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Title: Norse in Islay : a settlement historical case-study for medieval Scandinavian activity in Western Maritime Scotland
Author: MacNiven, Alan
Awarding Body: University of Edinburgh
Current Institution: University of Edinburgh
Date of Award: 2006
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The aim of this thesis is to examine the assumption that Norse settlement in western maritime Scotland was substantially less extensive and influential than in more northerly parts of the maritime zone. This assumption is based on comparison of the apparent ratios of Norse to Gaelic farm-names in these areas; and the observation that the inhabitants of the former were Gaelic-speaking in both the Early Historic and Later Medieval periods. In view of the virtual hiatus in the documentary record between c.AD 750 and c.AD 1150 and the unqualified nature of the place-name ratios, it is suggested that such evidence is misleading. The investigation which follows comprises a detailed case-study of the island of Islay. Although use is made of environmental, archaeological, historical and fiscal data, the main focus is on place-names. Emphasis is placed throughout on the processes by which names become implanted in the landscape and the factors which affect their survival afterwards. There are three sections. Background material for the study of Norse settlement is presented in the first. This includes: a detailed examination of the physical environment, an ethno-linguistic profile for the preNorse community and a review of the evidence for Norse activity in Islay specifically within the context of western maritime Scotland generally. Aspects of Dalriadan and Norse society are highlighted which prompt critical re-appraisal of theories on Norse settlement. It is suggested that this process was not without friction. It may have involved a certain amount of violent depopulation and almost certainly led to social dichotomisation between the Norse incomers and remaining natives. Section two comprises a theoretical and methodological introduction to place-name studies. Following an overview of basic theory, Islay sources and previous approaches to Norse settlement, a model is presented for the study of Islay's Norse place-names. While use is made of both habitative and nature names, the framework selected as most appropriate is Stephen MacDougall's map of 1749-51. As this provides typologically uniform coverage of all of the island's farm-districts from a period preceding the agrarian reforms and settlement re-organisation of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, it is more likely to reflect the settlement patterns and nomenclature of the Middle Ages than later yet more detailed sources. The third section, which constitutes the bulk of the thesis, concentrates on analysis of the place-name data presented in Appendices I and II. There are two main parts to this section. The linguistic back-ground, economic potential and spatial characteristics of individual farm-districts are examined in the first. Contrary to previous assumptions, it is noted that farm-districts with Norse names are spread fairly evenly across all land-types on the island. They are not primarily coastal, restricted to enclaves or less likely to include Iron Age fortifications than those with Gaelic names. Analysis of the distribution and linguistic categorisation of the nomenclature in view of post-Norse historical developments suggests that many of the island's Gaelic settlement names are the result of prestige immigration in the It century or later. This hypothesis is supported by linguistic investigation of the more common habitative generics shown on MacDougall's map. Magnus Olsen's User-group theory is then applied to the typology and distribution of ON nature-name material. It is argued that this too supports the idea of widespread Norse language use being replaced by a reintroduction of Gaelic and Gaelic naming practices. The second part of this section comprises an examination of land and territorial divisions. The fiscal 'extents' of later medieval and early modem Islay have long been considered anomalous in a Hebridean context. Examination of the historical and fiscal sources in conjunction with a geometric analysis of the farm-districts on MacDougall's map, suggests that Islay may once have been divided into the 'ounceland' units more familiar from surrounding areas. These findings are then developed in the context of ecclesiastic organisation. While certain aspects of Islay's later medieval parish system appear to reflect the military districts of the Senchus fer nAlban, it is argued that these survived through the intermediary of an Orcadian style leiĆ°angr system of naval defence. It is concluded that while the Norse impact on Islay was less long-lived than in more northerly parts of maritime Scotland, it was not necessarily any less intense or destructive with regards to the pre-existing ethno-linguistic identity.
Supervisor: Kruse, Arne Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available
Keywords: Norse settlements ; Islay (Scotland) ; Names, Geographical