Orphir find prompts a return to runes

Friday the 4th of October was a very exciting day: Radio Orkney revealed on their Facebook page that a new runic inscription had been found in Orphir!


Runes have been a main interest for me since 2001, when my husband found a rune stone fragment at Breckness (which is now in the Orkney Museum). This new find made me bounce up and down with excitement: A quick look at the photo they had posted showed that it was a genuine one, not a modern carving or naturally occurring lines. It was found by Donnie Grieve on the farm of his daughter, who is none other than the medieval archaeologist Dr Sarah Jane Gibbon, which made it feel to me like the stone was just waiting to be found by somebody who would appreciate it!

But before I say any more about this very interesting inscription, let me go a few months back in time to April this year. It was an ordinary day at the Centre for Nordic Studies. I was preparing teaching material for my class in Runology and Old Norse when the phone rang. At the other end of the line was an excited journalist from the John o’ Groat Journal. She had been contacted by a family with children who had been exploring the shore north of Auckengill Harbour when they noticed an inscription cut into the rock in a small cave which could only be reached at low tide. Recognising the rock-cut signs as runes, the journalist and the finders were now curious to know whether this inscription was known about, or previously undiscovered.

Well, that question was easy for me to answer, as I was lucky enough to have a copy of Ray Page and Michael Barnes’ excellent corpus edition of the Scandinavian Runic Inscriptions of Britain. This comprehensive book records only two previously known genuine runic inscriptions from the Thurso area. One is a memorial inscription on a slab of Caithness flagstone. The stone is roughly in the shape of a cross, and there is also an inscribed cross above the runic text. It was placed on the site of a grave near the Old St Peter’s church in Thurso. The text reads:

...-þi ÷ ubirlak þita ÷ aft : ikulb ÷ foþur (s)in

Like with many runic inscriptions, a bit is broken off, in this case at the start. However, the text follows a known formula, so we can make a reasonable guess at what the missing text was. The missing bit would have contained a name and a word meaning “made”, so that the whole text in Old Norse would be: “[Somebody] gerði yfirlag þetta ept Ingulf, fǫður sinn.” In English, that means “[Somebody] made this ‘overlay’ in memory of Ingolf, his/her father”. The “overlay” refers either to the rune stone itself or to some other decorative stone covering the grave it was found on top of. The formula “so-and-so made this monument in memory of so-and-so his/her relative” is well known also from the pre-Christian era, but it continued into the Christian period. There is no sharp break in the tradition: The style and formula of the pre-Christian memorial stone slowly transforms as the Christian medieval period progresses, and we start getting overtly Christian additions such as encouragements to pray for the late person’s soul following the conventional memorial text. It would usually say “say Pater Noster for his/her soul” or something similar. In the Thurso 1 inscription, however, the only overtly Christian things are the cross shape and inscribed cross.

It is initially tempting to date Thurso 1 to the 12th century, as it was found near the 12th century Old St Peter's Church. However, the rune forms and language point to an earlier date: for example, there are no “dotted” runes like the ones we find in Maeshowe (dating from the 1150s) where a dot is added to show that for example a “k” should be read as “g” or an “i” as “e”. And the word “aft” also seems archaic. So with Thurso 1 we are within the Christian period, but not as late as the 12th century.

The second known inscription from Thurso is also a memorial, similar to Thurso 1, however this one is only a fragment. It was carved in memory of a woman called Gunnhildr, and the text which can be seen today can be interpreted as "Gunnhild his wife". The rest of the stone has been lost. The stone had been inserted upside-down into the 13th Century tower of Old St Peter's Church, but as can be logically deducted from its high-up and upside-down position this was not its original location. So consequently it must be older than the church tower. The inscription reads:

...unil-i (:) kunu : s(i)(n)...

This can be interpreted as “[G]unnhil[d]i konu sín[a]” and we can recognise the memorial formula so-and-so made this monument in memory of so-and-so his/her relative, in this case his wife Gunnhild.

With these two being the only known inscriptions from Thurso, the Auckengill Harbour inscription was a new find. The journalist helpfully sent a photo, which showed very large and beautifully executed runes. Reading them was easy. It said “suenaslefarson”. Taking the odd spelling conventions of runic text into consideration, the text read “Sveinn Ásleifarson”! Sweyn Asleifarson, the Ultimate Viking! Well known rogue from the Orkneyinga Saga! Had he been in a cave outside of Thurso and carved his name?

There was only one problem: The runes were written in the Older Futhark. “Futhark” is the name of the runic alphabet, but there are several variations of it which have different chronological and geographical distributions. The Older Futhark was used in Scandinavia and the Germanic areas in Europe between 100-700 AD. Then there was a reform of the Futhark alphabet, making the younger Futhark similar but yet easily distinguishable from the older. Sweyn Asleifarson lived in the 12th century, so if he were the carver he was using an alphabet that was 500 years out of date. I cunningly subjected my runology students to this inscription to see if they could spot the discrepancy. It’s safe to say that an inscription sporting the name of a famous character using an alphabet that does not belong to its time period is no doubt modern. And looking at the crisp condition of the runes, I would say it has been carved within the last few years.

Sometimes natural cracks or scratches can look very much like runes. After all, runes are just verticals (often referred to as “staves”) with one or more “branches” added. When an inscription is worn, as the one on the bottom layer of stones forming the apse of the St Peter’s Church on the Brough of Birsay, all you can see is the verticals.

Such a stone was brought into the Centre for Nordic Studies a couple of weeks ago by photographer Tom o’Brien. Apparently, it had by then already done the rounds at the Orkney College archaeology department and even been to the Ness of Brodgar end-of-season party, but Tom o’Brien wanted us to have a look for a second opinion. It contained a series of verticals looking very much like worn runes. Here and there the verticals had “branches”, too, but some of them were attached in weird places and it was impossible to make any sense of it. Then we discovered that some of the verticals were deep and seemed to be natural cracks. In the end, we concluded that it was not runes at all, but natural, although it was intriguing to see that natural wear on a layer of one type of stone sandwiched between two layers of another type of stone could produce something so reminiscent of runes.

But coming back to Donnie Grieve’s exciting new find from Orphir, there is no doubt it is real runes and also genuinely old. There are three other known runic inscriptions from Orphir, all found in association with the round St Nicholas church and Earl’s Bu. One is on stone, saying either “this church is no good” or possibly “no church is as good as this”. It could have been part of the church building before most of it was demolished in the 18th century. The other two are more casual, scratched into bits of bone. One contains a few odd runic characters and makes little sense, while the other is on cattle bone and entertainingly reads: “This bone was in meat”!

The new one was, however, found at Naversdale, a considerable distance from the round kirk. The beginning of the inscription is broken off, so it might have had an unknown stretch of text before it. The end of the text, however, finishes a good piece before the end of the stone, so nothing is broken off there. The text reads (with the asterisk representing a rune that can be seen but not interpreted in the broken bit):


The runes shown in brackets are a bit uncertain: The initial s because the stone is broken off in the middle of the letter, so that we don’t know how far down it continued. The first bracketed t has a very faint branch, while the following i and t are touching each other so that we can’t tell which of the two runes the branch connecting them should belong to. If it belongs to the t, one must assume that something has gone wrong in the carving: a t should have a single branch extending from the top downwards to the left. However, this one seems to have two branches: one rather messy one at the top, touching the preceding rune, and another clearer branch below it. The clearer branch is, however, a bit too low for a t, but yet much too high for an a, which would normally have its branch in the middle of the vertical. So I’m going with t for the moment.

The finders’ first response was to send pictures to Dr Terje Spurkland who is a runology expert in Oslo and to Michael Barnes in London, who is Professor Emeritus at the UCL and Honorary Research Fellow with the Centre for Nordic Studies. Terje Spurkland was the first to respond, and his interpretation appeared on Facebook along with the picture. However, the finders now keenly await Professor Barnes’ response, as he is expected to provide a fuller academic analysis of the inscription, so what I am about to say in the following is just a preliminary impression.

The solution is that the text is a snippet of the Lord’s Prayer: “…in heaven, hallowed”.

The text is written in Latin, but using the runic “s” where Latin would have used “c”. In Latin orthography, it would be:

“…s in caelis, sanctificetur”

There is no punctuation or space between words, and as is conventional there is also “recycling” of letters so that the final “s” of  “caelis” doubles up as the initial “s” of “sanctificetur”.

The broken bit at the start would have read “Pater noster, qui e” so that the whole text would be “Pater noster, qui es in caelis, sanctificetur”.

“Sanctificetur” is the last word on the stone, and there is a good ten centimetres on which runes could have been written but for some reason this was not done. That is odd, as the text breaks off in the middle of a phrase, between “hallowed be” and “thy name” – one would expect it to end “nomen tuum”.

The runes seem to be sharply incised with a thin metal tool, perhaps a knife, but the lines are fine and it was well done of Donnie Grieve to notice them right away. Compared to the two split flagstone fragments from the Brough of Birsay which were probably memorial inscriptions, the Skaill Home Farm memorial stone, and the Cunningsburgh memorial inscription from Shetland, these runes are much thinner and finer and feel like they have been done more quickly. In cases such as these it comes in right handy that I have an archaeologist husband, who pointed out to me that the stone looks like it could have been part of a wall. This seems more likely to me than it being a memorial inscription, as it does not in its present state show any sign of it having said anything about saying Pater Noster for someone’s soul, but simply quotes part of the Pater Noster itself, which most people would have known off by heart either in Latin or Norn or both. There is another nice example from Orkney of runes having been incised on the inside face of a stone in the wall of a “hall-like building” at Tuquoy in Westray. It says “Thorstein Einarsson carved these runes.”

The Pater Noster, along with the Ave Maria prayer, are commonly found in runic inscriptions from the medieval period, and usually only part of the text has been carved as in the Orphir example (although this one chose an odd place to stop). More than 35 inscriptions containing at least part of the Pater Noster are known from Scandinavia, with nearly half hailing from Norway. Kristel Zilmer writes: “Judging from the preserved items, separate citations of Pater Noster are less common than Ave Maria. The inscriptions are recorded in clerical settings and on small Christian (lead) amulets, with a few finds originating from (seemingly) secular contexts.” (If you are interested, you can read more here: http://folk.uib.no/hnooh/forskargruppe/nedlastingsmanus/Runic_prayers_zilmer.pdf).

A close parallel to the Orphir inscription was found during excavations on the new library site in Trondheim in the 1980s. Carved on a wooden stick, it breaks off at the same point, and reads: “bater  nuster kui es in seli santibisetur” and then adds that Sveinn Audunsson carved these runes and then lists two-thirds of the futhark alphabet. This one has been dated to between 1150-1200. I can’t at present give any precise date for the Orphir Pater Noster inscription, but it’s certainly from the medieval period. It would be interesting to know if there was a building nearby from which the stone could have come. If we are lucky, the missing left-hand part might even still be found. If it were part of a building, it also has interesting implications about runic literacy in Orkney.

I would like to thank Donnie Grieve and Sarah Jane Gibbon for giving me their kind permission to include his runestone in this little write-up. This has been but a preliminary plunge into the sea of what can be said about it. The archaeology of the area – which I know nothing about – will no doubt shed a lot more light on it. I am very much looking forward to reading what Dr Sarah Jane Gibbon has to say on the subject.

October 2013