The World of Orcadian Rune Carvers

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)

Runic graffiti at the Ring of Brodgar credit: M Bell

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.

Maeshowe Neolithic Tomb Orkney where there are 33 distinct runic inscriptions

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

Dr Andrea Freund at her exhibition in The Orkney Museum in 2019

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.

Earls Bu Drinking Hall Orphir credit: Bell

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.

The Maeshow runes at Dr Freund’s exhibition at The Orkney Museum in 2019

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.

Brough of Birsay, once an important Norse settlement Credit Bell

Reporter: Fiona Grahame

6 replies »

  1. Is there any proof that the rune writers were *Orcadian* , i.e. Orkney born?
    Orcadian is a noun referring to Orkney born people, not an adjective, I believe….
    So, in my opinion, the heading would have better read “The World of Orkney Rune Carvers”.
    However, I stand to be corrected.

    • There’s no evidence to suggest where they were born. Orkney or otherwise. As this was the Golden Age of the Vikings in Orkney those of Norse decent would be being born in the islands and would have been for centuries

      • As you say, *There is no evidence to suggest where they were born*, so your article would have been more correctly headed *Orkney Rune Carvers*.

        This point is lost on non-Orcadians perhaps, so I’ll leave it for another day.

      • What you are suggesting Colin, is that over a period of several hundred years no one born in Orkney was literate. I would think that was unlikely and that although the Norse who went into Maeshowe described themselves as ‘travellers’ there were many other runic inscriptions found in Orkney. Some of these are covered in both the article and the talk. Given the importance of Orkney at that time in the Norse world it would be credible to assume that there were literate Orcadians.

      • Absolutely not. It’s a great article about languages.
        It’s not about the content of the article, just the heading.
        I’m in no way racist, but a true Orcadian would have immediately picked up on what I consider is your incorrect use of language, and I refer to the term “Orcadian” when “Orkney” is the correct word linguistically.
        another modern example is folk “living on the Orkney Islands”. A friend said that makes me think of folk gently sliding off the edge of islands?
        Have you ever heard anyone say I live on the English Islands?
        No, they say “I live in England”, and the equivalent for you is “I live in Orkney”.

        To go back to your article.
        Now the rune carvers, may or may not have been Orcadian (i.e. Orkney born), as you accept above. Nothing to do with literacy!!
        You may consider that I am just being pedantic, (as a 7th+ generation Orcadian I feel I have that right), but it is incorrect to say “Orcadian” when you actually mean “Orkney”.
        The runes were written in Orkney, so are Orkney runes.
        *Orcadian* refers to folk born in Orkney.
        If you don’t recognise the difference, perhaps you should (incorrectly) rename this site *Orcadian News*!!
        However, best wishes, and I love your news and recipes.

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