Runic Research in the Orkney Museum

Runic Research in the Orkney Museum

Author: Dr Andrea Freund Relief Lecturer at the Institute for Northern Studies, University of the Highlands and Islands

The Orkney Museum houses a number of runic inscriptions – and indeed, it has the second largest number of them in all of Scotland. Therefore, when I embarked on a PhD researching runic writing in Orkney, it was only logical to collaborate with the Orkney Museum and to work with the rune-inscribed objects it holds.

Dr Andrea Freund

These objects turned out to be very exciting and informative. Over the course of the past few years, they provided insight into different aspects of lives in Viking Age and Late Norse Orkney.

But why should we use runic inscriptions to try and find out more about past lives in Orkney? There are a number of reasons, but for me, the most important one was: that only runic inscriptions were written by the people who lived at this time and I wanted to find out more about their lives in Orkney. All other written sources for the Viking Age and Late Norse period are either from a much later date or from different regions. And of course, an inscription gives different types of information than, for example, a Norse place-name or an archaeological find.

To illustrate what the inscriptions in the Orkney Museum can tell us about the past, I want to introduce you to a relatively recently discovered stone from Naversdale, Orphir, known as OR 23.

Naversdale Rune Stone

This stone, a chance discovery in a wall, has a runic inscription which dates probably from the 12th century, so the Late Norse period, not the Viking Age. The first part of the inscription has broken off, but the part which remains is a phrase from the Lord’s Prayer (“in heaven, hallowed be”) – in Latin. This is unique in Scotland though there are some comparable inscriptions from Norway, often carved into the wood of stave churches.

We all know Latin as the language of the medieval church, but this inscription does not necessarily have to be carved by a cleric. Indeed, the Latin is spelled phonetically, not as one would expect it in a manuscript. This is partly due to the fact that there is no specific rune for Latin “c”, so the carver had to improvise and use “ts” or only “s”. However, the phonetic spelling also indicates that the carver had no formal schooling in Latin writing, which makes it more likely that they were a member of the congregation who had heard the prayer spoken countless times but never read it. Writing a phrase down from hearing it, instead of copying somebody else’s writing, is an ability that takes a high degree of literacy to master, which leads to the assumption that this carver was very literate in runes.

An additional layer to this inscription shows itself when reading devotional texts from other areas in high medieval Europe. A famous book in Lower German, the somewhat later “Seelentroost” (soul’s comfort), which we know was also available in Scandinavia, recommends to pray only in Latin, not in one’s native language. The text argues that, Latin being the language of the church, any prayer in Latin is much more effective. It is very possible that the carver of OR 23 knew about this idea and it formed part of their reason to use Latin instead of Old Norse.

It is also interesting that the inscription ends abruptly without completing the phrase from the prayer “thy name”, even though there is enough space left on the surface of the stone. There are two possible explanations: either the carver did not know the rest of the prayer, which seems rather unlikely if they had heard it often enough to carve the first part phonetically, or they felt the first part was sufficient for their intentions. Indeed, in most Norwegian examples, we do not even make it to the “hallowed be” bits, and in a similar vein, all we get for the Hail Mary is usually “Ave Maria”.

Naversdale Rune Stone

OR 23 is also one of the few overtly religious inscriptions from Orkney. While runic writing is often associated with paganism in popular culture, the religious references in Orcadian inscriptions paint a very different picture.

These inscriptions date to the Late Norse period, long after conversion, and show a profoundly Christian world view. The also serve as proof of how the shared religion connected a runecarver in Orkney to people across medieval Europe, by writing the same prayer, whether they were in Rome, Jerusalem, Norway, or Naversdale.

As this example demonstrates, there is plenty of information that can be gathered from a short inscription – and I hope that, upon your next visit to the Orkney Museum, you take some time to have a look at its magnificent collection of rune-inscribed objects.Further reading on the Naversdale stone is available open access via Futhark Journal.


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