Show me the research: the Jarl’s Longhouses of Skyrim

I spend a lot of time in my job looking at visual research, and particularly visual research of an architectural nature. So as I play games I often find bits of the game world that remind me strongly of something in our own world—a place, a building, a particular photo or painting. Now, I’m certainly not saying that these are actually the images that the game designers had in their own minds as they went about creating these amazing worlds; but they might have been, and certainly they are things that their work reminded me of.

A lot of the power of these games is that they are similar enough to our own world and history, mythologies and stories to feel recognizable and true, while also being different enough to create an observational distance that might allow us to see previously unnoticed, or unremarked-upon, things. Visual research is one way of recognizing those similarities and strangenesses.

The Jarl’s Longhouses in Skyrim are striking and iconic. Once you’ve gone into your first one, every new town you enter you can glance around and know exactly where to go to get started on the local questlines. While each one is unique, they are very similar to one another which works wonderfully at creating the sense of a shared culture (and architectural traditions) amongst the Nords of Skyrim.

But these longhouses are recognizable in their similarity to some real-world architecture as well, found in cultures that provided a lot of inspiration for the invented Nord culture of Tamriel. I’m talking here about the stave churches of Norway—with a little Scottish vernacular architecture thrown in!

Even Whiterun—where the Jarl’s fortress of Dragonsreach bears less similarity to the Longhouses of other Nord cities (though it isn’t completely unrelated either)—is quite beholden to its stave church antecedents once you enter inside. Compare the interior of Dragonsreach:

Dragonsreach interior, Whiterun.

…with the interiors of the stave churches.

The scale is different (Dragonsreach is much grander) but many of the details of the beams, the X-pattern of the railing around the upper galleries, or the woodcarving details around the arches, are remarkably similar.

The stave churches and Scottish thatched rooves point to my belief that much of Skyrim (or at least the Skyrim from Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim) is an elegant mashup of visual and cultural elements from Norway and the Scottish Highlands. The Norway part is rather obvious: the scale of the mountains in Skyrim so clearly echo the scale of the Norwegian mountains dropping straight down into the fjords; and culturally the Nords are heavily influenced by Viking culture, legends, imagery and sagas.

The title “Thane [of Whiterun, etc]” is a bit of shared linguistics between Scandinavia and the British Isles. Today, the most common non-Skyrim use of the word “Thane” is probably in Shakespeare’s “Scottish Play” Macbeth, whose titular character is the Thane of Glamis and then Thane of Cawdor. His rival Macduff is the Thane of Fife (who had a wife…)

My personal favorite Skyrim-Alba connection, however, has got to be the wonderfully shaggy cows of Skyrim…

One of my cows, before becoming lunch for some roaming giant…

Who are so undeniably of the same stock as the adorable “Heilan Coos” (Highland Cows) of Scotland:


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