14 April 2015

Vikings on the Isle of Man

The following information on the Isle of Man is excerpted from work published on the web by Ivar Gault of Norway. He has some great information about the Isle of Man, specifically as it pertains to our shared interest, the medieval Vikings. The Viking Age burst upon the Isle of Man sometime in the 8th century. Nobody is certain exactly when, but much work continues on Man and on Ireland trying to answer this question. Suffice to say it happened much earlier than archaeology thinks it did. I encourage you to click the link for the article, where you can view the many photos that are a part of the article.  I hope you will enjoy this article. (Ed.)


This island, situated in the middle of the Irish Sea, about the same distance from Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England, was part of the Norse kingdom in the Western Isles. It was at the time formally reckoned together with the Hebrides, or Suderøyene(Southern Isles). Still today the bishop of Man bears the joint title of “Bishop of Sodor and Man." The northern part of the island is lowland, where farming and sheep breeding are the prime means of income, while the southern part is highland (Snaefjell, 620 metres). The old Celtic language was manx. The language is now extinct, but was related to the Gaelic (Q-Celtic) languages of Ireland and Scotland. As late as in the 1950’s there were some old people in Man who still spoke the language. Norwegian was spoken on the islands until late in the 14th Century. By then Norwegians had ruled the islands for almost 500 years!
The name of the island – Man – was, according to an old Celtic legend, the Sea God Mananan’s throne. Mananan was son of the Sea God Lir. The Roman’s name on the island was Monapia, although they never really succeeded in getting a firm stronghold there. The abbott Nennius refers to the island under the name Eubonia (858 AD), and in the Welsh Annals the island is called Manaw. The present inhabitants refer to their island as Ellan Vannin. Christianity was introduced on the island in the 6th Century with Irish missionaries. They settled down on the island, building small chapels (keills) often close to holy fountains (chibbyr). Remnants of 35 of these chapels have been discovered all over Man, but many of them are hidden underneath medieval churches. The Isle of Man is officially not part of the UK, although it is subordinated to the British Monarchy. The island is governed by a Governor appointed by the UK, who answers to a locally elected council.

In the south-western part of the island lies Tynwald Hill – the ancient Norse open-air Law Court – þingvóllur. Similar Norse open-air Law Courts are to be found in Scotland – Dingwall (northwest of Inverness), and in Shetland – Tingwall. Every year on Midsummer Day the 5th of July the Court of Tynwald still are assembled here, and the Manx people can therefore boast of having the oldest continuous legislative court assembly in the world! In 1979 Man celebrated its 1000 years anniversary as a parliamentary state. The Queen was present, and the replica Viking ship “Odin’s Raven” sailed all the way from Trondheim to honour the occasion in a real Viking manner. Some of the traditions still preserved are however much older than the Viking Age. Along the parade street leading up to the Court people toss straw or hay before the arrival of the prominent guests –strawing the rushes – a custom dating back to Celtic Iron Age.
Northmen settled down in Man probably as early as the end of the 8th Century, and rapidly gained control of the island – incorporating it into their Realm of the Western Seas. During the rule of King Magnus Lagabøter (Lawmaker) 1252 – 1266, Norway was forced to abandon Man in favour of the Scottish king Alexander III.

Researchers disagree to what extent the Viking presence on Man affected the indigenous people. The linguist Margaret Gellinghas interpreted the absence of Celtic place names in the island as evidence for the extermination of the Celtic speaking inhabitants by the Vikings, and claims the Celtic language (Manx) was reintroduced in the island after the Vikings left. The archaeologist Marshall Cubbon contradicts this view, as the archaeological evidence rather shows that the Vikings lived peacefully together with the local Celts, although they were the dominating social group.

More than 25 remnants of Viking settlements and cemeteries have been unearthed in Man. The archaeological material suggests that the Vikings usually married Celtic women, gave Celtic names to their children and grandchildren (like Fiacc), and raised them in the Christian faith. In the southern part of the island, in Balladoole near Arbory, archaeologists have discovered a stone ship-setting. This was probably the burial site of a chieftain. He is buried together with many of his personal belongings – even the harness of his horse, but no weapons! Lying next to him was the corpse of a woman – probably sacrificed. In the 1940’ies a German archaeologist unearthed a Viking grave. He had been interned on Man during the 2nd World War. In this burial mound, in a farm in Ballateare near Jurby, he found a wooden coffin containing the remains of a man, surrounded with a great many weapons. Several of the swords and spears had been broken in half before they were laid in the coffin. This was a common ritual in Viking burials. The grave was dated to the end of the 9th Century. Lying on top of the coffin was the skeleton of a woman in her twenties. She was positioned with her face downward and her arms raised above her head. The top of her skull was chopped off with a sword or an axe. This was unmistakable evidence of her victimization. She was probably a concubine or a slave girl, and had accompanied her master on his journey to the Afterworld.

For the Vikings of the Western Seas, the Isle of Man - with its central position in the Irish Sea - was probably of great strategic importance both for warriors and tradesmen all through the Viking Age. The Icelandic author Snorre Sturluson mentions Man in his Saga of the Norwegian kings about King Harald Fairhair’s punitive expedition to the Western Sea.

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