Tuesday, 25 November 2014

The Vikings: Pirates and Settlers

The Vikings have a bad press. The Norse raiders who pillaged and burned their way across Britain and Ireland over a thousand years ago are the stuff of legend. Their favourite destinations were monasteries, perhaps because of the relatively rich and easy pickings. But here the Vikings were robbing an educated Christian elite who went on to chronicle the barbarity and depravity of their pagan attackers in great detail - and the legend was made (from the victims point of view).

Viking is a Norse word meaning ‘expedition’, and the word came to specifically mean an expedition to plunder a foreign land. The people we call Vikings were in effect Norse pirates who went abroad to make money by looting valuables and taking captives who would be sold into slavery. But these pirates were a minority of Norse society, which was predominantly agrarian. Then as now you didn’t get rich quick by farming, and piracy was a dangerous occupation full of opportunity.

Norse society had three main classes: Jarls (earls) – the landed gentry who owned large estates and employed many; Karls (freemen) – the peasantry who owned land and livestock or who had a specialised skill and worked for a Jarl; Thralls – slaves who worked for both Karls and Jarls. There was limited social mobility, but with riches from piracy you had opportunity to better yourself.

Norse society also privileged male strength and bravery. The sagas tell of dynasties of Jarls and their great feats of valour in struggles for the dominance of particular lands. These were largely written during the 11th and 12th centuries by writers employed at the courts of the Jarls. They give richly detailed stories of great deeds by great men, but like the monastic chronicles cannot be seen as independent accounts.

Of particular interest are the ‘housecarls’, a troop of bodyguards or private army that was employed by each Jarl. It strikes me that these would be the most likely pirates. They were freemen and had both status and fighting skills; led by ambitious Jarls, these were soldiers of fortune like the conquistadores of later years. The Vikings were thus get-rich-quick types who were prepared to undertake the dangers of expeditions to inhospitable foreign lands for the rewards that would enable them to buy land and status back home.

So were these pagan Vikings any more violent than their Christian contemporaries? Well the standards of the day were pretty brutal, so they do not seem exceptional. For example, the Christian emperor Charlemagne executed four thousand five hundred Saxons after a battle in 782. Perhaps the Vikings primary mistake was to prey upon rather than to exempt the Christian Church from their piracy (thus making an articulate and influential enemy).

The Viking expeditionary raiding parties of the 8th and 9th centuries were very functional for the spread of Norse dominance in territory and trade. Foreign raids were followed up by the establishment of bases, then settlements, from which Norse trade and rule was spread within these territories. By the 10th century the Norse empire spread from Newfoundland to Central Asia, and Norse culture achieved great heights in wood, metal and stone-working. At the same time, the Norse were also converting to Christianity.

After dominating great swathes of Britain and Ireland for over a hundred years, the Vikings were defeated and displaced by local tribes in these islands. But in the 11th century the Norse invaded again from a territory they had established some time before in Northern France. This time the invasion was successful and lasting: we gave these Vikings a different name, we called them the Normans.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

The Irish and The Vikings

Anyone who has been to Dublin and seen tourists in a semi-submersible truck with plastic Norse helmets on probably realises that Dublin was at one time a Viking town. Following several decades of hit-and-run raids across Ireland, the Vikings established Dublin as a base in 842. Thence it developed into an important settlement that was the seat of a Viking King for over a hundred years. However, the first encounters between the Irish and the Vikings did not take place on this island or anywhere nearby.

These first encounters took place on islands in the North Atlantic where Irish monks had first travelled in small boats during the 6th, 7th and 8th Centuries to establish hermitages. These monks were followers of Brendan, Columba and Aidan, who voyaged increasingly far in search of wild places to practice their monasticism. Where better to find a life of solitude and spiritual dedication, akin to that of John the Baptist, than remote islands far to the North of the British Isles? Monastic records from the 9th Century describe the actual voyages of Irish hermits to the Outer Hebrides, Orkney, Shetland, Iceland and The Faeroes (which they reached in the late 8th Century).

On these wild and windswept islands the monks encountered the stone dwellings and ceremonial structures of Neolithic farmers, abandoned 3000 years earlier. It seems very likely that the hermits would have used these dwellings situated at the shore for shelter. Indeed the stone ‘beehive huts’ that monks constructed on Skellig Michael in the 8th Century bear a very strong resemblance to the Neolithic stone dwellings recently discovered under sand-dunes at Skara Brae in Orkney and Jarlshof in Shetland.

But the monks were not alone for very long. In the latter part of the 8th Century, Viking raiding parties travelled to these northerly islands in search of treasure and territory. They did not find rich pickings amongst the hermits and moved on to better targets, such as the monastic settlements at Lindisfarne and Iona and then the mainland of Britain and Ireland.

However, I imagine the Vikings were impressed by the seafaring abilities of the monks who had travelled far across stormy seas in primitive craft, much smaller and flimsier than their longboats, and by the sheer hardiness of the hermits. In the Norse language a hermit is papi and this place-name recurs across the many remote islands that the hermits inhabited: Papey near Iceland, Papa Stour in the Shetlands, Papa Westray in the Orkneys and Pabbey in the Outer Hebrides.

Their cohabitation didn’t last long; for the hermits chose to leave, or were driven out from, their wild islands. But the monks do appear to have had a lasting influence on the pagan Vikings, who shortly after began to convert to Christianity. Over the next hundred years, their trading empire spread from Greenland to Central Asia and Christianity became the established religion amongst the Norse. Viking Kings then took part in the First Crusade.


Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Papay and the Mainland

Last week I clambered into a 5000 year old burial chamber, visited an ornate chapel made by Italian prisoners of war and watched seals playing in pristine blue waters. Where was I? Orkney.

I had long intended to visit this archipelago of seventy islands to the north of John O Groats, and recently I found a special reason to go. A long lost pal got in touch, Patrick my best mate at primary school, who I last saw aged nine, was now living in Orkney. T and I took a plane to Glasgow and another to Kirkwall, then we took the inter-island plane to Papa Westray. This is the furthest North West of all the Orkney Islands and is known to the locals as Papay.

The inter-island plane seats just eight and you sit right behind the pilot. The twin propellers make a real row and you can see all the instruments flickering and twitching. We travelled low across the sea, moving from island to island (most small and uninhabited) until we reached Papay, which is six miles long and just one mile wide. We touched down on a strip in the middle of a field and rumbled to a halt. Collecting our bags from the side of the plane, we walked to the terminal building (the size of a garage) and out into a narrow stone-walled country lane. Some seventy people live on Papay, spread out in smallholdings, but there is a shop, post office, nurse, primary school and volunteer fire station.

I recognised Patrick straight away, his features hadn't changed at all. It was just great catching up with him. Despite the long absence, we found that we were still great pals. He has retired to a bungalow on seven acres of land with sheep, ducks and chickens. He took us on some fantastic walks, to see the oldest known house in Northern Europe (inhabited 5,500 years ago) a drystone igloo amidst sand-dunes, and some fantastic wildlife – seals, migratory geese and hen harriers. Throughout, the weather smiled on us.

With reluctance we got back on the little plane for the two minute flight to the adjoining island of Westray (the shortest scheduled flight in the world) and then back to Kirkwall. For two days we travelled around the Mainland, as the main island is called. The Italian Chapel was a real highlight, built by Italian prisoners of war, it is an ornate slice of Rome created from a Nissen Hut. A phenomenal work of devotion, the chapel was made by the prisoners in their time away from building the Churchill Barriers (a submarine defence between the islands to protect Scapa Flow).

My favourite place was the complex of Neolithic sites at Stenness, a small promontory between two lochs, that was very important 5000 years ago. It holds the great chambered cairn of Maes Howe, built to interr human remains in a central chamber down a passageway that is lit by the sun on the shortest day of the year. Nearby are the Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar, circles of huge standing stones, built 1000 years before Stonehenge. These are powerful spiritual places that have always held an attraction, this can be seen in the runic inscriptions made by Viking visitors to the many pictures taken by more recent travellers. They still stir the soul.