Why is it (almost) never ogham?

Why is it (almost) never ogham?

Andrea Freund

My research is all about runes. In my PhD project, I try to put the Orcadian runic inscriptions into a wider historical, archaeological and social context. Even when I am not out looking at inscriptions, I cannot help but notice that these days, runes are simply everywhere. In Orkney alone, you can find them in shop windows, adorning everything from whisky bottles to knitted jumpers, fridge magnets or fudge packages. They are a prominent motif for jewellery and in arts, too, and the first thing many tourists will see at Kirkwall Airport.

This is not a great surprise, after all, runic inscriptions are prominent in the archaeological landscape of Orkney, adorning both the tomb of Maeshowe and the Ring of Brodgar. Various inscriptions are also on display at Orkney Museum.

However, Orkney does have another medieval writing system, too – namely ogham. This is an early medieval, alphabetic writing system found roughly between the 4th and 9th centuries. Most of its around 400 examples come from Ireland but there are also ogham inscriptions in Wales, Man, Scotland, Cornwall and south-western England. It has twenty standard letters, representing one sound each, and five additional letters, which were introduced somewhat later. Ogham is written on a stemline on which the letters are marked through a number of strokes or notches at different angles, for instance “b” is represented by a single downward stroke on the stemline (ᚁ) while “g” has two pendicular strokes (ᚌ) and “i” five notches (ᚔ). For example, Orkney written in ogham looks like this: ᚑᚏᚉᚅᚓᚔ

Orkney has six objects inscribed with it, and for example a beautiful ogham-inscribed spindle whorl from Buckquoy is also on display at Orkney Museum. Its inscriptions says, according to Katherine Forsyth’s interpretation: “ENDDACTANIM(f/lb)”, Old Irish for “a blessing on the soul of L.” (for a detailed discussion of this inscription, see Forsyth 1995). Granted, ogham is not as prominent in Orcadian archaeology as the runic inscriptions are but there are at least six known ogham inscriptions from Orkney, too.

Therefore, I wondered why runes are so popular in modern Orkney but ogham is rarely found in prominent positions, with the notable exceptions of a jewellery collection by a local designer based on the Buckquoy spindle whorl and some knitwear. After all, the two writing systems are both medieval, they lend themselves to carving or cutting, they are local to Orkney, we have well-preserved examples in the museum – so one might think they should enjoy equal popularity.

In some places, they actually do. In Ireland, ogham is used on the latest design of Irish passports, introduced in 2013. There is also a market for ogham-inspired jewellery and artworks, again predominantly in Ireland. This modern ogham revival seems to never quite have reached Orkney where runes are by far the predominant medieval writing system used from advertising to art.

A part of this phenomenon might in fact stem from as far back as the 19th century where there was a clear preference in British attitudes for all things Viking compared to anything Celtic. In the public opinion, and that of many scholars, at the time the prevalent view was that “the Celts are invariably an influenced rather than an influential people” (Wawn 2000, 369). Thus, any writing system associated with the Celts would not have been the one people were interested in while runology emerged as a discipline during the period. Anything like “oghamology”, in contrast, never took off as its own academic discipline.

In Ireland, negative attitudes towards the Celts did not prevail very long, instead these became the proud ancestors, distinguishing the Irish from the British, with ogham as the “native” script. In Orkney, the ogham-using Celts are usually not perceived as such ancestors but the rune-using Norse very much are.

Looking further afield, in popular media, the Vikings are everywhere. There is the Vikings TV series, Viking metal, and more Viking movies than fit anybody’s DVD shelves. In their wake, runes, too, have become omnipresent, from divination tools to marketing tropes advertising almost anything and the ideal script for neo-pagan worship to political symbols – happily disregarding that many runic inscriptions we have today hail from the period after Christianisation. Celts, such as the Gaels and Picts, are nowhere near as omnipresent and can feature either as the “weaklings” losing to the strong, masculine and fierce Viking raiders or as blue-painted barbarian warriors bashing in Roman helmets – where they are certainly not in need of any elaborate writing, communicating largely by grunting or, at a maximum, a garbled mix of modern Celtic languages. (I hasten to add that this popular image has no base in academic research.)

One further important aspect in the difference between runes and ogham is their visual impact at first sight: Runes look, in many ways, close enough to Roman letters to be instantly identifiable as an, albeit unfamiliar, writing system. They are also rather easy to recognise as runes due to their shapes, mostly based on staves and varying branches. Ogham, in contrast, is not as easily recognisable. The impression that the runic aesthetics may be more essential than the text they are conveying is demonstrated by what is written: The most frequently used word is Orkney in varying runic spellings, closely followed by other modern English terms, such as “love” or “friendship”. Text from actual Viking Age or medieval runic inscriptions in Orkney is rarely reflected while the ogham on a jewellery collection is inspired by and recreates the Buckquoy spindle whorl inscription, so there the direct historic connection is clearly relevant.

Connected to this is that, maybe, runes are perceived as easier to read than ogham, vaguely resembling the writing system most of us grew up with. This doesn’t mean anybody without prior knowledge can instantly decipher a random runic inscription – but crucially, we have the impression that we just might. Ogham, where figuring out the corresponding roman letter is a case of counting strokes depending on their angles on a base line, does not lend itself to any such ideas and is probably more comparable with cipher runes like the ones found in the famous Ingibjorg-inscription in Maeshowe than any other writing system (for details on Maeshowe see Barnes 1994). Thus, for example the rather popular motif of writing “Orkney” in runes becomes easily distinguishable and recognisable, even for tourists, and thus potential customers, with little previous experience in runes. If it were written in ogham, the motif might not be perceived as carrying an equally high recognition factor or be less memorable.

In terms of carving, runes are, as this author can attest to, relatively simple to produce – cutting a stave and various branches. Many runes are similar to each other, but not so similar that a minor error in carving changes the rune entirely to another sound value. In ogham, all depends on the number and angles of the strokes and if they are downwards or upwards of the base line or even cross it, and for an inexperienced carver these relatively minuscule differences can be more difficult to produce.

On the whole, runes therefore have various advantages in their public perception in Orkney: They are perceived as the ancestral Viking writing system, they are easily recognisable, they are relatively easy to carve, and in the wider media landscape, they connect to popular Viking imagery. Ogham, in contrast, does not fulfil these criteria equally well. I think this explains why runes are so omnipresent in Orkney while ogham remains mostly relegated to the museum. Nevertheless, it is worth remembering that Orkney has beautiful, stunning and sometimes mysterious examples of both these medieval Northern European writing systems.

Further reading:

Barnes, M. P. (1994), The runic inscriptions of Maeshowe, Orkney. Uppsala: Uppsala Universitet.

Forsyth, K. (1995), "The ogham-inscribed spindle-whorl from Buckquoy: evidence for the Irish language in pre-Viking Orkney?", Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 125. pp. 677–96.

Wawn, A. (2000), The Vikings and the Victorians: Inventing the Old North in 19th-Century Britain. Cambridge: Boydell&Brewer.


Published in The Orcadian, 10.01.19