18 November 2012

More Cats and Killings

I could go on, though I try not to, about the various mistranslations I notice when Scandinavian programmes are aired on British TV. A particularly annoying one is of course when Forbrydelsen whether I, II or III) is translated as 'The Killing', when 'The Crime' would be more accurate, though obviously less dramatic. Clearly, the Danish producers of the programme have noticed this too and are having a bit of a laugh at the Brits, since killing is the Danish word for 'kitten' (cf Old Norse kettlingr), and they have accordingly introduced a sub-plot revolving around a kitten into the latest, and last series. Still, I happily settled down last night to watch Forbrydelsen III wearing my very own Faroese woollie (pictured). Not quite as glamorous as Sarah Lund's snowflake or more modern zigzag versions, but purchased in the Faroes as long ago as 2001, long before the words Nordic Noir were on everyone's lips.

29 October 2012

Three Daughters Deprive Me of Sleep

Although my recent visits to Norway (see the previous post for more on these) were not made in a particularly runological frame of mind, I kept coming across interesting runic inscriptions, in particular several involving women. So here's a quick tour of some of these, in the order of their chronology, rather than the order in which I saw them. Most obscure was probably the Tune stone (side B pictured right), well-lit and displayed in the Prehistoric Norway section of the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo, which basically includes everything up to and including the Viking Age. The inscribed stone itself contradicts the OED definition of 'prehistoric' as 'Of, relating to, dating from, or designating the time before written historical records', though I suppose you could argue about what was or was not a 'historical record'. Anyway, pedantry aside, it is a lovely stone with an intriguing inscription. I quote the English translation from Terje Spurkland's Norwegian Runes and Runic Inscriptions (now available in paperback, by the way):
(A) I, WiwaR, in memory of WoduridaR the master of the household, made these runes. (B) I entrusted the stone to WoduridaR. Three daughters arranged the funeral feast, the dearest / most devoted / most divine of the heirs.
Much of the detail is obscure, so do read Terje's discussion of this 'extraordinary piece of writing' to find out what it might all mean.  But there are two particular points of interest. Sometime around 400 AD, daughters could inherit property (Terje suggests that WoduridaR was the father of the three daughters, but had no son, and that WiwaR was his grandson). Secondly, the inscription is metrical, in something not unlike the ljóðaháttr of the Eddic poems. Both the supposed inheritance patterns and the verse form of the Tune inscription have their counterparts in the Viking Age and even later (since the laws and the poems were not written down until after the Viking Age). This means that either we have important evidence for an astounding longevity of certain cultural patterns in Scandinavia, or some odd coincidences.

Skipping the Viking Age, for once, it's interesting to note the presence of women in the medieval churches of Norway, both as the subject and object of the statements made in the inscriptions. A wooden pillar now in the Historical Museum in Bergen was originally in Stedje church in Sogndal. Stedje was one of those stave churches that did not survive the rebuilding craze of the nineteenth century, but the pillar at least was saved, along with a finely carved portal, also in the museum. The inscription records that 'Sigríðr of Hváll gave this staff for mercy towards the souls of Arnþórr and herself.' Arnþórr was presumably her husband, and Hváll is the farm Kvåle near the church. A man of that name at that place is mentioned in Sverris saga in the winter of 1183-4, and the saga also mentions the burning of Stedje by Sverrir's Birkibeinar, though the church itself was saved. How all this fits with the runic inscription, if it does, is impossible to tell. Magnus Olsen came to the conclusion that  Sigríðr and Arnþórr were the grandparents of the saga's Arnþórr and dates the inscription to c. 1175. The runes were at about head height and are deeply carved - Sigríðr clearly wanted the world to know about her gift to the church.

Much less obvious, and only discovered in 1966, is a more casual inscription in Bø gamle kyrkje, on the wooden panel of a repositorium, a kind of nook in the south wall of the chancel. The inscription puzzled many learned minds, though eventually Jonna Louis-Jensen arrived at the very ingenious solution. The Old Norse text reads:
Svefn bannar mér, sótt er barna,
fjón svinkanda, fjalls íbúi,
hests erfaði, ok heys víti,
þræls vansæla. Þat skulu ráða.
which can roughly be translated as 'It deprives me of sleep, it is a children's disease, the enemy of the worker, inhabitant of the mountain, toil of the horse and danger to hay, the bad luck of the slave; people need to work it out.' The simple alliterative stanza poses a question, 'what deprives me of sleep?' and gives the answer in riddling form. Each of the following phrases works out as a word which is also the name of a particular rune, so the 'inhabitant of the mountain' is an ogre, or Old Norse þurs - the name of the third rune. The six phrases give the runes k u þ r u n giving, of course, the female name Guðrún. So that is clear enough. But who was she and who was she depriving of sleep? Normally, only priests went into the chancel... Was he in love, or is it just an intellectual exercise? Is it the effort of working out the riddles that keeps the writer awake? If only we could tell... The inscription is dated to around 1200, when love poetry certainly was in fashion.

My last inscription comes from this fine pair of wrist-warmers I purchased in Heddal and knitted by a local lady who does other runic knits, too. Unfortunately, the runes don't say anything intelligible, which might be because they are based on an inscription in the gallery of Heddal stave church, which also does not say anything intelligible. Despite unconvincing attempts to make out that the runes represent the date 1242, all we can say for certain is that the runes say either -m-rn or mmrn (by interpreting the last, and possibly the first and third, runes as cryptic runes). Which could, I suppose be a cack-handed attempt to write Maria, to whom the church is in fact dedicated, or, more charitably, an abbreviation for some kind of phrase involving her name. I append a picture of the runic inscription, too, so you can compare, though it was hard to photograph through the protective glass.

26 October 2012

A Church is Made of Many Assembled Parts

Twice in October conference invitations drew me to Norway and I can resist anything except temptation. One conference was in Bergen, where my cool Søs Jensen raincoat (bought quite cheaply in Nottingham) made a return visit to its birthplace and came in very handy indeed. Bergen is lovely, but I have been there quite a lot over the years. Bø i Telemark, on the other hand, is a place I hadn't been to for around twenty years, so it was a real pleasure to go there, and to think about Viking women, a topic I similarly hadn't thought much about in twenty or so years. Both trips were full of visual delights, despite the gloomy autumnal weather, and I saw so many lovely things, I might try to get more than one blog out of them. So today's blog is about churches, and its title is a quotation from the sermon In dedicatione tempeli, popularly known as the 'Stave Church Homily', and found in a manuscript written around 1200 in Bergen, no less.
Norwegian churches and church art are special, partly because of their very abundance. Stave churches are nowadays thought to be typically Norwegian, but there were probably many such elsewhere in the world (or in Northern Europe) which have not survived. Even in Norway, only 26 remain out of originally many hundreds. But the stone churches are wonderful too (more on this below), and the church furniture, altar frontals and statues from the 12th to 14th centuries combine spirituality and aesthetics in a most pleasing way. A good place to see a lot of this stuff is the Historical Museum in Bergen, very well worth a visit if you're ever there. Its medieval exhibition is beautifully presented and awash with painted altar frontals, statues of saints, including several wonderful St Óláfrs, carved portals and much else. But probably my favourite object is the model of a church pictured above - they don't know what its function or purpose was, though it might have been a reliquary. I like to think it had no real function except to be lovely.
The event in Bø  was one of those in which the organisers properly recognised that the key to a successful conference lies in some good excursions. So the very first item on the programme was a visit to Bø gamle kyrkje (follow the link for some nice pictures of it in winter), a stone church from the 12th century dedicated to our favourite St Óláfr. The church is lovely in itself, sitting on a very prominent hill with views all around, and was particularly atmospheric in the gloaming, illuminated inside only by candlelight. Most of the surviving furniture is 17th-century, but medieval pieces included a splendid candelabra, a crucifix, some fascinating runic inscriptions (more on this in a future blog), and a painted altar frontal just as good as those in the museum in Bergen. It's a bit damaged (see picture above), but it was wonderful to see this one in its original location rather than a museum.
The high point was the second day of the conference when we were all bussed to Heddal, one of Norway's largest surviving stave churches, though much rebuilt. We had some of the lectures in the church itself, then some in the nearby former parsonage barn, now transformed into a 'barn church' where most religious activity now takes place. Sitting in the church was very atmospheric again, even though illuminated by electric light rather than candles this time. I guess they can't risk candles in wooden churches (!), though they must have done in the Middle Ages. No doubt that's why 1000 got reduced to fewer than 30... The best thing in Heddal was not so much the church itself, fine though that is, nor its one measly runic inscription (more on this in future), but the amazing episcopal chair still kept in the church. There are several of these around the country, mostly in museums, so again it was good to see this one in its original location. It is beautifully carved all over, and includes a scene (pictured above) which has plausibly been related to the Sigurðr legend. The figure in the middle seems to be Brynhildr, welcoming either Sigurðr or Gunnar, depending on which one you think she thinks is riding the encircling flame to spend the night with her, and ignoring the other one.
What's fascinating is that the Sigurðr legend was so popular in this part of Norway (Agder and Telemark) in the 13th and 14th centuries. It is, as is well known, depicted on several of the famous carved stave church portals, as well as on various bits of church furniture, somewhat less well known. Although it is usual to link these objects with other depictions of this legend, such as the 10th-century carvings from the British Isles, or the 11th-century Swedish runestones, it was argued, recently and plausibly, by Gunnar Nordanskog that the Norwegian examples of this phenomenon served a rather different cultural purpose and came from rather a different cultural context than those earlier representations. By this time, of course, we are well within chronological reach of known written versions of the story. Thinking about Sigurðr brings me back to Bergen, and one of my favourite sights there, now a bit faded, this advertisement for Per O. Moe's machine-tool shop, wittily based on the Hylestad portal.


23 September 2012

Icelandic Cats Etcetera

I'm just back from a lightning visit to Iceland. The educational business that took me there and the shortness of the trip didn't allow for too much sightseeing, and my biggest disappointment was missing the Northern Lights which apparently put on a good show on the first night I was there, while I was too ensconced in the hotel bar to notice. It's embarrassing in my profession never to have seen the Northern Lights, but there was at least a certain Northern Cats theme to my visit. The picture shows a sachet of the Icelandic cat food I brought back for my own little friend - notice that even this is marketed using a Viking ship! Iceland has to import quite a lot of things, but I guess all their livestock farming gives them the wherewithal to make their own ekta íslenska framleiðsla fyrir köttinn þinn 'genuine Icelandic product for your cat' from the more unspeakable bits of sheep and cows. I think my own furry friend prefers Sheba, but she didn't entirely turn her nose up at Murr kattamatur.

I, too, was well-fed in Iceland, about which the less said the better. More importantly, I photographed, but did not eat at, the splendidly-named restaurant Fjalakötturinn. This word seems to be a variant on the mousetrap-kenning I discussed in an earlier post, where the medieval version was a tréköttr 'wooden cat', whereas this one is better translated as 'plank-cat'. I'm not entirely sure it's the best name for a restaurant, but it's good as ever to see kennings still in use. Apparently, the building is modern, but built on the site of an earlier one with the same name (I haven't been able to discover why), and even earlier there was a Viking longhouse on the site, not surprisingly, as the restaurant is right next to the Reykjavík 871±² settlement exhibition.

 On my last evening I photographed this rather beautiful pussycat (right) on the seashore near my hotel. It is standing in front of a monument celebrating the fact that the football club Þróttur was founded on that very spot. The club's name means 'strength', and some think it is one of Odin's names. The word also appears mysteriously on some rune stones in Sweden, about which I have written recently, but I digress. The spot in the photograph is actually rather interesting, since there are some old (or not even so old) fishermen's huts, known as Grímsstaðavör, still standing (see below, in the romantic gloaming), the last remnants of the fishing heritage of the area before the complete suburbanisation of Reykjavík. What with cats, Norse mythology, ruins and much more, there was plenty to catch my interest in that short evening walk along Ægissíða. Even better than the Northern Lights, though I still hope to see those one day.

09 August 2012

Old Stones

... are actually some of my favourite things, especially when fashioned by human beings into something meaningful to them. Yesterday was excursion day here at the Fifteenth International Saga Conference in Århus. I naturally chose the excursion likely to include the greatest variety of interesting stones. The excursion was to Djursland, the peninsula north-east of Århus, with lots of interesting features, including a dialect that has kept the three genders of Old Norse, that Danish has otherwise done away with. The lithic delights on offer went from the Stone Age right through to the medieval period. We started off with Poskær Stenhus (pictured), apparently the largest Neolithic cairn in Denmark. Not perhaps the largest Neolithic monument on the planet, but a very nice one in a lovely location on a sunny day, in one of the hillier parts of Denmark (more on this later).

The Danish landscape is littered with extremely handsome stone churches, mostly apparently first built around 1200, but then added to later. So there were plenty of medieval delights, like the wall paintings at Hyllested (the link will take you to a lovely picture of the church and detailed information on the paintings), or the Romanesque portal at Rimsø, (which I confess I missed, being too interested in the rune stone at the same place), or the oldest stained glass (c. 1300) in Scandinavia at Virring church. Stonewise, I particularly liked the two little heads (pictured) on an outside wall of Ålum church.

But the real reason for going on the excursion was, of course, the eight rune stones we were promised. I had seen most of them before, but that was nearly two decades ago, so it was great to revisit them. The two I'll mention are the two outside the church at Ålum (pictured). As usual when runologists are gathered, we stand around and discuss every aspect of both the object and the inscriptions and this pair offer much rich material for discussion. The larger one (which by the way has an image of a mounted warrior on its reverse) has the inscription 'Végautr raised this stone in memory of Ásgeirr, his son. May God well help his soul.' The smaller one says 'Þyrvé, Végautr's wife, had this stone raised in memory of Þorbjörn, son of Sibba, her sister's son, whom she cared for more than a dear son.' So many questions... Why did the two young men die? Were they together when they died, was it on an expedition abroad, a local accident, an illness? Were they young men or only children? But even more so, what was the family situation? Why did Þyrvé not participate in the raising of the larger rune stone? Was she not Végautr's wife at the time, or was Ásgeirr perhaps not her son but that of some concubine? Why was she so fond of her nephew Þorbjörn? Had her sister died and she perhaps looked after him? If Ásgeirr was her son, was she telling the world she preferred her nephew to her own son? These lapidary texts give no real clue, and various other possible explanations spring to mind.

My final old stone for today comes not from yesterday's excursion, but today's. After a full day of papers (several of them very interesting indeed), we went on an evening excursion to Himmelbjerget, apparently Denmark's third highest eminence at 147 metres (don't ask me about the other two, but they're certainly not much higher). Outside the hotel there, I saw this beautiful stone, which reminded me of the stones I had seen on the Isle of Lewis over two years ago, particularly those at Callanish. The little plaque on it had a trite little verse which nevertheless concludes with lines also appropriate for signing off this blog:
I en tid hvor alting forgår, er det visse ting som stadig består.
(When everything passes away, some things are here to stay.)
I guess that's just what I think of old stones, too.

29 July 2012

The Feast of St Óláfr

It is the feast day today of Óláfr Haraldsson, warrior, king, saint and eventually rex perpetuus Norvegiae, killed in 1030 at the battle of Stiklarstaðir in Trøndelag by an army including many of his own countrymen. The best place to celebrate this feast is in Tórshavn, where it is also the national day of the Faroe Islands. On this day every year the Faroese celebrate their Ólavsøka by racing traditional rowing-boats (men and women), wearing patterned knitted socks and jumpers (men) and mass chain-dancing to the old ballads in the streets (everyone, including tourists) - an experience highly to be recommended, even if, like me some years ago, you had to do almost all of it in the driving rain. But what's weather to a true Viking?

One of the interesting things about St Óláfr is how quickly his saint's cult spread, especially in the British Isles. By no means the earliest reference to it is in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles which say that when Earl Siward of Northumbria died in 1055 he was buried in the church that he himself had built at Galma(n)ho, and which (according to version D) he had consecrated to St Óláfr. This is presumably the ancestor of the present St Olave's church in Marygate in York, which has a fifteenth-century stained glass window almost certainly depicting the Norwegian saint. There are also some more modern representations of him in both stained glass and sculpture, and a large Norwegian flag.

On my recent visit to York, we stayed in the Coach House Hotel, on the corner of Marygate and Galmanhoe Lane, and just yards from St Olave's. According to A.H. Smith's Place-Names of the East Riding of Yorkshire and York the name 'Galmanhowe' is lost, though there is a variety of evidence other than the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles to support its erstwhile existence.The current street-name appears to be a result of modern antiquarianism, and apparently dates from only the 1970s. 

27 July 2012

Jorvik Revisited

Some specialists are a wee bit sniffy, I'm told, about the Jorvik Viking Centre, but I've always thought it's rather a good thing. It has certainly been around for nearly three decades now, so it has had to have a few revamps along the way, and it's been a while since I last saw it. Taking a relative for a mini-break in York the other day gave me a welcome chance to view its latest incarnation, and I've come away with the conviction that it's still excellent edutainment. It simplifies, as it has to, but not in a bad way.

What's interesting is that the balance seems to be swinging more and more to the edu-, but still with sufficiently good -tainment for the punters to keep flocking there. The ride is more or less as ever, though regularly tweaked, and not so long ago spiced up with new dialogues (written and voiced by a colleague and students at the University of York). But the before and after the ride are both impressive, with some real nuggets of knowledge presented in an accessible way. The before gives you a useful summary of the excavations which form the basis of the ride, and lets you stand on the site, as it were. The after plays a bit to the gallery with skeletons, the famous Great Viking Turd, and so on, but also smuggles in a lot of useful stuff about palaeopathology, isotope analysis, metalworking techniques, and much more. All kinds of multimedia are used, prerecorded speakers, live intepreters with horns for you to blow if you dare, computer graphics, touch screens. The main criticism of the after bit is only that it's too small. It's a tribute to how interesting the stuff is that the rather narrow corridor with all this excitement was jammed with people looking, reading and learning, rather than heading straight for the shop.

We also dropped into the new temporary exhibition, Valhalla: In Search of the Viking Dead, around the corner. It had far fewer bells and whistles and for me it didn't fully explain the links between the various skeletons, sculpture and reconstructed artefacts on show, while the children's section had some nice things about Norse mythology, without for obvious reasons going too much into death and dying in Norse life and myth... Still, at least it was free with a Jorvik ticket, and the York Minster sculptures were well worth seeing.

24 June 2012

'I Must Go Down to the Sea Again...'

There is a veritable flurry of Viking ship reconstructions and launchings going on at the moment, no doubt inspired by the very successful Havhingsten fra Glendalough / Sea-Stallion from Glendalough, which sailed from Roskilde to Dublin and back a few years ago. Only a few days ago, a copy of the Oseberg ship was launched in Tønsberg. It's called Saga Oseberg and there is a good video of its rather less than smooth launch here - I do hope it sails a bit better than some of its predecessors! The so-called Dragon Harald Fairhair was launched on the 5th of June, though I do wish the people responsible for the latter had consulted more, both about calling it a 'dragon' and Harald's nickname. Grrr. Unlike most modern Viking ships, this is not a replica of any actual ship, but rather a reconstruction based on a variety of sources. Meanwhile, Archaeology4Schools has embarked on a copy of the Ardnamurchan boat, found last year, though since not much more than some rivets survived of the boat, I do wonder what the basis of this reconstruction really is. At any rate, it sounds like lots of people are having lots of fun, and the seas this summer will be alive with Viking ships!

02 June 2012

Kilroy Wasn't Here

One only of several reasons why I haven't been blogging much is that I've been doing too much Norse and Viking rambling. In April, as well as my trips to the Isle of Man, Orkney and Shetland, all recorded here, I went to a fun symposium on that quintessential Viking saga, Jómsvíkinga saga in Uppsala, and in May, I went to a symposium on the Jelling stone. The last has put me in a runic mood again, and an article that plopped on my doormat yesterday has prompted me to put on public record some thoughts that I have been having for years, and have tried to express more than once, but no one seems to take any notice.

Runologists frequently refer to the mythical graffito 'Kilroy was here' when talking about runic graffiti of the type 'X carved these runes'. This seems to me to be a fundamental misunderstanding based on inadequate research and I wish they would stop. When someone wrote 'X carved these runes', they used their own name and they really were there. Such a graffito is meant to be a proud (or otherwise) record of their presence and their ability to write runes (as evidenced by the fact that such inscriptions can be found on loose objects as well as walls and other fixed places). The Kilroy inscriptions are quite the opposite. There are a lot of stories, some possibly even true, about this phrase on the internet (with quite a sensible article here), while my trusty Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable merely says that 'Its origin is a matter of conjecture', but one thing seems clear. Whether or not a 'Kilroy' once existed, he was certainly not responsible for all the inscriptions with his name that appeared in many places around the world, especially during the high point of this craze in World War II and the 1950s. In runic inscriptions, X appears as many different names. QED.

The Sea Which Surrounds Us is Big

A few 'tweets' from a 'tweep' whom I follow (god, the terminology) reminded me that I failed to add a blog about my trip to Shetland, which followed on from the Orkney visit described in my last blog (shamefully over a month ago). Although I've been to Orkney many times, this was my first visit to Shetland in over a decade, and only my second visit ever (about time too). It's always good to be reminded of both how similar and how different the two island groups are. Visually, they are linked by Fair Isle - I could see it both from North Ronaldsay, and then again from the living-room window of the friends I was staying with on Westside in Shetland. The visit was quite a short one, though I managed to see lots of interesting things. Here, I'll just mention a couple of places well-known to me through sagas and poetry, and then another wee couple of things.

Girlsta Loch (pictured left) is quite a gloomy and forbidding place, and it's easy to imagine the death by drowning there of Geirhildr, daughter of Flóki, the víkingr mikill who, according to Landnámabók, was one of the three main discoverers of Iceland. The name is oddly appropriate, though the 'Girl-' in Girlsta has nothing to do with her maidenhood, as the name seems to be the reflex of an original Geirhildarstaðir. This means then, of course, that the story doesn't quite add up, since Geirhildarstaðir implies that she was there long enough to give her name to the farm and not, as Landnámabók suggests, that she just fell into the loch while her father was anchored in Flókavágr, wherever that is. But then the anecdotes of Landnámabók are generally lapidary, and you get a sense that they convey some fundamental truth, even though they don't know all the details. At any rate, it shows that 13th-century Icelanders knew that there was a place of that name in Shetland.

Especially exciting for me was to see Gullberwick (pictured right), where, according to Orkneyinga saga, Earl Rögnvaldr was shipwrecked, probably in the autumn of 1148, and composed several witty stanzas about it and the aftermath - they lost all their goods, but luckily no lives, so he could laugh about it. I particularly like the stanza in which he complains about the deleterious effect of the shipwreck on his clothing, and his promise to be properly dressed next time he arrives somewhere by ship:
Skekk hér skinnfeld hrokkinn;
skrauts mér afar lítit;
stórr, sás stendr of órum,
stafnvöllr yfirhöfnum.
Nærgis enn af úrgum
álvangs mari göngum
- brim rak hest við hamra
húns - skrautligar búnir.
I shake out here a wrinkled leather garment; it provides me with very little finery; the prow-field [sea] which surrounds our outerwear is big. Some day we'll go more finely dressed from a spray-swept horse of the eel plain [sea = ship]; surf drove the stallion of the mast-head [ship] onto cliffs.
Regular readers of my blog will know I like coming over old buses and tractors on my island voyages. This time round, I not only got to see a lovely old bus (pictured left), but to meet the gentleman (Pat Isbister) who used to drive it and own the company. Pat is the husband of my friend's Cousin Betty, who gave us coffee and cakes and, most wonderful of all, a copy of the calendar depicting many of their old buses through the years - heaven! The calendar was made for a worthy cause, the Shetland Stroke Support Group - check them out if you can. And thanks to everyone for their wonderful Shetland hospitality.

One final thing which I hope will raise a smile is this house, built for a well-known fiddler, proclaiming his passion to everyone who passes by:

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!

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.

05 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!

23 March 2012


Half a year ago, all Vikingologists were mourning the loss of three great scholars in various branches of the subject. Now we have lost two more this month, both with a more literary and linguistic bent, Ursula Dronke and Raymond Ian Page. Neither was young, and both had had full and productive lives, so I hope they are glad to have shuffled off this mortal coil and are likewise carousing in the Valhalla of Norse and Viking studiers (with its 'hearth-encircling benches and delicious ale'). But we shall miss them and it is worth pausing to remember their achievements, which are of course far too many to list here.

Many years ago, I had the honour of having my PhD thesis examined by Ursula Dronke, but I remember her chiefly for her wonderful translations of Eddic poetry. One of the first Eddic poems I ever read was Atlakviða (maybe that's why we're imposing it on our first-years even as I speak...). Ursula's translation was both a delight in itself, and a real incentive to grapple with the difficult but completely spell-binding language of the original.

Ray Page had even more of a beneficial effect on my career - he contributed to my appointment to this job way back when in my youth, and he was both friend and benevolent academic guide ever after. He too had a real way with words, and I still think his Chronicles of the Vikings is a great place for beginners to start thinking about how we really go about studying the Viking Age. He also produced lucid and accessible books for the general reader on both Norse myths and runes. Ray was quite a polymath: an expert in Old English and Anglo-Saxon studies, Old Norse and Viking studies, manuscripts and librarianship, but his greatest influence was as a runologist and that is what I and many others will most of all remember him for.

14 February 2012

Runic Valentine

This little weaving sword from Lödöse in Sweden bears the inscription:
mun : þu * mik : man : þik : un : þu : m(e)r : an : þRr

Think of me, I think of you! Love me, I love you!
It's from the first half of the twelfth century, and both the object and the inscription may have been made by a lover for his lass. Seemed appropriate for today...

09 February 2012

Norway's Documentary Heritage

Here's a nice thing: Under the aegis of the UNESCO Memory of the World Program, the Norwegians have selected 60 documents or archives which are unique, irreplaceable and authentic documents of their time. It's a pretty mixed bunch, including delights such as the Leprosy Archive in Bergen (especially for my colleague CL), Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson's autograph copy of the words to the national anthem ('Ja, vi elsker dette landet, som det stiger frem, furet, værbitt over vannet, med de tusen hjem...' - stirring stuff!), Norway's first two printed books (both for the Catholic liturgy) from 1519, Bjørge Lillelien's amazing commentary when Norway beat England 2-1 in 1981 (have a listen, it's fab), Swedish King Carl Johan's imprimatur for the new Norwegian flag design from 1821, Edvard Munch's will, etc. etc. But most wonderful of all the rune stone from Kuli, erected when 'Christianity had been twelve winters in Norway' - whenever that was...

Thanks to Åge Hojem / NTNU Vitenskapsmuseet for the photo, and to www.middelaldernett.com for the tip!

03 February 2012

A Thor Head

Norse and Viking ramblers will be pleased to hear that Orkney's Highland Park distillery has just launched a new 'Valhalla Collection' of fine whiskies with the single malt Thor - 16 years old and 52.1%. 'Not for the faint-hearted', they say - I should think not! - 'a whisky of divine power'. Well, I won't be indulging just yet (have you seen the price?). But I like looking at the picture. If you want to get a Thor head, you can read his blog on the Whisky of the Gods website.

20 January 2012


All things seem to be Lewis this week. I have just read the second volume of Peter May's Lewis Trilogy, The Lewis Man, which I think I enjoyed even more than The Blackhouse, about which I blogged last year. And I was delighted to see that the third volume will be called The Chess Men - I wonder if that will be about those delightful little people of walrus ivory? Speaking of which, the Comann Eachdraidh Uig (or Uig Historical Society to you Sassenachs) has just produced a map of Lewis with the place names given in their Old Norse form. Well, it's really only the area around Uig, not even the whole of Lewis, let alone Harris, and I have to say that some of the spellings are more than a little wonky but, hey, Vikingologists can have fun correcting them. It might even be a good test one day of my students' Old Norse to see what they can do...students be warned!