IT is an ancient meeting place where Vikings would gather to decide laws, settle disputes and make key political decisions.
Now archaeologists believe they have identified one of the Norse parliament sites – known as a ‘thing’ - on the island of Bute, which points to it being the headquarters of the powerful Norse King, Ketill Flatnose, whose descendants were the earliest settlers on Iceland.
The significance of the mound site at Cnoc An Rath, which has been listed as an important archaeological monument since the 1950s, has been unclear for decades. Some had suggested it could have been prehistoric or a medieval farm site.
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However, the idea of the location being a Viking site had been raised through a recent study of place-names on the island, which suggested long-lost names in the area may have contained the Norse word ‘thing’.
A series of excavations has now uncovered samples of a preserved surface which when analysed through radio-carbon dating correspond to the time when Vikings were active around the Argyll coast.
The new findings were presented yesterday at the Scottish Place-Name Society Conference, held in Rothesay on the Isle of Bute.
Archaeologist Paul Duffy, who runs Brandanii Archaeology and Heritage Consultancy, said the dates had been pinpointed through analysing pieces of charcoal.
He said the dates identified corresponded to the end of the period of the kingdom of Dalriada and the start of Viking settlement on Bute.
“The first date from the site is between the mid 7th Century and the mid 9th century," he said. "That is the end of Dalriada and the time when the Vikings arrive at the end of the 8th Century - so it puts it firmly in the time we were looking at, although maybe a little bit early to be a 'thing' site.
“The second date we got back - was late 7th Century to late 9th century – which puts it quite firmly in the period when we are fairly sure Vikings are active round about the Argyll coast and Bute.”
He added: “What we have found is evidence of human activity on the site, which is suggested to be a 'thing' site, which dates to the same period we would expect 'thing' type activities or assembly activities to be happening on that site.”
Duffy said Bute has been suggested as a possible location for the headquarters of the Gall-Gaidheil – translated as ‘Foreign Gaels’. These Norse-Gael people dominated much of the Irish Sea region, including western Scotland, for a part of the middle Ages and are believed to have offered support to various high Kings of Ireland in battles.
The evidence for the Bute connection is found in the Irish religious text manuscript Martyrology of Tallaght, which dates to around 900AD, and refers to the bishop St Blane of Kingarth on Bute, as being in the territory of the Gall-Gaidheil.
Duffy said:“We have got a very unusual and definite historical evidence which puts Bute in the Gall-Gaidheil territory, and possibly quite an important place in the Gall-Gaidheil territory.
“What we have now is another brick in the evidential wall which suggests there is an assembly site on Bute.”
He also raised the possibility that the leader of the Gall-Gaidheil at that time, Ketill Flatnose, could be linked to the site.
He added: “If you have got people coming in Viking times to the islands for laws to be dispensed and for justice to be handed out, then there is obviously someone that has got to be doing that dispensing of justice and making of laws – and that would be somebody who was quite powerful.
“The most powerful person we have documentary evidence for through the Icelandic sagas at that time is Ketill Flatnose.”
Gilbert Markus, a Celtic and Gaelic researcher at Glasgow University, who carried out the study of place-names on Bute, said the name Cnoc an Rath – Gaelic for hill of the fort – may be relatively recent.
He identified nearby medieval farm names dating back to the 14th century, which are thought to have included the Norse word 'thing'.
“That suggested to me there might be a 'thing' in the area,” he said. “The most obvious site for that is the mound just below the farm, which is now called Cnoc An Rath.”
Dr Barbara Crawford, an honorary reader in history at St Andrews University and an honorary professor at the University of the Highlands and Islands’ Centre for Nordic Studies, had previously suggested it could be a 'thing' site based on geographical location.
She said the new research on dates added to “evidence building up” that it was a 'thing' site.
Crawford said: “This is how historians have to go about studying these Norse settlements areas in this period, because the historical evidence is so thin and in many areas it just doesn’t exist at all in the Viking period.
“One has to use place-names and archaeology and general geographical settlement principles to build up the pattern of what the Viking settlement might have been like.
“That is what has happened here – and very excitingly they have now discovered there is this dating evidence to the 7th-9th Century. That is a firm bit of evidence in the jigsaw puzzle."
SCOTLAND AND THE SAGAS
The character of the 9th Century Norse King Ketill Björnsson – nicknamed Flatnose - is found in various Icelandic sagas including the Laxdoela Saga - seen as one of the greatest sagas of all time - and the Saga of Erik the Red. The sagas, the best-known specimens of Icelandic literature, narrate historical events which took place between the 9th to the early 11th centuries.
While they include characters attested by historical records, real places and many historical events, debate has long raged over to what extent they blend fact with fiction.
According to one of the sagas, Ketill Flatnose led an expedition to defeat Vikings in Orkney and Shetland who were carrying out raids in Norway, and successfully defeated them taking possession of the Hebrides and the Isle of Man. In another saga, Ketill fled to the islands to escape the tyranny of the first King of Norway Harald Fairhair.
Some historians have suggested Ketill may have taken control of the kingdom of Dalriada and its islands, which included parts of western Scotland. Icelandic tradition states that he died on the Scottish islands.
The descendants of Ketill were some of the earliest settlers on Iceland, including his second daughter Aud the Deep-Minded, who married the sea-king Olaf the White. After his death, one version of events is that Aud returned to the Hebrides with their son Thorstein the Red, who later launched an unsuccessful attempt to conquer Scotland.
According to some sources, Olaf the White himself was a descendant of the legendary Viking ruler Ragnar Lodbrok - or Lothbrok - who was said to be the father of renowned figures such as Ivar the Boneless, the leader of the Great Heathen Army which conquered England, and Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye. But, like many Viking legends, much is unclear and whether he really was their father – or even existed - is not known.
THE VIKINGS IN POPULAR CULTURE
The enduring fascination with the Vikings has spawned many depictions in popular culture from literature and comics to films and video games, most often of a bloodthirsty people descending on sleepy villages to rape and pillage.
Box-office hits include the 1958 Hollywood film The Vikings, starting Kirk Douglas, which is based on the sagas of Ragnar Lothbrok and his sons.
The same sagas have also been used as the inspiration for the current TV series Vikings, starring Travis Fimmel as Ragnar Lothbrok and Katheryn Winnick as Lagertha Lothbrock, which is filmed in Ireland and has just finished its fourth series.
However the extent to which the Vikings popular image as marauding barbarians is justified has been challenged in recent years.
Much of the original beliefs about the Vikings were based on records written by monks who were the victims of Viking invasions. But archaeology has increasingly uncovered evidence they were resourceful traders and poets, who wore leather shoes and took care of their appearance.
And while popular culture has come to associate horned helmets as one of the most recognisable images of the Vikings – such as in the comic strip Hagar the Horrible - there is no evidence they ever wore them. While horns are often depicted on Viking brooches and pendants, it is because they used them for drinking at feasts and communication.
The association of the Vikings with horned helmets is thought to have emerged in the 19th Century after they were created as a prop for a performance of Wagner’s Ring Cycle.