Viking ‘thing’ parliament site possibly discovered in the Isle of Bute, Scotland


Taking the etymological path, the seemingly pedestrian term ‘thing’ actually had quite an illustrious origin – with the Old English term þing actually meaning ‘assembly’ or council’, derived in turn from Proto-Germanic *thingam or ‘assembly’. And as such, historically the ‘thing’ was also the designated place where the Norsemen passed their laws, made political decisions and also settled their daily legal disputes. On such Viking ‘thing’ site has been discovered recently in the Isle of Bute, Scotland. Analysis of the area hints at the headquarters of the powerful Norse King, Ketill Flatnose – and interestingly enough, his descendants were among the first settlers of Iceland, a medieval stronghold of Norse culture.

Coming back to this new discovery, the Viking parliament site of Scotland actually correlates to a raised mound at Cnoc An Rath, a pretty famous (though mysterious) archaeological site known since the 50’s. Fortunately, while the site was previously identified with an obscure medieval farmland, a recent study done on the proximate place-names (by Gilbert Markus, a Celtic and Gaelic researcher at Glasgow University) has revealed the Viking connection and the association of the site with the aforementioned term ‘thing’. The place-names that were assessed conformed to 14th century names, as opposed to their modern counterparts like the term ‘Cnoc An Rath’. Fueled by these etymological results, researchers conducted their excavations on the area. And to their delight, the archaeologists were able to collect soil and charcoal samples that date back to the Viking era when the Norsemen prowled around the Argyll coast, western Scotland.

More specifically, according to archaeologist Paul Duffy – the head of Brandanii Archaeology and Heritage Consultancy, one of the dates of the samples hark back to the time when the Vikings started their settlement on Bute after the fall of the ‘native’ overkingdom of Dalriada (or Dál Riata). As he made it clear (to the Herald Scotland) –

The first date from the site is between the mid 7th Century and the mid 9th century. That is the end of Dalriada and the time when the Vikings arrive at the end of the 8th Century – so it puts it firmly in the time we were looking at, although maybe a little bit early to be a ‘thing’ site. The second date we got back – was late 7th Century to late 9th century – which puts it quite firmly in the period when we are fairly sure Vikings are active round about the Argyll coast and Bute. [More importantly] what we have found is evidence of human activity on the site, which is suggested to be a ‘thing’ site, which dates to the same period we would expect ‘thing’ type activities or assembly activities to be happening on that site.

Now historically, the Isle of Bute might have been a stronghold of the so-called ‘Foreign Gaels’ or Gall-Gaidheil (Norse-Gaels), a mixed bunch of people, much like their Rus counterparts in Russia and Baltic. Known for their dominance around the Irish Sea, these Norse-Gaels provided military support to the high-kings of Ireland in many encounters. Intriguingly enough, an early 10th century Irish religious text manuscript known as ‘Martyrology of Tallaght’ also ascribes Bute as being a part of the Gall-Gaidheil territory. Duffy said –

We have got a very unusual and definite historical evidence which puts Bute in the Gall-Gaidheil territory, and possibly quite an important place in the Gall-Gaidheil territory. What we have now is another brick in the evidential wall which suggests there is an assembly site on Bute.

The archaeologist further provided the conjecture on how the site could be potentially linked to the aforementioned powerful Norse King –

If you have got people coming in Viking times to the islands for laws to be dispensed and for justice to be handed out, then there is obviously someone that has got to be doing that dispensing of justice and making of laws – and that would be somebody who was quite powerful. The most powerful person we have documentary evidence for through the Icelandic sagas at that time is Ketill Flatnose.

In any case, this won’t be first time that Scotland is associated with a Viking parliament site. Back in 2013, archaeologists came across a 11th century ‘thing’ underneath a parking lot in Dingwall. The researchers were pleasantly surprised by the find since most Viking parliaments took place in open fields, but that discovery pointed to an actual permanent structure. As for this Isle of Bute ‘parliament’ in question, researchers are looking forth to uncovering more evidences that could connect the early Vikings and the site.

The findings were presented on 8th May at the Scottish Place-Name Society Conference, held in Rothesay on the Isle of Bute.

Source: Herald Scotland

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