The Invention of Tradition

Galley burning
Up Helly Aa is an impressive spectacle that lifts onlookers far away from a cold, wet northern winter. The culmination of the ceremonies takes place as the galley starts to burn.

I woke to a panel discussion on Radio Scotland the other day regarding the current popularity of archaeology. It was nice to hear them praise the recent Orkney television series, but what really interested me was the link they made between living in uncertain times and the need to reinforce ideas of heritage.

At the end of January I travelled to Shetland to watch the annual Up Helly Aa fire festival. It was an amazing experience, and quite apart from letting my hair down, it got me thinking. Continue reading The Invention of Tradition

No Rural Idyll

Ness of Gruting neolithic farm
Remains of the Neolithic farmstead on the hillside at Ness of Gruting

Standing on a windswept hillside in the Northern Isles one cannot help but feel the utmost admiration for our ancestors. We may think that we are technologically more advanced, but as you wander among the ruins of the small farm steadings and their fields that dot the slopes it seems nothing short of miraculous that anyone could produce enough food to support a family here. I’ve been exploring the remains from two very different periods: the Neolithic farms of western Shetland and the Viking farms of Unst. Each evening I have returned to my hotel only too glad of the trappings of modern society: hot water, a warm house, electricity and good, varied food.

The relict agricultural landscapes here are wonderful, and well worth exploring. In many places houses and fields still dot the hillside with little of the overlying debris of more recent centuries. It is an evocative experience to wander among the remains and consider the way in which a place so tranquil once rang to the sound of children, dogs, working people and beasts, together with the smells of peat fire, home cooking and farm debris.

Of course there are many factors at play here. First of all, we have the twin elements of weather and climate. I experienced Shetland during the worst summer storms for a long time (as I write this my flight home was delayed).  The times when these landscapes really came alive and the farmsteads were thriving coincided with more clement periods – though not perhaps so very different: a mere change of a degree in temperature or so; a shift in the jet stream; or a few years of better weather, could all make the difference between a good harvest and a bad.

There are also the expectations of the community. Today we all rely on access to washing machines, plenty of food, adequate clothing, and warm homes. But you don’t have to go far back in time to find people for whom life was very different. It always amazes me to consider the photos of rural life a hundred years ago or so that one sees in local museums. There are women bringing peat down from the hillside in great baskets – the loads alone are impressive but what really catches my eye is the fact that in many cases the people depicted are barefoot. We might be worried about hypothermia and a host of other problems but standards were different in the past.

Nevertheless, I don’t want to denigrate the effort and hardship of previous generations. I’m sure that people felt cold, tired, miserable and hungry much of the time. Most of us have forgotten how it is to rely on our own hard work in order to survive. When we need food we go to the supermarket. When we need heat we turn up the gas or electricity. Those who farmed the hillsides of Britain in times past experienced a very basic level of survival. Life could turn on a shoestring. When times were hard, when they could not harvest an adequate crop, when they could not support the animals through a wet summer or a cold winter, then people died. The hillsides that we wander for recreation today may look romantic, but life there was no agricultural idyll in the past.

I’m still left in awe of those who made their homes here in years gone by!

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.

Visualizing the past

sunset in Orkney
A dramatic autumn sunset in Orkney: could the islands provide the background for tv drama?

Is anyone else looking forward to the BBC Two series: The Last Kingdom? I am. Not just because it is a cracking story, but also because of the way in which visual media can be used to interpret the past.

One problem with archaeology is that it tends to be monochrome: the colour and noise of the past are often missing. This applies especially to the Mesolithic. Fiction, through the written word and other media, can help to remedy this. It is not without drawbacks though. How much research should authors do? What is the place of ‘truth’. How, exactly, should we use it? Is it ‘academic’ – we can spark public discussion, but does it have a role as an undergraduate exercise?  This is something that is to be explored at TAG in Bradford this December and I am very much looking forward to taking part in that session.

Given certain caveats regarding the accuracy of the portrayal I’m all for the use of fiction in archaeology.  In fact I’d argue that most archaeological publication is fiction anyway: we can never know precisely what went on in the past. Indeed, approaching the past as fiction in the sense of the written word forces archaeologists to confront some of the gaps that they prefer to gloss over. Excavation of a prehistoric site will rarely tell us what people had for breakfast, yet if we are to interpret the past fully we need to think about things like that.

Of course, with The Last Kingdom we move into the realm of history and you could argue that we have no need to resort to recent fiction here because the Vikings produced their own stories, the Sagas, which provide a detailed and colourful portrayal of their times (setting aside debates over the veracity of the Sagas). I know that ITV are to present the Old English poem Beowulf in the Spring, but I’d like to suggest the Orkneyinga Saga for future consideration. It is an action-packed story with some feisty characters (women and men) and the locations would be magnificent.