesis. Basic least-cost path analysis suggests that most travel between settlements was done via the sea. Comparing this data with monument viewshed shows the landscape dominance of prehistoric sites within the study areas. Maps by Jake Clarke, using open access SRTM data.


Both areas saw extensive association of Norse settlement with Iron Age settlement, with buildings frequently being placed on top of or adjacent to ruined Iron Age structures. A similar pattern can be seen with reuse of Iron Age sites and cemeteries for Viking Age burials. 

While outside the bounds of the study area, the use of Iron Age broch mounds as Þing sites at Dingieshowe and Tingwall indicates another facet of reuse – the transformation of Iron Age sites into areas for Norse legislative gatherings. A similar practice can be glimpsed with through the distribution of chapel sites in the Rousay study area – the majority of these ecclesiastic structures are associated with (likely Iron Age) settlement mounds. It is possible that this is because these mounds were used as communal gathering sites prior to Christianisation. The potential reuse of the wheelhouse mound at Bornais as a gathering place in the Viking Age points to this also occurring in the Western Isles, though an association of chapel sites with Iron Age settlement isn’t evident in the Loch Ròg study area (Sharples 2012). This may be due to early Christian influences in the area prior to Norse colonisation providing a different framework for chapel construction following Christianisation. 

Excavations at the Knowe of Swandro, 2019, which I was lucky enough to be able to join as a volunteer. Previous work has found midden material associated with the nearby farmstead at Westness © Jake Clarke

Of course, much of this reuse can be put down to pragmatism. Pre-existing settlements were close to productive land, well placed within the landscape, and were a source of building material. However, in colonial terms, this reuse of Iron Age settlement by the Norse may have acted as a statement of dominion, as well as serving to redefine the settlement as culturally Norse. This was the conclusion of Leonard in her analysis of Norse settlement patterns at Birsay Bay (2011). Additionally, within the Norse worldview, the farmstead was as much home to ritual practice and its own spirits as the landscape surrounding it (Raudvere 2008) – these considerations would have guided reuse as well. 

A noted lack of settlement continuity might be explained by the remaining pre-Norse population of the Isles being encouraged (peacefully or otherwise) to move into Norse settlements as part of the colonisation process, fostering acculturation. Through a lens of memory theory, the specific reuse of remnants of (frequently monumental) pre-Norse settlements as gathering places might have been an effort to overwrite cultural memories of these places of (perceived) Iron Age power with memories and conceptions of the sites as places of Norse legislative control. This process would have both cemented the legitimacy of Norse land ownership and culturally ‘sanitised’ these potentially problematic places to fit with Norse worldviews. 

In terms of mortuary reuse, the Viking cemetery inserted into a Bronze Age cairn complex at Cnip is unusual – it is possible that nearby Iron Age settlement meant that the Norse perceived the cairns as roughly contemporary. In Viking Age Norway, mound burials and reuse of Migration period (c 400-550 CE) mortuary monuments were common funerary practices (Thäte 2007) – as such, it is possible that the graves at Cnip represent a straightforward transposition of Norse burial practices to this area. Alongside the burials at Gurness and Moaness, these practices again seem to be a way of acculturating the built landscape itself. 

A virtual reconstruction of the Norse longhouse at Bornais, as seen in the Uist Unearthed augmented reality app. Part of the structure of this longhouse incorporated the remains of the Viking Age longhouse it was built atop, possibly as a regional adaptation of the Odal system © Uist Unearthed

In contrast to the rich evidence for Viking reuse of Iron Age sites, the pre-Iron Age barrows, cairns and standing stones that litter the landscapes of both study areas appear to have been largely left alone, similar to Leonard’s findings at the Heart of Neolithic Orkney (2011). While some exceptions exist, they are unusual and may have other explanations. For example – the ditch bounding the Neolithic chambered tomb of Maeshowe was rebuilt during the 9th century, which has been alternatively interpreted as showing reuse as either the tomb of an important figure or use of the mound as a Þing site (Ritchie 1996; Sanmark 2012). However, an alternative name for Maeshowe was Ork(a)haugr. One interpretation for this placename is that the ‘Ork’ element refers to the pre-Norse inhabitants of Orkney, thus an interpretation of the name is ‘Mound of the Orcadians’ (Ljosland 2018). If this was how the site was perceived by Viking Age settlers, it may have been subjected to the same redefinition-through-reuse as other perceived Iron Age sites. 

It is through folklore and etymology that we can glimpse aspects of the Norse animistic traditions discussed above and perhaps understand this lack of interaction – for example, the word tursachan (a local name for the standing stones of the Callanais monumental complex) is based in the Old Norse þurs, meaning ‘troll’ (Mac an Tàilleir 2003). This seems to be a clear reference to the Norse understanding that such stones were the petrified remains of spirits caught out in the sun. 

Similarly, the hogboys and trows that inhabit cairns in Orcadian folklore find their roots in the Old Norse words haugbui (lit: ‘mound dweller’) and draugr (a term associated with ‘undeath’) respectively – both terms for the restless dead (Hållans Stenholm 2012). To Norse eyes, the countless mounds in the landscape were populated by spirits that would not take kindly to their homes being disturbed. Through oral tradition, the stories about these places and their juxtaposition against the reused remains of the Iron Age would have fostered cultural memories which emphasised that these places were to be left alone. 


Overall, the Norse approach to pre-Norse settlement remains and monuments appears to have been consistent between both study areas: Iron Age settlements and sites were exploited, resettled and redefined through the rituality of daily life, legislative practice and funerary rites. Earlier monuments were left largely undisturbed, and became associated with spirits in local folklore. 

This interaction, and studied lack thereof, indicates a deeply considered approach to the palimpsestic landscape in terms of Norse settlement practices which is nonetheless consistent with what we know about the Norse worldview. Those differences that occur later in the archaeological record – the aforementioned chapel placement in Orkney, and occasional association of shielings with upland monuments in the Outer Hebrides – can likely be attributed to differences in cultural influences and landscape morphology between the two areas. 

Currently, our understanding of Viking Age settlement patterns is limited, with relatively few settlements within both study areas having been archaeologically demonstrated to date from this period.I think the topic of reuse and memory practice in the Western and Northern Isles has a lot of potential for further work, and I’d love to have the chance to return to it – hopefully with the chance to spend much more time within the landscapes I’m studying! 


Hållans Stenholm, A-M 2012 Fornminnen: det förflutnas roll i det förkristna och kristna Mälardalen. Lund: Nordic Academic Press.  

Hedeager, L 2008 Scandinavia before the Viking Age. In: Brink, S and Price, N (eds) The Viking World, London: Routledge, 11-22.  

Leonard, A 2011 ‘Vikings in the Prehistoric Landscape: Studies on Mainland Orkney’, Landscapes, 12: 1, 42-68. 

Ljosland, R 2018 ‘Maeshowe, Orkahaugr – The names of Orkney’s great burial mound as nodes in a herteroglossic web of meaning-making’, in: Plumb, O (ed.) What is North?: Imagining the North from Ancient Times to the Present Day, Turnhout: Brepols Publishers, pp.193-210 

Mac an Tàilleir, I 2003 Placenames collected by Iain Mac an Tàilleir, Edinburgh: Scottish Parliament. 

Raudvere, C 2008 Popular religion in the Viking Age. In: Brink, S and Price, N (eds) The Viking World, London: Routledge, 259-272.  

Ritchie, A 1996 Exploring Scotland’s Heritage: Orkney, Edinburgh: RCAHMS. 

Sanmark, A 2012 ‘Althing and lawthing in Orkney’, available at:—exhibitions/old-mimirs-well-articles/althing-and-lawthing-in-orkney/  (last accessed 20/06/23). 

Schiller, D, Eichenbaum, H, Buffalo, E A, Davachi, L, Foster, D J, Leutgeb, S, and Ranganath, C 2015 ‘Memory and space: towards an understanding of the cognitive map’, Journal of Neuroscience 35(41), 13904-13911. 

Sharples, N 2012 A late iron age farmstead in the Outer Hebrides: Excavations at mound 1, Bornais, South Uist, Oxford: Oxbow Books. 

Semple, S 2013 Perceptions of the Prehistoric in Anglo-Saxon England: Religion, Ritual and Rulership in the Landscape, Oxford: Oxford University Press. 

Thäte, E S 2007 Monuments and Minds: Monument Re-use in Scandinavia in the Second Half of the First Millennium AD, Lund: Gleerup.