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The Norse-Gaels were a people who dominated much of the Irish Sea region and western Scotland for a part of the Middle Ages; they were of Gaelic and Scandinavian origin and as a whole exhibited a great deal of Gaelic and Norse cultural syncretism. Other modern terms used include Scoto-Norse, Hiberno-Norse, Irish-Norse and Foreign Gaels.

They are generally known by the Gaelic name which they themselves used, of which "Norse-Gaels" is a translation. This term is subject to a large range of variations depending on chronological and geographical differences in the Gaelic language, i.e. Gall Gaidel, Gall Gaidhel, Gall Gaidheal, Gall Gaedil, Gall Gaedhil, Gall Gaedhel, Gall Goidel, etc. The modern term in Irish however, is Gall-Ghaeil, while the Scottish Gaelic is Gall-Ghàidheal.

The correct translation for Gall-Ghàidheal or any of the variant spellings is "Foreign Gaels" and is not specifically used to refer to Norse foreigners. It is a general term to describe a particular ethnic grouping of foreigners of which the Norse formed part of.

The Norse-Gaels originated in Viking colonies of Ireland and Scotland, whose inhabitants became subject to the process of Gaelicisation, whereby starting as early as the ninth century, most intermarried with native Gaels (except for the Norse who settled in Cumbria) and adopted the Gaelic language as well as many other Gaelic customs.[citation needed] Many left their original worship of Norse gods and converted to Christianity, and this contributed to the Gaelicisation. Gaelicised Scandinavians dominated the Irish Sea region until the Norman era of the twelfth century, founding long-lasting kingdoms, such as the Kingdoms of Man, Argyll, Dublin, Galloway as well as taking control of the Norse colony at York. The Lords of the Isles, a Lordship which lasted until the sixteenth century, as well as many other Gaelic rulers of Scotland and Ireland, traced their descent from Norse-Gaels. The Norse-Gaels settlement in England was concentrated in the North West. A class of mercenaries now known as "gallowglass" - a term evolving from the Irish for "foreign Gael" - served as warriors for Irish kings from the early 13th century until the middle of the 16th century, many settling in Ireland at the completion of their service.



The Norse are first recorded in Ireland in 795 when they sacked Lambay Island. Sporadic raids then continued until 832, after which they began to build fortified settlements throughout the country. Norse raids continued throughout the tenth century, but resistance to them increased. They suffered several defeats at the hands of Máel Sechnaill II, and in 1014 Brian Boru broke the power of the Norse permanently at the Battle of Clontarf.[1]

The Norse established independent kingdoms in Dublin, Waterford, Wexford, Cork and Limerick. These kingdoms did not survive the subsequent Norman invasions, but the towns continued to grow and prosper. The Norse became fully absorbed into the religious and political life of Ireland.

Iceland and the Faroes

It is recorded in the Landnamabok that there were papar or culdees in Iceland before the Norse, and this appears to tie in with comments of Dicuil. However, whether or not this is true, the settlement of Iceland and the Faroe islands by the Norse would have included many Norse-Gaels, as well as slaves, servants and wives. They were called "Vestmen", and the name is retained in Vestmanna in the Faroes, and the Vestmannaeyjar off the Icelandic mainland, where it is said that Irish slaves escaped to. ("Vestman" may have referred to the lands and islands "west" of mainland Scandinavia.)

A number of Icelandic personal names are of Gaelic origin, e.g. Njáll Þorgeirsson of Njáls saga had a forename of Gaelic origin - Niall. Patreksfjörður, an Icelandic village also contains the name Padraig. A number of placenames named after the papar, Irish monks, exist on Iceland and the Faroes.

According to some circumstantial evidence, Grímur Kamban, seen as the founder of the Norse Faroes, may have been a Norse Gael.

"According to the Faereyinga Saga... the first settler in the Faroe Islands was a man named Grímur Kamban - Hann bygdi fyrstr Færeyar, it may have been the land taking of Grímur and his followers that cauysed the anchorites to leave... the nickname Kamban is probably Gaelic and one interpretation is that the word refers to some physical handicap (the first part of the name originating in the Old Gaelic camb crooked, as in Campbell Caimbeul Crooked-Mouth and Cameron Camshron Crooked Nose), another that it may point to his prowess as a sportsman (presumably of camóige / camaige hurley - where the initial syllable also comes from camb). Probably he came as a young man to the Faroe Islands by way of Viking Ireland, and local tradition has it that he settled at Funningur in Eysturoy."[2]

Modern names

Even today, many surnames connected particularly with Gaeldom are of Norse origin, especially in the Western Isles and Isle of Man.



Gaelic Anglicised form "Son of-"
MacAsgaill MacAskill Áskell
MacAmhlaigh MacAulay, MacAuliffe Ólafr
MacCorcadail MacCorquodale/Corquadale, Corkill, McCorkindale Þorketill
MacÌomhair MacIver, MacIvor Ívarr (Ingvar)
MacShitrig[3] MacKitrick, McKittrick Sigtryggr
MacLeòid MacLeod Ljótr (lit. "the ugly one")[4]


Gaelic Anglicised form Norse equivalent
Amhlaibh (confused with the Gaelic name Amhlaidh/Amhalghaidh) Aulay (Olaf) Ólafr
Goraidh Gorrie (Godfrey, Godfred), Orree (Isle of Man) Godfriðr
Ìomhar Ivor Ívarr (Ingvar)
Raghnall Ranald (Ronald, Randall) Rögnvaldr
Somhairle Sorley (sometimes Englished as "Samuel") Sumarliði (Somerled)
Tormod NA (Englished as "Norman") Þormóðr
Torcuil Torquil Torkill, Þorketill

See also

External links


  1. ^ Ruth Dudley Edwards, An Atlas of Irish History.
  2. ^ Schei, Liv Kjørsvik & Moberg, Gunnie (2003) The Faroe Islands. Birlinn.
  3. ^ McKittrick Name Meaning and History Retrieved on 2008-04-23
  4. ^ Mcleod Name Meaning and History Retrieved on 2008-04-23


  • Downham, Clare (2009). 'Hiberno-Norwegians and Anglo-Danes' Mediaeval Scandinavia 19. University of Aberdeen.  ISSN 0076-5864
  • Haywood, John (1995). The Penguin Historical Atlas of the Vikings. London: Penguin. ISBN 0-14-051328-0. 
  • McDonald, R. Andrew (1997). The Kingdom of the Isles: Scotland's Western Seaboard, c.1100-c.1336. East Linton: Tuckwell Press. ISBN 1-898410-85-2. 
  • Ó Cróinín, Dáibhí (1995). Early Medieval Ireland, 400-1200. London: Longman. ISBN 0-582-01566-9. 
  • Oram, Richard (2000). The Lordship of Galloway. Edinburgh: John Donald. ISBN 0-85976-541-5. 
  • Scholes, Ron (2000). Yorkshire Dales. Derbyshire: Landmark. ISBN 1-901522-41-5. 


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