The Nordic countries have been the focus of considerable interest among pro EU campaigners, many of whom argue that Scotland has much to learn from its more affluent, democratic and egalitarian neighbours of the North/Baltic seas and indeed, that an independent Scotland could flourish as part of a Nordic pact.
Are they really suggesting we should form an alliance with a people who once apparently invaded these islands, raping women, pillaging our farmsteads and sacking our monasteries? The truth is, of course, that Scotland’s cultural history is already inextricably bound up with that of our Scandinavian neighbours, and they were a very different people from the view that prevails outside Norse strongholds like our own Orkney.
They were by no means just an evanescent plague. They had an ordered and efficient societal system based on deeply rooted laws. They had a well developed and democratic legal system. They set up excellent trading networks wherever they went. They had a highly developed sense of community, as can be seen in texts like the Icelandic Landnámabók and the Laxdaela Saga in which they document the lived experience of their communities, particularly their genealogies as knowing where one fitted in to the group was imperative. Another surprise is that the Norse were quite advanced in the way that their societies were organised along gender lines. The Norse were in fact far better on equal rights than many societies today.
They exhibited a concept of the articulation of the individual in what was essentially a civilised and democratic society according to its context.
There was no real feudalism as such and each man was judged on his behaviour rather than his birth. The main imperative was to be part of the community, be it in a family or group, and the worst punishment that could happen was not death but exclusion from the community, a kind of ‘social death’ as many commentators have noted. Sound familiar at all, folks?
This is the kind of equality campaigners claim for contemporary Scandinavian countries. They have less of a gap between rich and poor, and people are prepared to put up with higher taxation because they measure their happiness at least partly in terms of the well-functioning of their communities, and social mobility or “getting on” is through individual merit, not birth or wealth – inherited or earned.
We bear the imprint of the Norse through our heritage like letters through a stick of rock – definable and integral to our cultural identity. They were not alien and they did not slip away in their longships in the darkness. They never left, they are us. Scotland is a country with a passion for social justice which must have come from somewhere. At a time when our Nordic neighbours and their equalities between men and women, rich and poor, are being held up as a model for a fairer, more socially just Scottish society, wouldn’t it be poetic justice for the true social and economic legacy of the Norse to serve as a pattern for a new Scotland?