Crossing the North Sea

Recently, I crossed the high seas for the coast of Norway. I was quite excited because I would be duplicating the sea crossing that was so important to the Norse inhabitants of Orkney. I’ve flown to Bergen many times and it is a city that I love. But air travel makes me a child of my times.

We forget how much our perception of the world is influenced by our mode of transport. The ease of flight is a good example. Distances are shortened, risk is reduced, comfort is increased.  But we also need to take into account the way in which planes allow us to see the world from above. That is not how the world was experienced in the past. Though some, with good imaginations, no doubt thought themselves into the perspective of birds, most travellers watched ahead for the signs that land was approaching – coastal species of birds, particular cloud formations, the patterning of currents and waves in the water. They could then take stock as distant shapes on the horizon grew to become mountains, hills, and forests. The envisioning of land was shaped by the way in which it appeared on the horizon in front of you and, of course, the watercraft of the past sat considerably lower in the water than those of today.

Ok, I know that I’m not going to be there at the prow, seeking the changes that indicate land ahead. And I know that I’m on a much bigger ship than any that our ancestors could possibly have imagined. I knew I’d be travelling in comfort compared to them. But it still seems a wonderful thing: to cross those same waters afloat.

The payoff is that I have to give a lecture or two. That is not a big problem – those who know me know that I love talking and getting into conversation about some of my favourite subjects. So I’ve been researching some of the people and the journeys that took place across these waters a thousand years ago. My main source is the Orkneyinga Saga, that wonderful account, drawn together from the stories that were told about the inhabitants of the northern world around Orkney a thousand years ago. While some of the Saga is a fairly dry recitation of ‘fact’ – who did what to who and why and when, most of it is much more colourful and quite often it is presented in words that purport to be the characters’ own. We are told of lives and loves, we learn of teenage boys and their liking for bars and chic clothing, we learn of resourceful women, we learn of boastful men, and we learn of the arrogance and jealousies that fuelled the powerful families of the day. Perhaps it was not so different to the present.

One of my favourite characters is Rognvald, Earl of Orkney. Though he grew up in Norway and earned a reputation as something of a teenage rebel, he ended up as a much loved and respected Earl of Orkney. He founded our cathedral, a building that still commands respect and awe. He was well educated and his poetry provides an intimate glimpse of his life and his changing concerns as he grew to maturity.  He was well travelled (reaching Jerusalem) and he experienced many cultures – a reminder that the wider view is not exclusive to the present day.

Another individual who I always think of is Margaret daughter of Eric, King of Norway; she came to be known as the Maid of Norway. Though she lived in the decades after the events of the Saga were recorded and written down, her story is still vivid and it tugs at my heart strings. Margaret was born in Bergen in 1283; sadly, her mother, a Scottish princess, died in childbirth. Her grandfather, King Alexander III of Scotland died in 1286, making her queen of Scotland, and after prolonged negotiations she was betrothed to Edward, son of Edward I of England. In 1290 the seven-year-old princess set sail across the North Sea to Scotland from whence she would travel onwards to meet her future husband. The little girl did not live to see her mother’s country as the weather deteriorated and she died, probably as a result of sea-sickness somewhere short of Orkney. Her body was returned to Bergen, where it is still possible to visit her grave – a pilgrimage I always make when I am there.

Orkney andscape across the lochs

The landscape of Orkney was quite different to that experienced by those living and farming around the fjords of Hordaland and Bergen.

Well, that is a cheery tale for those contemplating a crossing of the same stretch of water. But there were, of course, many thousands of Norsemen and women who made the same crossing with no ill effects. I’ve arrived in Orkney by sea often enough, and on a variety of craft, but arriving into Bergen and the fjords to the north by sea is something different for me. Like my Norse predecessors I’m on the lookout for good tales to tell those who have kindly remained in Orkney to look after my home and belongings. Like the Norse it will, I hope, expand my views of the world.

Boundaries and Horizons

Swona lies between Orkney and the Scottish Mainland, in the Pentland Firth, but is the sea a barrier or a link. Once there was a thriving population here – in recent times it has proved too difficult to maintain modern living standards in places like this.

I ventured over to Caithness last night. The short sea crossing made me think about horizons and boundaries: real and perceived. Can we really separate them?

I was less than 50 miles away from home, but it seemed like another world. I wonder how it was perceived by the Mesolithic communities who made Orkney their home? People ask me whether the inhabitants of Mesolithic Orkney lived here year round. Of course, the short answer is that we don’t know – but that is not very satisfactory; perhaps it is more useful to explore the possibilities.

The first problem is that the Mesolithic lasted for a very, very long time – around 5000 years – and so it is likely that practices changed throughout that period. The second problem is that we don’t know how many people lived here – indeed the population of Orkney is likely to have fluctuated depending on climate, resources, disease, and whim. The third problem is that the Mesolithic community is likely to have been fluid – ‘families’ may not have stuck together all the time, groups may have split from time to time only to come together again after a month, a season, a year, or several years.

I think it is likely that there were resources in Orkney on a year round basis. Fresh water, firewood and driftwood for fuel, food (fish, meat, shellfish, eggs, nuts, seeds, roots and berries) – those who knew how to harvest the land carefully would find what they needed. However, hunter-gatherers do need to move around a territory in order to maintain supplies for future years and, while Orkney provides a nice compact unit, it would not support many people for very long if there were no management of the natural resources.

It is not just a question of management though; it is also a question of perception and understanding. In many ways our home-ranges have diminished as transport has got better. I think twice about crossing Orkney from Kirkwall to go to the cinema club in Stromness and it was just the same when I lived in Edinburgh – we choose school, shops and services within easy reach of where we live. All our basic needs can be fulfilled close to home. Mesolithic communities had a home territory that covered a wider area and they were familiar with all parts of it. They had to be in order to survive. If resources failed in one place, they had to be able to navigate to another and know how to obtain what they needed, even after an absence of several years. So, the Mesolithic home territory had to be large enough to provide for all eventualities, with some flexibility thrown in, to allow for fluctuations in weather and population.

I think it likely that those lived in Orkney also considered the moors and hills of Caithness as familiar, home, ground. It seems very different to us, and the boat-ride emphasises that feeling of dislocation. The way in which we travel today is always somehow sterile – whether by car, ferry or plane, we are often alone and disconnected. Travellers in the past tended to move with, and among, their own people. And, while Caithness is, indeed, very different to Orkney it complements it perfectly. Orkney and Caithness together make a formidable territory. So, I’m not surprised that we are finding increasing evidence for Mesolithic settlement on both sides of the Pentland Firth.

It wasn’t ever an easy crossing, but for those who saw themselves as part of the natural world and treated it with respect, it wasn’t a great obstacle. The boundary today is mental, more than physical and it is somehow strange that communities so near, can, yet, seem so far away. We manage our world so differently to our predecessors eight thousand years ago, but it is not always true to say that our horizons have increased.

Thoughts about sea crossings

Prehistoric Lakedwellers with a boat
‘Lakedwellers’ from an anonymous illustration in 1937

I’m interested in the relationship between people and the sea. Perhaps it is something to do with living on an island and looking out at the sea every day. And with my research interests in hunter-gatherers and their mobility.

Visiting a local exhibition by Patty and Ralph Robinson on ‘Allegories of Migration’ in aid of the Scottish Refugee Council, I was very struck by some of the pieces and the thoughts they inspired. What role, for example, will the current sea-crossings in the eastern Mediterranean play in the stories that are told hereafter? Although we often see the sea as a boundary (we are an island nation after all), in many of our stories journeys across the sea act as gateways to adventure. Of course the classic tale is the Odyssey, but the theme holds good closer to home as well. From the the account of Rognvald’s journey to the Holy Land in the Orkneyinga Saga to Treasure Island, there is something about setting out by boat that we know in advance will serve to test our abilities with the possibility of great reward at the end.

But reading these stories at home is a very safe pastime.  We rarely think of them as threatening. Perhaps we should. I listened fascinated (and horrified) to an interview on Radio Four the other day as a Syrian refugee family spoke calmly of the boat crossing they were about to make, of the fact that the boat would be sunk before they reached land, and of the fact that most of them could not swim. The dangers are huge. And yet the reward is so great, and their present situation so bad that the chances of being rescued make the journey worthwhile.

I wonder about the sea stories told by our Mesolithic ancestors. And whether the crossing of water has always been so laden. I suppose it probably has, from the moment we left Africa. It is very easy to be lulled into a false sense of security today, when one has a warm fire, a mug of tea and a good book. Even more so when our sea crossings are done in the comparative comfort of a modern ferry. Few of us in the UK set out across water in the knowledge that we might not return, or make it to the other side. Perhaps we should look differently at our tales of the sea and the way in which we write about past sea crossings, and we should remember that it has not always been so.