Wednesday, 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!

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Viking Cats and Kittens III

A little booklet I picked up on the Isle of Man provides five different popular 'myths' about the origins of the tailless, or nearly so, Manx cat, known as a Manxie. One of these is that 'mother cats bit off the tails of their kittens when the Isle of Man was invaded by Scandinavians to stop the invaders taking their tails to decorate their helmets'... Hmm. You'll have spotted this as a tall tale or urban myth (the helmets are the clue) even before learning that the breed is the result of a genetic mutation only 200-300 years ago. But I can't help wondering how old this popular misconception is, it certainly is an odd one.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Runic Ramblings

When the budget allows, as this year it did, the best place to take runology students for a field trip is the Isle of Man. It's been a few years since I've been myself, so I was keen to go too! As we were taking the ferry from Heysham, it seemed appropriate to get in the Viking mood by visiting the antiquities there, in particular the hogback at St Peter's. It really is one of the most extraordinary examples of its type and I was very pleased that we could arrange to see it (thanks to the kind gentleman who made this possible). In pictures and drawings it often looks tacky and naive, but I found it rather beautiful, quite carefully carved and very well-preserved. The images are as enigmatic as they come, and give rise to much speculative interpretation, but I am convinced that serious work would elucidate at least some of its mysteries. Sigurd? Sigmund? Ragnarök? The four dwarves holding up the world? That's just for starters... Heysham has many other attractions of the early medieval variety, so do visit if you can, and lunch at Squirrel's Bistro (especially the chips!) is highly recommended.

After a very smooth crossing (unusual for the Irish Sea!) we arrived at our Viking-themed B&B in Foxdale (Old Norse foss-dalr 'waterfall valley'), and very nice it was too, well supplied with Manxies. A delicious and convivial dinner with some old friends in Castletown set us up very nicely for the following runic day.

It is possible to see all of the accessible rune stones in the Isle of Man in one day if you have a car and are determined, but we took it a bit more slowly, as the aim was to train the students in the skills of field runology - so quality rather than quantity was the name of the game. Still, we saw everything there was to see, runic or non-runic, 'Celtic' or 'Viking' (or even 'Anglo-Saxon') at Braddan, St John's, Kirk Michael, Ballaugh, Jurby, Andreas and Maughold. By the end of the day everyone was quite proficient in distinguishing their Manx bs from their fourth runes, and had learned how to record and interpret these often fragmentary or confused inscriptions. The late Ray Page was constantly in our minds, as we referred constantly to his notes and interpretations; he has done more work than anyone on these inscriptions, and the lucky person who in the end does the definitive scholarly edition (still awaited) will relay heavily on his spadework.

And of course we couldn't ignore the wonderful pictures on so many of the stones, and wondered at the rich mixtures of geometrical and figural ornament, Norse and Celtic names, runes and ogham, and much else. Sigurd, Odin and Christ were obviously the top chaps in tenth-century Man, along with their attendant figures of various kinds, but also so many animals - goats, rams, boars, stags, horses, wolves, dogs ... What does it all mean? By the end of the day, our heads were spinning with ideas and questions.
Man has the advantage of being able to play up both its Viking and its 'Celtic' heritage, depending on which is more fashionable at any given moment. We of course noticed the Viking stuff more, such as this splendid modern stained-glass at Jurby, taking its theme from one of the Andreas crosses. The day ended with a meal at the appropriately-named The Viking hostelry on the outskirts of Castletown, with its most inappropriate collection of smiling Viking heads adorned with horned helmets.

The runic thumbscrew was loosened slightly on our final day and we did a bit of site visiting (Balladoole) and museum study in the fine Viking room of the Manx Museum. We admired the snow on the appropriately-named Snaefell, which had come on the cold (and I mean cold) wind of the night before. This usefully blew the clouds away but also threatened a rough crossing back, as it proved, exacerbated by the fact that we were on the catamaran to Liverpool rather than the ferry. Some indeed suffered. It may not be much consolation, but I always advise those who are seasick that some of the best Vikings were too - in fact the Faroes are said to have been populated entirely by those Vikings who were too seasick to carry on to Iceland!