It's written in the runes

One of my interests is runology. What? Yes, runology, the study of runic inscriptions. One of the most exciting moments of my life was back in 2001 when my husband Christopher, who has the eyes of a hawk when it comes to spotting archaeology, found a rune stone! To begin with, it seemed too good to be true and I might have looked less impressed than I ought to, but the excitement grew as it became more and more apparent that it was genuine. The way it happened, was that we went for a walk along Warbeth beach and out to the old ruin at Breckness. It was a beautiful summer’s evening and the sun was just about to set when Christopher saw some interesting lines on a stone that was lying in the rubble of a fallen down dyke – highlighted by the low rays of sunshine. He immediately thought the lines looked like runes and picked it up to show it to me. This was before I knew very much about runes, so all I could say was that it looked like runes, but I just wasn’t sure. Christopher took it home and the next day brought it into the museum in Kirkwall and to the competent attention of Anne Brundle. Professor Michael Barnes, the rune expert from University College London, then came and had a look at it. And this is when things got really exciting: It was a real, genuine rune stone fragment! It’s not very big, as it is only a broken piece of a longer inscription. And since most of it is missing, it’s impossible to tell for sure what it said. But the few characters that are readable seem to suggest that it might have been a memorial stone for somebody called Fugl.

The Breckness rune stone is the 53rd runic inscription to be found in Orkney, of which 33 are in Maeshowe. Another exciting find was the Sanday rune stone which came out of a stone dyke in 1995. It is also part of a memorial stone, of the common formula “This stone was raised by X in the memory of Y and Z carved the runes.” Free-standing memorial rune stones are of course excellent building material, and in the Scandinavian countries rune stones have been found built in as part of chimneys or door slabs or barn bridges. I wonder how many other runic inscriptions are hiding in Orkney’s stone dykes? Or if the missing pieces of the Sanday and Breckness inscriptions are hiding out there somewhere?

There are many myths about runes. The word “runology” may evoke associations to other mystical arts such as astrology or magic. Indeed, any obscure writing may be called “runic”, as I observed on the Antiques Road Show the other day when a piece of original “elvish” script by J. R. R. Tolkien was described by the antiques expert as “runic”. And in Sir Walter Scott’s “old northern” romantic novel The Pirate, the witchy character Norna of Fitful Head is described as carrying “a staff, squared on all sides, and engraved with Runic characters and figures, forming one of those portable and perpetual calendars which were used among the ancient natives of Scandinavia, and which, to a superstitious eye, might have passed for a divining rod.” Some say that the word “rune” itself means “secret”. No wonder, then, that runes remain popular devices for modern magic. A quick search on the internet reveals endless offers of “rune readings” for those in need of guidance.

This type of divination relies on the fact that the runic characters all have names. For example, the “f” rune is called “fe” which means “cattle, wealth”, the “h” rune is called “hail”, the “i” rune is “ice”, the “n” rune is “need” and so on. In my opinion, it is nothing more than an aid to remembering them, such as when we say “a for apple” and so on. But if you are into divination, the rune names form the basis of the fortune reading. As you can probably tell, I am not into rune magic myself, but I still find it fascinating to study the various modern conceptions of runes.

Another myth is that runes are pagan. True enough they were first invented sometime in the second century AD, while the North Germanic folk were a pagan people. And their popularity dwindled with the introduction of the Roman alphabet along with Christianity. However, there is a long period of overlap. People in Scandinavia didn’t stop using runes just because they were Christian. There are some beautiful Christian runic inscriptions, such as one on the wall of the cathedral in Trondheim reading “Maria” (St. Mary) and another recording that Jon and Ivar held wake for St. Olaf - and of course here in Orkney we have the one from the Orphir Round Kirk, now in Tankerness House Museum, which has been interpreted as reading “no church is as pleasing to God as this.” Already in the 11th century, early Scandinavian Christians used runes to express their faith. A beautiful inscription from Risbyle in Uppland, Sweden reads “May God and God's mother help his spirit and soul; grant him light and paradise” while the Kuli rune stone now in the university museum in Trondheim records that “twelve winters had Christianity been in Norway”.

In the Middle Ages, many people knew how to write in runes, and many everyday messages have been found cut into pieces of wood or bone, which was much cheaper than parchment or paper and generally “aboot haans”. From under Bryggen in Bergen alone, some 670 runic inscriptions have been found. Many of these are concerned with trade, some are owner’s labels from sacks of goods, while others are more like casual notes, scribbled down in a way that reminds me of today’s SMS text messages, such as the following from a wife to a husband: “Gyda says you must come home now!” or the following sweet one: “My darling, kiss me!” Maeshowe also contains some absolute gems of everyday scribbles: boasting about treasure, women, “Eyjolfr Kolbeinsson carved these runes high up” and “Jerusalem-farers broke into this mound”. Whenever I get irritated about modern graffiti defacing some building or other, I try to remind myself that scholars of the future will be absolutely delighted to read 21st century teenagers’ outbursts preserved in paint.

So far from being something very old, magical and obscure, the people who wrote these inscriptions were using runes in just the same ways as we are now using the Roman alphabet – which is in fact older than the runic alphabet. Yes, just as I am writing the words of this column I am using a script which is older than runes and which may have been the inspirational source of the runes in the first place. And if it hadn’t been for the turns of fashion, and history had taken a slightly different course, I might have had a runic keyboard on my computer. “What is the runic Rosetta stone?” someone once asked me. But the runes were never completely forgotten about. They lived on in more and more restricted use in isolated areas until past the reformation, and in Dalarna, Sweden, the type of calendar with runic writing which Sir Walter Scott is talking about lived on up until the 19th century.

My husband’s find of the Breckness rune stone awakened my interest in runes, and when in 2002 I got the chance to study runology at the university in Trondheim, I seized it eagerly. Looking at a runic inscription feels to me like an exciting puzzle I have to solve. And once it starts to look meaningful, it is like these people from many hundred years ago are talking to me. They were real people, too! And now we are hoping to start up a module on runology here at the Centre for Nordic Studies. Not sure if I was meant to say it yet, as the plans are a bit uncertain still, but it is certainly something we are working towards. In the meantime, we are definitely going to have a day of runology as part of our Viking Culture summer school, running this summer from July 5th – 9th. There are actually two summer schools, one in Shetland and one in Orkney, which are similar but slightly different. The Shetland one, for instance, includes a really exciting trip to the Viking island of Unst, while on the Orkney summer school we will be walking in the footsteps of Orkneyinga Saga characters. The schools are on different weeks, so if you are really keen you can catch both!

I am also hoping – depending on whether the budget will allow me – to carry out a small research project on how runes are used today in conveying an image of Orkney and in building an Orkney identity. Runes can be seen everywhere: On knitwear, on jewellery, in logos, on the sign above the entrance at Kirkwall airport, as part of the decorations in the Kirkwall bus terminal ... in Flotta I even met someone who had tattooed “Orkney” in gigantic Anglo-Saxon runes all down his arm, something which I thought was just mind-blowing. Thinking of this, and of the knitted ganseys reading “Orkney Orkney Orkney Orkney ...” in knitted runes: Isn’t it typical bad luck that “Orkney” should be a really tricky word to spell in runes? The reason: the younger Futhark runic alphabet lacks the letters “e” and “y”! This problem can be solved by using the older Futhark, which has 24 letters instead of the younger Futhark’s mere 16 – but the problem then is that the older Futhark was never used in Orkney. The Vikings, writing in the younger Futhark, also had the sounds “y” and “e” in their language, plus several other sounds missing from their alphabet as well, making it necessary for them to come up with innovative inventions such as spelling “y” as “u” or “e” as “i”. So how they ever got the idea of cutting their alphabet down to only 16 letters is beyond my understanding. No wonder later mediaeval runes introduced a whole lot of modified characters to compensate. So if you see “Orkney” spelled in runes in many different ways, this is why. But it doesn’t matter. Runic spelling conventions are loose anyway.

Perhaps I should finish this column by saying with George Mackay Brown: Carve the runes, then be content with silence.