Go Viking to Scotland: part one

From the Galloway Hoard exhibit in Edinburgh to the Viking-established Orkney Islands

Cynthia Elyce Rubin
The Norwegian American

Orkney Islands

Photo: Cynthia Elyce Rubin
The landmark “Journey’s End” signpost at John o’ Groats was installed in 1964 on private land and operates as a tourist attraction.

“To go Viking” was originally a verb phrase used by Scandinavians to describe traveling overseas. I was on the trail of Scotland’s Viking heritage in the Orkney Islands this past summer, and I began in Edinburgh.

It’s an ancient city, seat of Scottish kings and now home of the Scottish parliament. I stayed in the Old Town near Edinburgh Castle where seemingly all first-time visitors naturally gravitate. Proven by the lines of tourists and crowds within, the Castle is a prime attraction with highlights including the earliest parts of the castle dating from the 12th century, the Stone of Destiny upon which traditionally the kings of Scotland were crowned, and the Honors of Scotland, crown jewels, scepter, and sword.

But I was more interested to visit the National Gallery of Scotland, home of fine art and works of Scottish artists but also Scotland’s “Galloway Hoard,” which Derek McLennan and his trusty metal detector discovered in 2014. Viking storytellers had long regaled listeners with tales of vast treasure hoards guarded by fire-breathing dragons, but finding such treasure is rare. This treasure trove included items ranging from silver armbands inscribed with runes, Anglo-Saxon silver pins, gold jewelry, bits of ornamentally stitched silk and even precious plant remains, all buried in a decorated metal vessel. In a published interview, Olwyn Owen, Viking specialist and scholar in Edinburgh, said the Viking owners of these prized possessions, “filled the vessel right to the top and then they wrapped it in layers of textiles and put it in the ground.”

Medieval texts date the arrival of the Vikings in the British Isles to the 790s CE, when fierce raiders suddenly appeared along the coasts, plundering rich monasteries and terrorizing local communities. But shortly afterward they came and settled in many places on the coast of mainland Scotland and particularly in the Shetland and Orkney Islands. Looking at the map, Lerwick (“muddy bay” in Norse) in Shetland is less than 200 miles from Bergen. Thus, the first landfall the Vikings found was the archipelagoes of Shetland and Orkney, a mere two days’ sail from the Norwegian coast. These islands were stepping stones for the Viking travelers. Here Viking crews could take on fresh supplies of food and water for their journeys. There was good farmland there. They saw opportunities for trade. Their settlements were also useful as bases for further raiding expeditions elsewhere in Britain.

Relations with locals were not always hostile. Some items of local origin that came into Viking hands were gifts. Since Vikings were fond of native designs, when an object made in Scotland or Ireland has a clear Viking association, it is impossible to tell whether it was looted or gifted.

The Viking settlement of Scotland plugged the area into an extensive trading network. Since the Vikings were traders and adventurers who traveled to distant places, the new settlements in Scotland offered many opportunities to increase their wealth. Objects made in and around Scandinavia were brought to Scotland to satisfy the settlers’ demands for goods. Much of what was traded has left no trace. However, it’s known that wood, furs, feathers, antlers, hides, and walrus ivory came to Scotland, along with Scandinavian jewelry and personal possessions. The Viking Atlantic network transferred Orkney flour, dried fish, and fish oil to the Faroes and Iceland.

The Orkney Islands remained firmly Norse, ruled by the Norse Lords of the Isles and Orkney was governed by the Norse jarls of Orkney. Both these chiefs were subjects of the king of Norway, not Scotland. The Scottish kings Alexander II and III tried to purchase the western isles of Orkney and Shetland, but the Norwegian kings rejected all offers. During the three centuries that followed, ambitious Viking chiefs and their followers arrived to conquer and colonize territories in England, Ireland, Wales, and Scotland until they and their descendants were finally defeated or assimilated.

Orkney Islands

Photo: Cynthia Elyce Rubin
Viking objects on display in Scotland’s National Gallery.

Archaeologists believe the Galloway Hoard dates to the early 10th century, based on the style of the silver armbands and other objects. It is one of the most significant groupings of Viking artifacts ever found in Scotland. Historic writings tell us that a Scottish army defeated a Viking army at a Galloway locale. Intrigued by this lore, McLennan decided to search for Viking traces. In September 2014, he found a silver arm ring with a Viking design, a large silver cross, and two additional artifacts. He immediately called the authorities, who then sent an archaeologist to the scene. It is interesting to note that several hoards have been recently discovered, not by scholars but by road builders or amateur relic hunters, all by chance.

But this controlled excavation revealed two treasure troves, including a gold, bird-shaped pin, as well as 67 silver ingots and arm rings, many produced by metalworkers in Ireland. Portable silver was ready cash in the Viking world. The elite cut off pieces to buy cattle or other commodities, reward loyal followers, or pay the troops in Viking mercenary armies. Today the Galloway Hoard is on view at the National Gallery of Scotland with other notable Viking objects, including rare items looted from medieval monasteries. Since monasteries were often on small isolated islands, they were easy to attack and loot from the sea. Since the monks were not warriors, these defenseless men were easy to subdue.

Orkney Islands

Photo: Cynthia Elyce Rubin
The view from John o’ Groats’s harbor area reminds one of Norway.

After my visit, I began to make my way to the heart of Viking Scotland, the Orkney Islands, first, by railroad through the Scottish highlands to Inverness where I spent the night and then by express bus to John O’Groats. The settlement takes its name from Jan de Groot, a Dutchman who once plied a ferry from the Scottish mainland to Orkney, which had recently been acquired from Norway by King James IV. Now a gateway to the Orkney Islands, it is a little-inhabited coastal village in the far north of Scotland. I caught the ferry at the “End of the Road” harbor area for less than an hour’s crossing to Kirkwall, capital of the Orkneys.

Kirkwall is vibrant, busy, and the islands’ largest town. As an ancient capital, it can be traced back to Norse times in the 11th century where it was called Kirkjuvagr, the church of the bay. Kirkwall was granted royal burgh status by James III of Scotland in 1486. At that time, the water from the sea lapped the steps of St. Magnus Cathedral. Much of the land has been reclaimed, but Kirkwall retains its charm and original character with a unique culture and Norwegian Viking heritage.

To be continued…

Cynthia Elyce Rubin, Ph.D., is a visual culture specialist, travel writer, and author of articles and books on decorative arts, folk art, and postcard history, who collects postcards, ephemera, and early photography. See www.cynthiaelycerubin.com.

This article originally appeared in the October 19, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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Cynthia Elyce Rubin

Cynthia Elyce Rubin, PhD., is a visual culture specialist, travel writer, and author of articles and books on decorative arts, folk art, and postcard history. She collects postcards, ephemera, and early photography. See www.cynthiaelycerubin.com.