The highest density of Norse runic inscriptions in Scotland are from Orkney. But what can we tell from them about the people who carved them ?
This was the subject of an excellent online talk by Dr Andrea Freund and hosted by the Institute of Northern Studies , University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI)
The Viking Age in Orkney takes us from about 750AD through to the Golden Age of the 12th C.
In Orkney so far there are 56 examples of runic inscriptions – 33 in the Neolithic Maeshowe tomb alone- 7 in Shetland , 2 in Caithness and 13 in the rest of Scotland.
In England there are 19 examples of Norse runes and 0 in Wales.
Dr Freund suggested that the large number of runes found in Orkney indicates that it represents a very literate society. Orkney, Dr Freund said, was an important place in the power play at that time.
It then declined in importance during the 13th C, having backed the wrong side, and then eventually it came under Scottish rule in 1468/9. There had been much intermarriage between the Norse families of influence in Orkney and the Scottish nobility, in a lead up to the eventual take over by Scotland.
There is no complete runestone surviving in Orkney but there are many different examples carved into a variety of materials- stone, metal, 1 in steatite, bone and antler. The 33 in Maeshowe, of course, remain in situ, however, of the other artefacts they are spread across different sites and museums.
Last year Dr Freund was able to bring together some of these amazing objects in an exhibition at The Orkney Museum and it was wonderful to see them gathered together with the informative display panels. Revealing Runes – PhD Student Andrea Freund’s Exhibition
The bear’s tooth carving was discovered at the Brough of Birsay, a tidal island, which had been a Pictish (and no doubt earlier settlement) and which was important in the Norse period.
At The Earl’s Bu, Orphir, one of the main seats of Norse power in Orkney, a runic inscription was carved in Latin.
There is also an example of a lead amulet from Quoys in Deerness which is a mixture of a garbled form of Latin and Old Norse. This Dr Freund suggested indicates a literate people – and in at least two languages. The amulet is so tiny that it cannot be unfolded and we may never know what was written inside it.
Humour is also present and ribaldry in many of the runic carvings. Maeshowe where a group of Norse ‘travellers’ or ‘pilgrims’ broke in to shelter from a storm – or in some tales – on the search for treasure – contains several examples of bawdy inscriptions and the use of nicknames. There are also 6 mentions of women in the Maeshowe carvings with one claiming to be carved by a woman.
We will never know how many runic inscriptions we have lost in Orkney which may have been written on materials which have since rotted away. And there may be more to be found .
The number, variety and the use of humour in the carvings would all indicate a high level of literacy.
One of the most thought provoking ideas that Dr Freund spoke of towards the end of her talk was of ‘mental geographies’. What did the people who carved these runes think about their surroundings ? The meaning of place to them.
Interestingly Orkney is not used as a point of reference but the carvers link back to their Norse lands. In Dr Freund’s words it looks like they were trying to be ‘Norser than Norway’. She suggests this is due to the increasing influence creeping in from Scotland and that the carvers were consciously restating their Norse heritage.
By the Golden Age of the Norse in Orkney we are also talking about a Christian world where Jerusalem is depicted as the spiritual centre. There are indeed 2 mentions of Jerusalem in the Maeshowe inscriptions.
The runes give us a glimpse into their world. A world where Orkney was not isolated but part of a wider Medieval Christendom.
This excellent online talk by Dr Andrea Freund, an expert in Norse runes, took place on Wednesday 26th of August.
Reporter: Fiona Grahame