26 October 2019

Ardnamurchan Vikings

Lighthouse at the Point of
As I have previously pointed out, many of the poetic-sounding names of the shipping forecast have Viking associations, as does the Point of Ardnamurchan, in the inshore waters section. Plus it sounds wonderful, too. So who could resist a little trip up there, especially when someone else was paying and there was a work reason to go? (More information on why exactly I was there will follow in its own good time). So last month I went and it turned out to be easier than I thought - fly to Glasgow, then it's a four-hour drive. Well, easy or easy. The drive is quite something, along Loch Lomond (the bonnie banks don't have room for more than a narrow road with lots of traffic), through Glencoe (stunning), a fun ferry crossing to Ardgour, and then the last thirty-five miles of single-track road, dodging confident locals, hesitant tourists, and a variety of fauna. You can see why the Vikings preferred to arrive by boat.

The Viking grave at Swordle Bay
The main reason for being there was in connection with the Viking grave found at Swordle Bay in the northern side of the Ardnamurchan peninsula a few years ago, which had me pretty excited. It's touted as being the first Viking boat burial found on the mainland of Britain, but that is somehow to see it with our contemporary landlubber eyes. Certainly modern technology makes it easy enough to get there overland, but even a few decades ago that would not have been the case, let alone a millennium ago. Even getting to Swordle by car from the south side of the peninsula involved quite a steep climb over the central ridge. The bay has excellent views of Eigg and Rum and other Hebridean islands - and for all practical purposes it might as well have been an island too. Certainly it was on a main Viking Age transport route.

Swordle Bay, Ardnamurchan
The burial is in a stunning location - a great place to spend all eternity. There are many interesting aspects of the grave (it was in all likelihood a man, buried with both weapons and practical items, in a boat) and you can read all about it in this academic publication from a couple of years ago. Or read a shorter presentation on the website of the Ardnamurchan Transitions project of which it is part. Now of course, there is not much to see, only the shape of the burial marked out in stones, and a sense of the site, which looks like an ideal spot for a Viking to settle in. Further archaeological investigations might reveal whether the person buried there also lived there or was just passing through when he decided to take a detour to Valhalla. I have my reasons for thinking the former is more likely. Or at least that there were Vikings living there at the time.

Sanna, a small settlement on the western
end of the peninsula
One of the reasons for thinking this is the small but significant number of place-names on the peninsula that have an Old Norse origin. Swordle Bay itself contains the element svörðr, cognate with English 'sward' (as in 'greensward'), plus dalr 'valley', and it is indeed very lush and green round about. Sanna, now a small settlement on the western end of the peninsula is indeed next to a sandy beach, and if it does come from Sandey 'Sand Island' as it seems to, then there are some small islands in the bay which this could I suppose refer to. The place-names have not been studied in any detail since Angus Henderson in 1915, so there's a job for someone!

Many might think there's not much to do on Ardnamurchan, and certainly what we think of as civilisation is thin on the ground at its western end. But for me the landscape and seascape, the lighthouse, the place-names, the burial, were all of great interest. I was also taken by the tiny settlement of Ockle, where the sun came out, enhancing the faded colours of this derelict cottage. I also like old tractors, sheep, cast iron mileposts and many of the other things to be seen there and I know I could amuse myself there for more than the two days I had on this visit.

One last little tidbit of information which I had not known until I travelled all the way there was the significance of the village of Strontian. It turns out that this place gave its name to the element strontium, which is key in so much Viking Age research these days, as the bioarchaeologists use isotopes to work out where people came from. If you want to know more about the element, then I recommend the Strontium video from the very fun series of videos about the periodic table made by my amazing colleague Professor Sir Martyn Poliakoff.

Just goes to show how educational following the Vikings can be!