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: