On Top of the World

map of OrkneysI write this from the Orkney Islands, at the mid-point of my latest tour of Scotland. The Orkneys are north of Scotland, and were claimed by Norway for nearly 600 years. They ended up in Scottish hands in (1472) when a Norse king couldn’t pay a cash dowry for his daughter’s marriage to a Scottish king. The Norse king decided to toss a few orkney farmlandislands (like 70 or so) into the kitty instead. I suspect his descendants regret that now, because this place is beautiful and fascinating.

I’m a little travel-fried, so I’ll throw out some random observations. First, you’d expect a place this far north (north of Moscow) to be cold and

Orkney - Ring of Brodgar

Orkney – Ring of Brodgar

bleak. WRONG. The average low temperature here is about 40 F, the average high about 50 F, but it can get into the 70s and at this time of year, it never really gets pitch dark. Frosts are rare. The soil is abundantly fertile, and the largest industry is agriculture. Who’d-a thought?

Anybody with any sense, apparently. Orkney has been

Skara Brae Village

Skara Brae Village

inhabited for at least 8000 years. Europe’s best preserved neolithic village, Skara Brae, is about 7000 years old, and we wouldn’t know it was lurking under the turf, except for a huge storm in 1850 that tore off a chunk of seashore and exposed some of the walls. The local laird went out walking the next morning, and had sense enough to know he was looking at a Big Archaeological Deal.

Maesehowe Grave

Maesehowe Grave

Second observation: Human nature doesn’t change. There’s a beautiful Stone Age passage grave called Maesehowe that the Norsemen stumbled into about a thousand years ago, apparently taking shelter from a blizzard there. Those old fellas got to carving graffiti into the stone, and what did they write? “I miss the fair widow Ingebur,” “I’m the best rune maker in the world,” and “I didn’t steal the treasure, Hakkon did.” Maybe there was some mead involved?

Maesehowe Dragon

Maesehowe Dragon

Third observation: The urge to create something beautiful is nothing new either. Those silly, bored Vikings also carved a little dragon into the stone too. The tool makers at Skara Brae decorated their stone and bone tools.

Fourth observation: Bureaucratic incompetence is nothing new. When the Victorians tried to excavate that prehistoric tomb, they dutifully collected the bit of human skull, horse bones, pottery and what not… and lost it all on some train or other. (Any mystery writers out there?)

coastI could go on and on, but the theme is, across millenia, across oceans and cultures, we’re the same. If travel teaches me anything, it’s that we’re the same creature, with the same hopes, fears, and dreams. We want security, beauty, true love, and a few laughs (Hakkon did it!), and maybe the occasional flagon of mead.

In Scotland, I have a sense that the more I explore, the more I want to explore. Is there somewhere you’d like to explore, or go back to again and again?

To one commenter, I’ll send a copy of Neil Oliver’s “Coast,” an anthropological look all of coastal Britain, past and present.

 

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36 comments on “On Top of the World

  1. In my youth I saw a of Europe, but I always regretted that I didn’t make it to the British Isles. Most of my ancestors were Irish, with some Scottish, English and Dutch thrown in.

    I was just watching a tour of Wales (on PBS) this morning. Having just recently read LONGING by Mary Balogh, it practically brought me to tears.

    Hakkon did it! My new go-to phrase for anything I don’t want to admit to. (smile)

    • It so happens I have had that privilege, and absolutely loved the place. Portuguese culture, unlike Spanish culture, looked out on the big, wide, extra-European world, not just the insular Mediterranean scene. They brought the cosmopolitan sense to Brazil, had the only non-violent revolution in the New World, and developed a land with enormous natural resources and a society with tremendous charm. My sister, her husband and four kids lived there for several years and found much to enjoy about it.

  2. I’d like to visit Alaska again. We went in the summer of 1989, right after the oil spill. My husband was doing part of his residency at the Alaska Native Health Center. Hubby was there for three months and our young boys and I went for three weeks, right in the middle of his shift.

    Our youngest was not quite five and couldn’t understand why he had to go to bed when it was still light out (and he riled up his brothers to complain the same!)…and we finally draped beach towels over the windows to get the kids to bed!

    Anyway, I enjoyed the whole experience……plants growing HUGE during the short growing season. Interesting birds (Puffins)and seeing glaciers up close. We attended a salmon cookout given by some of the Inuits for the medical staff….best salmon I EVER had! The is a pocket of Russian culture (BEAUTIFUL churches made from wood with onion domes)and wonderful people everywhere.

    I’d love to go again, this time not having to drape beach towels over the windows!

    • One lady I talked to said it took her years to figure out why summer always left her cranky, draggy, forgetful, resentful… she was simply sleep deprived. She had trouble falling asleep as a result of light leaking around the curtains, couldn’t get back to sleep, tossed and turned… this went on for years before she invested in eye masks and black out curtains. All better.

  3. Oh my goodness! This post of yours piqued my interest for so many reasons. Because I once got as close as John O’ Groats to catch the ferry to Orkney, but could only gaze wistfully across the water because my ex didn’t want to wait. (Grr!) Watching the recent PBS miniseries called “Shetland” also reignited my wanderlust.

    Whenever I think about Shetland, I also think of our family dog that was a Shetland sheepdog, or Sheltie. When she was just a pup, my son had to write a school report and chose to write about the breed. Their most distinctive features are their very short legs (which I fondly call chicken drummette legs πŸ˜‰ and ear-piercing bark. Why did the breed evolve to have such a loud bark? So they could be heard (by the dumb sheep, natch) over the roar of wind and waves.

    Your joke about “Haakon”* is great. People don’t change much, do they? Haakon is actually the name of the most popular Norwegian king, Haakon VII who stood up to the Nazis and said he would not approve Quisling’s Nazi-supported govt. Norwegians wore pins with his logo “H7” throughout the next 4 years of Nazi occupation.

    I remember learning about a Norwegian princess named Margaret being shipped off to the ‘Northern Isles’ to marry, sometime in the Middle Ages. (Well, apparently she was considered Danish then, but Norway was always being fought over by rhe Danes and the Swedes.) I didn’t remember the rest so I did some sleuthing on the Web. She married James III of Scotland on February 20, 1470. (Cross the North Sea in _February_? Whose idea was that? A MAN’s, no doubt.)

    Dear Old Dad King Christian offered Orkney as security for the dowry of 50,000 Rhenish Florins, which he didn’t have. He had one year to pay, but still didn’t have it at the end of the year, so he added another 10,000 Florins with Shetland as security. Two years later, he still had not paid (Can you imagine how poor Margaret felt caught in the middle? Ach.), “so Orkney and Shetland were annexed to the Scottish Crown, confirmed by Parliament in 1472.” This factoid is per Scotsman.com.

    Some commenters on Scotsman.com vehemently disagree, however, saying that “only the Earldom of Orkney and Lordship of Shetland were annexed, only the parts in which the king had a personal interest–in Shetland’s case, about 10% of the whole. The 1472 ‘annexation’ did not affect the constitutional position. The islands were only pawned, because ‘to just grab them would have been theft’.” (Ya think?) Later correspondence of James III “makes clear” that he “did not think he was making such a claim.” This Shetland expert continued to say that Shetland and Orkney were “sovereign unto themselves and have never belonged to Scotland, because “landowners owned their land outright, elected their king (of Norway), had their own parliament, and made their own laws. Those rights have never been taken away and have passed down to the present-day land owners. Everyone who owns a house or piece of land in Shetland is sovereign in their own right.” (Yikes! Now there is a legal quagmire for you, Grace! Can you say North Sea drilling rights?)

    So how and when did Norway lay claim to the Northern Isles (as they were then called by Norway)? Apparently King Harald the Fair of Norway did so in 875 AD, “to protect his maritime interests.” (Erm, Viking trade routes?) The Northern Isles “became a semi-autonomous Earldom, answerable to the Norwegian crown, then in 1194, following a failed challenge to Norwegian authority, were brought under direct Norwegian rule”. (As an aside, King Harald the Fair had only unified Norway as a country 3 years earlier, in 872 AD. Norway has officially remained a kingdom ever since–1140 years.)

    The Northern Isles had their own Norse language called Norn, which sadly became extinct when its last speaker died in 1850. Only 160+ years ago. Sad!

    Shetland had major historical significance in WW2 as the meeting point for the “Shetland Bus”, a Norwegian fishing fleet run by Norwegian Resistance fighters who crossed the North Sea at night w/o lights, carrying refugees out of Norway and intelligence back to Allied forces. (In return, the British Navy offered them training and arms.) It’s a fascinating chapter of WW2 history, and one of the leaders of the joint operation, a British naval officer named Howarth, wrote a book called “The Shetland Bus”.

    Sorry this is so long! I could write tons more, but have already hogged prime Comment real esate. πŸ˜‰

    Enjoy your travels, Grace! And thank you for sharing so we can all experience them vicariously. πŸ˜‰
    —————————————
    (*One letter “a” is pronounced “ah”; 2 a’s is pronounced “oh” because “aa” = the Norwegian letter “a” with a circle above it. Got that? πŸ˜‰

    • PS: I found more info later on historychannel.au. King James III was betrothed to Margaret of Denmark– daughter of Christian I, King of “recently unified Denmark and Norway”–in 1469 “in an effort to subdue tensions between Scotland and Denmark. In 1470, the title Norse Earl of Orkney was officially ceded to James III, and on 20 February 1472, both Orkney and Shetland became official protectorates of the Scottish crown.”

      From scotslanguage.com:
      Aspects of Norwegian culture are still evident on Orkney and Shetland today; the literature and folklore of the islands contain elements of Norse mythology, especially on Shetland. Norwegian-origin vocabulary, expressions, pronunciation, and place names. (In that regard, no different from other areas settled by the Vikings, especially Yorkshire, which is riddled with place names ending in “-by” and “-thwaite”. The name “York” itself is Norse: “Jorvik.”)

      This website has examples of all of the above: http://www.shetlanddialect.org.uk/dialect-map-of-shetland It even has a dialect map of Shetland.

      On scotslanguage.com there are more language factoids about the Orkney and Shetland dialects (sorry I am such a geek about languages). There are some differences in vocab and pronunciation, naturally, but the main difference between Orkney Scots and Scots spoken on the “north islands” is that of syllabic stress. Shetland follows Nordic stress patterns, while Orkney “has a rising intonation akin to Welsh or Irish.” Shetlanders don’t call their dialect “Scots”, btw; they call it “Shetland” (“pronounced Shaetlan”). Check out http://www.shetlanddialect.org.uk/dialect-map-of-shetland

      Who knows, Grace; maybe this will come in handy when you meet the locals! Ha. But seriously, these sites are treasure troves of info. You know what this means, don’t you? You’re going to have to introduce a character or two from Shetland or Orkney–maybe even a whole new series located there! (I’ll be on hand for all language questions, of course. Ha!)

      • I’m impressed with your research, Mary! Thanks for adding to today’s post! πŸ™‚

      • Postscript/clarification re: Norn: I failed to mention that it’s a variant of Old Norse, making it similar to Icelandic and Faroese. Believe it or not, there is actually a movement to revive the extinct language on Shetland and Orkney. “NyNorn” (“New Norn”) is currently “in the beta stage” (I can imagine) and is based mostly on the Shetland dialect. A very interesting website: http://nornlanguage.x10.mx/
        And that is the end of the language trivia. I promise!

    • Your Shetland expert’s position is interesting, but the Northern Isles voted MOST heavily against Scottish independence in September, and FOR remaining part of the United Kingdom. I’d think Scottish independence would have appealed as a step toward Northern Isles independence, but Shetland in particular benefits from North Sea oil. The first big find was near Shetland, and revenue from those rigs is set aside in a fund specifically for Shetland.

      As for Margaret, she is credited with imbuing Scotland with a more compassionate community ethic than the rest of Britain had, in part because she was modest and pious woman, but also because she instituted the notion that if you were truly sick or injured, you should be permitted to beg for sustenance. People who were legitimately disabled were given a beggar’s badge, and allowed to ask for alms without risking penalties. At the time, this was a radical notion.

      • Thanks, Grace; that’s very interesting about the vote, the oil revenue, and esp. Margaret.
        I started reading about the Scottish Independence Referendum but soon realized it is way too complicated for this tired brain.
        Though the independence ref. may have failed, it was only by about 10 points (55-45) on average. On Orkney, the margin was 67% against, 33% for; on Shetland: 64-36. So yes, a greater number of Shetlanders and Orcadians were against independence than the national average.
        I never knew that all the major financial insts. with HQs in Scotland (Lloyds and even the Royal Bank of Scotland) threatened to move to England if Scotland voted for independence; the fear was financial meltdown.
        Naysayers predict that the UK oil will run out by 2030, but that completely ignores the huge oil reserves west of Shetland and west of the Hebrides which are expected to be developed in the next 10 years.
        In the end, I think that voters must have realized how horribly expensive it would be to make all the massive changes necessary for independence, how disruptive it would be, and how much time it would take–decades, no doubt.
        Strange to think though that a single twist of fate–a dowry default 500+ years ago–led to billions in profits today for the UK. How fortunate that Norway no longer owns the islands, because it’s already the wealthiest country in the world thanks to its oil.

      • Mary H, what the analysts say swung that critical 5 percent was simple bullying by the English. EVERY daily newspaper in Scotland was English owned (there’s now ONE that’s National), and every one promised doom and gloom if the YES vote won. They told the seniors their pensions would be cut off if they voted YES, and the elders carried the vote to the NO. The vote was close enough, though, that as the ballot day grew closer and closer, the English made increasingly wild promises about what would happen following a NO vote. Two chickens in every pot! Within 72 hours of the vote, they were backpedaling on almost every promise. The result is that in May, 49 out of 57 of Parliamentary seats went to the YES side, and another referendum is already being planned. No won the battle, but has apparently lost the war.

  4. There are so many places I would love to visit and explore! Scotland and Ireland are near the top of the list (along with pretty much all of Europe). We once spent a little over 2 weeks in England, but barely made a dent in the list of places we’d like to explore. My mantra is “One day I’ll make it there”. Until then I can live vicariously through other people’s trips.

    Enjoy yourself, Grace!

  5. It shows a shocking lack of respect for history and nature, but I want to spend more time in NYC. πŸ™‚

    Theatre! Food! Theatre! Sight seeing! Theatre! People watching! Theatre! Museums! And then, maybe some more theatre. πŸ™‚

    • Shows a shocking appreciation for one of the most interesting, busy places on earth. The romance writers have their annual conference right at Times Square every few years. Mighty spendy, but never dull!

  6. I am going on two trips this summer, both in July. I am going to visit my best friend over the July 4th weekend and my mom on July 31st. With my best friend I think it is about reconnecting that relationship. With my mother it is more of duty and respect. I think long term relationships are difficult, but they are worth it.

    • I have made so many duty visits to my parents, and I’m promising myself, I will not guilt my daughter into visiting me. Famous last… All my parents ask of me is an occasional sighting, so I can hardly refuse them.

  7. I’m very glad that you like Orkney! My husband and I are Americans who now live here in Orkney, and we love it. I hope that if you have time you can get down to the Tomb of the Eagles on South Ronaldsay; it’s one of the most evocative of all the Orcadian Neolithic sites. You walk for about a mile along the cliffs, and then lie down on your stomach on a small wheeled trolley and pull yourself through a low passage into the ancient tomb. It’s really an astonishing experience. There is also a small museum where the guides will often let visitors hold Neolithic gaming pieces and other archaeological finds from the site (they used to let you hold one of the human skulls, which was always amazing for our visitors).

    You mention that Orkney and Shetland voted strongly against Scottish independence in our referendum last autumn. The Northern Isles have a long tradition of being strongholds for the Liberal Democrat Party (and before it was formed, the Liberal Party), which is a unionist party. Orkney in particular is very much a farming community where life can sometimes change slowly and people tend to stick with what they know.

    The Irish comedian Graham Norton once joked that “in Orkney, it’s still 1952!” People took that as rather a compliment. We islanders love the fact that everyone knows everyone else in the rural communities, there is almost no crime, our doctors make house calls, and hospitality and neighbourliness is an integral part of daily life.

    • A lovely, lovely place. Never seen so many happy coos, and jolly sheep, along with the occasional fluffy bunny. I was charmed, amazed… I’d love to know how you won the privilege of residency, because I’m interested in any door that allows an American to relocate to Scotland.

      • We were very fortunate to be approved for one of the last Retired Persons of Independent Means visas before the UK abolished that visa category. We had to go through two sets of gruelling enquiries by the immigration authorities, one when we first obtained the visa, and then another 5 years later in order to get an Indefinite Leave to Remain visa. We had to establish, among other things, that we would never become a burden on the state, and would never use any public benefits. I have now passed my citizenship test, and we are in the process of becoming dual citizens.

        UK visas for non-EU persons have become very restricted now. There are still some categories of work visas but there is a very short list of qualifying occupations, and most of the visas do not lead to permanent residence. David Cameron and the Conservative Party made campaign promises to lower immigration to the tens of thousands, rather than the hundreds of thousands each year. They have not yet been able to make good on those promises, but every year immigration becomes more restrictive.

  8. Sorry, forgot to say this in my previous comment. Don’t call Orkney “the Orkneys.” Islanders smile politely when tourists and journalists “fae sooth” say it, but we really dislike it. It’s just Orkney, and Shetland is the same way.

    • Got it, and I know: Mainland is the big island, and that other place to the south is Scotland. I wasn’t sure my readers would follow that. I also asked locally about the referendum, and the reasons were sensible: When has Scotland gone out of its way for the Northern Isles? One lady told me when the volcano erupted, the ferries were sent up to Scandinavia to bring home a dozen or so stranded Scots, leaving the islands without any ferry service at all for a week. That will take a long time to forget. On the other hand, Culloden, the clearances, and much of the bad will with England didn’t affect the Northern Isles as much as the mainland and Hebrides.

  9. I had the privilege of visiting Orkney in 1980, and Skara Brae. The memory will remain. Loved it. I can still remember so clearly walking into the room (yes you could go right into the room then) and looking at the stone dresser. I knew immediately what it was. It has always amazed me that something built 7000 years ago was so easy to recognise. I wonder was he the first to build a dresser? Had the creator of it seen one somewhere before? That a piece of furniture that is built today from timber is still the same design as one built in stone so long ago amazes me. Today we know it s a kitchen dresser, or Welsh dresser, but I suppose 7000 years ago it would have just been a storage cupboard. Just goes to show, a good design will never go out of date. Functional 7000 years ago – functional in 2015.

  10. The one place I love to go back to (and already have been twice) is the Isle of Barra. I am sure there are many other lovely, peaceful places in Scotland, but that is mine. I am pretty sure that my emigrant McNeil ancestors didn’t come directly from there, probably from the Inner Hebrides or mainland Kintyre, but, when I am there, my body relaxes and my soul feels that I have come home.

    • You’re not the first person who’s told me that Barra is just a sweet place. All the good things about island living–a close knit community, relaxed life style, mild climate, lovely scenery. I will add Barra to my ever-growing list of destinations here.

  11. Leave it to you, Grace, to ‘splain history in a nut shell. I’ve been to Scotland but not Skye. I have lots of Scots ancestors, and I used to fantasize that somewhere back in time, some Viking warrior lost his heart to a fair-haired Scottish lass. I recently got my DNA results back from Ancestry.com and sure enough, 5% Scandinavian! BTW I’m going to try to get to Turn the Page Bookstore for your signing on July 18.

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