Exhibition ended

Now my temporary exhibition on runes at Orkney Museum is ended, and I spent most of yesterday returning the loaned items to their owners. While that was very sad, I have good news: We have filmed all of the exhibition and at some point it will be made available online. I will post a link here once the virtual display is finished.

In the exhibition, I asked visitors for their suggestions what might be written on the inside of the tiny lead amulet from Quoys which cannot be unfolded without breaking it. Here are two beautiful ideas:

“He who joys and grieves, he wears the amulet the rainbow weaved.”

“From the darkness preserve me”

What do you think?


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.


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.


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.