Go Viking to Scotland: part three

Time Travel tours and archaeological chocolates bring Orkney’s Viking past to life

Ragnhild Ljosland

Photo: © Jo Bourne
Ljosland and Cook guide a guest through the Viking ritual of Sharing Horn on a tour.

Cynthia Elyce Rubin
The Norwegian American

Travel widens your horizons and introduces you to interesting places and people. A highlight of my Orkney adventure was meeting guide extraordinaire, Ragnhild (Raggie for short) Ljosland. She hails from Trondheim and first became interested in immersing herself in history through live-action role-playing, or LARP as she calls it. “There was a very active LARP community in Trondheim in the 1990s. I was completely hooked on dressing up in a Viking or medieval costume and going out into the wild for a few days to live as another person from another time with like-minded friends,” she recounts. During this period of her life, she also experimented with practical skills that you don’t think much about when you study history in an academic setting. She learned to cook over an open fire, make cheese and butter, knit with one needle the Viking way (nålebinding), and design historical clothing.

Ragnhild Ljosland

Photo: Cynthia Elyce Rubin
Ragnhild Ljosland in front of St Magnus Cathedral.

Ljosland’s academic studies were in Scandinavian language and literature. She learned Old Norse and read the sagas in the original. Then, in 2000, the university offered the opportunity to go to Orkney and Shetland to study. It came with a trip to Orkney at the end of term. Of course, she jumped at the chance and spent months learning about Orkney’s Norwegian history, its Norse-derived place names and its dialect of Old Norse known as Norn that was spoken until the 1700s. She remembers watching the islands appear out of the fog from the boat and although she was there for only a short time, it changed her life. She fell madly in love not only with Orkney but also with an Orcadian named Christopher.

Four years later they tied the knot and lived in Trondheim until Ljosland finished her doctorate in sociolinguistics. Then they moved “home” to Orkney in 2009 with their two children. The University of the Highlands and Islands with a campus in Kirkwall offered her a job to set up a Center for Nordic Studies.

Eight years went by, but although her work at the Center for Nordic Studies was intellectually stimulating, Ljosland missed being able to engage more directly with the material she was teaching. “The academic setting is very theoretical, while I find that it is just as important to engage with people outside of academia, who are not reading the scientific journals that we publish our work in,” she says.

There is a lot of misleading information about Vikings, and aspects of Viking history, art, and literature have at times been misappropriated. “I want to make the Viking past accessible and tangible for everyone, so that we can dispel those misunderstandings and instead put ourselves in the shoes of ordinary people.”

As a way of making archaeology tactile, she started making archaeological replicas in chocolate. This forces her to observe artifacts very closely and really engage with them. She won an award with this idea in 2015, for the best culture and heritage business idea in the Highlands and Islands Business Idea Competition. Meanwhile, Christopher, who works for Orkney College’s archaeology team, was involved in both big and small excavations, including the Smerquoy Neolithic settlement. He also creates his own archaeological-motif carved stone sculptures.

Ljosland wanted to continue developing more practical and tactile aspects of communicating her subject field, so in 2017, she gained a qualification in tourist guiding. She met Mark Cook when he was also qualifying as a guide, and they discovered common interests and worked together on Time Travel tours, developing “Viking Hiking” in both half-day and day trips. They are planning a future pilgrimage tour along St Magnus Way.

Mark Cook

Photo: Cynthia Elyce Rubin
Outdoor cook and ropemaker Mark Cook stands over an open fire during the Viking Hiking tour.

After visiting the Brough of Birsay and Barony Mills as described in part two of this column (www.norwegianamerican.com/travel/go-viking-to-scotland-part-two), I signed up for the half-day “Viking Hiking.” We walked from the center of Kirkwall to Scapa beach where you learn why the Vikings chose to settle in Kirkwall and what they did there. The picturesque walk filled with wildflowers traces the route that the Vikings took when using the natural harbors at either side of a narrow isthmus, the great Scapa Flow to the south and the sheltered Peedie Sea to the north. When arriving at Scapa, we meet outdoor cook and ropemaker Mark Cook, who joins Ljosland around the campfire in giving insight into everyday life in Viking Orkney with food, games, and storytelling.

“I still work part time for the University of the Highlands and Islands,” Ljosland says, “but mixing an academic career with Time Travel suits me perfectly just now. It allows me to use my hands, feet, and muscles, as well as my brain!”

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.

To learn more about Ragnhild Ljosland and her work, or to book a Time Travel tour, visit www.brodgar.co.uk.

This article originally appeared in the November 16, 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.