If you think Runes are a long dead language with nothing to tell us today then think again.
The current exhibition on at the Orkney Museum, Kirkwall is – Runes in Orkney: A Millennium of Writing by Andrea Freund.
The exhibition is based on new research Andrea Freund has completed for her PhD Thesis. This impressive work is scholarly, meticulous in detail and completely accessible to all, no matter what their level of previous knowledge is.Andrea has had a love and interest in runes when as a child she saw some on a visit to Sweden. So entranced was the young Andrea in the language of runes that she taught herself to read them.
Andrea’s research has been undertaken at the Institute of Northern Studies, the University of the Highlands and Islands which also contributed to the funding of the exhibition.Runic inscriptions in Orkney have been found carved into stone – as at Maeshowe which has the largest single collection in Europe – and on objects like spindle whirls.
In her new research Andrea has used the runes in a much more creative way to explore the identities of those who carved them. The Orkney runes in Maeshowe are depicting what the Norse who carved them thought about themselves.
” The runes are more than just the text. This is the way they wanted to be seen.
“There is a lot of name dropping, of placing themselves in the cosmos of mythic heroes.”
The Maeshowe runes, some of them carved by women, can also tell us about women in Norse society. You can find out more about that in a previous talk Andrea Freund delivered. Norse Women in Scotland
The exhibition is not limited to the interpretation of runes carved in the past but also looks at how runes have been used in modern times. Andrea does not shy away from exposing the way runes have been used by the Nazis and continue to be used by the extreme Right. Taking them completely out of context, Runes were/are used as symbols and not as an alphabet. Reclaiming runes from the Right is important – why should we permit an ancient language which can tell us so much about Norse society to be desecrated in this way? Kim Burns has her answer with her craft work. Kim has the word Peace depicted in runes on her textiles on show.
Runes have influenced Orkney’s designers and the exhibition has on show a few of the top jewellers and textile producers in the islands. Runes may be an ancient language and technically ‘dead’ but in another sense it is very much alive. – still imprinting their form and shape upon artists in Orkney and internationally.Andrea Freund’s exhibition is well worth a visit. It is on from 9th to 30th of March at the Orkney Museum, which is free.
The contribution of students like Andrea to our community in Orkney should not be underestimated. Her new research is shining a new light on the Norse who came to our islands as raiders, traders and finally as settlers. I was saddened that Andrea will be returning to Germany because although Orkney has been her home and she is welcome to stay in Scotland the hostile environment created by the chaos unfolding with Brexit means she will leave. This is Orkney and Scotland’s loss because a talented academic like Andrea will pursue her career elsewhere in Europe.
Related article: Runes in Orkney, a Millennium of Writing
Reporter: Fiona Grahame