The Vikings occupied Scotland's most northerly outposts longer than anywhere else in the British Isles.
Historical connections between Orkney, Shetland, and Norway are extensive, but even a church in the center of Glasgow holds a little-known treasure from the Viking era, while the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh is where you'll find the key attraction of the Lewis Chessmen.
From April until October, a collection of rare artifacts from the Viking era is free to see in a historic church in the center of Glasgow. The Govan Stones, so called because they were discovered at the Govan Old Parish Church near the former shipyards beside the River Clyde in the heart of the Scottish metropolis, are open to the public every afternoon.
Carefully arranged for display alongside informative documentation, these precious relics from 1,000 years ago can also be viewed as part of a guided tour or group visit.
The Govan Stones comprise a sarcophagus delicately carved with animal figures, five arched gravestones known as hogbacks because of their shape, and two-dozen patterned crosses and slabs that would have been used to adorn and cover the resting places of the elite.
Their shape is thought to resemble a house for the departed concerned, often a Viking warrior, a trend possibly set by Danish settlers in northern England in the 870s. Those found in Scotland follow a route down the Forth of Clyde.
The four largest-known examples in Britain form part of the Govan Stones, which stood in the early medieval churchyard here until being unearthed in the mid-1800s.
To find out more about this unusual attraction, see the recent interview in The Viking Herald with the Professor of Historical Archaeology at the University of Glasgow, Stephen Driscoll.
Govan Stones, 866 Govan Road, Glasgow G51 3UU.
The public can visit the Govan Stones and view them in a display that includes informative documentation. Photo: Tom Manley
The Norse era is only one of many layers at this remarkable prehistoric site in the Shetlands, where finds have dated back 5,000 years.
The Norse period covers the 500 years of Scandinavian occupation here, with discoveries beginning with the excavation in the 1930s of a Viking longhouse, the first to be found in the British Isles.
Seven Norse-era houses were later revealed, along with ample evidence of fishing and farming activities. Iron tools, carvings, and a horse harness were also uncovered. The key finds duly made their way to the Shetland Museum in Lerwick, opened by Queen Sonja of Norway in 2007.
Jarlshof is open to the public all year round, every day between April and September, Tuesdays to Saturdays between October and March.
Jarlshof, Sumburgh, Shetland ZE3 9JN.
The Jarlshof archaeological site in Shetland, Scotland. Photo: Liz Miller / Shutterstock
In the early 1800s, on a Hebridean beach, 92 pieces of a Nordic game board were exposed by the rushing sea waters lapping the sandbank of a beach in Uig on the west coast of Skye.
Seventy-eight of them were what later became known as the Lewis Chessmen, or Uig Chessmen to locals living around this natural harbor in Northwest Scotland.
Each of their faces was individual and expressed their character, kings, queens, bishops, and rook warriors biting their shields.
Detail about the discovery, and the subsequent journey these chessmen made, is shrouded in mystery, but what we do know is that 11 of the items can now be seen in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. The rest are kept in the British Museum in London.
To visit the likely find site is to realize the extent of the Norse connection here, even today. The many Nordic place names include Uig itself, derived from vik, meaning 'bay' and etymologically linked to 'Viking.'
National Museum of Scotland, Chambers Street, Edinburgh EH1 1JF.
A visitor looking at the Lewis chessmen at the British Museum in London, UK. Photo: Kraft_Stoff / Shutterstock
Magnus the Viking
The popular seaside resort of Largs is most associated with ice cream parlors and the paddle steamer that ferries holidaymakers in summer.
But it was here in 1263 that the Scots neutralized the Viking army, which allowed Scotland to regain control of its western seaboard in return for an annual payment.
This heritage has given rise to a number of Norse-related attractions, one of which is the 16-foot-tall statue of Magnus the Viking, unveiled in 2013 to commemorate the 750th anniversary of the battle.
Created by David Ogilvie Engineering of nearby Kilmarnock, the statue does not depict a single figure but rather represents the era as a whole – it was Haakon Haakonarson (or Haakon IV) who tried to reassert sovereignty, unsuccessfully so after the Battle of Largs.
The monarch duly retired to Orkney, where he fell in and died that same year. The cathedral in which he was originally buried, in Kirkwall, is another Viking attraction.
18 Greenock Road, Largs, KA30 8NE.
Magnus, the 16-foot steel Viking, presented to celebrate the 750th anniversary of the 1263 battle of Largs. Photo: Alistair McDonald / Shutterstock
Occupied for millennia, this archaeological site near the Shetland village of Scatness has revealed discoveries from the Iron Age to the Viking era and beyond.
First significantly excavated in the late 1970s when nearby Sumburgh Airport was being renovated, Scatness is best known for its drystone roundhouse or broch, a defensive structure, this one dating back to the Iron Age.
In terms of Norse finds, there's a Viking floor and hearth, along with various soapstone artifacts. Scatness can be visited as part of a guided tour every Friday throughout the summer, until September 1. Tours last 45 minutes and can be booked here.
Old Scatness, Sumburgh, Shetland ZE3 9JW.
The archeological site of Old Scatness, in Shetland, Scotland. Photo: Van de Beek / CC BY-SA 3.0
St. Magnus Cathedral
Scotland's oldest and most northerly cathedral was founded in 1137 by Rognvald Kali Kolsson, in honor of his uncle, Magnus Erlendsson, who was martyred nearby around 1115.
As described in three Norse sagas, Magnus used Orkney as his base to raid the west coast of Scotland and Ireland, but then fell into a dispute over succession with his cousin, Haakon.
After a failed peace negotiation, Haakon had Magnus executed, and he was later buried at St. Magnus Church on the island of Egilsay, the site of his martyrdom.
While this is now a ruin, you can certainly visit St Magnus Cathedral, which Magnus's nephew began to construct in the main town of Kirkwall. This took 300 years to build out of red and yellow sandstone, incorporating the bones of Magnus Erlendsson within its pillars.
Admission is free and guided tours can be arranged. The church hall acts as a modest visitor center and library.
The cathedral is one of the host venues of the week-long arts festival, also named after St. Magnus, that takes place every June.
St. Magnus Cathedral, Broad Street, Kirkwall KW15 1NX.
St. Magnus Cathedral, located in Kirkwall, Orkney Islands, Scotland. Photo: Gonzalo Buzonni / Shutterstock
Scar Boat Burial
Although there's not so much to see here now, it's still a thrill to stroll along Crook Beach on the Orkney island of Sanday, as it's where a local farmer stumbled across bones sticking out of the ground in 1985.
Six years later, archaeologist Julie Gibson did a more thorough search of the site, its Norse remains under constant threat of coastal erosion on this wild seafront.
What a team from Historic Scotland, under the leadership of the renowned archaeologist Magnar Dalland, found was the 300 rivets that once held together a Viking burial boat, in which were buried three people: an elderly woman, a middle-aged man and a child of around ten years of age.
The grave goods alongside were notable and included a sword, a bone comb, gaming pieces, a gilded broach, and the so-called Scar Dragon Plaque, made of whalebone.
The Scar Dragon Plaque, possibly used as a smoothing board for clothing, can now be seen in the Orkney Museum in Kirkwall.
Scar Boat Burial, Crook Beach, Scar, Sanday, Orkney KW17 2AZ.
A beach in Sanday, Orkney Islands, Scotland. Photo: Kevin George / Shutterstock
The Shetland Amenity Trust, based in Lerwick, acquired the Skidblader ship in 2006, and it has since become a popular visitor attraction.
Visitors can board this full-sized replica of the famous Gokstad ship, found in a Viking burial mound in Norway in 1880, to get a sense of what it would have been like to have sat in the original around 1,000 years ago.
Its location, beside a reconstructed Viking longhouse at Unst on Shetland, harks back to Harald Fairhair. The Norwegian monarch, under whose reign the Gokstad sailed, once landed here, hence the name of the nearest bay, Haroldswick.
This type of Viking ship was suitable for a variety of purposes, including trade, warfare, and general travel. Like the Gokstad, the Skidbladner is largely made of oak, built in the clinker fashion, which made her light and flexible.
The Vikings invented both the keel and the steering oar, which gave them more control over where they went, and were key factors in enabling their domination of the waves.
The Skidbladner, Unst, Shetland ZE2 9ED.
A beach at Collaster on the west coast of the island of Unst in Shetland. Photo: AlanMorris / Shutterstock
Up Helly Aa
Held on the last Tuesday in January, the Viking festival Up Helly Aa ('Up Holy All') in Shetland's main town of Lerwick is the biggest of its kind on these islands halfway between Scotland and Norway.
In the late 1800s, young locals decided to act upon a resurgence of interest in Norse history and introduce a ceremony to celebrate this heritage.
As explained by a visit to the Shetland Museum and Archives in Lerwick, each main community across the islands holds its own version of the Up Helly Aa.
Lerwick's features costumed participants, known as guizers, who march through the town carrying torches that they use to burn down a replica of a Viking longship.
Participants must have been a local resident for at least five years, and in 2023, females were allowed for the first time. Tourists fill Lerwick's hotels and guesthouses for the event, and locals line the procession of the longship replica through town.
Up Helly Aa, Lerwick, Shetland.
Over the past two decades, there has been a resurgence in interest in Viking fire festivals. Pictured is the Viking festival Up Helly Aa. Source: Andrew J Shearer / Shutterstock
This family-friendly visitor attraction takes its inspiration from the Viking heritage of Largs, a seaside resort along the Ayrshire coast.
It was here in 1263 that the Norsemen failed to assert control over the Scots and so allowed them to reassert sovereignty over their western seaboard – for an annual fee, of course.
Vikingar! features a replica of a Viking longhouse, replica helmets, armor, and weapons that you can try for yourself, a 15-minute presentation of the Norse presence in Scotland in the Valhalladrome, and a personal message from Odin.
The aim is to give visitors a whole day to experience what Viking life would have been like 1,000 years ago. Tours run weekends in February and November, then daily from March to October.
Largs is also where you find the statue of Magnus the Viking (see above), right on the seafront.
Vikingar!, 40 Greenock Road, Largs KA30 8QL.
The town of Largs, situated in North Ayrshire, Scotland. Photo: David Falconer / Shutterstock
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