The Origins Of The Norse-Gaels In Ireland And Scotland

The Norse-Gaels (alternatively known under the terms ‘Hiberno-Norse’ or ‘foreign Gaels’) were a people who originated in the Norse settlements established during the Viking Age in Ireland, Scotland, Isle of Man, and the Hebrides who resulted from the intermarriage between the Norse colonists and the native Gaelic populations.

In early medieval Ireland, the Norse-Gaels primarily descended from the regions settled mostly by the Norwegian Vikings between the 8th and 10th centuries. The first recorded Viking raid in the Irish Sea took place in 795 on Lombay Island.

The Norse-Gaels gradually became the dominant force on the territories around the Irish Sea between the Early Middle Ages and the High Middle Ages, founding powerful and lasting kingdoms in the process, most notably those of Dublin, Mann and the Isles (i.e. the Isle of Man and the adjacent islands), and Galloway in south-west Scotland.

16th century artistic depiction of a group of Irish and Scottish warriors (Gallowglasses and Kerns) by Albrecht Dürer. The Gallowglass, an elite mercenary warrior in medieval Ireland, was a member of the Norse-Gaelic clans of Scotland during High Middle Ages. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Other two noteworthy raids that took place on Irish soil unfolded on the coastlines of the petty kingdoms of Brega (located north of contemporary Dublin) in 798 and of Connacht (one of the four historical provinces of Ireland) in 807. These early Viking raids were based on quick hit-and-run tactics and may have been entirely conducted by Norwegian Vikings. Subsequently, the main regions of Norse settlement were established in Dublin (from Irish ‘Dubhlinn’ or ‘Dubh linn’, i.e. ‘Black Pool’ or ‘Dark Pool’), Wexford, Waterford, Limerick, and Cork. These cities were initially designed and built as coastal defensive strongholds (known as ‘longphorts’) by the Norsemen during the first wave of settlement in the Emerald Isle (which corresponds to the Irish Early Middle Ages).

With respect to Scotland, the earliest Norse incursions can be chronologically traced back to the early 8th century. As in the case of Ireland, the vast majority of Vikings who raided and then settled were Norwegian in origin. In the wake of the first Norse-Gaelic contacts, the archipelagos of Shetland and Orkney were named ‘Norðreyjar’ (i.e. ‘the northern isles’ in Old Norse) while the Hebrides, the islands of the Firth of Clyde and Isle of Man — that formed the basis for the Kingdom of Mann and the Isles — were named ‘Suðreyjar’ (i.e. ‘the southern isles’ in Old Norse).

The Norse-Gaels exerted tremendous influence and power over the Kingdom of the Isles from the 9th century to the 13th century. Furthermore, the greatest legacy of the Norse settlement of Man is that they introduced land divisions as well as the Tynwald parliament, both of which are still in use to this day. The Tynwald, along with its Faroese and Icelandic counterparts, are the eldest functional parliaments to contemporary times.

As in the other places where they settled down, the Norsemen assimilated step by step in the local Gaelic communities, speaking the Gaelic language and practicing the Gaelic customs as part of their integration process. In addition, they did also provide a cultural syncretism by merging the Scandinavian and Gaelic cultures, thus creating a strong historical legacy and cultural heritage for their descendants.

The Norse-Gaels called themselves ‘Ostmen’, literally meaning ‘men of the east’, as opposed to ‘Vestmenn’, meaning the Gaels or literally ‘men of the west’. Their name is still preserved in some localities in Iceland and the Faroes, namely Vestmannaeyjar (i.e. ‘Westmen Islands’) and Vestmanna (i.e. ‘Westman’s Harbour’).

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26 Responses to The Origins Of The Norse-Gaels In Ireland And Scotland

  1. Andreas says:

    “Norse” does not mean “Norwegian”, it means “Scandinavian”. Also, Swedish vikings were in England, as proven by around 50.000 anglo-saxon silver coins from the viking age found in Sweden (more than in Denmark and Norway combined) aswell as around 100 Swedish runestones mentioning swedish viking journeys to England:

    The problem is that the people of the British isles (and other areas throughout Europe and the Middle East) could not distinguish between raiders and traders from the three Scandinavian regions, thus calling them alll “danii”, or “vikings”, etc. “Norse” is the best contemporary collective term that we have for these Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish raiders and traders.

    • Joanna Vandenbring says:

      They often didn’t distinguish much themselves, or identified themselves as members of smaller regional units such as Scanians from the southeast of Denmark. They often called their language “Danish” which was the same as “Norse” which meant “northern” in the sense of “Scandinavian”.

      • Vicki Kilgore-Davis says:

        it explains my DNA.. 67% English Scotland Wales. 25% Ireland and Scotland 5%Swedish 3% Norwegian . I can’t figure out the Scotland…howit can be in two different groups but oh well.

        • Roy Day says:

          The English/Scotland/Wales and Ireland and Scotland are two groups of differing Celt

        • Kate Browne says:

          I imagine the “Ireland / Scotland” DNA is referring to the “Scots Irish.” After Cromwell defeated the Northern Irish tribes he opened up the land to create the Ulster Plantation and move in Scottish Protestants to take this land. Inevitably the Irish and Scottish mixed hence the “scots-Irish.”

        • Barbara Cross-Nicolosi says:

          I have a similar DNA mix. England 30%,Wales 7%,Ireland 3%, Sweden 22%, Norway 18%, Finland 16%, Germany 4%. My mother’s family was Swedish; and her mother was an Anderson which is also a Scottish clan name.

    • Katherine Appleton says:

      I thought that the Vikings were raiders that came for the spoils. The Danes were traders that established trading towns and laws.

    • Peadar Ó Fiaich says:

      British Isles, is a reduntant and offensive colonial term

    • This is correct. The British could not distinguish between people coming from Scandinavia and neither did those Scandinavians themselves. This is because none of these contemporary nations had an established identity at this time. The Danish were the first to get to that stage, and by the middle of the Viking era there was a Danish realm which at that time also included Vestfold and Ostfold in Norway and All of what is now Skaane in Sweden. All Scandinavians would identify with the regions they came from, and recognise that they spoke “the Danish” language as Norse was then called.

  2. Aonghas O'Beirne says:

    I would like to know why Scandinavians were all referred to as Danes? My guess would be that Denmark was a known kingdom that existed in the region in the these times. “Norse” however, means north and would have likely been a collective term that they would use to refer to themselves. Am I right?

    • Aonghas O’Beirne (Bjarnarson). No you are wrong. They all spoke the “Danish language” as Snorri Sturluson wrote in Heimskringla in about 1265 in Iceland. Denmark was the first of the Nordic countries to come under one king, but that happened during the “Viking era” and it included big swaths of what is now Norway and Sweden. These people were “tribal” at best they identified with the regions where they came from. They certainly had no “National” notions about the present day Nordic Identities. they also integrated with Gaelic families on all sides and partook in wars with these allies against other Norse who were also allied but on the opposing site. — When life became tough for the Norse in the British isles many of these Hiberno-Norse emigrated to the Fareos and Iceland.

  3. […] other religious practices, artworks and naming conventions that are reminiscent of Gaelic cultures. Norse-Gaels are likely a strong influence for this group of rowdy boys yet the intertextual links never become […]

  4. Barry MacCarthy says:

    Modern DNA kan identify the different regional differences and Scotland and the Irish sea regions
    have clear Norwegian dominance.
    The latest research also supports the common belief in Norwegian dominance. and present day
    culture can trace many clear Norwegian characteristics in tradition, language and culture.
    For eks. the Gaelic spoken in the Hebredies today has retained an old Norwegian pronunciation.
    Norwegian was spoken in these area up to the 16 th. century.
    A central condition for separate cultures (identity) in Scandinavia has been the geophysical differences
    where Denmark had the most arable land and easiest national infrastructure and Norway for ex. was faced by the sea to the
    west and mountain ranges that separated large areas.
    THere is moderne research that shows that the west coast of <Norway and Scotland had sea contact long before the Viking age.

    • anne says:

      my maternal dna haplogroup, H2 is unique to southern sweden.. yet all my lineage is Irish and Nothern England.. obvisouly there was a “viking” somewhere in my history..

  5. Norse and Danes were interchangeable terms for “Scandinavian raiders / traders”. And a) Fin-Gail / b) Dub-Gail may have referred to Scandinavians from a) North Northern Ui Neill and b) Southern Ui Neill (Dublin) not to Danes and Norwegians, as there were no such (modern day national) distinctions in the minds of people at the time.

  6. Norse and Danes were interchangeable terms for “Scandinavian” raiders / traders at the time, and a) Fin-Gail / b) Dub-Gail may have referred to “Scandinavians” fighting on opposite sites with a) Áed Findliath in Northern Ui Neill and with b) Amlaíb Conung (Olaf Hviti) and Imar (Ivar Beinlausi) in Dublin. Modern Nations and distinctions along National lines were not present at the time.

  7. The north coast Ireland had large Norse intrusion also! Rarely mentioned! Sheephaven bay comes from the norse” skip havn” Still lots oral history of norse in the Fjord “Lough swilly” . Norse called by locals ” Na Ghall”

  8. Kierkegaard says:

    To make matters even more complicated, there was no clear political division between Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, even in later Medieval times; Danish kings often ruled the southerly parts of what came to be Norway, as well as Skane in southern Sweden. The links between the ethnic Danes and Ireland were in fact far stronger than this article suggests– the historical Hamlet (Umlave or Olaf) served as the Norse regent in Dublin before his ill-fated return to Denmark.

    • Crash says:

      That said, I’m guessing that a lot of any sense of confusion on the issue is largely a result of modern history books, which are often infused with political boundaries due to conflict and the reinforcement of national identity.

      That is to say it is possible that the cultural lines were a bit more blurred for this region, as well. There doesn’t seem to be much evidence supporting Norse invasion or “intrusion” in this area but, rather, assimilation and adaptation. Peaceful marriage.

      My family left Stavanger, for America, with the surname Herod, which is evidently more closely associated with the Dal Riata than it is with any locale in Scandinavia. However, they identified as Norwegian people and changed it something more Norkish.

      Chickens and eggs.

  9. Bente J. Pedersen says:

    Thank you so much. I find this article fascinating. Learning about how my Scandinavian heritage interconnects with my partner’s Scottish is an eye opener.

  10. ERICH SCHUBERT says:

    Just for a kind of weird thing that pertains to the DNA reference.I’m a US guy of German on paternal side and Swiss on maternal side whose family came to the US in the late 1890’s early 1900’s.did the DNA thing and shows matches all over Britain but mostly on the northwestern side and from the Crimea area to Germany and Switzerland.What the hell does that mean,lol.

  11. Peadar Ó Fiaich says:

    British Isles, is a redundant and offensive colonial term

  12. Eric says:

    Well this does make sense…my DNA Ethnicity in regard to this article is 50% England/Northwestern Europe, 25% Scotland, 14% Sweden/Denmark, 8% Irish, 2% Norway. In another website I uploaded my DNA results and it shows my ancient ancestors as Danish and Swedish Vikings, Gaels, Celts, and Britons. Sounds like I am just a melting pot of natives to the Western European continent and Invaders of the Western European Continent lol. My Scottish ancestral surname is “MacDougall” and they came from the island of Jura, which was a Viking name given to the island. I also read that MacDougall is a Norse-Gael name amongst many other Norse-Gael surnames. My Irish surname is “Fullerton” which I also found originated in Scotland but has been in Northern Ireland for centuries. Another genealogist I was communicating with said he believes my Irish is a Scots-Irish mix, which does make sense since Fullerton originated in Scotland many centuries ago. All in all I believe my Scottish and Irish ancestry is connected to the Kingdom of Dal-Riada which came from Northern Ireland into Western Scotland and mixed with the Vikings creating the Norse-Gael.

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