Islay - History - Norse Influence and The Kingdom of The Isles

Norse Influence and The Kingdom of The Isles

The arrival of Scandinavian settlers on the western seaboard of Scotland in the ninth century had a long-lasting effect. For the next four centuries and more all the islands of the west fell under the control of various rulers of the Kingdom of the Isles most of whom were of Norse origin. As is the case in the Northern Isles, the derivation of place names suggests a complete break from the past. Jennings and Kruse (2009) conclude that although there were settlements prior to the Norse arrival "there is no evidence from the onomasticon that the inhabitants of these settlements ever existed". Gaelic continued to exist as a spoken language in the southern Hebrides throughout the Norse period, but the place name evidence suggests it had a lowly status, possibly indicating an enslaved population.

Godred Crovan was one of the Norse-Gael rulers of this Hebridean sea kingdom who had a connection with Islay. His origins are obscure. The Chronicles of Mann call him the son of Harald the Black of Ysland, (his place or origin variously interpreted as Islay, Ireland or Iceland) and state he "so tamed the Scots that no one who built a ship or boat dared use more than three iron bolts". Godred also became King of Dublin at an unknown date although in 1094 he was driven out of the city by Muircheartach Ua Briain, later known as High King of Ireland, according to the Annals of the Four Masters. He died "of pestilence" on Islay the following year. A local tradition suggests that a standing stone at Carragh Bhàn just north of Loch Finlaggan marks Godred Crovan's grave. A genuine 11th century Norse grave-slab was found at Dóid Mhàiri in 1838, although it was not associated with a burial. The slab is decorated with foliage in the style of Ringerike Viking art and an Irish-style cross, the former being unique in Scandinavian Scotland.

In the 12th century a grand-daughter of Godred Crovan's married the ambitious Somerled, a Norse-Gael Argyll nobleman. Godred Olafsson, a grandson of Crovan, was an increasingly unpopular King of the Isles at the time and Somerled was spurred into action. The two fought the Battle of Epiphany in the seas off Islay in January 1156. The result was a bloody stalemate, and the island kingdom was temporarily divided, with Somerled taking control of the southern Hebrides. Two years later Somerled completely ousted Godred and re-united the kingdom, but the divide was re-established after the former's death in 1164. His Clann Somhairle descendants continued to describe themselves as "King of the Sudreys" until the 13th century but following the 1266 Treaty of Perth the Hebrides were yielded to the Kingdom of Scotland.

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