Hello readers and welcome to today’s Norsevember post! I’m excited to be taking part in this event this year, and talking about a subject and place I love.
In case you are unfamiliar, Norsevember is a yearly reading event organised and hosted by Alex at Spells and Spaceships. If you want to check out other Norse themed posts already shared and keep up with upcoming content during the rest of the month, then you can check out his blog or X account with these links.
As a fan of history, I have often mumbled about how local school syllabus rarely covers local history. In my case, I’d have happily settled for British history, as a syllabus dedicated to the Isle of Man would be a little niche. It’s not something I know a lot of beyond local knowledge, so preparing for today’s insightful post was the perfect opportunity to brush up!
What we Know of Vikings of Man
The vast majority of evidence we have for Viking presence in the Isle of Man stems from archaeological finds. These largely warlike bands weren’t exactly great at chronicling their movements. Even when Viking presence is alluded to on the Isle of Man in literature, it is only done hundreds of years after first landing on our shores. This sparse and posthumous literature hardly makes for reliable evidence to historians.
Instead, they have turned to physical evidence: burial mounds containing graves or hoards, the foundations of settlements left behind, and most distinctly here on the Isle of Man – memorial stones. Based on the number of stones you can find all over the island, I had formed the impression that they are a common relic of the Viking era. Not so. The Isle of Man has a significantly higher concentration of them, which I’ll talk about a little later.
Graves and Burial Mounds
Two things can be found in abundance when talking about marauding land-takers – booty and death. Some early and other more ‘elite’ Viking graves have uncovered a number of items that the dead were buried with. Such graves tell us more than you would expect. Not only do they indicate the types of items that men and women would use in the period (as it is believed that such items were buried with them to be carried through the afterlife), but they also give us an idea of when they started to settle on the Island.
Comparing such troves to those found in Ireland, what was the Danelaw and Scotland, it’s believed that Vikings settled on the island later than their counterparts along the Irish Sea. It has been speculated that this is because the island was more difficult to get to. As anyone who attempts to travel to or from the island between the months of October and March can testify, sea voyages are frequently rocky… or in stormy weather, non-existent. It’s a small thing, but it’s one of many clues we can glean from the traces left behind.
From basic and unadorned lintel graves to elaborate burials involving small boats and presumed slave sacrifice, there is a wealth of knowledge that can be explored in the remains. The locations of these sites, and apparent shifts in burial styles, are indicative of less tangible but no less probable changes. For example, it’s believed based on changes to burial rites that within a few generations from leaving Scandinavia, settled Vikings adopted a new religion – Christianity.
Settlements and Structures
Being a small island, there is less in the way of structural evidence compared to Dublin, Ireland and other locations across the Irish Sea. However, notable sites include Braaid and St Patrick’s Isle… a fortified islet I used to walk around regularly.
As would be expected for this seafaring peoples, a lot of these locations are based around coasts of the island. That is not to say settlements were exclusive to these regions, but there appears to be a preference for living near the water.
As I mentioned in the introduction, I had formed the impression that memorial stones were a common Viking relic. Whilst some are clearly identifiable as one of four distinct styles in the period, there are many later works that are less clear.
We’ve already established that that existing settlors and Vikings mingled within a matter of generations. This is also broadly supported through these memorial stones via inscriptions and runes. There are several examples of Gaelic and Viking names together on these memorial or commemorative stones. Some are partners, others reference children, but it’s clear that these individuals are related… highly suggestive of intermarriage.
The inscriptions and the language also indicate assimilation over time. Stones identified from the period are initially inscribed with distinct Norse runes. However, throughout the tenth and eleventh century, inscriptions lose their iconic Scandinavian form… presumably to blend with local language.
Place names tell us a lot about the prominence of Viking settlers. Whilst it’s believed that the Viking invaders and local inhabitants commingled and intermarried reasonably quickly, it is commonly held that locals were very likely to have been enslaved when raids occurred. Vikings were therefore the dominant peoples and would have the influence and power of decision making.
Many place names today, despite reintroduction of Gaelic language in later years by the Scots, doff their cap to Scandinavian convention. Key sites like Jurby, Colby and Sulby all have a common denominator… one that is strongly linked to Danish language. These are also key sites where archaeological evidence of Viking presence has been found.
The Isle of Man is governed by its own local government. Although a crown dependency, we have the ability to make an enact our own laws. This is celebrated on the 5th of July every year, locally known as Tynwald day. But where does Tynwald come from?
The annual event is an open air ceremony, which is believed to have strong ties to similar proceedings in the Viking age. Things, Scandinavian assemblies, settled local disputes and generally presiding over how the community was run. Many of these traditions stand today… and the hill on which the event is held is believed to be a key site, if not the one site, such events were held on based on its central location.
The name Tynwald is highly indicative of Viking influence. Similar presiding and locations have been identified with very similar names across both English Shores and Scandinavian. Names like Thingwall (the Wirral, UK), Thingmount (Dublin), have phonetic similarities. When you take into consideration that these are all known meeting places, and in fact, the word “Thing” means a Scandinavian meeting or assembly, then you can see commonality clear as day.
Although there is sufficient evidence of Viking influence on the Isle of Man, there is far more intangible influence we are unable to quantify.
There are only a limited number of sites that are available for excavation and the island is a very small location. Even then, not all sites have been excavated, or will have been done so in the early 20th century at a time where standards were far lower than they are now. Recordkeeping is therefore not as diligent and the finds of these digs are either missing, or inaccurately recorded.
The evidence is also largely centred around archaeological finds. The Isle of Man and key political figures don’t come into literature until the 13th or 14th century… which cannot be relied on for giving us unbiased information.
Even so, it is undeniable that Scandinavian settlers coming to the island have made their mark. What evidence there is on island is often cooperated with other Irish sea locations known to be inhabited by Vikings in the same period. Not all of their influences have clung on into this modern era. But, when you consider these events over a thousand years ago and how their influence still shapes today’s Manx landscapes, and societal structure… it’s clear that they have made a permanent impact on the island.