Tuesday 4 August 2009

History of Scotland Part IX - The Vikings

AD795 (might have been 793) is the year in which a monastic annal laconically records "this was the year in which the black gentiles from the east first came". This sort of understatement makes vikings sound like nothing more egregious than German tourists bagging the deck chairs by the pool until one learns of the rape and pillage they perpetrated - much more like English tourists, really.

The pic above is what comes out at the top of a Google image search of "English tourist" - try it yourself if you don't believe me. Scarier than "viking" but not as scary (believe me) as "German tourist". Alarming in anyone's language, though.

Anyway, there are a lot of misunderstandings about vikings. The first is that there was a never a race of people called "vikings". It is simply a Scandinavian word meaning "robber" or "pirate" equally applicable whether Norwegian, Danish or Swedish. As it happened, it was mainly Norwegians who infested Scotland (and Ireland) whereas Danes plagued England (sounds a bit like the 1992 European Championships). The Swedes concentrated on Russia (as in Euro 96).

The third misunderstanding about vikings - hang on, what happened to the second misunderstanding? Ah, here it is now! - the second misunderstanding about vikings is that, after a brief phase of harmless plundering, they "quickly settled down to become peaceful farmers and traders" (to quote standard history text books). I've always felt that sounded a bit unlikely as if a bunch of yobs from Trondheim who had raped and pillaged the entire population of North Ronaldsay had been sentenced by some lefty liberal judge (like Harriet Harpersonsdottir) to 20 hours of peaceful farming and trading community service.

It's true that Norwegians did "settle down to peaceful farming and trading" in Orkney, Shetland and - to a lesser extent - the west coasts and islands of Scotland in the early 9th century (once they'd politely invited the locals to step aside) but they never gave up the viking habit: right up until the 12th century, your typical Norwegian "peacefully farmed and traded" in Muckle Flugga or wherever for nine months of the year but in high summer went off a-plundering: a bit like following their team to the quarter finals of the UEFA Cup.

The really interesting thing is that the Norwegians plundered each other. In fact, they'd no sooner taken over Orkney than they were raiding back east in Norway - just how incorrigible were these people? This particularly irritated a King of Norway in about AD 850 called Harald Fine-Hair who sent a fleet of longships to bring his unruly subjects in the west to heel. He established one of his chaps (I forget his name now) as jarl - the first Earl of Orkney.

At this point, am I allowed a digression into viking names? The likes of Thorfinn Skull-Splitter and Erik Blood-Axe are pretty cool but is Harald Fine-Hair not a bit gay? I've got mental pictures of Harald Fine-Hair and Magnus Purple-Nipple hanging out together at the Horned Helmet Bar in Stavanger ...

Anyway, the Earldom of Orkney became one of the polities of what was much later to become Scotland. It's influence beyond Orkney and Shetland into the mainland of Scotland - and it's loyalty to the kings of Norway - waxed and waned with the strength of particular earls but, at its peak, the Earldom extended as far south as Sutherland (which is simply the Norwegian for "South Land" as viewed from the northern perspective of Orkney).

Place names are very interesting in this context. How similar does Thurso (a dreary little town on the north coast of Scotland) sound to Tromso, a town (the dreariness of which I can't comment on) in Norway? It's no coincidence - it's the common Norwegian heritage. My favourite is Loch Laxford in Sutherland - Lax being Norwegian for salmon (as in gravad lax) and ford being, of course, fjord.


basha said...

I have been following your infrequent posts, as one of my obsessions is to visit the Azores, the home of my ancestors, and I have an email alert each time something shows up in Google about the Azores. I found out that there is an artist retreat on Flores. Do you know anything about that? I have information on it, but I wondered if it is in your region, and what you might know about it. Anyway, I enjoy your posts.

Neil King said...

Sorry Basha, but I've never heard of an artist's retreat here and it's a pretty small island. What information do you have on it?

basha said...

Dear Neil and Carol, here is the link for the art retreat
If you find out anything, I would be happy to learn.
bashadurand@gmail.com, basha@ptd.net

Kathie said...

Basha, as a translator with roots on Flores, I found the prospect of an artists' retreat there most inviting -- that is, until I read on their website, "Bathroom is shared among 3 - 4 residents." Wow, it's sacrifice enough to have to share a bathroom with my dear husband, but to have to coordinate schedules with two or three strangers? No way! I'll just keep on working from the banality (and privacy) of my own home, and save on the airfare as well, thankyouverymuch.

basha said...

I guess to each his own. I have traveled in places where the bathrooms were a squathole and two footprints to put your feet. Or a toilet that went directly into the Mediterranean, with a door with a window (large) no less, where passersby could look right in to see one sitting on the john. Or "dry" toilets in Mexico, like the outhouse we have in our old farm, using sawdust to cover your business. So sharing a bathroom with others isn't such a hardship for me. I wouldn't let that deter me from an artist retreat on Flores (provided I was accepted.)

Neil King said...

Basha - I had a look at that terraincognitacenter.org website and it's not anything I recognise here on the island.

I'm not an artist but is a residency not an arrangement whereby an artist is paid living costs to be able to pursue his/her muse? I couldn't see anything in the website about resident artists being paid - only vague suggestions about some costs being waived.

Now I may be too cynical but I think the whole thing is just a creative ploy to market a house or a room for holiday lets - I suspect it wouldn't be too difficult to be "accepted" but you'd find "the Foundation" was "oversubscribed" and the best they could do would be to reduce the nightly fee you pay of $X+20% back to $X.

Anyway, the whole island is one big retreat (complete with "dry toilets" in places) so just come anyway ...