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Lewis and Harris

Last Updated 18 April 2021.

Lewis and Harris are two regions on the same island in the Outer Hebrides, Scotland. They belong to different counties. Lewis, or Leodhas, to the north, belongs to Ross and Cromarty. Harris to the south, is part of Inverness-shire.1 


Lewis, Scotland (Source: Wikipedia / Remih).

People live on Lewis and Harris long before the Vikings arrive. Until this day, eye-catching structures from Iron Age cultures remain, such as the Callanish stone henge, the brochs and hill forts.2 

By the sixth century, an Irish monk called St Columba travels from Ireland to the Hebrides. Columba builds a monastery on Iona. In time, this will be an important religious centre and within its sphere of influence, churches are built on other Hebrides’ isles, too. The Norse will re-use these buildings for their own Christian worship.3 

Viking Age Relevance

Arrival of the Vikings

By the eighth century the Picts come down from northern Scotland and defeat the king of Dál Riata, a settler from Ireland. The Vikings then arrive by 795 when they raid Iona and they will most likely have encountered the local Pictish chieftains.4 

Most of this information comes from Irish and Scottish sources. The Annals of Ulster and the Chronicles of the Kings of Alba hint on various rulers and activities in the region. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle also refers to the raids on Iona. But on not much else, really. Several sagas give clues about the settlement. But as they are literary works, they must be treated with caution and care and not necessarily facts.

By 839, the Vikings kill a Pictish leader and leave a power vacuum. Kenneth I McAlpin, a Dál Riata prince makes use of this opportunity and fights to unite the Scots and Picts into one kingdom. Kenneth succeeds his father as King of Dál Riata in 843 and starts ruling the Picts by 848.5

Influence of the Vikings

As early as the ninth century, an Irish source calls the Hebrides the Innse Gall (Islands of the Foreigners).6 The locals call the Vikings: Gall-Ghaidheil (foreign Gaels, also called Norse-Gael). Other language evidence for the Vikings on Lewis is in the Norse place names. Some are still clear, or they have changed over time to Gaelic versions. No Norse place names predate the Viking Age.7 On Lewis, there are two known Viking sites: Bostadh and Barabhas. On the other islands are more sites such as Bornais on South Uist.8

Broch Carloway, Lewis (Source: Pixabay / Amritagrace).

Archaeological evidence shows that Vikings built their own houses on Lewis. They did not live in the brochs or the typical roundhouses. Their houses are still visible and better known as the black houses.9 Other signs of the settlement are grave goods of Scandinavian origin. There is one tenth-century grave of a local woman, in particular, that has rich Norse grave goods.10 The evidence also shows that the Norse bring economic change to the island. The study of fish bones confirms that locals catch small fish in small boats. The Vikings venture further out to sea with larger ships and catch larger fish such as herring and cod.11 Last but not least, the outcome of the genetic research also shows that the locals on Lewis have traces of Scandinavian origin, but less than in the Orkneys and Iceland, for example.12 

It is clear these settlements do not form a seasonal trading post, or a temporary repair site, such as L’Anse aux Meadows in Canada. So, if this is a continuous settlement, the question remains to what extent the local population continued to live and work when the Vikings arrived. Did they stay, or did they flee en masse at the sight of the first raiders?

The Kingdom of the Isles

In 872, Harald I ‘Fairhair’ declares himself king of Norway. To secure his crown, he chases his enemies across the seas to Scotland. He conquers the Orkneys and Shetland, and by 875 he reaches the Hebrides, according to Egil’s Saga.13 Within a year, local chieftains rebel against his rule. Harald sends Ketil Björnsson ‘Flatnose’14 to take care of the situation. Ketil does just that, settles there and calls himself ‘King of the Isles’. Scholars believe medieval scribes invented these events in the sagas to prove the Norse providence for the Kingship of the Isles. This may well be, for Ketil‘s provenance is unreliable at best, and after his death, there is no other king for another forty (!) years.15 

On top of this, the list of early kings of the Isles is confused at best. Perhaps the rulers descend from the Norse Uí Ímair dynasty who rule Scotland as well as Ireland, and York. But there are many inconsistencies and lack of details. The clearest signal of a Viking lord in the Hebrides dates to 987 when a Godfried, son of Harald, establishes himself as King of the Hebrides. The first recorded Lord of the Isles is Somerled in the mid-twelfth century.16 For what it is worth, according to Wikipedia, the earliest Lord of the Isles can be traced back to the Orkney Saga. He is the father of a man named Thórir who was king of Viking Scotland.17

Eventually, even the diocese of the Isles (also known as Sodor and Mann) falls under the newly established archdiocese in Trondheim, confirming the Norse overlordship.18

Toward the end of the Viking Age

But the Norse rule on the Isles will not have been completely continuous. In 1098, Magnus III ‘Barefoot’ has a busy time controlling the internal political situation in Norway. Finally, he claims his kingship and then sets off to raid the Norðreyjar (Orkney and Shetland) and Suðreyjar (the Hebrides) to re-establish Norwegian rule there. He makes a treaty with the king of Scotland and calls himself ‘King of the Isles’.19 

Instead of leaving things as they are, Magnus wants to show who is boss. The saga in Heimskringla named after him, elaborates:

In Lewis Isle with fearful blaze

The house-destroying fire plays;

To hills and rocks the people fly,

Fearing all shelter but the sky.20 

But by 1263, Alexander III of Scotland defeats Haakon of Norway at the battle of Largs. The Norse rule over parts of Scotland comes to an end. Three years later, the Treaty of Perth is signed and the Norwegians officially hand their Scottish territories to the Scottish crown.21

Archaeology from Lewis and Harris

Viking Hoards – there are two known hoards on Lewis: Moss of Dhibadail  and Lews castle.

Lewis Chessmen – The most famous discovery from the Viking Age, found near Ùig or Mealasta, on the west coast of Lewis.

Learn More

The Viking Age Archive – The Lewis Chess Pieces Series
Rex Factor – Kenneth McAlpin.
National Museums of Scotland – 3D Lewis Chess Pieces on Sketchfab!


  1. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, ‘Lewis and Harris.’ Encyclopædia Britannica. Published May 18, 2018. Last Accessed 13 June 2018.  ↩
  2. History of the Isle of Lewis.’ The Isle of Last Accessed 16 February 2019.  ↩
  3. Ronald G. Cant, ‘Norse Influences in the Organisation of the Medieval Church in the Western Isles.’ In: Northern Studies, Volume 21 (1984), pp. 6 [pp. 1–14].  ↩
  4. Unfortunately, this following source does not mention an author or the origin of its sources: BBC Legacies, ‘The Kingdom of Dalriada.’ Last Accessed 17 February 2019, pp. 3.  ↩
  5. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, ‘Dalriada.’ Encyclopædia Britannica. Published April 17, 2018. Last Accessed 17 February 2019.
    According to the Chronicles of the Kings of Alba, See: Rex Factor, ‘Kenneth McAlpin.’ Podcast. Published February 2, 2015. Last Accessed 17 February 2019 and ‘The Chronicle of the Kings of Alba.’ Last Accessed 17 February 2019.  ↩
  6. Andrew Jennings and Arne Kruse, ‘An Ethnic Enigma – Norse, Pict and Gaelin the Western Isles.’ In: Viking and Norse in the North Atlantic. Select Papers from the Proceedings of the Fourteenth Viking Congress, Tórshavn, 19–30 July 2001. Edited by Andras Mortensen and Símun V. Arge (Tórshavn: The Faroese Academy of Sciences in collaboration with Historical Museum of the Faroe Islands, 2005), pp. 259 [pp. 251–263].  ↩
  7. Brittany Schorn and Judy Quinn (eds.), The Vikings in Lewis. (Nottingham: The Centre for the Study of the Viking Age, 2014), pp. 6–7.
    Andrew Jennings and Arne Kruse (2005), pp. 251–252.  ↩
  8. Brittany Schorn and Judy Quinn (2014), pp. 8–9.
    Andrew Jennings and Arne Kruse (2005), pp. 253.  ↩
  9. Blackhouses.’ The Isle of Last Accessed 17 February 2019.
    Undiscovered Scotland, ‘Blackhouse Museum.’ Last Accessed 17 February 2019.  ↩
  10. Brittany Schorn and Judy Quinn (2014), pp. 4–5.  ↩
  11. Niall M Sharples, Claire Ingrem, Peter Marshall, et al, ‘Chapter 17 | The Viking Occupation of the Hebrides: Evidence from the Excavations at Bornais, South Uist.’ In: Maritime Societies of the Viking and Medieval World. Edited by James Barrett and Sara–Jane Gibbon (Leeds: Maney Publishing, 2016), pp. 262–263, [pp.237–258].
    James Barrett, Roelf Beukens and Rebecca Nicholson, ‘Diet and Ethnicity during the Viking colonization of northern Scotland: evidence from fish bones and stable carbon isotopes.’ In: Antiquity Volume 75 (2001), pp. 146, 151–152. [pp. 145–154].  ↩
  12. Andrew Jennings and Arne Kruse (2005), pp. 258–259.
    History of the Isle of Lewis.’ The Isles of Last Accessed 16 February 2019.  ↩
  13. Egil’s Saga, translated by W.C. Green (1893). Icelandic Saga Database. Last Accessed 17 February 2019.  ↩
  14. Ketil Flatnose occurs in several Icelandic Sagas ( Íslendingasögur) and his genealogy is noted in the Landnámabók. If he is the same as Caetil the Fair in the Annals of Ulster, he was fighting in Ireland in 857. He was attacked by the Norse leaders in Ireland, Olaf and Ivar. See: ‘Annals of Ulster | 857.’ *CELT: The Corpus of Electronic Texts.’ Last Accessed 17 February 2019.  ↩
  15. Ari Thorgilsson, The Book of the Settlement of Iceland. Translated by Thomas Ellwood (Kendal: T. Wilson, 1898), pp. 11–13.  ↩
  16. Charles Cawley, ‘Kings of the Hebrides, Kings of the Isle of Mann, Lords of the Isles.’ Foundation of Medieval Genealogy Last Accessed 17 February 2019.  ↩
  17. Wikipedia, ‘List of Rulers of the Kingdom of the Isles.’ Last Accessed 17 February 2019.  ↩
  18. Tore Nyberg, Monasticism in North–Western Europe 800–1200. Series: Routledge Revivals. (Abingdon: Routledge, 2018), pp. 98.
    Rosemary Power, ‘Magnus Barelegs’ Expeditions to the West.’ In: The Scottish Historical Review. Volume 65.180 (1986), pp. 131 [pp. 107–132.]  ↩
  19. Rosemary Power (1986), pp. 109.  ↩
  20. Snorri Sturluson, ‘Magnus Barefoot Saga | Chapter 9,” In:, translation by Samuel Laing (London, 1844) and, translation by Douglas B. Killings, and David Widger. Medieval Published 19 April 2015. Last Accessed 14 June 2018.  ↩
  21. When Hebrideans were offered a new start in Norway.’ The Scotsman. Published 21 February 2017. Last Accessed 23 February 2019/  ↩

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