Neolithic Orkney

The Standing Stones of Stenness

If you are interested in the ancient Britons, I suppose you can go to Stonehenge and sidle up to the fence which keeps you from going anywhere near the ruins, in addition to putting the kibosh on your travel photography. But there are parts of Britain where you can go right up to the stones and even hug them without drawing the ire of the local sheriffs. I am thinking specifically of the Orkney Mainland (actually an island) off the northern tip of Scotland.

Above is a view of the Standing Stones of Stenness, which is within walking distance of the Ring of Brodgar, another stone circle. And not a fence in sight! And no ticket-takers either (at least when I was there).

There are two major points of interest in the chambered cairn at Maes Howe. It was constructed in 2500 BC. About 3,600 years later, Vikings broke in and covered the walls with graffiti in the form of Futharc runes. The graffiti was like today’s graffiti: If you want to be amused, click on this website.

The Passage into the Tomb

I haven’t even mentioned a whole neolithic village uncovered when the sands which protected Skara Brae blew away in a major windstorm, exposing houses, streets, even stone furniture. Check out some of these images.

These are just some of the reasons why the “Heart of Neolithic Orkney” is considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Yet it gets relatively few visitors. One could fly to Kirkwall from Aberdeen, with a short stopover in Wick. Or one could take the train (if it still runs) to Thurso, taxi to Scrabster, and take the St. Ola ferry to Stromness.

I don’t guarantee the weather will be terrific: It rarely is in these parts. But I do guarantee you will be amazed at the sights. Also, the capital of Kirkwall has a 12th century Viking Cathedral, St. Magnus, whose first bishops were canonized as saints. In fact, the Orkneys were Viking before they became part of Scotland in 1472, and the culture is a Scottish/Scandinavian mix.

The islands even have a great poet: George Mackay Brown (1921-1996), whom I met in 1976. Read up on him if you’re interested in visiting this fascinating part of Scotland.

Vikings

Vikings: They Did a Lot More Than Loot and Pillage

They were the bad boys of early Medieval Europe. From the pulpits of all of Europe and even farther came the prayer “A furore Normannorum libera nos, Domine”—“From the fury of the Norsemen, O Lord deliver us.” Sailing out of Scandinavia, they occupied large parts of Britain, Ireland, France (surely you’ve heard of Normandy), Ukraine, Russia, and Italy. They formed an elite regiment in Constantinople, where they were called the Varangian Guard.

They just happened to be the first Europeans to set foot in the Americas some half a millennium before Columbus sailed the ocean blue. They had a settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, which they abandoned only after constant warfare with the Skrælings (Indians).

We call them Vikings, but for them the word was a verb, not a noun. Most of the dread Norsemen raiders were farmers who would “go viking” when their short growing season was over. They were, in effect, part time terrorists.

Also, they just happened to create a great literature in the sagas, particularly those created in Iceland in the 13th century. They included such works as:

  • Njúls Saga,, the greatest of them all, about revenge that gets out of hand
  • Egils Saga, about the bard Egil Skallagrímsson
  • Laxdæla Saga, with its female heroine Guðrun
  • Eyrbiggja Saga, with its berserkers (yes, they actually existed)
  • Grettirs Saga, about a famous outlaw warrior

These were probably the best works of literature to come out of Europe in the period in which they were written. They are all available in excellent translations from Penguin Books.

Incidentally, as a French woman of Norman heritage, my Martine is herself a Viking.

Not So Uncivilized

Carved Door at Reykjavík’s National Mseum

Carved Door at Reykjavík’s National Museum

“From the fury of the Norsemen, Oh Lord deliver us!” This was the cry of Western European churchmen in the 8th through 10th centuries as the Vikings raided coastal areas throughout Europe, seemingly killing and plundering at will. By the time any effective resistance was formed, the marauders had sailed away in their ships.

What many historians neglect to say is that these same marauders were every bid as advanced culturally as their victims. The main difference was that, until around AD 1000, the Scandinavian peoples were still pagans worshiping Thor, Odin, and Freya. By the time they themselves were Christianized, they left us a literature that was in no way inferior to that of the English and French.

The Icelandic sagas were written down in the 13th century, but they celebrated the deeds of their pagan ancestors (with a few Christian touches). In fact, I believe that no one could understand the period until they read the following five sagas: Njals Saga, Egils Saga, Eyrbyggja Saga, Laxdaela Saga, and Grettir’s Saga. (The first two sagas listed have entire museums dedicated to them in Hvolsvöllur and Borgarnes respectively.)

If you visit the National Museum or the Culture House in Reykjavík, you will see the work of a people who do not deserve to be thought of as barbarians.