The Institute for Northern Studies is engaged in interdisciplinary research in, of and for the Highlands and Islands, with an international team of lecturers and researchers that are committed to research of international reach and significance.

As well as scholarly activity, such as gathering new research and writing for leading academic publications, the team also shares their research with a wider public audience through engagement with local and regional community groups and cultural organisations.


Among the research projects in which staff from the Institute are or have been involved, are the following:

New book series from the Institute for Northern Studies


The Institute for Northern Studies has launched a new book series in cooperation with Brepols. The series, with four volumes currently in production, focuses on the cultural heritage of the North Atlantic World between c. AD 400 and c. 1900.

The series covers a geographical region that stretches from Northern Europe and Scandinavia across to the Eastern seaboards of Canada and the United States of America, and a timeframe that expands from the Late Iron Age up to the early modern period, the boundaries of this series are set deliberately broad in order to inspire research that spans geographical and chronological divisions and that seeks to compare and contrast elements of the North Atlantic World. It is envisaged that the series will provide a forum for comparative and inter-disciplinary research from a variety of fields, in particular archaeology, history, literature, languages, and folklore.

The first in the series, due in Spring 2019, is:

'What is North?'

The volume examines the North Atlantic World's relationship with 'the North' in culture, history, and literature. Varied papers highlight a number of key questions examining the place of ‘the North’ in the psyche of the North Atlantic World: ‘What is North?’, ‘What characterises North?’, and ‘Where is North’? Papers cover a wide range of themes, charting the North Atlantic World's engagement with the north from the early medieval period to the present day.

For more information, or to submit a proposal contact


Scots and Nynorsk as cultural movements (2016-17)

Scotland is currently going through some exciting sociolinguistic transformations. Not only is the Gaelic community undergoing changes, with 'new speakers' overtaking the number of 'heritage speakers' of the language, but there are rapid developments regarding Scots as well. New initiatives for revitalising Scots are coming both from above and from the grassroots: Education Scotland is bringing Scots to schools through 4 Scots Language Co-ordinators. A Scots 'Scriever' has been appointed to produce texts in Scots. In newspapers and online fora, Scots is becoming popular. Politically and in terms of language planning, this situation resembles that of Norway in the 19th century, where the Nynorsk movement emerged as a break away from the political and linguistic dominance of Denmark. The proposed project utilised the fact that there is a nation, Norway, with a comparable population and a similar linguistic and formerly also political relationship with a neighbouring country, to which current developments in Scotland can be compared a century later. What can Scotland learn from Norway?

Orkney & Shetland Community Digital Heritage (2015)

Contact: (Orkney) Dr Alexandra Sanmark, (Shetland) Dr Andrew Jennings

Funded by Digital Scotland, The Orkney & Shetland Community Digital Heritage Project invited people in Orkney and Shetland to get involved in capturing their memories, stories and special places using simple technology. Community members to captured and shared memories and stories of place-names, people, and places in both Orkney and Shetland, though using mobile phone and tablet technology with the app Fieldtrip GB. The app let participants take photos, write memories down, or record spoken narratives, all tied to an interactive map via the device's GPS.

It is still possible to add material, so if you want to participate click on the link below:

How to get involved

The Assembly Project (TAP) - Meeting-places in Northern Europe AD 400-1500

Contact : Dr Alexandra Sanmark

This is an international collaborative project investigating the first systems of governance in Northern Europe.  The first systems of governance in Europe have long been a neglected research theme, with the significance of these places in the medieval world highlighted only in recent publications. TAP will build on previous research and offer a new, innovative, and large scale study of thing sites in the context of the transition from localised polities to large-scale kingdoms and nation states.  TAP was officially launched in June 2010 and ran until 2013, with regular project workshops held in Austria, Scandinavia, Orkney and the UK.

Main research question: What was the role of assemblies (things) in the creation, consolidation and maintenance of collective identities, emergent polities and kingdoms in early medieval Northern European populations and communities?

The project contributes an entirely new combined data set for the study of early governance and administrative organisation in the societies of North West Europe. It will achieve a range of objectives including:

  • the establishment of a relative chronology of assembly sites
  • new knowledge on the role of assemblies in processes of territorialisation.
  • a study of how law and collective norms and values were established and
  • enforced onto colonised/conquered areas.
  • a study of gender perspective concerning power relations and assembly access
  • a historiography of assemblies and their relevance to the concepts of national
  • identity and statehood

The Assembly Project team, which consist of colleagues from the Universities of Oslo, Vienna, Durham and the University of the Highlands and Islands is financially supported by the HERA Joint Research Programme which is co-funded by AHRC, AKA, DASTI, ETF, FNR, FWF, HAZU, IRCHSS, MHEST, NWO, RANNIS, RCN, VR and The European Community FP7 2007-2013, under the Socio-economic Sciences and Humanities programme.

Dr Alexandra Sanmark

2013 – The Orkney Viking Heritage Project

Contact : Professor Donna Heddle

The Orkney Viking Heritage Project is a training programme for PhD students and early career researchers in the field of Old Norse-Icelandic and Viking Studies (ONIVS), which aims to extend academic research about the Viking diaspora and its tangible and non-tangible heritage in the British Isles.  It consists of workshops, a field school in Orkney and an exhibition.  The theme of Midlands Viking Symposium is linked to the Project.

The project is a collaborative initiative led by the following institutions: The Faculty of English, University of Oxford, The Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic, University of Cambridge, The School of English, University of Nottingham, The Institute for Northern Studies, University of the Highlands and Islands.

It is funded by a Collaborative Skills Development Grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), and

Development of Scottish Tourist Guides Association (STGA) Blue Badge courses across Scotland.

The Hjaltland Research Network

Contact : Dr Andrew Jennings

The Hjaltland Network received £17,000 from the Royal Society of Edinburgh to bring together national and international scholars of folklore, onomastics, genetics, isotope research, archaeology and history to plan a large-scale research project entitled Mapping Viking Age Shetland.  The project will, through the digitising and mapping of the datasets of each discipline, answer many of the unresolved questions about Shetland’s Viking Age, such as:

  • what happened to the pre-Viking population
  • the date of Viking settlements
  • the origins of the Norse settlers and the anomaly of the divergent origins of the male and female lines
  • the nature of Shetland’s connections to the Celtic world
  • the intensity of settlement and the extent and duration of Norse pagan beliefs and folk traditions.

Mapping Viking Age Shetland will be a truly interdisciplinary approach to Viking-Age research, applying the latest technological advances and innovative new research in the various scientific and technological fields, which will allow analysis of additional information from existing sources and the uncovering of new evidence, onomastic, genetic and isotopic.

Vikings in Stone? Art, Aesthetics and Identity in Northern England 850-1050

This project, by Dr Victoria Whitworth, concentrated on the human image in Viking Age art, using it as a way of understanding the processes of acculturation in Anglo-Scandinavian Northumbria. The study reveals the largely untapped potential of monumental stone sculpture as a source for social and cultural change and the construction of identity. Associated publication: Monograph to be published by Oxford University Press.

Ongoing: An exploration of lighthouses

Contact: Dr Angela Watt

A current working project includes a book on lighthouses, which is an exploration of the lasting legacy of lighthouse families and the transition between lighthouse stations as occupational spaces to the privatisation of domestic homes and/or business opportunities. This research focuses heavily on the remaining narratives of lighthouse keepers, their wives and families. It incorporates the use of visual archives – both within the private and public sphere – as historical sources and documents.

2012 - The Orkney and Shetland Dialect Corpus Project: scoping study.

This project, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), evaluated the feasibility and planned the development of a corpus of Orkney and Shetland dialect texts for use in linguistic research. The main objective of the research was to undertake a scoping study and research review with a view to developing a larger corpus-based project on Orkney and Shetland dialect grammar. The project identified available sources of dialect text and considered how these could be developed into a digitally searchable corpus resource. As part of the Connected Communities programme, it also engaged the local communities in Orkney and Shetland through various events such as a presentation for Shetland ForWirds, a dialect day as part of Orkney International Science Festival, and an evening class in Orkney dialect for beginners. Associated publications: "The Establishment of the Scots Language in Orkney", by Ragnhild Ljosland, in New Orkney Antiquarian Journal vol.6, and "Grammatical Gender in Orkney and Shetland Dialect", to appear in Scottish Language. The project also led to the foundation of The Orkney and Shetland Dialect Research Network.

2012 – 'Nordic Regions of Culture: intercultural links between Norway and Scotland in the eighteenth century'.

Research mobility project funded through the Norwegian Research Council for 5-month residency at Høgskulen I Volda/Volda University College  The project evidenced the relationship between the cultural heritage of coastal communities across the North Sea through general historiographical and socio-cultural analysis, but also using case studies from seventeenth and eighteenth century coastal histories and cultures.

2012: The implications of cultural interchange in Scalloway, Shetland, with reference to a perceived Nordic heritage (PhD thesis)

Contact : Dr Angela Watt

The project explored the historical development of locational cultural narrative and the construction of a Shetland identity, with particular reference to the village of Scalloway. It employed a multi-methodological and interdisciplinary approach to garner evidence from a wide range of sources. The implications and biases of local identity forms were considered within the framework of Shetland as a series of cultural ‘spaces’, which are visually narrated and publicly contested against non-Shetland forms. This thesis developed a theoretical model of ‘cultural interchange’, suggesting that culture should be considered in terms of a conceptual process. It also introduced the ‘Norseman’s Bias’; a locational cultural practice which elevates the legacy of Nordic heritage above other competing cultural claims. The project resulted in a PhD thesis which is currently being considered for publication.

2011 - A Knowledge Exchange project: Small Boats of Shetland

Author: Alison Munro

Funded through the Scottish Funding Council's "Innovation Voucher" scheme, this publication made recent research findings about the traditional Shetland boat available in an accessible format for the public. The book interprets an important part of Shetland's cultural heritage and generates profits for the Unst Boat Haven (Unst Heritage Trust), a cultural heritage charity.

Public Engagement

So far, we have been involved in the following knowledge exchange activities :

Prof Donna Heddle, Director of INS and head of cultural heritage

Professor Donna Heddle, director of the Institute for Northern Studies and head of cultural heritage at the university, is the author of a number of publications on Scottish language, literature, and cultural history, and is currently leading several national and international research and cultural tourism projects.