It is today fashionable among historians and commentators to recast the Vikings as a more peaceable group of settlers who came to places like the British Isles to trade valuable goods, swap farming tips, and exchange cultural niceties.
There is some truth to this, of course – a considerable number of Norse people did indeed integrate and settle abroad without any undue trouble.
At the same time, the Vikings (or, more specifically, the seafaring marauders who regularly ventured overseas) didn't establish a fearsome reputation as brutal raiders for nothing.
A murky picture
Unfortunately, we have precious little archeological evidence of Viking raids.
One exception is found at the former monastery of Portmahomack, where an excavation revealed signs of a violent attack that devastated the religious community.
Generally, however, when trying to understand how this reputation developed, we tend to have to rely on detailed written accounts from terror-stricken Anglo-Saxon, Celtic, and Frankish scribes.
Yet, while they may not always present an entirely objective picture, they do give us an indication of how these raids sometimes unfolded, including the case of Iona Abbey, situated on a tiny Scottish island in the Inner Hebrides.
The frequency of Viking raids in Scotland revealed a dual purpose with a desire to chart unknown territories and the allure of seizing the treasures that lay within them. Photo: maradon333 / Shutterstock
Exploration mixed with blood
The Vikings are believed to have raided areas of Scotland on a regular basis from the end of the eighth century onwards, terrorizing local Pictish and Celtic residents.
Their intentions were likely two-fold: first, to explore and potentially gain footholds in the local area – perhaps with a view to potential settlement – and second, to enjoy the spoils of their aggressive feats.
Indeed, in true pirate style, these Vikings were thought to have often departed with hordes of treasure.
Contemporary written descriptions of Viking raids inform us that they often removed religious ornaments, precious metals, and other items of significant value.
Naturally, the acquisition of such objects brought the raiders both wealth and prestige on their return to their homeland.
At the same time, it can also be assumed that tales of these new lands and their apparent riches lured the Norse to seek them out in ever greater numbers.
Iona Abbey and Christian martyrs
While the famous attack on Lindisfarne in 793 marks for many the very beginning of the Viking Age, the first of a reported four attacks on Iona Abbey just two years later may have been the first Viking raid on the shores of Scotland.
The most brutal assault on Iona came in 806 when a total of 68 monks were ruthlessly slaughtered by the invaders.
Many of them had been conducting painstaking work on the Book of Kells, an illuminated Latin manuscript of the Gospel.
After the attack, some of the survivors are reported to have fled to the Abbey of Kells, where they continued their work.
The final raid, which came in 825, brought the monastery to the brink of total destruction.
Yet the fortitude of the monks on Iona was just as striking as the brutality of the attacks, and the site became known throughout Europe for the bravery of its inhabitants.
As far away as the Carolingian monastery of Reichenau in modern-day Germany, the scholar Walahfrid Strabo was moved to write a poem about the martyrdom of Blathmac of Iona:
A certain island lies on the shores of the Picts, placed in the wave-tossed brine; it is called Eo, where the saint of the Lord, Columba, rests in the flesh. This island he [Blathmac] sought under his vow to suffer the scars of Christ, for here, the frequent hordes of pagan Danes were wont to come armed with malignant furies.
Survivors of the brutal Viking attack on Iona Abbey sought refuge at the Abbey of Kells, continuing their sacred work on the renowned Book of Kells. Photo: Yair Haklai / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)
A grisly end
In Strabo's poem, Blathmac was determined to resist the pagan terror. Even as they sought to seize the precious treasure, he refused to give away its location:
This was the plunder the Danes desired; but the holy man stood firm with unarmed hand, with a stern determination of mind; taught to stand against foes and to challenge encounter, unaccustomed to yield. He then addressed the barbarians in the following words:
"I know not of the gold you seek, where it may be placed in the ground, and in what recesses it may be hidden; but if it were permitted by Christ for me to know, never would these lips tell it to your ears. Savagely bring your swords, seize their hilts, and kill. O God, I commend my humble self to Thy protection."
Naturally, the Norse invaders made short work of the noble Christian:
Hereupon, the pious victim was cut in pieces with severed limbs, and what the fierce warrior could not compensate with a price, he began to seek out by wounds in the stiffened entrails. Nor is it a wonder, for there always were and always will arise those whom evil rage will excite against the servants of the Lord.
Unbowed by fate
Miraculously, the religious community on Iona persisted.
Despite the island being attacked once again by a Danish war party during a struggle for power in Ireland, it was later seized by the King of Norway in 1114, who held it for some 50 years.
Ironically, while some of the relics from Iona were later moved to two other locations in Scotland and Ireland – Dunkeld and Kells – these two sites were both later raided several times over by Viking forces.
At Iona, there was a continuous religious presence on the island for more than 500 years before the Scottish Reformation saw the abbey abandoned and the monks dispersed.
The abbey is today the spiritual home of the Iona Community, an ecumenical Christian religious order, and remains a popular site of Christian pilgrimage.
While today's Easter Ross boasts serene landscapes, its soil conceals evidence of a brutal Viking raid on Portmahomack centuries ago. Photo: andy morehouse / Shutterstock
The scorched earth of Portmahomack
While the evidence of the attacks at Iona Abbey was largely limited to written accounts, proof of a brutal attack at the Monastery of Portmahomack is predominantly archeological.
Indeed, it appeared lost to posterity for centuries, but its remains were finally revealed and confirmed through archaeological investigations from 1994 to 2007.
The excavations uncovered smashed fragments of stone sculptures and the ashes of buildings that appear to have been torched.
In the burial area of the church site, archeologists also revealed the remains of two men who had suffered deep incisions on the skull, most likely struck down by an axe or sword blade.
Although it is impossible to say with 100 percent certainty that Vikings carried out the attack, it has been dated to the ninth century, when Vikings were known to have been exploring and raiding along the coast of Scotland.
The damage is also consistent with written descriptions of other similar attacks by the Norse.
Today, the settlement of Portmahomack is a scenic fishing village in the region of Easter Ross, but unlike Iona Abbey, the monastery here never recovered from the violent blow.
The records tell us that there were many more documented Viking raids in Scotland during the ninth century.
Yet, as the Norse became more familiar with the area and ever confident of committing larger groups, raids turned into full-scale invasions.
In turn, these grew into prolonged struggles for power and eventually an extended period of settlement and integration that still has its influence today.
The Inner Hebrides, where Iona is located, was eventually conquered by the Vikings in 845 and was dominated by Norse culture for centuries to come.
Similarly, Easter Ross was also thought to have been settled and inhabited by Vikings for hundreds of years.
Yet while the Norse may have outgrown their pirate-inclined origins, they never truly shook off their reputation as brutal raiders – perhaps not a bad thing when trying to conquer foreign lands.
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