03 August 2016

Writing to Remember

by Robert Lopresti

This one is going to ramble a bit, so I will let you know in advance what themes are going to keep coming up: Orkney and the human fight against oblivion.  How's that for a pair?

As I mentioned before, in June my wife and I traveled to Scotland.  I was particularly knocked out by the Orkney Islands, off the northeast coast.  We arrived via a six-hour ferry ride from Aberdeen. 

And that route is not recommended.  By the end of the trip I would estimate that at least a quarter of the travelers were sitting still (or just lying on the floor), afraid to move for fear of losing whatever might remain in their tummies.

So, if you go, take the other, shorter ferry ride, from Scrabster.  Longer road trip to get there but roads aren't as  bouncy as the North Sea.

Relief carving, Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall, Orkney.



Orkney is a county, made up of about seventy islands, twentyish of which are inhabited.  The main island is called The Mainland, and that's where we spent most of our time. 

And speaking of time, the place is full of it.  We visited four prehistoric sites, where the past just leaps out at you.

You may wonder why these way-the-hell-and-gone isles attracted neolithic peoples.  One tour guide explained it this way: If the sea is a barrier then Orkney is at the far end of nowhere.  But if the sea is a road, then Orkney is a main highway stop.  The Vikings certainly took the latter view.  Maybe the new-stone-age (neolithic) people felt the same way.

But we can only guess about that  because they were, well, prehistoric.  Which by definition means they left no history, no writing.

And writing (this blog is about writing.  Remember?)  is a great tool against oblivion.  But not the only one.

Stennes
Take a look at the Stones of Stenness, an ancient henge, or ring of standing stones.  Whoever dragged these monuments into a circle and stood them on end was certainly trying to us - or somebody - something.  And most of them survived for 5,000 years until 1814 when a farmer named Mackay got tired of visitors trespassing and decided to doom them to oblivion.  He destroyed two of them before he was stopped - on Christmas - with a court order.

Maeshowe
About a mile away you will find Maeshowe, which is a chambered cairn.  That is, a hill tomb with rooms in it.   It's a few hundred years younger than Stennes.  The long tunnel entrance (you have to bend over practically double) is aligned with the sun at the solstice.  (And there is a new theory, by the way, that such entrances served as astronomical devices, blocking out excess light to reveal more stars.)

We don't know much about the people who spent 30 to 100,000 person-hours building it, or what they thought it meant, but we do know it was visited by Vikings (remember them?) about a thousand years ago.  We know that because they told us so by writing on the inner walls.  It is the largest collection of runes ever found.  The writers explain that 100 of them broke in through the ceiling to spend three days out of a snow storm.

Ring of Brodgar, more standing stones.
Well, first of all, there is no way 100 people could have gotten into that space, much less all their weapons and supplies, so I guess that was just a round number.  But what fascinates me is that these travelers must have been new to the art of writing and terribly excited about it.  Because some of the runes translate something like this:

I carved this with an axe.

I carved this up high.

Carved by the best rune-carver west of the ocean.

They were not all so tautological.  The guide told us one of the carvings could be loosely translated:  

For a good time, call Ingehelda.

Right.  It seems odd that these ancient wanderers didn't use the opportunity to tell posterity more about themselves.  Like names and home towns.  But apparently that was not the sort of immortality that interested them.


Skara Brae
And speaking of immortality and the fight against oblivion, in the early twentieth century the land was owned by a man named Balfour.  He noticed that the roof was leaking (where the Vikings had burst in) and, blessed be his memory, he got it patched up.    Even better, he made sure the builders left a clear distinction between the old and the modern.  If he hadn't made those repairs, the place would probably be a mudpie today.

By the way, those original dry stone walls, built almost five thousand years ago?  Except where the Vikings bashed them, they still don't need repair.  Talk about fighting oblivion.


Standing stones in an Orkadian cafe.  Another shop had a dish called Skara Brie.
And then there's Skara Brae,  an entire neolithic village uncovered by a violent storm a century ago.  These are the oldest houses in the world with their original furniture - stone beds and "dressers" on which prized possessions were probably displayed.

If you made it through all of my prattle then you deserve a treat.  So here is Saltfishforty, an Orkadian band we saw performing in Stromness.  Enjoy.








7 comments:

Paul D. Marks said...

Fascinating info, Rob. Thanks.

And by the way, can you get me Ingehelda's number?

janice law said...

I quite envy your trip. For all the time we spent in Scotland, we never got to either the Orkneys or the Shetlands, but as you discovered, they are a long way from the mainland.

Eve Fisher said...

Great post, Rob. Yes, when it comes to pre-industrial times, waterways - rivers, oceans, lakes - were the main roads, which explains a heck of a lot. All the old cities were by major water routes; all the places that seem to us to be out in the middle of nowhere...

Art Taylor said...

Great post, great points here, Rob. And I've said before (will say again): All this makes me want to travel there myself!

R.T. Lawton said...

Rob, enjoyed the travelogue, plus always like old history.

B.K. Stevens said...

Thanks, Rob. I learned a lot, and I enjoyed your reflections on writing and oblivion. (Also enjoyed the music.)

Robert Lopresti said...

Thanks for the kind words. We did not get to the Shetlands. Ther ferry we were on went that way but the people heading there rented cabins since was an all-night trip. (We got off in Orkney around 11 PM after a six hour trip. If I go back to Scotland (for a thrid time) I will concentrate on Edinburgh and Orkney, especially Kirkwall wich I loved.