31 December 2010

Fair Islanders

I have to confess I am not terribly fond of twentieth-century novels that are set in the Viking and Norse periods. I'm not sure why, but I think mainly because they are so predictable. I'll refrain from naming and shaming any of those that I have begun but been quite unable to finish. But there was one exception: a few years ago, soon after it came out, I read Margaret Elphinstone's The Sea Road, and found it enjoyable, both as a novel, and as a believable depiction of the world at that time.
I've now been using the Christmas break to catch up on the first novel she ever wrote, Islanders, derived from her own experiences of living in Shetland, which included bird-watching on Fair Isle and doing archaeology at Barbara Crawford's Papa Stour dig. Both of these islands feature in the novel, which is mostly set on Fair Isle in the twelfth century. It's an accomplished novel, introducing a range of likeable and (from a modern point of view) believable characters, and has some good ethnographic descriptions of the daily life and grind on a small island where the diet is definitely not for vegetarians. There is some violence, but much less than you would expect, and overall the picture is rather cosy, despite the harsh living conditions. It's very much a woman's view of the late Viking Age. There is little or no saga pastiche (the downfall of many other 'Viking' novelists), but the author rather skilfully weaves in lots of allusions to both sagas and poetry, some obvious, some less so, showing that she has done her homework, both in reading the literature, and in understanding how it might have worked in that period. It's a satisfyingly, but not excessively, long book, and the end leaves you wanting to know more - unfortunately Elphinstone never wrote the sequel.
So, the overall verdict is a good read with which to while away the long winter evenings, even if you are allergic to 'Viking' novels.

28 December 2010

'Old Norse ... Makes Our Country Civilised'

The quotation above comes from an interview with David Willetts, the Universities Minister, on the Guardian website back in October, which I've only just caught up with. The minister claims to 'care' about Old Norse, but in effect says it will be cut (for a good analysis of what he is really saying, see this recent entry in Seph Brown's blog).
My own blog concentrates on the lighter side of Norse and Viking life, and is an entirely frivolous (though enjoyable to me and, I hope, others) supplement to my day job. But let it never be forgotten that even such frivolities would not be possible without a lifetime spent studying Old Norse, and then all that goes with it. The minister's statement, coupled with the government's unashamed attack on academic subjects that do not bring an instant pecuniary reward (most of them, surely?) demonstrates quite clearly that the government does not actually want the country to be civilised. Tremble, everyone, tremble...

16 December 2010

The Waif Woman's Brooch

The quotation from Robert Louis Stevenson in my previous post prompted me to read his little story, The Waif Woman, which has been sitting on my shelf for some time waiting for an appropriate moment, though it's not at all long. It was not published during his lifetime, but our library has a nice little edition from 1916 (if you haven't got such a good library, you can read it online from Project Gutenberg and elsewhere). The story begins 'This is a tale of Iceland, the isle of stories' and it is a fine example of Viking Victoriana, with lots of 'goodmen', 'goodwives' and 'fiddlesticks', and a few gratuitous alliterations and archaisms ('It was a wild night for summer, and the wind sang about the eaves and clouds covered the moon, when the dark woman wended'). The plot is quite closely based on the well-known and colourful story of the Hebridean woman Thorgunna in Eyrbyggja saga - RLS has a Thorgunna, too, a strapping lady of a certain age, like her literary predecessor (not quite how we imagine a 'waif' these days, though she is indeed a wandering, homeless person). But the other characters have different names, and some aspects of the story are different. In particular, a silver brooch plays a part in the plot:
Here was a cloak of the rare scarlet laid upon with silver, beautiful beyond belief; hard by was a silver brooch of basket work that was wrought as fine as any shell and was as broad as the face of the full moon; and Aud saw the clothes lying folded in the chest, of all the colours of the day, and fire, and precious gems; and her heart burned with envy.
There is no brooch in Eyrbyggja saga but clearly RLS knew how important they were in the Viking Age, and liked brooches too - the comparison here with the moon is not unlike his fancy that brooches were made 'of star-shine at night', quoted in my last post. I don't know how much RLS really knew about Viking brooches, but I have used a picture of a tenth-century Borre-style disc brooch from Gotland, which I found on the British Museum website, and which would surely have amazed Aud if she had seen it.

10 December 2010

'I Will Make You Brooches and Toys for Your Delight ... '

... wrote Robert Louis Stevenson in his posthumously published Songs of Travel (1895). While Stevenson promised to make them 'Of bird-song at morning and star-shine at night', those vagabond Vikings also appreciated the delight of brooches, but made them more prosaically from shiny metals. I have for some time been interested in the work of Jane Kershaw who has studied metal-detectorist finds from recent years, particularly those in a Scandinavian style and those which which were most characteristically worn by women. Jane has recently received her doctorate for this work, and published a solid, academic summary of her results in Viking and Medieval Scandinavia 5 (2009). A shorter and more accessible version can now be read online, in the November/December 2010 issue of British Archaeology. As Jane points out, the bulk of finds come from Lincolnshire and Norfolk. While this partly reflects possible find-spots in these predominantly agricultural regions, the East Anglian finds in particular shed new light on Viking activities in that area, where there is comparatively little other type of evidence in the form of place-names or sculpture. But such items are also found elsewhere in the Danelaw, and the picture shows my nearest example, a late 9th- / early 10th-century copper alloy trefoil brooch found in Nottinghamshire. It has suffered in the last thousand years or so - you have to imagine it when it was new!

04 December 2010

Skaldic Wordle

Wordle: The threatening wave I've just discovered a fun new website called Wordle, which makes fabulous 'word clouds' out of any text that you put into it. I put the text of a forthcoming article of mine in, and got this splendid cloud. You can click on it and get a bigger image if you like, to get a preview of what the article will be about.

01 December 2010


After all my recent ramblings, jolly though they were, it is in fact a relief to stay at home for a bit and get down to some real work. But now I find the North is coming to me! At least, if you believe the papers. They are full of how 'Scandinavian' this weather we have been having recently is. The snow is not copious (at least not here in the dry East Midlands), but it is hanging around and looks quite pretty. And of course very Nordic. So here's a picture.

19 November 2010

More Ramblings

Dear readers, as there are more and more of you (33 followers at last count, and who knows how many undeclared), I feel more and more guilty about not keeping up with the blog. No excuses will be offered, except to note that your blogstress has been Norse and Vikingly rambling quite a lot recently. At the end of October, the annual trip to Cumbria with the MA students took place, as fabulous as every year, with a special mention to Burnthwaite B&B for their hospitality, and the kind vicars and rectors who welcomed us at Pennington, Irton, Gosforth, Bridekirk, Aspatria, Lowther and many other places with beautiful and inspiring churches, fascinating sculpture ('is it really the real thing from the 10th century?' asks an American student; how wonderful to be able to say YES!), amazing views and the occasional tidbit that makes the visit special (the little wooden Gosforth cross inside the church, the moving memorial to the foot and mouth crisis at Bridekirk, Calverley's grave at Aspatria, the dusky beauty of Lowther). This year was particularly special, as the autumn foliage reached levels and intensities of colour that were almost North American (see the photo, above, from Lowther in the gloaming, a scene entirely appropriate to one's mood at this time of year). Since the trip, I have been reliving the local glories by finally getting around to reading Matt Townend's The Vikings and Victorian Lakeland that I mentioned in last year's post-Cumbrian blog, but have only just found the time to read.
No sooner was I back from Vatnsland than I was off to Árós, for an excellent PhD course in Viking Studies, accompanied by two of Nottingham's stalwart higher-level Viking Studiers. As well as deep intellectual discussions, we tried to imagine life in a smoky Viking house, and wondered why people might carve rude runes on church walls... But the best bit really was the canteen at Moesgård, with its fabulous collection of (illicitly acquired? surely not...) signs (see photo, above right).
Hardly had I recovered from the Jutlandic experience when it was off to Iceland to ponder what happened to gods and goddesses when they were on, or crossed, the 'edge'. Liminality, in other words. Another excellent conference, well-organised. But the high spot for me was on my last morning. I had eschewed the crack of dawn flight in favour of a later one which would get me home to Nottingham at nearly the crack of dawn the following morning, but at least gave me a few hours to enjoy being in Iceland. And lo, the icy winds that feel like knives being thrown at you (like the poor girl with the axes in the Kirk Douglas film, but not hitting only your plaits) abated, the sun came out (though the temperature remained low), the snow sparkled on Esja, and Tjörnin was frozen over. So much so that people were skating on it, apparently without a Health-and-Safety care in the world. I also paid my respects to Jón Gunnar Árnason's Sólfar, just starting to glint in the sun (see above). Wow.
All of this reminded me of why I love Norse and Viking rambling. But doing it in less than three weeks takes its toll... I am still recovering, dear reader, but hope to be back soon.

28 October 2010


Once upon a time they came in longships, now they come in lorries. You can't escape those Vikings. Forget those continental types Norbert Dentressangle and Willi Betz, or Cumbrian lad Eddie Stobart with all his girls. The coolest lorries on the road are -- wait for it -- PTSUKLtd! A Viking on every van. You can't see the Vikings on the lorries depicted on the PTSUKLtd website, so I append a photo kindly taken for me by my other half, on Nottingham's great cosmopolitan road network, at great risk I have to say to the safety of both himself and other road users. Enjoy. A safer method is to visit Biglorryblog, where it is revealed that it is all done with decals. Hmm, I wonder if they need a specialist consultant? Those horns, you know.

26 September 2010

St Brice's Day Victims Found?

An article by David Keys, the archaeology correspondent of the Independent, in the Smithsonian's magazine, suggests that some old bones found when building a new student residence for St John's College, Oxford, are those of victims of the St Brice's Day massacre in November 1002. They are from between 34 and 38 individuals, 'all of them victims of violence'. They have been dated to between 960 and 1020, and had a marine diet. Ergo, they were Vikings. Keys links this new evidence with the Weymouth massacre, which I mentioned here in March. What I hadn't noticed back then was that Keys had published an article in the Independent, linking the Weymouth massacre with St Brice's day, a link not I think made explicitly by other reports of the finds. Oxford is of course the only specific place for which there is historical evidence for the massacre.
Back in 2002, we marked the millennium of the massacre with a small conference here at Nottingham. Although the papers were not published then, three of them were given again, in revised form, at a conference in Copenhagen, and then published in the proceedings of the Seksogtyvende tværfaglige vikingesymposium (2007). For those who are interested, I'd particularly recommend Julia Barrow's paper on 'Bishop Brictius - Saint Brice', which links the massacre to the autumn slaughter of livestock, and concludes:
Therefore, if we picture ourselves in Oxford in November 1002 we can imagine the Cornmarket and the High full of animals brought in from the surrounding countryside waiting to be sold to butchers and killed. ... The animal slaughter would probably still have been continuing two days later on St Brice's day, and Æthelred would probably have viewed this day as more appropriate for a massacre of Danes than St Martin's day, Brice being a much less popular, and much less significant, saint than St Martin.

19 September 2010

Fingerposts to the Past

Here's a nice article in The Northern Echo, 'Skuttering and going to Potto', all about the influence of the Vikings on place-names in the Cleveland area of (historical) North Yorkshire, which all enthusiasts know is well-supplied with names of Scandinavian origin, including my favourite, Roseberry Topping (pictured). Anyone who has driven on the motorways of England will know the lorries of Prestons of Potto, though Skutterskelfe is a bit more obscure. The author of the article is clearly as enamoured of the old cast-iron road signs as I am, and picks out some interesting examples, as well as giving a nice plug to our Institute for Name-Studies.

29 August 2010

Norn But Not Forgotten

I drew attention to Shetland Forwirds, the group that is encouraging the use of the dialect in a post last April - and repeat that their website is well worth a visit if you're interested. Now I'm writing this while listening to a programme about Shetlandic on Radio 4, and particularly about poets and their use of the Shetland dialect (which is of course a form of English, or rather Scots). The 'Norn' element of this dialect consists mainly of lexical items (or 'words') which have survived from the old Norn language, which died out in about the eighteenth century. Much of this lexicon is to do with the landscape, weather, animals and so on, and such words are perhaps mostly of interest to either farmers or poets. It's interesting that several of the contributors describe finding words that have effectively died out but are, or were, still known to the older generation. Of course quite a lot of words that are strange to South Britons, even in Shetlandic, are just standard Scots words, this is hinted at in the programme, but no real distinction is made between the Scandinavian element and the Scots element. And I feel the programme misses an opportunity to explain the history of language in Shetland in a bit more detail, there is a tendency to present it as just another weird dialect, strange because it is so remote from the centres of culture, even Edinburgh.
But the poems sound great, so well worth listening again on the BBC website if you're in this country. I am pleased to note that the native Shetlanders, in particular, don't yet suffer from that ghastly falling intonation that affects so many modern poets in English when reading their work - that is enough to put you to sleep, or even worse, and certainly would put you off poetry entirely.

18 August 2010

Miscellanea Norvegica

This blog, dear reader, as you know, does not shy away from the lighter side of Norse and Viking life. So I shall not tell you about the excellent papers, or the intellectual stimulation, of the 7th International Symposium on Runes and Runic Inscriptions which I attended recently in Oslo, but rather about the very fine post-conference excursion to runic sites in Valdres, Sogn and Hadeland. This was a repeat of the excursion we made at the 3rd Symposium, held twenty years ago, with the absolute high point being Borgund (pictured above), a wonderful stave church in its own right, but also runically the richest. And, as you can see from the photo, we had exactly the same fabulous weather as we did twenty years ago.
The runes were marvellous, as one would expect, but the trip was further livened by some of the quirky things that caught my eye. For instance, the rune stone (in excellent Old Norse and good Viking Age runes) put up outside Høre stave church by two brothers, to commemorate Gyða who refused to marry Harald Finehair until he was king of all Norway (we're talking ninth century or so, here). The brothers, Hallvard and Thomas Bergh, thus credited her with inventing the country of Norway - a topic foremost in everyone's minds in 1905, when the stone was put up. Or as the stone puts it, in normalised Old Norse, hon hafði fyrst í hug eitt Nóregs ríki.
In Lærdal, where we spent the night, I was able to indulge in my passion for old buses, tractors and the like, with this very fine specimen (pictured left), which seems still to be usable (and, I take it, used), and was certainly spick and span. I have not yet troubled this blog with my numerous photos of rotting old buses in Orkney and Iceland, though I did present a very nice but elderly tractor in a recent blog about the Hebrides. So here is my first bus for you. Some rotting ones may follow another time.
Still on the transport theme, Lærdal also offered a blue plaque (pictured right) commemorating 'Norway's first motor-tourist', a Dutchman who tootled that way in 1901. The day was rounded off with a most fabulous sunset (pictured below).
On the way back to Oslo, we stopped off at Granavollen, to see the 'Sister Churches', a rune stone, and to have dinner at the excellent gjestgiveri there. Delightful though all these were, I was especially happy to rediscover (and now photograph) a grave stone (pictured below) I remembered from twenty years ago, commemorating a certain Astrid Sofie Dynna, who had then only recently passed away. It's nice to see that her family are still bringing flowers to the grave, but I noticed it because she shares her first name with, and ultimately comes from the same farm as, the young woman commemorated by her mother on what is one of my favourite rune stones, the Dynna stone, which I had visited once again in the Historical Museum in Oslo, only days before.

08 August 2010

American Vikings

Lured by the intriguing headline 'The ruins of Viking Boston' (Massachusetts, not Lincolnshire, where it might have been more plausible), I went to the Boston Globe website to see what that was all about. It turned out to be yet another fascinating example of the 19th-century obsession with Vikings, as chronicled for Britain in Andrew Wawn's splendid book Vikings and Victorians. This particular Victorian was one Ebenezer Norton Horsford, described as a chemist, entrepreneur, and amateur archeologist, who was responsible for many of the Viking memorabilia still visible in Boston today. I followed him up in Geraldine Barnes's Viking America: The First Millennium, which puts him in the context of other Vinland-obsessed Americans of the time. I don't think that any of these mention the fine runic inscription on the statue, which says Leifr hinn hepni Eirikssonr in quite acceptable runes (see photo, above left).
This obsession extended well beyond the 19th century. I am reminded of a statue I had ignored all through my childhood, when playing in Fairmount Park, in Philadelphia, little knowing how interested I would be in such things later in life. It is a statue of Thorfinn Karlsefni, by the well-known Icelandic sculptor Einar Jónsson, and is one of a series of historical statues from throughout a century and a half in the parkland along the Schuylkill River. The history of the Thorfinn statue is explained in a book I picked up in a secondhand shop some years ago, printed in Philadelphia (no date, but not earlier than 1920) 'for private distribution by J. Bunford Samuel': The Icelander Thorfinn Karlsefni Who Visited the Western Hemisphere in 1007. Mr Samuel was carrying out the wishes of his late wife Ellen Phillips Samuel, who left money for the erection of 'statuary emblematic of the History of America'. The whole family was clearly fascinated by this kind of stuff, as the book includes a 'Story of a supposed runic inscription found at Yarmouth, Nova Scotia', by Ellen's brother Henry, and it was on Henry's suggestion that Mr Samuel chose a statue of Thorfinn to be the first in the series. The book contains all kinds of gems, including correspondence with the sculptor, with the Park Commissioners who were apparently not always as helpful as they could be in getting the statuary up and going, a detailed account of the dedication ceremony in 1920, and further ruminations on the non-runic stone from Nova Scotia. There's also a splendid (signed) photograph (above right) of Einar Jónsson working on the statue.

12 July 2010

Vikings and Sausage Rolls

There's no stopping the march of Vikings into the world of advertising. The latest one I have just caught is an advert for Walls' sausage rolls, showing one of the Vikings of Middle England tucking into one just after he becomes 'dead' on the battlefield. I reckon the ad company got the demographic, of both sausage rolls and Viking re-enactors, just about right. What's a bit odd is that it is all part of a 'Bring it on Britain' campaign. But then Vikings have been an essential part of Britishness since at least Victorian times.
Re-enactors obviously have a lot of fun and good luck to them. I find the whole phenomenon fascinating though, as a 'proper academic' I can't help shuddering at their ideas of 'authenticity' which some groups, like the VME, make a great song and dance about. It's not that difficult to find out about Viking runes (a topic on which I have moaned before), but they never seem to bother, thus the VME website has both a slightly dodgy runic logo, and some curious misinformation about rune stones.
Ah well, it's all part of the fun. And it provides a raison d'etre for degrees in Viking Studies which some people see as somewhat Mickey Mouse, but someone has got to teach people 'proper' Viking stuff.

05 July 2010

Jinxed Lava

I almost never watch Top Gear, except over the shoulder of my other half, considering it to be a programme For The Lads Only, and not being very fond (to put it mildly) of Mr J. Clarkson. However, I was tempted the other night, because the programme guide promised James May driving up an Icelandic volcano. And, indeed, it was our old friend Eyjafjallajökull, spouting fiery bits onto Mr May as he drove right up to its rim, 'still with no idea how big this eruption would become'. A clip of this can now be seen on YouTube. The vehicle was a specially adapted Toyota Hilux with some corrugated iron on top (to keep off the dropping fiery bits) and a water-cooling system for the tyres (to stop them burning, though they did). James May got amazingly close to the active crater and even managed to scoop up a bit of newly-spewed out lava.
I wonder though if this last bit was wise. Iceland Review Online reports that a British tourist, who stole a piece of lava from the volcano, has now sent it back to Iceland on the grounds that his life has been jinxed ever since. The University, who received the piece of lava, arranged for it to be flown out to the volcano and dropped back in, on the grounds that one does not trifle with the rocky powers that be, and referring specifically to the folklore associated with natural phenomena (see this longer Icelandic version of the story).
If you search the Iceland Review website, you will see that the whole Top Gear exploit was considered pretty controversial at the time, though clearly overshadowed by later ash-cloud related events!

29 June 2010

Something To Look Forward To

Viking aficionados have known for a while that the British Museum was planning another big Viking exhibition. It's now been more than three decades since their last big one in 1980, which I remember well even though I was a mere cradolcild of a PhD student in London at the time. Now, more news is emerging about the new exhibition, which will be in 2013, and organised in cooperation with Copenhagen and Berlin.
The website of the National Museum of Denmark is promising the world's longest Viking ship (pictured above), affectionately known as Roskilde Wreck 6, one of several ships found in 1997 when the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde was being expanded. The ship was made of oak, built probably in Norway around 1025, and was 36 m. long and 3.5 m. wide, with up to 78 oars and a crew therefore of around 100.
We are promised 'a new perspective on the world of the Vikings', with a concentration on four themes: (1) expansion and warfare; (2) power and aristocracy; (3) rituals and belief; and (4) cultural contacts and exchange. I'm already clearing my diary for 2013.

19 June 2010

The Gods Live On

Two new craters resulting from the recent volcanic eruptions in Iceland have now been named, according to a report in Morgunblaðið. They're going to be called Magni and Móði after the two sons of Þórr who survived Ragnarök. Moreover, the new lava field is going to be called after the gods in general, Goðahraun. While I'm not aware of Móði having been used before (do correct me if I'm wrong), Magni is not new in modern nomenclature: the Icelandic for Mighty Mouse is Magni Mús! The original Magni plays a small part in the story of his father's duel with the giant Hrungnir. Þórr kills Hrungnir, who however falls on top of him, with his leg across Þórr's neck. The gods are unable to move Hrungnir's leg to rescue Þórr until the three year-old Magni comes along and does it. Snorri tells us that Þórr 'welcomed his son warmly and said he would grow up to be a powerful person'. Not unlike Mighty Mouse.

Volcanic Cows

I've heard a couple of versions of this story, this is the more plausible one. At around the time of the recent volcanic eruptions, a cow in Iceland gave birth to triplets, a rare enough occurrence in itself. As the calves happened to be two female and one male, they were immediately named Eyja, Fjalla and Jökull. Eyja and Fjalla, at least, will produce more milk for having names, as a study at the University of Newcastle, reported in The Times, has shown that cows with names give more milk. So no more Cow 214. If you are interested in Icelandic cows, there is a webpage devoted to them.
And if you are travelling in Iceland, I recommend a stop at the Cowshed Café, near Mývatn, where you can look at the cows through a window while you drink your coffee, as you can see from my photo, taken last summer.

03 June 2010

Are You Inspired by Iceland?

Doubtless, dear reader, if you have the slightest interest in these things, you willl already have become aware of the new campaign to promote Iceland, now at http://www.inspiredbyiceland.com/. It is described as 'the biggest campaign ever made to promote Iceland abroad' and is a cooperation of the government and the tourist industry, to counter the effects of the Eyjafjallajökull eruption, since many people abroad now apparently labour under the misconceptions that 'the whole land is covered with ash and that Iceland is in a state of emergency'. The website uses stories from people who have visited Iceland (including one who only spent four hours at the airport, but fell in love with the language!). But the best thing on it is the video, in which you see lots of people dancing in lots of scenic Icelandic places, including two Vikings, and some very wacky folkloric ladies. Well worth a look.

18 May 2010

The Islands to the South

The current bureaucratic, Scotocentric appellation for them is 'The Western Isles', while the more geographical, but still mainland-focused term is 'The Inner/Outer Hebrides', but I prefer the Old Norse term Suðreyjar, the Islands to the South. It all depends on your point of view, of course! In Gaelic they are the Innse Gall, the 'Islands of the Foreigners', i.e. the Vikings, I suppose. What other part of Britain has so many names? As the Norwegians say, 'kjært barn har mange navn', or 'a beloved child has many names'. But I couldn't claim to love the Hebrides until now, never having been there - they were one of the most obvious gaps in my gradually-being-ticked-off list of visited Viking-places. Now, at last, that lack has been remedied - your blogstress, dear reader, has just come back (a little later than expected, courtesy of that Icelandic ash-cloud, again) from a short but amazing break on the island of Lewis and Harris.
Even in only five days, I saw far too much to tell you about at length here. Suffice to say I was fair smitten! Three things stand out for me, though: (a) the stone circles and standing stones, (b) the sandy beaches and (c) the Norse place-names. The stones are amazing enough as arrangements, in themselves and in relation to other stones in what archaeologists like to call 'the ritual landscape'. But what distinguishes Callanish from, say, Stonehenge is not only the much smaller number of tourists visiting, but in particular the beauty of the stones themselves. They were clearly chosen for their amazing shapes and patterns (showing up nicely in the Lewisian gneiss), and every one is different, even in the same stone setting (see the picture, left, of one from Callanish).
As to the sandy beaches, they are every bit as lovely as they have appeared in all the photographs I have previously seen: golden sands, turquoise sea, mountains on the horizon, and hardly anyone else in sight. The guidebooks go on about the beaches of South Harris, which are indeed lovely, but my two favourite ones are in Lewis, Bostadh on Great Bernera (pictured above), which has great views of some offshore islands, and Tolsta on the north-east coast, which is particularly sandy.
The Norse place-names are sometimes hard to recognise for Gaelicless people like me, though you only need a smattering of linguistic nous to decode the elements -bost as -bólstaðr and -siadar as -setr or -sætr, or indeed Uig as -vík and -bhagh as -vágr. I've been mugging up some of the articles by Magne Oftedal and Ian Fraser, both of whom suggest that the majority of not only village-names, but place-names in general, in Lewis are of Norse origin. You will find plenty of Norse place-names throughout the Hebrides, but they are really thick on the ground here. It's also clear from what I've read so far that there is still a huge amount of work to be done there on these place-names, so if there are any aspiring PhD students out there, my advice is to go away, learn both Old Norse and Gaelic, and get to work!
Among the many photographs I took, an awful lot were of other small obsessions of mine, sheep, cows, post offices and tractors. Here is one of the many lovely little red Massey Fergusons still in use in Lewis. As to the post offices, there seemed to be more of those in Lewis than there are left here in Nottingham, after the most recent cull. All of them are small and multifunctional, but they clearly play an important role in the community.
A final word of recommendation, St Clement's Church in Rodel (Roghadal), South Harris has a fascinating range of sculpture, from an over-the-top sepulchre for Alexander MacLeod, who built the church, to a lovely simple crucifixion, and a tower decorated with both a bishop and two sheela-na-gigs. Now what was that about?

02 May 2010

Thor, On the Other Hand...

...looks just like we expect him to look, see this picture from Blockbuster Buzz - Times Online - WBLG: Thor revealed!. But where are the goats?

30 April 2010


There has been some kerfuffle about the choice of a black actor to play Heimdallr in Kenneth Branagh's forthcoming film about Thor (eh? Kenneth Branagh making a film about Thor? What is the world coming to?) - see for instance this article in the Guardian. The kerfuffle is apparently between the politically correct who see this as a laudable example of colour-blind casting and the racists who point out that (a) Norse gods weren't black and (b) Heimdallr is called 'the whitest of gods'.
What no one seems to have taken into account is the fact that the Vikings might have had a sense of humour. It was once pointed out to me by an older gentleman, with extensive experience of  male bonding-groups during the war, that nicknames in such groups often mean the opposite of what they say, thus people called Shorty are usually quite tall. Although Snorri does call Heimdallr 'the white god', I think the only poetic source for this epithet  is Þrymskviða, that joky poem in which nothing is as it seems, which does call Heimdallr hvítastr ása. Given this, I wouldn't be surprised if Heimdallr was black.

27 April 2010

The Web of Handwriting

The website handrit.is, a beta version of which has been available for a while, was officially launched in Reykjavík a week or so ago, according to this report in Morgunblaðið. The website brings together digital images of manuscripts now held in both the Copenhagen and the Reykjavík Árni Magnússon institutes, as well as Iceland's National and University Library (that splendid institution whose building is a younger, and more colourful, cousin of Nottingham's Hallward Library, at least so I was told by the former librarian, Finnbogi Guðmundsson himself, once. See photos). The website is a joint online public access catalogue of Icelandic manuscripts in the three collections, with, we are told, entries for over 4000 manuscripts and open access to images of 850 of these. Eventually all of the manuscripts will be electronically accessible. There is an interface for searching and browsing in Icelandic, English and Danish. Enjoy.

22 April 2010

The Long Way Round

As stranded travellers all over the world return home, I am happy to report that we too are now back, as of this morning. The various members of the large group that went to Selja (see previous post) all came home in different ways and by different means. Most of the Nottingham group (now known as the Snotlingar) came back to England by a slightly circuitous route which had, however, the benefit of extending the field trip element and giving us all a chance to view some Viking landscapes and, in particular, to visit three important runic sites.
The first leg was the train from Bergen to Oslo, over the beautiful snowy mountains, and a few moments' experience of a real blizzard when the train stopped at Finse for the smokers (though it was not really smoking weather). The next day, a morning in Oslo gave some a chance to visit the Viking Ship Museum, some a chance to observe the modern monumentality of the Vigeland park, and me a chance to photograph the mythological frieze by Dagfinn Werenskiold on the Oslo City Hall, which I have long meant to do. I particularly liked Thor in his goat chariot (see the picture above).
From Oslo we took the train to Sweden, where we picked up our own chariot in the form of a borrowed car (and a very nice one too, with quite a lot of goatpower), and spent the first night at Mjölby. More by accident than by design, it was a brilliant choice in that it enabled us the next morning to visit the nearby rune stones at both Högby and Rök. The drive through the Swedish countryside in the brilliant sunshine was also a highlight. We raced across the bridges to Denmark and then pressed on to our third and fourth rune stones of the day, at Jelling, which we saw in the soft and fading light of the day. It was good to see the stones before they are encased in their protective box (see my earlier post on this subject). I was also delighted with Erik the Red's very splendid modern rune stone outside the museum (see picture left). After a long day, we ended up just over the border in Germany, ready for our last road leg, to the Hook of Holland, where we gave the chariot back to its rightful owner, who had similarly been stranded in England. From the Hook we sailed to Harwich, happily meeting up with some others of the Seljumenn on the boat, and then arrived home at 3 am having first had to go to Gatwick to pick up my car that had been languishing there since we left.
All in all, a memorable trip, thanks to the Icelandic ash cloud!

16 April 2010

Volcanic Blues

I find myself one of the many thousands of people around the world stranded because of the volcanic ash cloud emanating from Iceland. I am in Bergen, having nearly made it out before the ash struck, after a very successful trip to Selje (where we had a postgraduate conference) and the island of Selja, famous for the Seljumenn and St Sunniva, the patron saint of Bergen, and Norway's only female saint. Selja is a very special place, with a medieval monastery down below and up above the cave where Sunniva and the Seljumenn were saved from the murderous locals by being crushed to death by a fall of rocks. In front of the cave is an amazing terrace and a small chapel. The island as a whole was the finding place of at least four runic inscriptions. And, as you can see from the photo, a glorious view over Stadlandet. Highly recommended!

07 April 2010

Viking Crime

One of the pleasures of liking both Vikings and crime fiction is being able to combine the two. I particularly like thrillers and detective novels set in 'Viking' parts of Britain. They don't necessarily have to have a Viking theme, just being set in Shetland, like Ann Cleeves' excellent Shetland Quartet, is enough (though it wasn't enough for S. J. Bolton's Sacrifice, see my blog of 26 January 2009). But when there is a Viking theme, too, then it is time to wallow, as in Reginald Hill's The Stranger House (pictured), set in Cumbria and featuring a large Viking cross. My heartfelt advice, though, is to read it after you've been to Gosforth, not before. I also like spotting mini-Viking references in other novels where they don't really play a part. Stephen Booth's detective novels, fulfilling the criterion of being set in a picturesque part of the country (the Peak District), often smuggle in some very brief Viking references, probably almost unconsciously.
Funnily enough, the Scandinavians, who do such good detective novels, aren't so good at the Viking genre. I confess I never managed to finish Flateyjargáta by Viktor Arnar Ingólfsson, despite a promising island setting and the saga-links - I just got bored. Arnaldur Indriðason's Konungsbók was much more readable and quite successfully conjured up the Copenhagen of long ago, but the plot was so implausible as to be risible and in general it was not quite the page-turner of his modern novels. I may of course have missed something - if anyone has a good Scandinavian Viking-themed crime novel to recommend, do let me know!

02 April 2010

Imbu Da Fremd

Shetland Forwirds, 'a group dedicated to celebrating and promoting Shetland dialect', which, as they say, 'has both Nordic and Scottish roots', has just launched a splendid new website. Here you can both read and listen to examples of dialect texts, look things up in an online version of John Graham's dictionary, and generally wallow in all things Shetlandic. The section on 'Proverbs and Sayings' will explain the title above!

28 March 2010

Man of the North

Yesterday's Guardian has a feature, by Fiona MacCarthy, on William Morris as 'Man of the North', illustrated by a nice sunny picture of Jökulsárlón without the tourists (see right for my cloudier equivalent). The feature is occasioned by a new four-part sequence for chorus and orchestra by composer Ian McQueen, Earthly Paradise, in which apparently 'Morris's Icelandic journeys are a recurring theme' and which premieres at the Barbican on 10 April (and a re-release of MacCarthy's biography of Morris in July). MacCarthy notes that 'his journals ... are precious and unique because they are so simply and beautifully written with the informed sense of wonder of a deeply learned and sophisticated man'. I would certainly second that. Anyone who has been put off by Morris's medievalist poetry and prose should forget those and read the journals instead. Here's an extract in which Morris describes Borg, home of both Egill Skalla-Grímsson and Snorri Sturluson:
I turned away, and mounted the 'Burg' under which the house stands, a straight grey cliff grass-clad at top, sloping gradually down toward the lower land on one side. There are plenty of flowers in the grass at the top, clover and gentian chiefly, and I sat there in excited mood for some time; of all the great historical steads I had seen this seemed to me the most striking after Lithend; yet for some reason or other I find it hard to describe: southward lay the firth, quite calm and bright, those great mountains reflected in it with all detail, and over their shoulders the bright white jokuls are to be seen from here: the great circule of mountains is very awful and mysterious under a beautiful peaceful sky: they come nearly to the firth-side at the mouth of it, but from their outmost buttress a long low spit of land runs out into the sea, and beyond this is a line of skerries, beyond which one can see the surf breaking at the deep sea's end; a creek runs up from the firth toward Borg and a little stream falling through the rock ledge, of which this cliff is the highest end, goes into it. Eastward the country, ending with the low hills broken by Baula, looks little different hence to what it did from horseback, the plain somewhat flatter and the hills somewhat higher, that is all. Burgfirth, I may mention in case you forget it, or are hazy about your saga geography, is one of the great centres of story in Iceland... [William Morris, Icelandic Journals, 1969, pp. 153-4]
This is very much the artist's eye taking everything in, but written in such an engaging way that it is hard to put down. There are lots of little comic details about the travails of camping and riding on horseback to vary the pace, here the intrepid travellers are heading north to Grímstunga:

as we rode now we could not see a rod in front of us, the rain, or hail, or sleet, for it was now one, now the other of these, did not fall, we could see no drops, but it was driven in a level sheet into our faces, so that one had to shut one eye altogether, and flap one's hat over the other. Magnússon and Evans stood it best, working hard at driving the horses; Faulkner, worried by his short sight, and I by my milksopishness, tailed; I was fortunately mounted on Falki, who was very swift and surefooted, and so got on somehow; but I did at last in the early part of the day fairly go to sleep as I rode, and fall to dreaming of people at home: from which I was woke up by a halt, and Magnússon coming to me and telling me that my little haversack was missing: now in the said haversack I had the notes of this present journal; pipe, spare spectacles, drawing materials (if they were any use) and other things I particularly didn't want to lose, so I hope to be forgiven if I confess that I lost my temper, and threatened to kill Eyvindr, to whom I had given it at Búðará: he, poor fellow, answered not, but caught an empty horse, and set off through the storm (we had ridden then some three hours) to look for it and on we went. [p. 87]
It all ends happily when the travellers arrive at Grímstunga, where they dry out, 'began to feel that we had feet and hands again', and get coffee, brandy, and real beds to sleep in. Eyvindr duly appears with the haversack and is forgiven, Morris 'thanked him with effusion', but doesn't appear to have apologised, only 'hope[d] he will forget my threat of this morning'.

26 March 2010

Greenlanders' DNA has some Celtic Elements

Recent research into some skeletons (dated to c. 1000) from an unnamed churchyard site in Southeast Greenland suggests that their genetic profile is similar to that of the Icelanders, i.e. that they have some 'Celtic' genes. The article unfortunately doesn't give much detail (where the site is, how many skeletons were analysed, and so forth), but the interview with Jette Arneborg stresses that these Greenlanders were Norse in their culture, even if they had some Celtic genes (and she too suggests it was mainly the women who had that heritage). In other words, the Greenlanders came from Iceland. As we knew all along. For more information on research projects in Greenland, read this summary.

21 March 2010

Ice and Fire: Eyjafjallajökull Erupts

It was my first trip to Iceland, many years ago, that opened my eyes to the wonders of geology. It was a tourist cliché, but when I stood at Þingvellir and was told that I was standing on the faultline between the continents, then plate tectonics suddenly made more sense than from any number of diagrams. On that same trip, we went to Vestmannaeyjar and stood on the still-warm sulphurous volcano that had erupted on Heimaey only a few years earlier, in 1973. There's something about Iceland that brings out the latent geologist in everyone - or at least in me. It certainly makes me like to think I should have had an alternative career as a geologist, though it was already too late then, on that first visit. Icelandic volcanoes, unlike those in some other parts of the world, tend to erupt slowly and rarely cause loss of life. So, despite the destruction of houses and roads, we can marvel at their majesty and wild, ferocious beauty, and understand how a poem like Völuspá came to be composed under their influence. And now it's happening again. Eyjafjallajökull, which last erupted in 1821, is acting up. According the BBC report, some 500-600 people have been evacuated, ash is falling everywhere, and aviation is not currently possible. The picture shows the area on a glorious late summer day last year, when molten lava and ash were the furthest things from anyone's mind.
Sól mun sortna,
søkkr fold í mar.
Hverfa af himni
heiðar stjörnur.
Geisar eimi
ok aldrnari,
leikr hár hiti
við himin sjálfan.

12 March 2010

Viking Victims

It's all over the news media today: the 51 bodies in the mass grave discovered a few months ago in Dorset are 'Vikings'. Insofar as the media reports are accurate, the bodies are identified as Scandinavian on the basis of isotope analysis of the teeth of 10 of them, while the grave has been radiocarbon-dated to the period 910-1030. The bodies are all of men, in their twenties or thirties, they have been decapitated, and the archaeologists speculate that this was done in front of an audience (not clear why they think this), and that the men were stripped naked before being executed, as there is no evidence of pins or other dress accoutrements. Of course we have always maintained that the Vikings had no monopoly on violence - man's inhumanity to man is well-documented throughout history. For further info, see the BBC's report, or that of The Guardian.

05 March 2010

Space Age Protection for the Jelling Stones

Yesterday the winner was announced in a competition to design some kind of protection (from wind, weather, tourists?) for the two rune stones at Jelling. The winning design is quite space age and seems to involve two large glass cases with one side of stone or concrete. They do seem to fulfil the function of protecting the stones while leaving them (a) visible and (b) in their original position. One day, there will be those of us who remember when we could go right up to the stones and touch them! But I guess that's not a good idea if everyone does it.... For a good website about Jelling, the church, the mounds and  the rune stones, see http://www.jelling.dk/, and http://jelling.natmus.dk/ for a website about the current research going on at Jelling.

15 February 2010

Enthusiasm for Viking Studies

I am hardly unbiased and this is of course a shameless plug. But it was good to read the enthusiastic comments, unbidden, of one of the students doing the BA in Viking Studies, on her blog 'The Life of a Student of the Viking Age'. A great defence of the subject from one still new to it. Thanks.

24 January 2010

The Observer Discovers 'ð'

In an otherwise depressing piece, there is one sliver of good news in a report from Iceland in today's Observer: that newspaper has discovered Icelandic orthography. Accented and umlauted vowels appear in both the paper and online versions of the article and there are even two instances of 'ð'. One of the people interviewed is a Herdís Ólöf Kjartansdóttir - all her vowels are intact. Needless to say, not all of the vowels that should have been accented are, and they persist in calling an interviewed professor 'Guðmundsson' as if it were a surname. But it's not a bad effort, is it the first time? It's certainly the first time I've noticed a British newspaper using 'ð's though they have essayed the odd accented vowel before, but if anyone has noticed differently, do let me know. Once the newspapers do it properly, I'll get my students on board as well. Though I have to say that, in recent years, technology has noticeably improved the appearance, orthography-wise, of student essays on Old Norse and Icelandic topics.

21 January 2010

Will Kirk Douglas Be Superseded?

There are many execrable films about Vikings, which are good for a laugh at most, but even specialists generally let down their guard to enjoy the wonderful 1958 Viking romp with Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh. Who can forget the haunting horn motif, or the husband cutting his wife's plaits off with a throwing axe? Keen-eyed runologists at least can't help noticing the Swedish rune stone in the opening scene at the Norwegian village, and those who remember Alan Binns can look out for his brief scene as the English bishop. All in all, there is much for the Viking aficionado to savour in The Vikings. Now, over half a century later, we hear that another blue-eyed superstar wants to make a film that is 'more historically accurate' than the Kirk Douglas effort. Huh! We'll see what Mel Gibson can do. He claims (in this article in the Daily Mail) that he once studied Old Norse (at the age of 16...) and that the characters in the film will be speaking in English and Old Norse (though his idea of the latter seems to be 'low guttural German'). Oh, and lots of violence and brutality are promised. No cuddly Vikings here, then.

15 January 2010

Shakespeare Was a Lewisman

I bet you never knew that Shakespeare spent some of his youth in Stornoway... Neither did I, to tell the truth, but maybe I should take his collected works with me when I go there in May, to see if they resonate with the landscape. And I shall look out for more fragments of his juvenilia there, like his play MacLeod, recently discovered in a fish-box. The play provides a Lewis-eye view of the arrival of the Vikings, as seen by Murdo the hermit. As one would expect from juvenilia, the verse is a bit rocky, though it sometimes rattles along nicely, as in this scene in which Murdo tells Lord Stornoway and his factor what he has seen:

My Lord I must impart to you grave tidings of lament

Don’t tell me that once again you’re behind with the rent?

No my Lord its worse than that. I’ve seen the dragon prow!

You mean to say…?

In a roundabout way….

That the Norse are coming now!

I spotted sails last evens’ time, approaching like a sea beast, a longship with a dragons head and eighty oars at least.

What was their destination, could you perceive their plot?

I didn’t feel to tarry, so fast away I got!

They could be in this bay by now in full view of this Castle

This pile is falling ’round our ears, they’ll capture it no hassle.