Of Pirates, Vikings, and Media Tourists

Annie Thuesen, PhD candidate, Institute for Northern Studies, UHI, studying 'The sustainability of cultural tourism and its effects on communities: The case of Orkney'

During the first four years of the HBO series Game of Thrones, visitor numbers to Dubrovnik in Croatia rose by 60,000 annually, in no small measure because the town doubled as “King’s Landing” in the series. Likewise, New Zealand’s tourism numbers doubled following the three The Lord of the Rings films, and even our northerly neighbours have seen their fair share of visitors attracted by grisly primetime murder in Shetland; both the TV series and the novels inspiring it were quoted as sources of travel motivation in a 2018 Shetland visitor survey.

But “media tourism”, flocking to the real-life backdrops of fictional events, did not emerge with neither the TV nor the silver screen. It is an older phenomenon, as in fact many 19th century travel guides to Orkney can testify to.

Two literary stars

In one such travel guide, written by Anderson and Anderson in 1847, it is pointed out that both the greatest contemporary poet and the greatest contemporary novelist have based one of their heroes on an Orcadian.

The poet was Lord Byron, whose 1823 poem The Island dealt with the mutiny on HMS Bounty in 1789. One of the sailors in the poem is a certain young, blue-eyed and lovestruck Torquil who was fashioned on George Stewart from Stromness, a midshipman on the Bounty during the mutiny.

The novelist was Sir Walter Scott, whose The Pirate first came out in 1821 and was loosely based on the life of notorious pirate John Gow, another Stromnessian. It is an adventure-cum-romance about young Mordaunt Mertoun who rescues the pirate Captain Cleveland. The other main characters are the two daughters of Orcadian udaler Magnus Troil, with whom Mertoun and Cleveland get romantically involved. The soothsayer Norna of the Fitful Head also plays a prominent role, as she seeks to interfere in the match-making.

So although both works featured an Orcadian hero, only The Pirate actually took place (partly) in Orkney. And it was The Pirate that went on to encourage media tourism to Orkney, as many Victorians would, for decades following its publication, visit both Orkney and Shetland to see for themselves the locations they had so far only seen in their mind’s eye.

“A halo of romance”

Travel books such as Black’s 1886 guidebook to Scotland and Baddeley’s 1900 guidebook to Orkney and Shetland highlight a number of literary sights in Orkney which were presumably irresistible for the Victorian The Pirate fan: for instance, the Earl’s Palace in Kirkwall and Wideford Hill both served as discreet meeting-places for Captain Cleveland and his faithful lieutenant Bunce. And the Dwarfie Stane, “around which Sir Walter Scott has thrown such a halo of romance” according to one of the books, was where Norna of the Fitful Head in her youth met the giant Trolld and was offered supernatural powers in return for committing patricide. And, at the risk of offending Eday’s present-day inhabitants, it is also worth noting that one of the guidebooks says of it that “most interesting in connection with the island is the capture of John Gow, the prototype of Cleveland in “the Pirate””.

However, Stromness, Gow’s place of birth, is of course the most exciting location of all. Here, the guidebooks promised, one could both see the “wretched cabin” where the real-life Norna (a Bessie Millie) had resided, and the place where John Gow had been born. A traveller’s account from 1903 even tells of old women in Stromness peddling “favourable winds”, as Norna does in the novel, so that may well have been a very specialised tourism product of the time.

It is also evident from the guidebooks that to the contemporary media tourist, the author of The Pirate was himself as fascinating as storyline and settings. Hence, among the listed sights of Stromness was also a house which Sir Walter Scott had visited in 1814, and where he had been entertained by none less than Mrs Rae, the mother of Arctic explorer John Rae. Finally, visitors were invited to go and observe the Kame of Hoy’s rugged outline and find therein the profile of Sir Walter himself.

Old Norse flavour

The characters and settings from The Pirate are referred to rather casually in the travel books – everybody was expected to be familiar with them. And with good reason, too. From the first edition in 1821 and for the rest of the 19th century, the novel was never once out of print. Within a month of publication it was set up as a play, children’s versions were made, it was set to music, art works were inspired by it, it was translated into other European languages, and the songs featured in it became popular tunes in their own right. It was quite simply ubiquitous.

There was no shortage of pirate stories at the time, but Scott committed the masterstroke of combining pirate adventure with a heavy dose of Old Norse culture and imagery – another highly popular topic in the 19th century. The Pirate is in fact set in the 17th century, but the islanders are portrayed as still caught up in their old Viking ways, and so the author gets away with giving it a distinctly Old Norse flavour. The Viking saints Rognvald, Olaf and Magnus are frequently invoked, as are their pagan cousins Odin and Thor. Mordaunt’s bedside stories as a child were about the berserkers, the old fishermen in the novel know the sagas by heart, and the more ambitious of the Troil daughters dreams of being swept off her feet by a proper Viking, “or what else modern times may give that draws near to that lofty ideal”.

Denouncement and fascination

In his 2000 book The Vikings and the Victorians, Andrew Wawn interestingly suggests that the popularity of Old Norse culture in the 1800s was due to a change on the linguistics scene in the beginning of the 19th century: as Sanskrit was discovered and found to be older than both Greek and Latin, those two classical languages lost some of their status, and it became acceptable to also delve into other linguistic traditions and cultures which had up until then been deemed “barbaric” – such as  Norse. The particular Norse inheritance of Orkney inspired further interest as Maeshowe was excavated in 1862 and the Orkneyinga Saga translated into English in 1873.

This changing attitude to the Norse heritage – from denouncement to fascination – is also evident in the 19th century guidebooks.  In some respects, one finds here an eager preoccupation with the Vikings almost worthy of The Pirate. Baddeley’s 1900 guidebook for instance dedicates a sizeable paragraph to Gairsay, not usually considered one of Orkney’s biggest attractions.  It argued that “this island, though a diminutive one, plays a prominent part in the Norse history of Orkney, from its having been the principal residence of the notorious Viking Swein”.

However, an older guidebook from 1847, while still clearly captivated by Orkney’s Vikings, expresses a rather more ambiguous attitude to them, noting that “though their exploits, according to the ideas of that war-like period, were those of high and honourable men, they would now very properly be classed with those of plunderers and pirates”.

This echoes scholar Sharon Turner’s memorable description of the Vikings from around 1800, when the Norse culture was clearly still considered barbaric: “The sea-kings of the north were a race of beings whom Europe beheld with horror. Without a yard of territorial property … the sea-kings swarmed on the boisterous ocean, and plundered in every district they could approach.”

Mackay Brown and Magnus

From an Orcadian point of view, this one-sided image of ruthless pillaging Vikings hardly seems fair. What about St Magnus, for instance, our peace-loving Viking saint?

Strangely, even Baddeley’s Viking-enthusiastic 1900 guidebook does not mention Magnus at all in its description of Egilsay, the island where Magnus was martyred. Strange, because this is the guidebook where we find a thorough description of the notorious Swein Asleifarsson’s shenanigans in connection with Gairsay.

However, the fact that St Magnus’ martyrdom is today considered a key occurrence in the Orkneyinga Saga may reflect a more recent change in attitude towards the Viking past. Historian Sebastian Seibert has suggested that the misuse of Viking hero imagery by Nazism has meant that the European conception of the Vikings became much more focused on their peaceful aspects after World War II. And in Orkney specifically, the prominence of St Magnus in our conception of our Norse past owes much to George Mackay Brown and his extensive treatment of the saint, especially in his novel Magnus, but in several of his other works, too.

Mackay Brown’s works do not play quite the role in modern guidebooks as The Pirate did in those of the mid-19th to early 20th century, although I daresay that they do lure the odd “media tourist” to our shores. Maybe you do need to be on screen nowadays to have that kind of impact that Walter Scott had once upon a time. However, with rumours of Amy Liptrot’s 2016 Orkney-based bestseller The Outrun being made into a film, who knows, another wave of media tourists may be coming our way before we know it.