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!


  1. Anonymous26/6/12 10:20

    From where is the top left picture?
    Jens Z

    1. It's discussed in the text next to the picture :-)

  2. Anonymous8/4/14 01:06


    I am building a facebook page about the Viking history of the Isle of Man and would appreciate if it would be possible to use the pictures above, especially the Braddan Cross.
    Alice Quayle, Isle of Man.

    1. Dear Alice,
      Thanks for your interest. Please feel free to use the photos, but do credit the photographer who is Judith Jesch.
      As ever,