Caithness is a historic county in the far north of mainland Scotland, situated on the northeastern coast of Scotland.
Caithness | 0 to the 9th century AD
Picts and Gaels
Caithness, like much of northern and eastern Scotland, was inhabited by the Picts, a Celtic-speaking people, during the early centuries of the first millenium. They were skilled warriors and farmers, and they ruled over a vast territory that stretched from the Firth of Forth to the Moray Firth.
The Picts likely had their own distinct language, often referred to as Pictish. However, the exact nature of the Pictish language remains a subject of debate among scholars. Pictish society was characterized by tribal structures, and they left behind intricate symbol stones, some of which can still be found in the region.
In the early 400s, Caithness was part of the Pictish kingdom of Fortriu, and in the fifth century, the kingdom began to decline. This was due in part to the arrival of the Gaels, a Celtic people who had migrated from Ireland. The Gaels were also skilled farmers and warriors, and they soon began to assert their dominance over the Picts.
By the mid-500s, the Gaels had taken control of Caithness. They established the kingdom of Dál Riata, which stretched from Caithness to the Isle of Man. Dál Riata was a powerful kingdom, and it played an important role in the development of Scottish culture. The Norsemen were skilled warriors and traders, and they soon began to intermarry with the Gaels.
Norse Influence and the Earldom of Orkney | 8th – 15th centuries
In the eighth and ninth centuries, Norse (Viking) influence became prominent in Caithness. Norse raiders and settlers began to arrive in the area, establishing a significant Norse presence along the coast. This was part of the broader Viking Age expansion across the North Atlantic and into Scotland.
Caithness became part of the Norse Earldom of Orkney, and the earls exerted control over the region, often of the powerful Orkneyinga dynasty. The Orkneyinga Saga, a historical narrative of the Norse Earldom of Orkney, mensions events and individuals in Caithness during this time. The Earldom of Orkney had strong ties to Norway, and the rulers often owed allegiance to the Norweigan king. The earldom existed from the ninth to the fifteenth century.
Battle of Tarbat Ness | c. 876
The Battle of Tarbat Ness, which is often associated with the local Picts and Norse, took place around 876 AD. The outcome of this battle is not well-documented, but it reflects the complex interactions between the different ethnic groups in the region.
The Kingdom of the Northern Isles | 9th century
In the ninth century, the Norsemen conquered Dál Riata and established the kingdom of the Northern Isles, which included Caithness, Orkney, Shetland, and the Isle of Man. The Norsemen ruled the Northern Isles for over 300 years, and they had a significant impact on the region’s culture and language.
The term “Kingdom of the Northern Isles” is used more broadly to refer to the political entities that held sway over the Northern Isles, including Orkney and Shetland. Before the establishment of the Norse Earldom of Orkney, the Northern Isles were likely under the influence of Pictish or Celtic rulers. The transition to Norse control marked the beginning of the Norse-dominated political organization in the region.
In the twelfth century, the Norsemen were eventually defeated by the Scottish king, David I, who brought Caithness under Scottish rule, and it has been a part of Scotland ever since.
As Norse influence waned in other parts of Scotland, Gaelic-speaking populations expanded into areas that had previously been under Norse control. The process of Gaelicization involved the spread of Gaelic culture, language, and influence into regions that were once part of the Norse domains.
The name comes from the Pictish word cait, meaning cat, and the Old Norse word ness, which means headland.