We Hae Books

The Treaty of Perth and Norse Legacy in the Northern Isles


As a kind of spiritual sequel to Alex’s post on the End of the Viking Era I thought I’d write about the Treaty of Perth; the beginning of the end of Norse rule over the islands around Scotland, but that legacy has not been forgotten.  Although given the name The Treaty of Perth it actually had nothing to do with Perth itself; it was where the treaty was signed. 

The year is 1266.  The Vikings stopped viking a couple of centuries ago and have converted to Christianity.  The waters of the North Sea are still valuable trading routes to Europe and the kings of Norway and Scotland laying claim to them while they were fighting for their corners of the world in the 11th Century.  What islands the Norsemen did control they called the Sudreys and they had controlled the Hebridean islands, the Isle of Man, the Shetland isles and the Orkney isles.  By the mid 13th Century the Hebridean islands were starting to see Gaelic influences from Ireland and the Norse rulers were dominating the islands less than they had been, allowing the Scottish kings to start making plays for the islands themselves.  After a few skirmishes the Norwegian king Magnus Hakonsson had to recognise defeat.  The result was the Treaty of Perth, which handed over ownership of the Hebridean islands and the Isle of Man to Scotland in return for an annual payment and Norway retained the Orkney and Shetland isles.  Scotland was pretty slow to pay up; the requested one-off 4000 merk payment wasn’t completely paid until 1282 and although the details are sketchy it does appear that we weren’t very regular in keeping up with the 100 merk a year payment either. More on that a little later.  I tried to find a picture of the Treaty but surprisingly I couldn’t find one.  I found a transcript here if you’re interested in reading the full text.  I’ve added a picture of the inside of Maeshowe in Orkney instead, which is a fascinating place.  It’s a prehistoric burial mound that was raided and graffitied on by Viking warriors during a snowstorm. Either way it put an end to around 25 years of conflict between the two nations.

Norse runes inside Maeshowe, Orkney.  Photo borrowed from Maes Howe | Canmore

What about Orkney and Shetland?

You may be wondering about the northern isles, after all they are now considered part of Scotland, right?  Right.  Move on a couple of centuries to 1469; Scotland haven’t been paying their dues to Norway.  Young King James III was abducted by Lord Boyd who, somehow, managed to negotiate not only marrying his own son to the King’s sister but also the betrothal of James to Margaret, the daughter of the king of Denmark and Norway.  Part of the agreement included waiving the debts the Scots had not paid off for the Hebridean isles.  But that’s not all; a bride must come with a dowry and the Danish king didn’t have one.  Instead, he handed over the Orkney and Shetland isles as collateral until the dowry was paid.  The money was never paid, and by 1472 the islands were formally in the hands of Scotland.

What’s left of the Norse in Scotland?

Lots!  Many place names in the islands, and even the mainland, have Norse origins.  This includes the Hebridean islands which were, and still are, firmly Gaelic in culture.  But the influence can be seen most in the Northern Isles. Not only are there Norse legacies such as the runes in Maeshowe and the magnificent St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, named after the Norse king (not to be confused with the smaller St Magnus Church on the Orcadian island of Birsay), there’s also a trail for the places mentioned in the Orkneyinga Saga.  Today, Orcadians observe Norwegian public holidays and since 2007 has had a flag with a mixture of Scottish and Norwegian influences. The design of the cross is similar to the Norwegian flag and the yellow border is from the Lion Rampant of Scotland.

Shetland, too, has its proud Norse heritage; when the town hall in Lerwick was redesigned it included commissioned stained glass windows with Norse imagery.  Perhaps Shetland’s most famous Norse custom is the Up Helly Aa, the annual fire festival held in January that sees visitors from all over the world coming to see it.  It’s safe to say that Norse culture remains strong in these Northern Isles.