Saturday, 26 October 2019

Ardnamurchan Vikings

Lighthouse at the Point of
As I have previously pointed out, many of the poetic-sounding names of the shipping forecast have Viking associations, as does the Point of Ardnamurchan, in the inshore waters section. Plus it sounds wonderful, too. So who could resist a little trip up there, especially when someone else was paying and there was a work reason to go? (More information on why exactly I was there will follow in its own good time). So last month I went and it turned out to be easier than I thought - fly to Glasgow, then it's a four-hour drive. Well, easy or easy. The drive is quite something, along Loch Lomond (the bonnie banks don't have room for more than a narrow road with lots of traffic), through Glencoe (stunning), a fun ferry crossing to Ardgour, and then the last thirty-five miles of single-track road, dodging confident locals, hesitant tourists, and a variety of fauna. You can see why the Vikings preferred to arrive by boat.

The Viking grave at Swordle Bay
The main reason for being there was in connection with the Viking grave found at Swordle Bay in the northern side of the Ardnamurchan peninsula a few years ago, which had me pretty excited. It's touted as being the first Viking boat burial found on the mainland of Britain, but that is somehow to see it with our contemporary landlubber eyes. Certainly modern technology makes it easy enough to get there overland, but even a few decades ago that would not have been the case, let alone a millennium ago. Even getting to Swordle by car from the south side of the peninsula involved quite a steep climb over the central ridge. The bay has excellent views of Eigg and Rum and other Hebridean islands - and for all practical purposes it might as well have been an island too. Certainly it was on a main Viking Age transport route.

Swordle Bay, Ardnamurchan
The burial is in a stunning location - a great place to spend all eternity. There are many interesting aspects of the grave (it was in all likelihood a man, buried with both weapons and practical items, in a boat) and you can read all about it in this academic publication from a couple of years ago. Or read a shorter presentation on the website of the Ardnamurchan Transitions project of which it is part. Now of course, there is not much to see, only the shape of the burial marked out in stones, and a sense of the site, which looks like an ideal spot for a Viking to settle in. Further archaeological investigations might reveal whether the person buried there also lived there or was just passing through when he decided to take a detour to Valhalla. I have my reasons for thinking the former is more likely. Or at least that there were Vikings living there at the time.

Sanna, a small settlement on the western
end of the peninsula
One of the reasons for thinking this is the small but significant number of place-names on the peninsula that have an Old Norse origin. Swordle Bay itself contains the element svörðr, cognate with English 'sward' (as in 'greensward'), plus dalr 'valley', and it is indeed very lush and green round about. Sanna, now a small settlement on the western end of the peninsula is indeed next to a sandy beach, and if it does come from Sandey 'Sand Island' as it seems to, then there are some small islands in the bay which this could I suppose refer to. The place-names have not been studied in any detail since Angus Henderson in 1915, so there's a job for someone!

Many might think there's not much to do on Ardnamurchan, and certainly what we think of as civilisation is thin on the ground at its western end. But for me the landscape and seascape, the lighthouse, the place-names, the burial, were all of great interest. I was also taken by the tiny settlement of Ockle, where the sun came out, enhancing the faded colours of this derelict cottage. I also like old tractors, sheep, cast iron mileposts and many of the other things to be seen there and I know I could amuse myself there for more than the two days I had on this visit.

One last little tidbit of information which I had not known until I travelled all the way there was the significance of the village of Strontian. It turns out that this place gave its name to the element strontium, which is key in so much Viking Age research these days, as the bioarchaeologists use isotopes to work out where people came from. If you want to know more about the element, then I recommend the Strontium video from the very fun series of videos about the periodic table made by my amazing colleague Professor Sir Martyn Poliakoff.

Just goes to show how educational following the Vikings can be!

Monday, 22 April 2019

Britain's Viking Graveyard

Viking ship model in Repton. Photo Judith Jesch
This blog started off as a light-hearted romp through some of my interests, mainly to do with Vikings and Scandinavia. I hope it is still mostly light-hearted, but I have come to realise that it is also, and now perhaps primarily, an outlet for some of the knowledge I have amassed over the years. Over the eleven (!) years I have been writing this blog, public interest in the Vikings, though it has always been there, has increased exponentially. In response to this, I have, almost subconsciously, more and more wanted to make sure that each post, however frivolous, is underpinned by that knowledge. The other thing that has changed enormously in the last decade is that academic research is now often consumed directly by people who are not themselves academics ('open access' we call it). Blogs like this may be conduits to that research which means that even a frivolous blog has some responsibilities for how it presents academic research. So I find myself taking that responsibility more and more seriously, but it's not always easy to be both engaging and correct.

Another common outlet for research into the Viking Age is the television programme. There have been noticeably many over the last decade, one or two of which I have even participated in, or at least been interviewed for only to end up on the cutting-room floor. I have on the whole not touched on these in this blog. Television programmes have their own raison d'etre, their own ways of doing things which sometimes serve the academic cause and sometimes undermine it. They have to achieve the tricky balance of edutainment, and operate within the constraints of time, budget, and how far the researchers are really able to read up on and understand the issues. In any case, there is little room for nuance or subtle arguments. For these reasons, it's not easy for an academic to evaluate them, especially from the point of view of the general audience at whom they are aimed, best to leave that to television critics.

So the following is not an evaluation, or a review, but simply my take on the programme Britain's Viking Graveyard, which was on Channel 4 last night and will no doubt sweep its way around the world fairly soon. The programme highlights excavations in and around Repton, in Derbyshire, a place I have taken an interest in since the late 1980s when I visited the excavations then being carried out by Martin Biddle and Birthe Kjølbye-Biddle. Repton and the nearby Viking cemetery at Heath Wood, Ingleby, were one of the excursions we organised for the Thirteenth Viking Congress in Nottingham in 1997 and the Biddles' work featured prominently in the Proceedings of that Congress, published in 2001. More recently, we in Nottingham have followed with great interest the excavations being carried out at Repton by Dr Cat Jarman (of whom much more later), and some of our students have been lucky enough to participate in them, too. As more or less our nearest Viking site, Repton was an important reference point for our AHRC-funded project Bringing Vikings Back to the East Midlands of 2017-18. A legacy of that project is the Vikings in the East Midlands website, which at the moment has too little on Repton, though it does have a great lecture by Cat Jarman. We are still working on this website so no doubt there will be more soon.

But on to last night's programme, which is what I really want to write about. First and foremost let me say I thought it was a really good programme - superior to most other 'Viking' programmes I have seen. There were several reasons for this, I think. Most importantly, there was no star presenter acting dumb and asking questions 'on behalf of the audience', but who inevitably becomes a bit too central to the film and overshadows the story. The voiceover narrator explained what needed to be explained, but luckily there wasn't too much going over old ground about who exactly the Vikings were and when and why. Instead, the bioarchaeologist Dr Cat Jarman was allowed to shine, with her store of knowledge, her enthusiastic personality and her ability to explain things succinctly and clearly. The other academic contributors were also well-chosen. Importantly, much of the programme was presenting real, current research, rather than the clichés that too many Viking programmes fall victim to. (Not that there weren't some clichés, but more on that later). So all in all, my preliminary conclusion is that the programme is A Good Thing and well worth watching. But beware, there are a few spoilers below.

Repton. Photo Judith Jesch
Now comes my own take on the presentation and content of the programme. I will try not to forget that a programme is not an article in an academic journal, and cannot be subjected to the same kind of forensic analysis and criticism, given all the caveats I outlined in the second paragraph above. So this is just a list of things I liked more and other things I liked less, for what it's worth. I hope these comments might be of interest to readers of this blog.

When I first saw the publicity for the programme, there were two things that caused my eyebrows to head north. One was the title and the other was the claim that '[I]t reveals the extraordinary stories of female Viking warriors'. Readers of this blog will understand my trepidation at the second of these in particular. Had Cat really found another female warrior?

Dr Roderick Dale face to face with a reconstruction
of the Repton warrior in Derby Museum.
Photo Rob Ounsworth.
Although my first reaction to the title was disapproval ('don't people know the difference between Britain and England anymore?'), it became clear that the title was actually quite carefully chosen, given that one of the arguments made in the programme was that the well-known burial of a warrior and his companion near St Wystan's church in Repton was that of two identifiable Vikings, the father and son Olaf and Eystein, who had died in Scotland and had their bones brought to Repton to be buried. Although I find this kind of identification of individuals unconvincing, I shall reserve judgement until I read the article Cat is promising on this. And certainly the mass burial in the Vicarage garden at Repton does allow for the possibility of bones having been brought there from all over Britain, not just England. Which, if true, makes the title highly appropriate.

As to the female warriors, mercifully it turned out this was mostly just clickbait, a particular kind of hype to get people to watch the programme, unfortunate but not a huge element in the programme. It is true that Cat did fly to Sweden to view the Birka 'warrior woman' with Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson. Cat also mooted the possibility that she might find a female warrior at Repton, but no evidence for this was produced beyond the fact, which we knew already, that both women and children had been present at Repton. Even Charlotte admitted that she wasn't sure whether or not her 'baby' had ever actually fought. And Cat's conclusion in the programme, which is in line with current academic thinking, was that the 'Great Heathen Army' at Repton and Torksey was not so much a purely military affair but more of a mobile community. The programme did acknowledge that women often accompanied armies, but did not suggest that they actually fought. The closest it came to suggesting this was when the camera panned along a line of female Viking re-enactors, of whom the last one was armed.

By the way, I did like the way the re-enactors featured included quite a large number of women and children - I think this might be a first for this kind of use of re-enactors in archaeological documentaries about the Vikings. And I'm sure this is partly down to the choice of my excellent friends Einar Blueaxe, Sigurðr and their families and colleagues to do the re-enactments. So in a way it was a shame that this innovative use of women in the programme just HAD to be associated with the so far quite chimerical female Viking warrior.

I was not particularly enamoured of the more clichéd use of snarling hairy guys to represent the violent activities of the Vikings. Not because Vikings weren't violent (as well as many other things) but because of the way they always look like the same hairy snarling guy in all documentaries about Vikings. I'd like to see some snarling Anglo-Saxons next time. Please. Another cliché was the use of images of large numbers of Viking ships. In this case they looked like they were made of papier maché and were all far too influenced by the Oseberg ship, when Gokstad would have been a better model. Not sure about the red-and-white striped sails, either. These graphics were EXECRABLE. (Sorry for the shouting).

But back to women warriors. There was a narratorial comment about the 'shield-maidens' of Norse mythology. Let me just repeat myself, as I have pointed out in quite a lot of lectures recently, there are no shield-maidens in Norse mythology. Any shield-maidens in other genres of Old Norse literature are a learned construct based on the Amazons, who also did not exist. (I really must get my article on this published soon, to stop the rising tide of shield-maidens engulfing serious academic as well as popular discourse). Valkyries yes, shield-maidens no. And it's not just a matter of words, but how we use words and texts in studying the Viking Age. But that's another rant, some time.

For me, the most important and exciting revelation of the programme was the discovery of a potential Viking site at Foremark. This could be extremely important in understanding the process by which the mobile community turned into permanent settlers. I really look forward to further investigations there and what they will come up with. Cat quite rightly mentioned the Scandinavian origins of the place-name, and I think this deserves further consideration, preferably by a specialist. In fact, the programme would have been much better if it had included more onomastics and fewer papier maché Oseberg ships. There is a distressing tendency among television producers (and the world at large) to assume that Vikings are only about archaeology. It distresses me, anyway. Let's bring on the specialists in Old Norse mythology, Old Icelandic poetry and prose, and place-names, whose work underlies some of the statements on which archaeologists build their interpretations. That's my rallying cry.

Overall, then, a few things that rankled. But with the River Trent, skulls and bones, playing-pieces, women, and some great participants, what's not to like? Congratulations to Cat Jarman and the Windfall films team for a programme that both informed and stimulated thought and discussion.

Sunday, 26 August 2018

Polar Bear Steak

In a blog post last year, I questioned whether the meat of the polar bear was especially edible. Well, travel is educational and I got some kind of an answer on my recent visit to the Westfjords of Iceland. The very splendid Westfjords Heritage Museum in Ísafjörður had a small display about the shooting of a polar bear up at Hornvík in the far northwest of the region in June 1963 by some egg-hunters from Ísafjörður. It made the front page of the national newspaper and what struck me was the description of how the bear was eaten. According to the article, they cooked the meat and found it delicious, not unlike beef. They also ate the heart and gave the liver to guests. They managed to bring back 250 kg of meat which they sold at 30 kr./kg., along with the 3000 guillemot eggs they had collected during their week-long trip. So there you have it. Not sure I'd fancy polar bear myself, but apparently it is perfectly edible.

Saturday, 25 August 2018

Westfjord Stories II

My recent visit to the Westfjords, and to Hrafnseyri in particular, sent me back to re-read Hrafns saga Sveinbjarnarsonar. A relatively little-discussed saga, it is set in the Sturlung era, and recounts the life history of Hrafn up to his execution by his rival Þorvaldr in 1213. Much of the saga is taken up with feuds of various kinds, over sheep or whales, or the more serious political rivalries which characterised the Sturlung period. But there is much of general interest in the saga, not least the fact that Hrafn was a famous medical practitioner. He inherited this skill from his great-grandfather Atli who acquired it at the battle of Hlýrskógsheiðr when St Óláfr appeared in a vision to his son Magnús the Good and told him to select twelve of the best men to bind the wounds of the warriors. That slight touch of sanctity accompanied Hrafn throughout his life and in his martyr-like death. In general the saga has a vast cast of characters, including quite a few women, lots of poetry, and the hero has some interesting adventures abroad. But most of all it has a lot of detail about life in the Westfjords at the time. Here I just look at a few anecdotes which particularly caught my eye after being in the place.

The saga-author was particularly partisan as regards his hero, and spends considerable time outlining his virtues. Hrafn lived at Eyrr (now Hrafnseyri) for most of his life and was apparently a very benevolent local leader. He was a generous host who fed everyone who visited, he ferried people across the Arnarfjörður for free, and also kept a ship on Barðaströnd for the use of people who needed to cross the Breiðafjörður. Certainly, a ferry across Arnarfjörður would have been a lot quicker than the long road around every fjord that is so typical of the Westfjords today. Hrafn also took no fees for his medical interventions. As the pious author remarks, 'For that reason, we expect that Christ will have provided Hrafn with spiritual healing with him for free on his death-day'.

Early on in his career, Hrafn was able to help out when a walrus beached in the Dýrafjörður during the spring assembly. The animal proved difficult to capture, so Hrafn called on St Thomas of Canterbury for help and promised to give him the tusks, still attached to the skull, in return. The walrus was duly caught and the following year Hrafn went to England where he donated the tusks, as well as some money, to the minster in Canterbury. The walrus skull and tusk (of unknown antiquity) pictured here was in the splendid local museum at Hnjótur. There is archaeological evidence for walrus hunting in the first century of Norse settlement in Iceland, but this seems to have died out and the export of walrus ivory became a mainstay of the economy in Greenland. More recent captures of walrus in Iceland will be of stray walruses (who do however seem to be arriving in greater numbers in recent years).

The course of true love did not run smoothly in the Westfjords, according to the saga's account of the tribulations of a woman called Jórunn. Her father was Snorri, a great chieftain in Ísafjörður, who had many children, none of whom were legitimate. A half-brother of Jórunn's was Hrafn's great rival Þorvaldr, and her love life undoubtedly contributed to the start of their feud. Jórunn's first admirer was a certain Sveinn, who just happened to be her brother-in-law. Sveinn was a follower of her brother Þorvaldr, but it was her other brother Þórðr who organised an attack on Sveinn, in which he was severely wounded, eventually being healed by Hrafn. Sveinn then left the country and Jórunn's next suitor was a priest called Magnús, who took her away from Ísafjörður to Dýrafjörður. This displeased a man called Bergþórr, who had previously fancied her and came looking for her. Magnús concealed Jórunn elsewhere and sent Bergþórr off with a dog as a parting gift, along with a couple of satirical verses. Bergþórr and Þorvaldr then chase Magnús who hides in a cave. Eventually Magnús and Jórunn make their escape to Norway, with her disguised as a man. In Norway they have many children and presumably live happily ever after. The saga's editor, Guðrún P. Helgadóttir, draws attention to a similar episode on Sturlu saga (in the Sturlunga compilation) in which a widow, Yngvildr, cut her hair and dressed as a man to escape to Norway with her lover. That episode took place in 1158 and may have been a model for this one, though no doubt such things also took place in real life. The Sturlu saga episode also had the complication of a possible love-child, though there is no mention of such a thing in Hrafns saga.

For some more stories from the Westfjords, I can recommend Emily Lethbridge's Saga-steads blog.

Friday, 24 August 2018

Westfjord Stories I

Although the Westfjords (Vestfirðir) of Iceland are sparsely populated nowadays, they do figure quite largely in a variety of Old Icelandic texts. Several sagas are set, wholly or in part, in the region, including some very well-known ones like Gísla saga, which has its own trail mainly around the Dýrafjörður area. Here however I will just look at a few anecdotes from my favourite text Landnámabók which both interested me and are linked to places I visited on my recent tour of the region.

Flying to Ísafjörður, our Air Iceland Connect plane was named after Þuríðr sundafyllir 'sound-filler'. The lady was a settler from Hálogaland, in Norway, where she had the particular talent of filling every sound with fish at a time of famine. She continued her fishing leadership role in Iceland. Having settled Bolungarvík (where we stayed at the splendid Einarshúsið guesthouse), she established a fishing ground at Kvíarmið out in the mouth of the Ísafjörður and took as payment one ewe from each of the farmers in the region. She could be seen as the founder of the fishing industry which is still such an important part of the economy of the Westfjords. The name Ísafjörður nowadays refers to the fjord in which the town of the same name is situated, but then seems to have referred to the whole of what is now known as Ísafjarðardjúp, as discussed by Svavar Sigmundsson. Ísafjörður is particularly associated with the little-known saga of Hávarðr. This saga is several times referred to in Landnámabók which appears to have used an earlier version of it as a source.

A memorable experience on our trip was the extremely hairy drive down to Rauðasandur, near Patreksfjörður. The eponymous beach is extremely beautiful and, as the name suggests, the sand is indeed fairly reddish. The explanation seems to be that this colour derives from some scallops with reddish shells which form the sand. However, the sand did not strike me as particularly red on our visit, but I suppose it depends on what you mean by 'red'. This colour term was a bit wider in Old Norse than in modern English, also being applied for instance to gold. Although I don't have a convincing picture to demonstrate, I could just about see the sand as reddish gold (as indeed in the picture here). Landnámabók provides an alternative explanation, namely that the place was named after a certain Ármóðr inn rauði 'the red'. The area is still being farmed and one can see why it would be an attractive proposition for a settler, particularly one who would arrive by boat rather than the vertiginous road over the mountain that we took. Since Landnámabók does not have much to say about Ármóðr, we can perhaps assume that his nickname was derived from the place-name, rather than the other way around, and that the colour and size of the beach were sufficiently distinctive for it to be an important navigational marker. Uncertainty about the origin of the name could explain the alternative forms, Rauðisandur 'Red Sand' and Rauðasandur 'Sand of Red'.

My third anecdote relates to what is now called Hrafnseyri, but is in the old texts mostly known as Eyrr or Eyri (along with Flateyri and Þingeyri - spits of land sticking out into the fjord were the ideal settlement sites in this region it seems). As mentioned in my previous blog post, the place was eventually named after Hrafn Sveinbjarnarson, a topic to which I will return in another post. But the first settler there was a certain Ánn rauðfeldr 'red-cloak' who received the land from the eponymous settler of Arnarfjörður, Örn, when the latter moved over to the more clement Eyjafjörður. Ánn had married a certain Grélöðr while harrying in Ireland, and she had thought there were bad smells emanating from the ground at their first residence in Dufansdalur. But when they moved to Eyri, she thought the grass had the fragrance of honey. While we were there, someone was cutting the grass around the church and the whole place was indeed very sweet-smelling!.

Thursday, 23 August 2018

From Nottingham to Arnarfjörður

As regular readers of this blog know, I quite often go to academic conferences in the Viking diaspora and usually manage to stay on for a few days to have a bit of a busman's holiday. This summer's big conference was the 17th International Saga Conference in Iceland, held in Reykjavík and Reykholt. The conference was both enjoyable and useful but rather large (over 400 attended). And Iceland is a pretty popular tourist destination these days. So where to go to get away from it all? A colleague and I decided that a tour to the Westfjords (Vestfirðir) was in order. This region has only about 7000 inhabitants (everyone having moved to the Reykjavík area), but some of the most beautiful and wildest scenery in Iceland. The trip was a great success and if you like you can follow some of our adventures on Twitter.

The region resounds with saga-echoes, mainly many sites associated with Gísla saga, but I was also delighted to visit Hrafnseyri, the home of Hrafn Sveinbjarnarson, whose maritime adventures in the Hebrides I once wrote about. But we were mainly there for the scenery and there was certainly plenty of that. I totally fell in love with Arnarfjörður (pictured above), the views of which were some of the most magical I have ever seen. The fjord is named after a certain Örn, a noble man from Rogaland, who first settled there to escape the tyranny of Haraldr Finehair. Clearly, he was not so impressed with the beauties of Arnarfjörður, for Landnámabók relates that he spent the winter at Tjaldanes because there the sun did not disappear entirely on the shortest days of the year. And not long after that he moved to the more forgiving landscape of Eyjafjörður.

Still, some people continued to live in Arnarfjörður, and at some point in the fifteenth or sixteenth century they acquired an alabaster sculpture of the Trinity, which is now in the National Museum of Iceland. The caption there states that it was made in Nottingham and found in Arnarfjörður, but not where. The sculpture is mentioned in an article by Philip Nelson in the Archaeological Journal of 1920, but its provenance is not given. There may be more detailed information I can track down in which case I shall report back. Certainly, Nottingham was famous for its alabaster carvings and they were widely dispersed at the time. In the meantime, let's hope that the refurbishment of Nottingham Castle Museum now underway will acknowledge this Icelandic connection, for there are certainly more of these alabasters there than the 'one' that is mentioned in this article in the Nottingham Post last year. Maybe they will even borrow one or two for an exhibition, in which case it will be Nottingham to Arnarfjörður and back.

Saturday, 12 May 2018

How(e) I Love Hoxa

Time flies, and it's been all of three years since I was last in Orkney, so I was very happy to have the opportunity to go again last month. As so often, the excuse was an academic event, the splendid 4th St Magnus Conference, but I always manage to work in some extra time to enjoy my favourite islands. As this was my twelfth visit to Orkney, I have been around quite a lot of it, including most of the inhabited islands. But each time I discover something new, and this time I got quite excited about Hoxa on South Ronaldsay. Something for everyone there, starting with a broch (who doesn't love them?), a fascinating Norse place-name with associated saga-reference, antiquities from both world wars, and a gallery with some wonderful tapestries. So here's a little bit about all of these marvellous things.

There's not much to see of the broch, as it's been mucked about with quite a lot, but its position is amazing, as with so many brochs, and as noted by the RCAHMS 'The broch, Howe of Hoxa, lies in a conspicious and commanding position on a rounded eminence, 50-60ft above the beach, at the N end of a hog-backed ridge on the broad low-lying isthmus which divides the Bay of Widewall on the S frrom the Dam of Hoxa on the N.' In the Viking Age, the broch will have appeared as a mound and this mound has given its name (Old Norse haugr) to the nearby farm, Howe, and to the isthmus on  which it is placed, Hoxa. The name of this isthmus is recorded in Orkneyinga saga as 'a Haugahæide' - the form is not very reliable as the only medieval manuscript of the saga at this point is the late, and sometimes confused, Flateyjarbók. Luckily, there is an earlier reference to it from 1329 as 'a Haugs æiðe' and by 1492 it is already being written as 'Hoxa'. The 1329 document is of great interest since it is one of the only four surviving documents written in Old Norse and issued in Kirkwall. It records a sale of lands and has contemporary forms of 10 place-names (including that of the island) 'all of which, with the exception of [one], can still be easily recognised today' (Hugh Marwick, Orkney Farm-Names, 1952, p. 169).

The saga-reference to Hoxa is equally interesting, as it claims (Orkneyinga saga, ch. 8) that Thorfinn Skull-Splitter (Þorfinnr hausakljúfr) died of illness and was heygðr 'laid in a haugr' í Rögnvaldsey á Haugaeiði as Finnbogi Guðmundsson's edition of 1965 has it. There are examples of Viking Age burials in brochs, at Gurness for example, so this is not implausible. Or it could just be an example of an aetiological tale, a story explaining the origins of something, derived from an understanding of the place-name. We don't know much about this particular Thorfinn, or why he got his nickname, though the saga does tell us that the daughter of Eirik Bloodaxe and Queen Gunnhild was married to his son Arnfinnr and that Thorfinn got to be Earl of Orkney because his two brothers had died with Eirik Bloodaxe in England. Thorfinn was höfðingi mikill ok herskár 'a great chieftain and warlike' - I suppose they had to add the last bit to counter the fact that he died on his sickbed. His nickname was also borrowed for the strong ale (Alc 8.5% b.v.) produced by the Orkney Brewery.

The broch-mound does indeed dominate the isthmus though the latter is very hard to photograph, as you can see from my attempt. And why does English not have a better word than the unpronounceable 'isthmus'? 'Neck' doesn't sound quite right....Also, do ignore the Hermann Pálsson/Paul Edwards Penguin translation of Orkneyinga saga which claims that Thorfinn 'was laid in a burial mound at Hoxa in North Ronaldsay' - they had clearly confused the two present-day Ronaldsays, although the names are clearly distinct in the saga (what is now North Ronaldsay was originally Rínansey and this is the form used in the saga). A. B. Taylor managed to get it right in his 1938 translation.

Another interesting place-name nearby, in fact just a bit off to the right of the picture of the isthmus above, is Roeberry, which I argued (Ships and Men in the Late Viking Age 2001, 78) was the Rauðabjörg where a later Earl Thorfinn defeats his kinsman and rival Rögnvaldr Brúsason in a sea-battle. The significance of this part of Orkney for military strategy is underlined by the twentieth-century antiquities out on Hoxa Head, gun batteries from both the First and Second World Wars. The site is quite amazing to walk around, especially for the views on a day as gorgeous when I was there.

Last stop before the war relics is the Hoxa Tapestry Gallery. I learned about this through my mother, who is very interested in weaving and textiles generally, so dropped in for a visit. The tapestries are amazing, all of them, and Leila Thomson frequently makes use of both the local landscape and its historical associations. Although the isthmus is difficult to photograph, as I noted above, she can imagine it, and has, in a tapestry called Haugsaith: between two shores which also has some not bad runes on it. There is so much of interest at Hoxa and with the fabulous weather it was certainly a most successful excursion.