Finnish Beast: white horses coming ashore

Orkney’s climate is surprisingly mild, given how far north we are. The last lick of the gulf stream curls around the islands and helps keep us above freezing even in midwinter. It’s true, summers are not particularly warm, but they are sunny: typically, we get 40 or 50 hours of sunshine per week in May and June.

But what dominates the islands all year round is wind. In the light months it’s usually a gentle breeze – force three or four – but from the autumn equinox, right through the long dark winter, force six or seven is common. Fiercer gales, with wind speeds approaching 100mph, are far from uncommon. When those are forecast, everything moveable has to be tied down or taken indoors.

One compensation for being battered by wild winds is the dramatic seascapes they create. Their prevailing direction is from the southwest – the open Atlantic – and the sea flings waves of staggering size and power against the cliffs that form much of Orkney’s western coastline. From St John’s Head in Hoy, through Yesnaby, Marwick and Birsay in the Mainland, and all the way up to Noup Head in the north isle of Westray, towering red sandstone faces into the wind and waves, slowly eroding into complex and beautiful shapes.

A favourite past-time of brave Orcadians is to drive out to a clifftop or western-facing beach (such as Skaill, where Skara Brae was uncovered from its 3000-year sand-dune slumber by just such a storm.) There we’ll take a few tentative steps, leaning into the wind, gasping for breath, and gazing at the blue-green rollers crashing into the rocks, their crests feathering into magnificent white horses.

Highland writer Alan Warner has a marvellous description of a stormy day in his novel Morvern Caller, where the white horses of the waves mysteriously turn into real white horses, galloping ashore:

"…out of the water in front of me in that bluely light, up rose the great white horse moving its head from side to side as it came over the sand towards me and more horses came bursting out the water, rearing up onto the beach, a dozen horses, two dozen horses running in front of me and splashing drops of salty water on my face while two score more horses came out the sea, running in front of me and running behind me."

It turns out that a ship carrying a cargo of horses has sunk just offshore, but the image remains of white-topped waves mysteriously turning into real white horses as they gallop ashore. Not much wonder the story-teller, Couris Jean, was rendered dumb with astonishment at the sight.

The Norse settlers, who made Orkney their own from about 800AD, called the islands Hrossey – Horse Island. Was it because of the magnificent west coast breakers? Or were the pre-Norse Picts great horse lovers? It could be the latter, for even in the 19th century there were said to be more horses here, per head of population, than anywhere else in the country.

Horses – or mysterious horse-like animals – provided the inspiration for a stunning piece of Viking art which in turn inspired one of Ola Gorie’s most impressive collections.

In 1968, a bronze and iron sword with an intricately carved hilt was found in a Viking grave in Suontaka, a little west of Helsinki. Ola studied the beast’s head, and the interweaving lines that surrounded it, and, after many hours of drawing, came up with the final designs for a collection of brooch, bangle, earrings and necklet.

The pieces are relatively large, very three-dimensional, and are impressive statement pieces. Ola called the collection Finnish Beast. It has remained an Ola Gorie best seller for more than four decades.

For many years, our descriptions of the Finnish Beast collection have included the sentence: ‘It recalls the golden age of the north men’s culture, and their powerful and mysterious mythology.’

Scientific research released in August this year has revealed that the Viking buried in the grave is a little more mysterious than we imagined when we blithely talked about ‘north men’. Archaeologists from the University of Turku sampled DNA from the skeleton, and found that the once-imposing figure did not have the standard male XY chromosomes, but an additional X as well. XXY chromosomes are a marker of Klinefelter syndrome, meaning the individual was neither conventionally male, nor conventionally female, but somewhere inbetween in appearance and sexual characteristics.

These findings challenge the stereotypical view of Viking culture as monolithically macho. The Suontaka warrior was buried in a high status grave, clutching an impressive sword – a fearsome fighting weapon. But they were dressed in women’s clothing, fastened with three decorated brooches. In life their gender identity would have been neither traditionally female nor male, but – as we might say now – intersex.

History is full of inspiration, and it’s also full of surprises. They come galloping towards you, like white horses breaking on Orkney shores in a westerly gale.

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