Another new (modern) Orkney inscription

Recently, I returned to the Neolithic chamber tomb of Unstan at the shore of Stenness Loch, intending only to show a visitor this often-overlooked amazing site. It holds many inscriptions from Antiquarian times after the cairn was re-opened in the 19th century. One set of “runes” was even registered as an official runic inscription, “OR 2 Unstan” for a while before it was shown to have been carved after the tomb was excavated.

To my surprise, when I entered the tomb this time with my visitor, who happens to be interested in epigraphy, too, we almost instantly saw a runic inscription on the opposite wall. I had never noticed it before and it was very clear, not overgrown with algae or moss, so it seems impossible I had overlooked it at my last visit, and thus I would, just from the circumstances, judge it to be very recent.


Picture copyright: C. Johnson

Indeed, a closer inspection showed that the runes are Anglo-Saxon with the diagnostic double- barrelled “H”. These runes were not used in Viking Age or medieval Orkney, so that would have been another giveaway for a modern origin. On a portable object, which could have traveled via trade routes from Anglo-Saxon England, they would have been slightly more plausible, but then I read what they said: “ANNETTE:PHILIP:HELLIN”.

So it appears that some people simply carved their names into the tomb, as travelers have done for millennia.

However, I would like to stress that, despite me enjoying a little runic riddle from time to time, damaging ancient and protected monuments with modern carvings is not acceptable. In Orkney, we are lucky that we can access many sites unsupervised and at any time we want. I would ask both locals and tourists to respect these monuments so that future generations can enjoy this privilege, too. There are plenty of other options for carving one’s name in runes that are less damaging to Orkney’s heritage.


A runic trip to Uppsala

Last month, I left Orkney for a field trip to Sweden. My co-supervisor, Prof. Stefan Brink from the Centre for Scandinavian Studies at Aberdeen, had organised a three day trip for his PhD students to Uppsala where we toured the local Viking sites with his expert guidance and had a symposium with PhD students from Uppsala and Stockholm to present our research to each other.

After a long journey on boat and planes, I managed to arrive at Uppsala without any luggage, but at least my clothes rejoined me the next day. On our first day, our group got to see the Uppsala cathedral with the magnificent tomb of Gustav Vasa, the runestones in the city centre, then we headed to the Carolina Rediviva library, where we got to see the Uppsala Edda. This manuscript of the Prose Edda from about 1300 is the oldest surviving manuscript of the Eddas, and it was amazing to see it directly in front of me. Later, we took a train into Stockholm to visit the Viking collection at the national museum – and there were more runestones! I was glad to discover that I could indeed read them, so all my practise has not been in vain. I was surprised to even see a runestone fragment built into the corner of a house in Gamla Stan, Stockholm’s old town.


The next day was the major runestone-day. We went on a car trip around Uppland, visiting many major Viking Age sites I had so far only read about in books or heard about in lectures. We went, among others, to Sigtuna, the first bishop’s seat in medieval Sweden, Gamla Uppsala with its impressive mounds, and – admittedly one of my favourites – the famous bridge of Jarlabanki, one of the most prolific sponsors of runestones you could imagine. On our route, we encountered a huge amount of runestones, as you would expect in the region with the highest runestone density in the world. It made me reflect on how different runic writing developed at the time in different regions from the same roots.


On the final day, we had the PhD student symposium at the Gustav Adolfs Akademi in Uppsala. It was great to hear about research going on at Aberdeen, Uppsala and Stockholm, and I made some useful contacts to fellow medievalists.

This trip has really expanded my way of thinking of runes, particularly as Prof. Brink showed us how in the Uppland landscape everything is interconnected: runestones are only one part and integrated within a landscape of telling placenames, gravefields, early church sites and so forth. Without looking at every aspect of the monumental landscape, it would be impossible to fully grasp the significance of the runestones. I believe such an integrated approach is also the right way forward for my own research.

Orkney runes: The new blog

Welcome to the Orkney runes blog!

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!