18 April 2012

Lights of the Isles

Like all good teachers (I hope), I don't have any real favourites among my Norse and Viking rambling locations - from Newfoundland to Estonia, I have loved them all. But careful readers of this blog may nevertheless have noticed I have a bit of a soft spot for Orkney. So I am delighted to report that I am here again! The kind folk of the Thing project have invited me to give lectures in both Orkney and Shetland this week. And I wouldn't be me if I didn't tack on a few days extra to make it a proper busman's holiday...

This time I decided the extra in Orkney was to be North Ronaldsay, the northernmost of their isles, a place I visited once before in 2003, and home to some seaweed-eating sheep and the really rather colourful Ragna, about whom Earl Rögnvaldr composed a very strange poem (see ch. 81 of Orkneyinga saga, or my edition in Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages vol. 2).

Having arrived in glorious sunshine on Monday evening, my one whole day on North Ron was wiped out by the really rather atrocious weather that pummelled the whole of Orkney pretty much all of Tuesday, necessitating a day spent indoors with some academic work. I cannot complain, since I consider the weather to be an essential part of the authentic Viking experience, but I was disappointed.

Today, I was to leave on the 11 am flight and the weather was of course heart-wrenchingly better. But thanks to two of my fellow-guests at the North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory (an excellent place to stay, by the way), my last few hours were saved and I got a little adventure to boot.

It transpired that my two fellow guests were the engineers who maintain the lighthouses of Orkney and Caithness for the Northern Lighthouse Board. They, too, were leaving on the 11 am flight, but had a few things to clear up at the lighthouse before going, and graciously allowed me to accompany them. So I had a special tour of the highest land-based lighthouse in Britain, managing to climb all 176 steps to the top, where there was a splendid view of the whole island, glinting in the sunshine. There is a webcam, if you want to get an idea, and the two keepers' cottages have now been turned into very nice self-catering accommodation.

So what's all this to do with the Vikings, you ask? They who sailed without benefit of lighthouses (and therefore probably got shipwrecked a lot)? Well, it transpired that one of the lighthouse engineers was none other than Hrolf Douglasson, a Viking re-enactor I had met once before, now leader of the Norðreyjar branch of Regia Anglorum, author of several books about Vikings, and now with this really rather cool job of looking after the lighthouses of Orkney and Caithness. So thanks Hrolf, and your colleague Rob, for the tour!

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