THE Nordic countries have been the focus of considerable interest among independence referendum campaigners, many of whom argue that Scotland has much to learn from its more prosperous, communitarian and equality-minded northerly neighbours.

The Scandinavian nations are, as the BBC journalist Alan Little noted recently, "often held up as an example of what Scotland could aspire to become: they are benign, non-belligerent, socially harmonious and prosperous social democracies". Some argue that an independent Scotland could flourish if it aligned itself with the Nordic Pact.

Are they really suggesting we should form an alliance with a people who once invaded these islands, raping women, pillaging our farmsteads and sacking our monasteries? The truth is, of course, that Scotland's cultural history is already inextricably bound up with that of our Scandinavian neighbours. I am talking about the Norse of the Viking Age (c793-c1066) who lived in what is now modern Scandinavia and settlements like Orkney, Shetland, the Faroes, Iceland, Greenland and, briefly, North America.

Loading article content

Unlike in England, where the Danelaw denotes a geographical area once ruled by Danish laws, there is no single name for the Norse occupation of Scotland. Having lost power and influence early on in the development of the kingdom of Scotland, they have historically been seen as "other" to this country. The truth is, however, that the Norse are woven right through the tapestry (or tartan) of Scottish history and culture. As settlers and traders, they left a permanent imprint on our legal system and languages. Their influence is also in our names: stand up Lachlan: the Norseman or "Lochlannach" in Gaelic; MacLeod (son of Ljot); MacAulay (son of Olaf); MacSween (son of Sweyn). Then there are place names: Stornoway comes from the Old Norse stjorn for "steerage" or "rudder" and vágr for "bay", while Ullapool comes from Olaf combined with bólstaðr, meaning "farmstead", to create "Olaf's farm".

Perceptions of the Norse as plundering, violent, dirty, alien male savages who swooped down out of the inchoate darkness of the north in their longships, ravaged the land and left to attack elsewhere are prevalent. The Norse, however, have long been victims of a negative press. The mediaeval German chronicler Adam of Bremen depicted them as scary foreign beasts; but they were reinvented in Victorian times as noble warriors. In the 20th century, this was subverted in National Socialist iconography, which suggested that the Nazis were the natural descendants of these warriors. All these are fictions with a political agenda. The truth is much more interesting and illuminating.

Let's start with the nomenclature. The word "víking" derives from the feminine noun vík, meaning "creek, inlet, small bay". It refers not to a people but an activity: originally to go on an expedition or, later, to raid - a term which, during the Viking age, did not carry a negative connotation. When applied to a man, "viking" refers, in skaldic poetry and runic inscriptions, to a seaman or one who goes on expeditions.

During the era now referred to as the Viking age, the Norse people were called the ascomanni or "ashmen" by Germans. To the Gaels they were Lochlannaich or "Norsemen"; to the Anglo-Saxons they were Dene or "Danes"; the Slavs and Arabs knew them as "Rus" (which may derive for a term for rowing or from a Swedish place-name); and to the Byzantines they were Varangians or "sworn men". The use of the term "Viking" to refer to some kind of noble warrior or savage began in the 18th century when there was a revival of interest in Celtic and Norse myths.

The Norse weren't just raiders, they were farmers, traders and settlers - and they took their families with them when they moved from Scandinavia. They had a planned settlement strategy and an ordered, complex societal structure. Norway, Sweden, and Denmark all emerged as fully fledged kingdoms during the Viking age.

Now let's address the uncouth savage motif. Christian writers such as Adam of Bremen equated an unkempt dirty appearance with paganism so naturally

this was stressed in any description of the Norsemen to underline the debased nature of their souls. In fact, they were so keen on washing, they were probably a lot cleaner than the so-called civilised people of the day. We know that they were considered particularly clean by other cultures who actually lived alongside them- the Muslim writer Ibn Rustah noted that the eastern Norse usually carried clean clothes with them, for example. Their custom was to bathe every Saturday and the word for Saturday in Scandinavian languages means "bath day". We also know they were very keen on combing their hair - archaeological evidence indicates a preponderance of combs.

They certainly would not have been putting horned helmets on their well-brushed hair. Only one complete Viking Age helmet has ever been found. It had no horns, and there are none to be seen on any contemporaneous drawings or paintings, either. Nothing could be more impractical for the Norse form of warfare - shield walls and fighting on ship islands (ships lashed together) do not lend themselves to extravagant helmet displays.

So where does this misconception come from? Well, ceremonial horned helmets do feature in the Nordic Bronze Age, some 2000 years before the Viking age, but the reinvention of the costume happened at about the same time as the name became synonymous with the people and that is when we see horns, and indeed wings, in a nod to Classical mythology, on the helmets. They are essentially a Victorian invention and today, the Victorian Viking image is entrenched in popular culture - as Hägar The Horrible cartoons and the Thor film franchise confirm.

To the Norse, it is not what a man says that counts, it is what he does. A man is judged by his actions and behaving well will attract good luck - a kind of Nordic karma. Their key text, the Hávámal (Sayings Of The High One), is a handy vade mecum, or guidebook on how to behave throughout your life. The text, which is peppered with runic and mystic wisdom, contains the following: "Cattle die and kinsmen die,/thyself too soon must die,/but one thing never, I ween, will die … /fair fame of one who has earned."

In contrast to the popular image of barbarous Vikings, the Norse had an ordered and efficient societal system based on deeply rooted laws. They set up excellent trading networks wherever they went, particularly along the rivers of central Europe where they founded the kingdom of Rus, giving rise to the names Russia and Belarus today.

They had a highly developed sense of community, as can be seen in texts like the Icelandic Landnámabók and the Laxdaela Saga. They exhibited a concept of the importance of the individual in what was, for its time, a comparatively civilised and democratic society. They also had a well-developed legal system.

There were three classes, as designated by the allegorical poem Rígsþula: thrall (slave), churl (working-class) and earl (middle and upper-class). It is true that they practised slavery, but at that time most societies considered enslavement to be the inescapable fate of the conquered. The Norse concept of freedom was different from a modern perspective - they advocated not freedom of the individual but freedom to be part of a group. There was no real feudalism as such and each man was judged on his behaviour rather than his birth.

The main imperative was to be part of the community, be it in a family or group, and the worst punishment that could happen was not death but exclusion from the community, a kind of "social death", as many commentators have noted.

Can one detect, in this socially mobile, community-minded and comparatively (for its time) egalitarian culture, the origins of the qualities and values inherent in the much-vaunted Nordic Model? It is certainly true that the Norse were quite advanced in the way that their societies were organised along gender lines. Indeed, they had a better approach to equal rights than many societies today. Archaeological evidence shows us how much they valued women. The Oseberg grave in Norway, an extremely rich ship burial site dating from 834, contained two female skeletons. Victorian archaeologists fought hard to explain the lack of a male body, as the prevailing myth was that women only appeared in rich graves as some sort of slave girl sacrifice. The modern interpretation is that this was indeed the grave of a woman of very high status - as was the ship grave found at Scar on the island of Sanday in Orkney.

There is also plenty of written evidence, mainly in the sagas. The story of Aud the Deep-Minded, the daughter of a Norwegian chieftain based in the Western Isles, who lived later in the ninth century, encapsulates the mindset and relative freedom of Norse women. She married the Norse king of Dublin and had to take charge of family affairs when her husband and son died.

At a time when women in most cultures stayed at home, she travelled extensively, commandeering a ship, eventually disembarking with her granddaughters in Iceland, by way of Orkney and the Faroe Islands, where she is venerated as one of their most important early settlers. She is mentioned in several sagas including Landnámabók, Eyrbyggja Saga, Laxdaela Saga, Njal's Saga, Eiríks saga rauða and Grettis Saga.

It is also interesting to note that one of the greatest of the Vikings, Sweyn Asleifson, took his mother's name rather than his father's.

I am not arguing that the Norse were all feminists, but they appreciated that women were crucial to the success of settlements. Most women were subordinate to men and did make their lives in the home, but even there they wielded real power. Norse women had substantial legal rights, which are rigorously detailed in great law books such as the Grágás (Grey Goose Laws) of Iceland. They could inherit from their husbands and their children. They could divorce an unsatisfactory husband and keep their dowry and children. They could function as official head of a household. Women in Britain did not receive all of these rights until the Victorian era at the earliest.

Rape does appear to have been a feature of Norse raids - though as with slavery, this was the fate of the conquered during that era. The Norse did, however, have progressive rape laws in their own communities. In Europe, women were considered chattels, so there was no victim other than the father or husband, whose property was damaged. Under Icelandic law, both rape and indeed attempted rape were punishable with outlawry - the worst of all punishments and essentially a death sentence.

What about employment? With the EU proposing that 40% of business directors should be women - and Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon expressing similar ambitions for an independent Scotland - it is interesting that in early Norse societies, women appear to have played a significant role outwith the home. They could run the family business when their men were away, and there is plenty of evidence from rune stones that they could run businesses themselves.

Taking the Thing, or parliament, as the apogee of the societal structure, Professor Else Mundal and Dr Alexandra Sanmark have noted that five categories of women could and did appear at the Thing: widows, in light of their landholdings; "ring-women" (women with no near male relative) who could inherit lands and valuables; women in dispute with other women; women who were the head of a household due to widowhood or illness or absence of the husband; and witnesses. That is extraordinary when you think about it - it was certainly not the norm in Europe at the time, where women were seen as chattels requiring a male guardian and did not inform the political or legal processes.

Norse society was organised, but not overly hierarchical, particularly in the lands where they settled. Theirs was an equitable, community-based, independent, outward-looking society with a good marine industry - what's not to like?

We bear the imprint of the Norse through our heritage, like letters through a stick of rock - it is integral to our cultural identity as Scots. These people were not alien; they didn't slip away in their longships in the darkness. In fact, they never left, they are us. Scotland is a country with a passion for social justice, and this must have come from somewhere. At a time when our Nordic neighbours and their equalities between men and women, rich and poor, are being held up as a model for a fairer, more socially just Scottish society after independence, wouldn't it be poetic justice for the true social and economic legacy of the Norse to serve as a pattern for the new Scotland?

Professor Donna Heddle is director of the University of the Highlands and Islands Interdisciplinary Centre for Nordic Studies. The centre will host the second international St Magnus Festival in Lerwick, Shetland, April 9-12.