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Orkney academic awarded Fellowship to support Viking research

Monday 12 May 2014

An archaeologist at the University of the Highlands and Islands has been awarded a British Academy Mid-Career Fellowship to support her research into livestock farming in Viking and Norse Orkney.

Dr Ingrid Mainland, a senior lecturer based at Orkney College UHI, is one of only 38 academics to be awarded the Fellowship out of 274 applicants across the humanities disciplines in the UK this year. The award will allow Dr Mainland to take time out of her normal teaching and administrative duties to conduct the research.

Starting in September, Dr Mainland’s year-long study will look at herding economies in the Orkney Isles from the 8th to the 15th century AD. This period is believed to have been significant for the isles as they played a pivotal role in the socio-economics of the Norse world, linking Scandinavian Ireland and England with Norway, Denmark and the western Atlantic.

Dr Mainland is particularly interested to find out if livestock farming underpinned societal sustainability and whether it may have contributed, through intensification and overstocking, to the decline in agricultural production and the marginalisation of the islands in the Later Medieval period (13th to 15th century AD).

Once she has completed her research, Dr Mainland hopes to share her findings with local school children and the farming community, present them at international research conferences in Glasgow and Argentina and submit them for publication in academic journals.

Speaking about the award, Dr Mainland said: “Although perhaps better known for their raiding activities, ‘Vikings’, the Scandinavian peoples who settled on the islands of the North Atlantic from the 8th century, were essentially farmers whose society had the rearing of the herd animals, cattle and sheep, at its heart. During my fellowship, I will be exploring how livestock farming sustained and maintained Viking and Norse ways of life in the Orkney Islands.

“Amongst other things, I will be looking at the role of cattle and sheep in promoting status and social networks through feasting and gift-giving and at the use of commodities like wool and butter in the developing Early Medieval long-distance trading networks. I will also be assessing how farmers in the Northern Isles coped with climatic instability, including increased storminess, as this time was a period of major climatic change. This should help to shed light on links between vulnerability, sustainability and risk in island communities, both in the past and today.”

Professor Ian Bryden, the university’s vice-principal research, said: “This is a very exciting development and highlights Dr Mainland’s standing in the research community. Orkney College UHI has established itself as a world-leading centre for research into Nordic history and sociology and this award will open even more opportunities and further our understanding of a crucial period in our history.”

Dr Bill Ross, principal of Orkney College UHI, added: “I am delighted that Dr Ingrid Mainland has been awarded this prestigious Fellowship. Ingrid has made a considerable contribution to the archaeology department over the past few years, leading on the introduction of our undergraduate archaeology degree which is proving very successful at attracting students to the region. This is a well-deserved opportunity for Dr Mainland to spend an extended period of time undertaking research that will be of both local interest and international significance.”