Norse Castles in Orkney

Research output: ThesisMaster's Thesis (not awarded by UHI)


The purpose of this thesis is to research Norse Castles in Orkney. The subject was first approached by the historian J. S. Clouston who published a paper entitled ‘Early Norse Castles’ in 1931, and this is the key starting point for the present study. A critical assessment of Clouston’s ‘castle’ research and his methodology revealed that there were certain weaknesses within his arguments and his classification system, and that the subject (virtually ignored for sixty years) was in need of re-evaluation and updating. The main themes addressed are the reconsideration of Clouston’s six castle sites, the identification of other possible castle sites, the classification of all sites found and the interpretation of these sites, including internal and external influencing factors on the
development and demise of these forms of defence.

The subject has been researched in a multi-disciplinary manner using the available linguistic, documentary and archaeological sources. From a survey detailing all the castle place-names in Orkney, nine possible Norse castle sites have been identified. A detailed study of the available sources, especially the Orkneyinga Saga has provided basic and text-specific definitions of three separate ON terms: kastali, borg and vigi. All kastali references within the Orkneyinga Saga have been thoroughly examined along with other high-status sites mentioned in the text. Certain relevant folklore traditions have also been examined as evidence for the location of possible castle sites. The research
format of the archaeological evidence is three-fold; a survey of Clouston’s six sites, an examination of related defensive sites both secular and ecclesiastical, and a brief indication of related sites outwith Orkney.

The allocation of two main groups of Norse built defensive sites has been postulated, from the data collected in the above-mentioned sources; small stone keep castles and defensive farmsteads. These groups have then been further examined and put into context. A detailed analysis of the political and social situation within twelfth century Orkney has provided reasons for the development and demise of these sites. Notice has also been given to the external influence of Scotland and Norway on the development of these defensive sites. Finally, a brief consideration of related topics of study is provided.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Glasgow
  • Morris, Chris, Supervisor, External person
  • Cowan, Ted, Supervisor, External person
Publication statusUnpublished - 1999


  • Castles
  • Orkneyinga Saga
  • Historiography


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