They arrived in longboats bringing a reputation as cruel and ruthless fighters, and who left a lasting imprint on the nation they set out to conquer.
Viking raids in Scotland spanned hundreds of years and saw brutal attacks on churches and villages. They drove Picts and their Scotti rivals from their land – and accidentally united them – and used their immense power to establish new kingdoms leaving an imprint on law, language and culture.
Now it’s being suggested that Scotland should look to the Vikings and more peaceful Norse settlers to create new tourist attractions which highlight their heroic sagas, everyday lives and the dramatic impact they had on Scottish life.
The idea is being suggested as two festivals hundreds of miles apart – one in Orkney and the other in Largs – prepare to reflect upon the Viking influence on their individual communities.
As part of the Orkney Viking Week, an online presentation will explore six Viking and Norse sites on the islands which it’s suggested could become tourist destinations for ‘Viking trail’ visitors.
Researcher Annie Thuesen will suggest that a stronger Viking offering will create new tourist opportunities and help alleviate some of the pressure from Orkney’s Neolithic sites.
She points to the scale of Viking-related tourism in Iceland, which was settled by Vikings around the same time as the first longboats arrived in Scotland.
Although there is little physical evidence of Viking settlements, Iceland has embraced its Viking heritage with replica longboats and settlements, artworks, Viking exhibitions and cultural events inspired by the Icelandic sagas – stories passed down centuries telling of heroic Viking exploits.
Meanwhile, a documentary to be screened on Tuesday as part of Largs Viking Festival will examine west coast locations linked to Vikings and Norse heritage. The film highlights spots from the Outer Hebrides to Arran, Cumbrae and Loch Lomond where visitors can walk in the footsteps of Vikings.
The suggestion that Scotland could make more of its Norse connections comes as interest in Viking exploits and the age in which they lived is enjoying a revival.
Amazon Prime’s six-part series Vikings has reached a conclusion and is set to be debuted to a wider audience on other streaming services. So popular has the epic series been, that a spin-off 24-part series, Valhalla, is due to begin filming soon.
While closer to home, the treasures of the Galloway Hoard, continues to enthral visitors to the National Museum of Scotland where it is currently on display.
However, apart from Lerwick’s spectacular Up Helly Aa festival, Orkney’s St Magnus Way which follows the story of St Magnus, and the Vikingar! visitor attraction at Largs, there a few places for tourists to immerse themselves in Scotland’s Viking and Norse links.
Research published by the University of the Highlands and Islands’ Perth College and Institute for Northern Studies last year described a “variety of opportunities” at locations which are currently underdeveloped or not developed at all.
It suggested that Dingwall, where Vikings established a power base, could become a central point for Viking tourism. The town’s Cromartie car park is believed to be the site of a “thing”, the meeting place of a medieval Norse parliament, constructed by Thorfinn the Mighty, a powerful Viking earl who died in 1065.
“There are a number of sites on the ground, such as Viking burials, settlements, thing sites and churches which could be developed to provide new visitor activities and attractions,” it added. “Alongside this, Norse and Viking cultural heritage in the form of folklore, place-names and the Orkneyinga Saga present opportunities to add value to existing provision and develop new offers.”
Annie, a PhD candidate with the University of the Highlands and Islands Institute for Northern Studies, said: “I think we are missing out. I am from Denmark and I know how we use Viking heritage.
“Iceland has also developed Viking tourism. But in Scotland, other heritages which have taken over, such as the Celtic heritage.”
Her research has looked at six Orkney sites with tourism potential including Brough of Deerness, which is thought to be a former chiefly stronghold, and Earl’s Bu and the Round Church, the site of a large Norse earldom estate.
Others include Westness on Rousay, where the Skaill Farm excavation has unearthed a Norse hall, Pictish-Norse cemetery and nearby Norse boathouse and farmstead.
She added: “In Orkney, we have Neolithic heritage which is visually stunning, and we have not had to look at how to use our Norse heritage in the same way,” she said. “But we have to start thinking about it more.”
That could involve using trails, interpretation panels and possibly digital technology to help tourists understand and visualise how sites would have looked at their peak.
While the 13th century Orkneyinga saga, that tells the story of the Earls of Orkney, could be used as a springboard to create cultural events such as plays and music festivals.
Orkney Festival organiser Dr Ragnhild Ljosland, who will present a talk about Thorfinn the Mighty and who runs a regular Viking-themed beach feast, said there is demand for more Viking-related tourism.
“Demand is huge. In Orkney and Shetland people are very much aware of their Viking history, so it’s in people’s minds here more than elsewhere in Scotland.
“But there’s surprisingly little Viking-themed tourism in Orkney.
“In Norway, Viking tourism has grown in popularity on the last 20 to 30 years, there are now a lot of reconstructed Viking longhouses and ships, museums put on events and there are activities like Viking blacksmiths and sword fighting. “We could be doing more.”
Lesley McCormack, one of the organisers of this week’s Largs Viking Festival which spotlights the Battle of Largs, the 13th century conflict between the kingdoms of Norway and Scotland, said: “Vikings had such a big influence on Scottish history yet there’s not really much made of it.
“The Vikingar! visitor attraction draws a lot of visitors to Largs, but something that connects all of Scotland’s Viking history, like a trail, would be a great idea.
“I think there is scope for something that links Scotland’s Viking sites together.”
Largs Viking Festival (www.largsvikingfestival.co.uk) runs until September 5, followed by Orkney Viking Week (www.brodgar.co.uk/vikingweek) runs from September 9 to 19.