Solway Plain - past and present by the Holme St Cuthbert History Group



The Norsemen first raided Lindisfarne in 793. Their raids continued until, in 876, a new Viking Kingdom was established with York as its capital. Great battles were fought, monasteries were burned, maidens were raped and Carlisle was pillaged.

Vikings landing at Beckfoot (Photoshop reconstruction)

These momentous events seem to have by-passed the Solway coast completely. The Plain People just carried on farming, undisturbed for another hundred years. Things changed for them around 902 when the Celtic Irish expelled their Viking settlers from Dublin. Looking for somewhere new to live, these Irish Scandinavians set sail and headed north. Legend has it that they landed at Allonby. They seem to have been a fairly peaceable lot and settled in well with their neighbours.

Engraving of grave goods found at Aspatria in the 18th century However, their leader must have been a mighty warrior; it seems  likely that he was buried on Beacon Hill in Aspatria.

He must have been a pagan as he was buried with his sword and shield, a dagger, spurs and battle axe. 

These items were found during excavations by a local doctor in the 18th Century and are now lost.

Good sketches were made at the time including two of the stones which made up the ‘kist’ in which he was buried. These are covered with curious carvings the meanings of which have been a source of controversy among the experts ever since their discovery.

These finds can be seen in the engraving on the left.

In 1997 further excavations were carried out on the site, prior to the erection of a mobile telephone mast. Several interesting items were found.

Recent finds from the Beacon Hill site at Aspatria

These included (clockwise, from top left) a buckle, part of a spur, a pin and a folding knife. The pin is of a type found frequently on Viking sites around Dublin , tending to confirm that the Norsemen who colonised the Solway Plain came from that area.

The Scandinavians settled down quickly, setting up their own farms.

They adopted their neighbours’ religion and language and, in return, the local English took a few of their words into the Cumbrian dialect. Yam (home), gowk (fool), lug (carry) and marra (one of a pair) are a few examples.

Many place names in the area are said to be of Norse origin, some of these are shown on the map on the right.

'Holm' is a Norse word meaning an island or an area of dry land in the marshes.

Map showing placenames of Norse origin

The scarcity of wood and absence of suitable stone for quarrying gave these former Vikings a real problem when it came to building homes for their families and shelters for their livestock. Using what materials were available locally, they adapted a building technique from their homelands; they invented the Clay Dabbin.

These used a type of cruck framing for the roof which was made of thatch. A base of cobbles from the shore or a river was used to support walls made from straw, reeds and a mixture of clay and sand.

Clay Dabbin Cottage
Clay Dabbin under demolition showing crucks and cobble foundations A typical Cumbrian Clay Dabbin cottage can be seen above.

The two pictures below were taken during the demolition of Brownrigg cottage, near Abbeytown, in 1954 and clearly show the method of construction.
Clay Dabbin under demolition showing construction of walls

The timbers were often re-cycled from older buildings. These sturdy, cosy single storey buildings were well insulated and must have been the “greenest” houses in the country, making the smallest demands on non-renewable resources.

Clay Dabbins provided most of the local people with homes for just about the next thousand years and are the Scandinavians’ most important and lasting contribution to their new community.

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A number of Viking burials have recently been discovered near Cumwhitton, east of Carlisle. Swords, spears, spurs and jewellery have been found.

Click here to read a full report on the excavations


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The Vikings