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.


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.


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.


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:


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”.


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?


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?


Runes and the perception of temporal distance

This week, I went to Oxford for the amazing “Gender and Medieval Studies” conference. It is a meeting of people from all across Medieval Studies and related fields to discuss all aspects of gender in our field, this time focusing on identity and iconography. I will write more about gender aspects in my own research later, but today I want to focus on one concept that struck me quite deeply during my time there: the perception of runes as part of a kind of “distant past”.

I was part of a panel on “Stones and Silence”, and the other two speakers talked about the lost tomb of Guinevre and Marie de France respectively while I focused on the mid-12th-century inscriptions in Maeshowe. A very 12th century panel – and yet, there is often this feeling that runes are somehow elements of a more distant past, early medieval or even pre-medieval. I have also seen them labelled as “ancient” and “prehistoric” (specifically the Maeshowe inscriptions at that) outside academic contexts. Nobody would call Marie de France anything other than high medieval and yet, her writing dates within decades of the Maeshowe inscriptions. It is also worth noting that the corpus of runic inscriptions in Maeshowe post-dates the foundation of St Magnus Cathedral in Orkney, the establishment of teaching in Oxford, where I talked about it, and belongs in the same century as Richard Lionheart. So why do we (and I consciously include myself in this) often get the feeling that these runic inscriptions belong to a more distant past than many other 12th-century figures, buildings or objects? Where does this perception of temporal distance come from?

In my mind, there are various reasons for it. One is that, obviously, there are inscriptions which are much older than the ones in Maeshowe. Runes were in use for over a millenium, and so there are indeed inscriptions that belong into the Iron Age. Maybe because we are not using runes as a writing system now any more, it is difficult to fathom that some inscriptions are removed from our present by no more than an almost equal amount of years than, say, Marie de France’s Lais. Perception of time is highly subjective, and anything we constantly and continuously use seems closer in time to us than something of which we have abandoned any use. Through the same mechanism, whatever we continue to use is constantly adapted, re-shaped and rejuvenated while whatever we abandon, such as runes as a writing system, seems to remain frozen in time in its past state and is thus easily recognisable as old or “ancient”.

Another aspect that plays into this is the difficulty in accessing runic inscriptions on many levels. Maeshowe is not the easiest place to get to, so physical access is one issue – but they are also more difficult to both read and make sense of than many other 12th century texts for which translations and commentaries are in university libraries or open access and which often form core content of undergraduate courses. The inscriptions are often short and can be cryptic and impossible to access without a lot of background knowledge, and this inaccessibility again contributes to the perception of them being somehow more “distant” from our present.

Most crucial, however, might be the fact that we do not know the carvers very well. In most cases they are anonymous, and even where they name themselves, we know almost nothing except for their names, the language they used and sometimes tiny little pieces of other information. This makes it difficult to see the human being behind the text. Therefore, the runecarvers can seem far more alien to us than other prominent 12th century figures whom we can picture in our minds with some more ease. Evoking a mental picture of a person belonging to a name makes them seem much closer to our own personhood. Many figures from the 12th centure are still, or again, prominent in popular culture. Everybody in Europe will at some point have seen a portrayal of Richard Lionheart, and a mention of this name will instantly evoke a mental image. For the Norse in 12th century Orkney, this is not the case. The mental image provoked by runes will presumably in most cases be that of a Viking, thanks to both 19th century Borealism and modern popular culture – but this image certainly does nothing to prevent alienation. Going into the whole issue of Viking portrayals would lead too far now, but I hope you get the idea.

On the whole, it does not come as a big surprise then that 12th-century runes can feel much older and more distant for us than their contemporaries, be it historical figures, literature or objects. Whether this is an advantage or disadvantage I cannot tell. You might think it enables us to approach these inscriptions with less contemporary bias – but I suspect that we only approach them with a different kind of bias.

Runes in Jarlshof?

Most of this blog is about Orkney, as this is the focus of my research, but obviously it is important to have a comparative perspective. Thus, I defied storm Ophelia last week and went on a boat trip to Shetland where I was lucky enough to have access to the runic objects Shetland museum holds and some additional potentially inscribed objects – big thanks to staff at Shetland Museum & Archives for supporting me!

The results of this trip will be written up in due course, but for this blog I want to focus on an exciting new discovery: Runes in Jarlshof! But are they all it seems?

I don’t think Jarlshof needs an introduction for Viking afficionados, it is the major Norse site in Shetland. An inscription there would be a major discovery – and, as we currently only know of seven Viking Age or medieval runic inscriptions from the archipelago, it would be a significant addition to the corpus.

I first heard about runes in Jarlshof from Historic Environment Scotland staff at the “Our Islands, Our Past” conference in Orkney in September, but they already cautioned that the runes might be modern. Nevertheless, as I was going to Shetland anyways, I felt this deserves further inspection. Before my Shetland trip, HES helpfully provided me with a description where to find the inscription because the site is too large to search for a small inscription on every stone slab.


With a friend, I then managed to find the inscription. It is in the remaining structures of the Iron Age broch at the site, not in one of the Norse longhouses. Per se, this does not mean the runes have to be necessarily modern, but much of the broch site would have been filled by rubble during the Norse phases of the site.

The runes themselves are five faintly carved twig runes. Unfortunately, using the standard cipher code that is also common in Orkney, they do not make any lexical sense and result in something like “smlRn” or similar (some branches are difficult to discern, even holding a torch from different angles).


The site is facing the sea and the sandstone there is very soft. So, on balance, could these runes have survived from the Viking Age or Middle Ages until now, having been exposed after excavation in the early 20th century but never detected before? I fear not, and after looking at all the evidence, I would class this as modern.

The inscription reminds me of some modern twig rune inscriptions in Neolithic tombs in Orkney, which also don’t appear to make any lexical sense, like for example Unstan and Cuween. There seems to be a trend of carving runes in freely accessible ancient monuments, which tells us more about modern perceptions about runes than about the past. (And I have to repeat my plea: Please, please do not carve new runes in ancient monuments!)


Yours truly hard at work deciphering the code

So, to conclude: Yes, there is indeed a runic inscription in Jarlshof, and no, it is not Viking Age or medieval.

Runes are magic – or not?

After a bit of a hiatus, which has nothing to do with a lack of ideas and everything with my annual progress review and upgrading from MPhil to PhD for good, here is the next blog post trying to answer questions people have asked me when they heard I was doing research in runology.

One question that nobody working with runes ever escapes is the issue of magic. It might even be the most frequently asked question I have encountered so far. And of course, the issue is hotly debated on the internet and there are volumes of popular books on runes and magic.

So are runes magic? Were they ever? It is impossible to give an exhaustive overview of all ideas about this complex field within just one blog post, and it might well yield enough material for an entire PhD thesis. Or two. After all, runes were in use over more than a millennium in a vast area. Thus, I will focus on Orkney once again, and try to see if there is any evidence for magic runes in the Orcadian corpus.

First of all, there are many inscriptions in Orkney which are clearly anything but magic. They can indeed be quite mundane. They can, for instance, spell out the classic memorial formula “X raised this stone in memory of Y”, like OR 14 from Tuquoy or OR 18 from Skaill Home Farm. Others, like OR 15 from Earl’s Bu, are possibly runic jokes: This piece of cow rib has an inscription that says “This bone was …” (carved?). There is not much scope for interpreting such words as any form of magic.

Other inscriptions in Orkney are slightly less self-explanatory. Could magic be the solution? Orkney has quite a few runic inscriptions that are very difficult to make sense of. In many cases, that is because of their preservation condition, so the runes are so worn that it is difficult to distinguish them, as for example on the church ruin at the Brough of Birsay, OR 16. That does not mean that these inscriptions were never legible, just that now we will never be able to read them any more.


OR 16, Brough of Birsay: Only some faint staves remain visible, the inscription is illegible – but that does not make it magic

Another class of inscriptions that Orkney yields are those where the runes are discernible but appear not to make any lexical sense. There is, for instance, the lead weight from Quoys in Deerness (OR 22), which appears to say in line A: “…rasab…”. This does not make any sense in Old Norse and could have been interpreted as “alphabet magic”. However, an equally valid explanation has been put forward recently by Michael Barnes (Futhark Journal 6, 2016): In Latin, this line could say “iras abi”, which means “Go away!”. So while the purpose of the text could indeed be magic, as in banishing or sending away an unknown entity, the runes do not make the magic, the actual words make it.

On the whole, there is not a single inscription from Orkney where the runes are inherently magic symbols, while some inscriptions could possibly have served to such a purpose. Obviously, I am still very much at an early stage of my research but from what I’ve seen so far, I would not say that runes in Orkney were seen as inherently magic during the Viking Age and later medieval period. They could, however, be a means of expressing such magic, just like any magic spell, for example the famous “Avada Kedavra” from Harry Potter can be written in Roman letters – yet, that does not make the Roman letters themselves inherently magic.

Your chance to hear me talk about runes

Some of my esteemed readers might spend their summers on distant shores, not so the budding runologist: I’m busy preparing two talks for upcoming conferences, obviously about runes and Orkney. And here’s the best thing: You can attend one of my talks, there are still some tickets left!

I’ll be talking about women and runes in Scotland at the “Wild Women, Strong Ale and the Walking Dead” conference in Inverness on the 25th of August. You can find more information here: Inverness Conference

I’m sure it will be a great day, and looking forward to seeing the Valhalla exhibition at the museum there, too.

A guest post for SGSAH

Recently, I wrote a guest post for the blog of SGSAH (Scottish Graduate School for Arts and Humanities) who are funding my PhD through their Applied Research Collaboration Studentship programme. In this post, I explain how PhD-ing in Orkey is somewhat different to doing it in, say, the Central Belt.

You can find the post here: PhD-ing in Orkney Enjoy, and make sure to check out the rest of their blog in case you haven’t yet, it’s one of the best resources on everything Arts/Humanities/PhD-ish in Scotland.