Norse Women in Scotland

“Ingibjorg,Sigrid & the Others – Norse Women in Scotland: The Runic Evidence”

Norse women in Scotland 2Western written historical accounts have up until recent years relegated the ‘woman’ to a footnote and this is particularly the case with Early History. Unless you were a warrior queen like Boudicca or a skilled operator like Cleopatra we know very little about the lives of women.

Andrea Blendl,FSA (Scotland) of the Institute of Northern Studies, University of the Highlands and Islands, has made a particular study of Norse women in Scotland by looking at the  evidence in the runes inscribed at the time. The runic inscriptions are the only contemporary written evidence of Norse women in Scotland. 

What are runes?

“Runic alphabet, also called futhark, a writing system of uncertain origin used by Germanic peoples of northern Europe, Britain, Scandinavia, and Iceland from about the 3rd century to the 16th or 17th century AD.” Encylopaedia Britannica

Elder Futhark Runes

By ClaesWallin

The runic writing system was used for over 1000 years in Northern Europe and evidence of runic carvings has been found as far south as Istanbul.

In her talk, hosted by Orkney Archaeological Society, Andrea Blendl spoke about her studies into the runes found in Orkney, Shetland and Caithness.

Orkney has the largest number of runes in Scotland, 55, with 33 of these being found in one location alone: The Maeshowe burial tomb.

Across the rest of the British Isles runes have been found in:

  • Caithness: 2
  • Shetland: 7
  • Rest of Scotland: 13
  • England: 19
  • Wales: 0

The Norse, Vikings, came to Orkney probably in the 8thC and by the 9thC were well established culminating in their ‘golden age’ of the 12th C.

Runes are found on a huge variety of objects: jewellery, spindle whirls, portable objects, memorial stones and on walls.

Replica of the Hunterston Brooch

Replica of the Hunterston Brooch By Staff or representatives of Harrogate Museums and Arts service

The 33 found inside the Neolithic tomb of Maeshowe, Orkney contain the names of 6 women.

Maeshowe Neolithic Tomb

Maeshowe ( Historic Environment Scotland)

Maeshowe (Photo Historic Environment Scotland)

Built during Orkney’s Neolithic period Maeshowe Chambered tomb stands proud of the land around it.

The tomb was broken into in the mid 12thC by a band of Crusading Norse who had returned from  Jerusalem. Breaking in through the roof it is thought that they may have been looking for treasure but it also gave them shelter from the Orkney weather.

Of those 6 runic inscriptions where women are mentioned some are of a sexual nature and quite explicit at that. More interestingly, however, is the inscription of and by  the only female runic carver known in Scotland, Hlif Matselja. It is always supposed that most carvers were male but the evidence from Maeshowe demonstrates that women could also have this skill.

The runic carving from Hlif Matselja  tells us that she has returned from Jerusalem so we know that she also has not only been on this crusade but has survived it.

Interpreting the carvings in Maeshowe gives us both negative and positive attitudes to women in 12thC Northern Europe.

Memorial Stones

Just like today when people erect grave stones to remember loved ones, people also did this in the past. In Uppland, Sweden 39% of memorial stones name women and research shows that 10 – 15% of all the memorial stones were commissioned by women. This raises the issue of women’s literacy.

Could women read these inscriptions? And could women read and write?

Andrea Blendl points to the sagas for more evidence of women’s literacy.  Healing and Love Magic sticks written by women perhaps, but certainly for women to read, have also been found.

Were the Norse Women in Scotland Norse?

This was another fascinating strand of Andrea Blendl’s talk and would lead to a whole other area of study.

There was intermarriage between the Gaelic and Norse communities in 11thC/12thC Scotland, certainly in the upper strata of society and it can be assumed that this may not  have been confined to them.

One woman can have 2 names. She can have her Gaelic name and her Norse name and both are included on her memorial stone.  Evidence from the Isle of Man suggests that sons retained the Norse name but that daughters would have both the Norse name and a Latin/Gaelic one.

How did these women think of themselves? How much of their Gaelic upbringing did they retain once they were married and living in a Norse community? Depending on your situation your ethnicity could change.

Andrea Blendl’s talk concluded with 2 fascinating points from her forensic research:

  1. There was widespread runic literacy in Norse women in Scotland
  2. Contemporary attitudes to women demonstrate those of high regard but also of lewd thoughts.

Andrea Blendl’s talk: “Ingibjorg,Sigrid & the Others – Norse Women in Scotland: The Runic Evidence” was an excellent insight into not only contemporary written sources but the skilled research she has done on this subject. This tantalising look into Norse women in Scotland has opened up many questions for future research to explore.

Norse women in Scotland

Reporter: Fiona Grahame


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