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Orkney runes: The new blog

Welcome to the Orkney runes blog!

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Dear reader,

you might have found this blog because you follow my work or because you googled something to do with runes and Orkney. Here, I will regularly share some musings about my PhD project “Runic writing in the diaspora: Expression of a Norse identity?” which is supervised by the Institute for Northern Studies, UHI in Kirkwall and the Centre for Scandinavian Studies at the University of Aberdeen. It is an Applied Research Collaboration, funded by the Scottish Graduate School for Arts and Humanities, and as a non-academic partner, Orkney Museum, which hosts some of the inscriptions I work with, is also involved.

The “old” blog posts can be found here: Blog at INS page

I hope you enjoy my musings, and if you have any further questions about my research or suggestions for topics, feel free to contact me!

A completely non-runic post

Seeing as all good things come in threes, here is another link to a guest blog post I recently wrote. This one was for SGSAH (Scottish Graduate School for Arts and Humanities) who are funding my PhD research along with UHI. In a complete departure from my usual focus on runes, this post discusses the process of completing a PhD and how chess, of all things, helps me do it.

What chess does to my PhD

Where to find Orkney runes … in Edinburgh

As you will have gathered from my previous post, Orkney is amazing. If you are not local and have the chance to travel there, do it! However, getting to Orkney is not easy and can be quite expensive. Therefore, here is a handy guide how to find Orkney runes if you cannot make it to our beautiful archipelago.

In fact, you can find a surprising number of Orcadian runic inscriptions right in the Scottish capital namely in the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh. If you are wondering how they got there, this is mostly due to gentlemen with antiquarian interests in the 19th and earlier 20th century who excavated or bought the objects and then donated them to the museum or the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.

Here is a list of objects which are currently on display (and it’s free entry, too!):

In the “Early People” galleries, you will find a display case on the history of writing. This contains a rune-inscribed steatite spindle whorl from Stromness and bear’s tooth inscribed with “futhark” from the Brough of Birsay (a copy of it is on display in Orkney Museum). P1020396

This is the case you want to be looking for. Not only runes but plenty of other inscribed objects, too

Next to this case, rune-inscribed stones are on display. Among others from the rest of Scotland, there is a stone with two different inscriptions from the Brough of Birsay, a stone with potentially two twig runes from near Brodgar Farm and even a fragment of a Maeshowe inscription – it ended up there after a failed attempt to take a plaster cast of the inscription in the 19th century made the whole thing fall off the tomb wall.

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The rune-inscribed stone from the Brough of Birsay was discovered by Hugh Marwick in 1927

Of course, the museum has a lot more to offer. If you are there, don’t forget to look out for the magnificent Hunterston Brooch, and take special note of the runes on its back. Also worth a visit is for example the amazing Skaill Hoard, the largest Viking silver hoard ever found in Orkney, or the beautiful Lewis Chessmen.

A field trip to Sanday

Now that the Orcadian summer is as good as over, I am back in my office – and lo and behold, I have plenty of nice pictures to share showing my summerly exploits. I might have mentioned this before, but one of the best things about doing a PhD on runes in Orkney is the fieldwork.

Thus, one nice day in early summer, I jumped (or rather dragged my coffee-deprived self) on the early morning boat to Sandy, one of Orkney’s more northerly isles.

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It is an amazingly beautiful place, and, as you might have guessed, its name is derived from Old Norse and simply means “Sand island”. I must say, I have hardly ever seen a place with a more fitting toponym.

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However, I didn’t go there to enjoy the beach (mostly). In fact, Sanday has its very own runestone, or at least a fragment of it, Or 17 from the farm of Little Isegarth (some details can be found in Michael Barnes and Ray Page’s “The Scandinavian Runic Inscriptions of Britain”).

There are very few photos of it, and it is always best to see inscriptions with your own eyes. It is on permanent loan in the Sanday Heritage Centre from Orkney Museum. If you ever have an opportunity to travel to Sandy, you really should include the Centre in your planning, it is certainly worth the trip, and I’m saying that not just because of its runestone.

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It is a very interesting object, and I am glad that I got to examine it. After this, I had a close look at the landscape where it was found. This stone was discovered as part of a collapsed drystone dyke, clearly not its original location, but having seen the surrounding area, I have some ideas where it could have come from (no spoilers, you’ll have to read my PhD if you want to know more).

And in the end, my day of successful fieldwork in Sanday culminated in this view from the boat back to Kirkwall:

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Big thanks go to Emma Neave-Webb, the Sanday ranger, for arranging my visit and showing me around, and to Sanday Heritage Centre for making it possible for me to examine the inscription.

My love-hate-relationship with Old Red Sandstone

My readers might have noticed that I do post the occasional photo of stone, not necessarily always with runes carved on it. Now, one good reason for it is that I really like looking at beautiful rocks and cliffs. The main reason, however, is that the typical Orcadian Old Red Sandstone is really important for my work.

Now you might think that a bit of a no-brainer, with stone obviously being an important medium for every runologist, and you are not wrong there. Our local sandstone is crucial for understanding the Orcadian corpus of runic inscriptions, its preservation and some of its “quirks”.

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Cliffs at Birsay Northside, demonstrating the layering of sandstone in Orkney

The sandstone of Devonian origin which you can find in Orkney has some remarkable features, which should make it quite ideal for producing runestones: It is fairly soft and easy to carve, as witnessed, for example, by the huge amount of graffiti on any stone monument in Orkney, from the Norse runes in Maeshowe to the Antiquarian and modern carvings of Unstan. Indeed, you can “carve” in this type of stone with almost any somewhat sharp instrument and do not need to be a master stonemason with specialised tools to produce an inscription.

Another advantage is that due to the layering of the rock in Orkney, clearly visible on the various cliff faces, it is relatively easy to cut flagstones from the bedrock, and these lend themselves quite well to carving on them. So, by all means, runologists should love this type of stone.

And yet, my relationship with Old Red Sandstone is more of a love-hate-affair. And why is that? Well, precisely because these positive features, which make it easy to produce runic inscriptions on it, don’t make them last particularly long. Unfortunately, we do not have any still-standing runestone in Orkney, and all our inscriptions which appear to contain the classic memorial formula are only preserved as fragments. Most, if not all, of them seem to have been re-used as building material at some point in their history.

One inscription which shows how destructive the combination of soft stone and Orcadian weather is can be found on the church ruin on the Brough of Birsay. Only some staves remain of the runes, no branches can be made out any more. Who knows how many inscriptions we have lost to the elements entirely?

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Can you spot the remaining staves? That’s what happens if you combine Orcadian weather and soft stone …

The same obviously goes for any other carvings, such as Pictish symbol stones – although it needs to be said that, compared to the Picts, the Norse have left us with a wealth of carvings in Orkney, thanks in particular to the protected environment inside the tomb of Maeshowe where weathering is neglectable.

So, in short: Our beautiful Orcadian sandstone is great for producing runic inscriptions – and bad for preserving them.

Upcoming conferences

This blog has been a bit quiet lately, and the reason is that there is not just one, no there are two upcoming conferences in the next weeks.

If you want to hear me talk about “Rune-carving in Caithness: Now and Then”, I’d recommend the Scottish Society for Northern Studies residential conference in Thurso from 11 – 14th April. Here is the programme.

In the very next week, we will have the 4th International St Magnus Conference at my home institution, the Institute for Northern Studies in Kirkwall. If you come along, you can admire (or criticise?) my poster on “Women and runes in Orkney”. Here is more information about this conference. Has there ever been a better excuse for a trip to beautiful Orkney?