"Lords of the Isles: From Viking Warlords to Clan Chiefs" by Timothy Venning is a superbly researched book that sets out a comprehensive and detailed account of a little-known area of Scottish history. Over the five hundred years from 1000 to 1500 the place we now call Scotland only slowly established its northern and western boundaries. At the start of the period much of the north and west of the mainland, and the northern and western isles and the Isle of Man, were all in the hands of the Norse and, to a greater or lesser degree, owed allegiance to the King of Norway. The result was a ragged, diffuse and constantly varying boundary between the areas under the effective influence of Scottish Monarchs based in Dunfermline or, later, Edinburgh, on the one hand, and the areas under effective influence of the Norse on the other.
This complex situation became still more complex with the arrival on the scene of a Norse/Gaelic line whose titles included Ri Innse Gall, or "Kings of the Isles" and who under Somerled became a "third force" in the long-standing conflict between the Kings of Scotland and the Kings of Norway over the ownership of the Hebrides. Somerled never achieved his full potential, and his descendents became, until the late 1400s, Lords of the Isles. They were also the founders of some of the best-known clans of the Highlands and Islands.
Timothy Venning takes an approach that is organised by theme and era. We start with the "Rulers of Orkney and the Isles to 1066" before looking at Orkney from 1066 to 1471; at the Lords of the Isles until the time of Robert the Bruce; at the conflict between the MacDonalds and the Stewarts; at the Lords of Man until 1265; and then embark on a series of chapters about the clans of the north west and Hebrides. The result is a book that should be considered an important work of reference for anyone trying to get to grips with a complex area of history that often confounds expectations. It could have been made more approachable and accessible with rather shorter paragraphs throughout, but that doesn't detract from its value as a contribution to the understanding of its subject.