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When did Viking Ships disappear from use?

Viking ships which had terrorized the coastal towns and villages of Europe for centuries first began to disappear from Scandinavia in the 13th century, and were used much longer in other more isolated regions of Europe. The classic Viking ship designs, which helped theVikings dominate the seas and rivers of Europe had simply become technologically obsolete. By the end of the 12th century Vikings shipbuilding techniques were the dominant ship building technique throughout all of Europe, and had been for several centuries. The two main reasons for this are:

  1. The Vikings brought their technology with them when they settled in other areas of Europe, and the local inhabitants were quick to learn and copy these building techniques.
  2. The importance of a strong navy wasn’t lost on the victims of the great Viking raids, which ravaged the European coastlines from the 8th to the 11th centuries. Victims of these raids couldn’t help but notice the superior Viking sea vessels, and they began to build their own Viking style ships.

All throughout the 13th century European ship designs were moving away from the light, swift, and maneuverable Viking style designs to heavier, stronger, more powerful sailing fortresses. The new ship designs appearing in Scandinavia at this time were known as ‘cogs’. These ships had much higher sides meaning they had a deeper hull and were able carry much more cargo for trade. As apposed to Viking Ships, cogs were not double-ended. As time progressed these cogs began to be equipped with decks, and steering oars were replaced with powerful stern rudders. Further improvements include forecastles and aftcastles (raised areas and the front and rear of the ship, which were used for work and defensive purposes).

In the 13th century with respect to shipbuilding it could be said that Europe was taking the first initial steps towards the large galleons that dominated the seas in the Middle Ages. Essentially this was the beginning of an arms race, and an economic race for dominance of sea trade.

However, during this period of great change some of the more isolated areas of Europe were still using Viking Ship designs and building techniques. In the Hebrides (an island group in western Scotland), and the north coast of Ireland, Viking shipbuilding techniques were still in use well into the 17th century. Viking shipbuilding techniques certainly arrived in these two regions with the many Vikings who had settled there over the centuries.

In western Scotland the most common ship type was known as a ‘birlinn’. Unfortunately archaeologists have yet to find a Scottish birlinn. However, countless historical documents, medieval art and drawings clearly show that this ship type unquestionably used Viking building techniques. In fact historical evidence seems to suggest that the Scottish birlinn bore striking similarities to the classic Viking Longship. Both ships types were long and narrow, double-ended with a single mast, and a single square-rigged sail. As well they had the typical Viking clinker building technique (over-lapping planks), and they both had many oars, which could be used to power the ships in times of low wind, and they could also assist in maneuvrability.

The only substantial differences between a typical Viking Longship and a Scottish Birlinn was that the birlinn’s oars were permanently mounted, and the stern (rear end) of the ship was higher than the bow (front end). The permanently mounted oars obviously suggest that the Scots did not feel the need to take the oars in and out of the ship as needed, while the Vikings clearly did. Perhaps because the Scots very rarely went for long open sea voyages where they would be able to rely entirely on the wind.

It is not surprising that the Scottish birlinn lasted so long in western Scotland. Viking Ship types are perfect for this region of the world. The weather is very unpredictable, with many rocky islands and rocky outcrops. The birlinn and the longship are both light, swift and very maneuverable. Having a ship with two methods of power (wind and oars) was also ideal. High winds and dangerous rocky areas could be dealt with by taking in the sails and only using the oars. The lightweight of the ship of course facilitated maneuverability, but also had benefit of allowing for the ships to be hauled on shore when not in use. This would protect the ships from being smashed up on the rocks during harsh weather conditions.

According to historical documents the powerful Scottish Clan MacDonald was one of the most dominant naval powers in the region, and they had an entire fleet of birlinns. Precisely how many they had isn’t know, but it is know that their birlinns were vital in their ability to be dominant force in a region which consists of close 150 islands.

By the mid-17th century the Scottish Birlinn had essentially fallen out of use as more modern ship building techniques took over.

LastUpdate: 2015-04-10 12:13:07