Winter Journey: a message of love from a snowbound Viking

It was Christmas, 1153. Earl Harald Maddadsson moored his longship at Hamnavoe – the ‘safe haven’, now called Stromness – in Orkney’s West Mainland. He led his Vikings eastwards towards the Bay of Firth, perhaps heading for the tiny island of Damsay, where there stood a great drinking hall and winter residence.

But half-way through the journey, a wild blizzard blew up. Fearing they’d be smoored under snow and frozen to death, Harald directed his men to the nearest shelter. This turned out not to be a warm and welcoming farmhouse, but a mysterious stony mound rising out of a banked enclosure. Orkahaugr, the Norse called it. Now we know it as Maeshowe.

 

Already 4,000 years old by the time the Vikings stooped to pass through its low, stone-lined entrance tunnel, Maeshowe is one of the marvels of ancient Orkney. Indeed, it’s of global importance, and a crucial part of the UNESCO Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage site. Its current guardians, Historic Environment Scotland, describe the site as follows:

The monuments at the heart of Neolithic Orkney proclaim the triumphs of the human spirit in early ages and isolated places. They were approximately contemporary with the mastabas of the archaic period of Egypt, the brick temples of Sumeria, and the first cities of the Harappa culture in India, and a century or two earlier than the Golden Age of China. Unusually fine for their early date, and with a remarkably rich survival of evidence, these sites stand as a visible symbol of the achievements of early peoples away from the traditional centres of civilisation.

Recent archaeological discoveries at the Ness of Brodgar suggest that, in Neolithic times, Orkney was one of the centres of civilisation, and much stone age technology and culture flowed out of here, south across the British Isles. But we’ll let that pass…

What makes Maeshowe fascinating is not just the fact that it’s the finest chambered tomb in the country, with the most ambitious architecture and the most accomplished stonework. It’s also home to the most important collection of runic inscriptions in the world, left by Earl Harald’s snowbound voyagers, and other visiting Vikings. Over 30 runic carvings have been identified. Some are little more than 1000-year-old graffiti: ‘Haermund Hardaxe carved these runes,’ and, ‘These runes were carved by the man most skilled in runes in the western ocean."  But others approach poetry: ‘Lif the earl's cook carved these runes. To the north-west a great treasure is hidden. Happy is he who finds that treasure.’

And they still inspire poetry. Alison Miller, Orkney Scriever, has written a marvellous poem celebrating Maeshowe at midwinter. It's set at the time of the winter solstice, when light from the sun at its lowest position shines down the long entranceway, illuminating the dark interior – another marvel of Neolithic design and construction. In her poem, Alison ponders the symbolism and meaning of Maeshowe for generations of Orcadians, and also touches gently (as gently as the midwinter sun touches the interior stone) on the Norse inscriptions:

Inside the tomb, the runes, the laefless trees

o Vikeens, carved wae great pride in the stone;

ootside, bare fields. Whitiver wey hid’s skreeved,

 

hid’s the sam wirds: ploo, seed, breer, barley, hairst,

breid, ale

The runes inspired Ola too. Her first ever design was based on the Maeshowe Dragon, a fantastic beast carved on stone that snowy day long ago. And one love-smitten Viking’s inscription in particular caught her eye: ‘Ingibiorg is the fairest of maidens.’

Ola took the runes of the name Ingibiorg and turned them into one of her most striking collections, at once ancient in its imagery and modern in its styling. The Ingibiorg collection is full of curves, echoing the shape of the mound itself, and circles, evoking the winter solstice sun as it sets between the hills of Hoy. Only the necklet is rectangular, like one of the giant stones that make up the howe’s interior. The twig-like runes themselves are highly polished, and they stand out against the deliberately blackened background of the design, just as the ancient Viking runes stand out from the stone walls of the tomb when light falls on them at just the right angle.

 

Whether there ever was any treasure at Maeshowe, as Lif the Cook claimed, is a mystery. Neolithic burials tended to have human bones, animal tokens – such as the talons found at the Tomb of the Eagles – and not much else. Maybe the treasure was left by earlier Viking visitors – there’s mention of Norse crusaders in some of the graffiti, which doesn’t fit with Earl Harald’s journey. Or maybe it was a tall tale, carved to intrigue and baffle later visitors. (If so, it’s succeeded!)

Whatever the truth of Lif’s story, what’s certain is that we have inherited many treasures from the builders and early admirers of Maeshowe. We have the stunning, 5000-year-old architecture. We have dozens of delightful, enigmatic, and earthy runic messages. And we have a source of inspiration for story, poetry, and jewellery.

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