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Innse Gall: Culture and Environment on a Norse Frontier in the Scottish Western Isles
Oram, Richard and Adderley, William
The Norwegian Domination and the Norse World c.1100-c.1400, ed. Steinar Imsen (Trondheim, 2010)
‘Frontier’ is a term which means many things to many people. In straightforward political geography terms, the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines a frontier as: “The part of a country which fronts, faces, or borders on another country; the marches.” It also offers a second definition, drawn from the United States, which describes ‘frontier’ as: “That part of a country which forms the border of its settled or inhabited regions”. In popular tradition, the „frontier‟ is a place of heroism and danger: an exposed front line drawn between known and unknown territory; the boundary between civilisation and barbarity; or, quite simply, the dividing point between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Whether it is the physical frontier of the Roman limes, the abstract frontier of the current limits of knowledge, or the ‘Final Frontier’ of Science Fiction adventure, it is a term used to divide human experience into the quantified or quantifiable and the void beyond our current understanding. For archaeologists and historians, the term carries another layer of meaning with subtle internal gradations, from the anthropological notions of liminality and marginality to the socio-economic concept of frontiers as “contact zones of cultures‟ in which “people of different cultures struggle with each other for control of resources and political power‟.For environmental historians, the term carries another implication: the notion of a limit to the viable or sustainable pursuit of a specific exploitation regime. These three main definitions will provide the frame in which this present paper will attempt to explore the possible status of Innse Gall – the “Islands of the Foreigners” – as a Norse frontier along the Atlantic and Irish Sea coasts of Britain.
The title of this paper encapsulates a central problem to be faced when looking at the notion of a frontier zone in the islands which fringe western mainland Scotland. It asks if the region was a ‘Norse frontier’, yet the territorial designation of the kingdom which encompassed most of the maritime zone from Lewis in the north to Man in the south is given in its medieval Gaelic form. This labelling, which first occurs in association with an individual accorded the tile of rí or king over them in the obit entry in the Annals of Ulster for 989 recording the death of Gothfrith/Gofraid son of Aralt, is intended to stress the apparent hybridity of the population and culture of the islands in the earlier Middle Ages, but it also throws up immediately questions of self-identity and external perceptions of the identity of the islands and their inhabitants. ‘Innse Gall’ means the ‘Islands of the Foreigners’, i.e. non-Gaelic-speaking foreigners, and is a label coined by Gaelic-speaking outsiders to identify a population whom they saw as representing something quite alien and distinct from their own cultural norm. It is most emphatically not what the inhabitants of those islands called the polity within which they lived. In fact, until the emergence of the Regnum Manniae et Insularum in the late 11th and 12th centuries, we actually have no sense of a common political identity shared by the inhabitants of the islands which came to comprise that kingdom and reference instead to individual islands by name and to ‘lawmen’ as the key political figures might point to a shallower social hierarchy and a high degree of political fragmentation rather than unity of political identity. While exploration of that issue might reveal much about the socio-political structures of the earlier Norse period in the Isles – and there are very interesting parallels with the Icelandic experience – it is too expansive an issue to deal with in this present paper. The post-11th-century political development and secular and ecclesiastical institutions of the kingship and kingdom of Man and the Islands will also not be explored here, having been the subjects of recent detailed analysis by a number of scholars. Instead, the focus will be on the characteristics of the material culture, economy and society of the Western Isles portion of the kingdom.