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Why is the sea salt?

The Skaldic Verse of Earl Rognvaldr jarl Kali Kolsson


Crimsoning the Eagle’s Claw. The Viking Poems of Rognvaldr Kali Kolsson Earl of Orkney.
Translated by Ian Crockatt, with a preface by Kevin Crossley-Holland. Illustrations by Wenna Crockatt.
Arc Publications, 2014. Poetry Book Society Recommended Translation. | 96 pp. | $14.38 £9.99


IT’S HARD TO get ‘the Vikings’ right. In Orkney, they have been crafted into the archipelago of islands’ twenty-first century identity, as much through the poetry and prose of George Mackay Brown as in the canny branding of the islands by Visit Scotland – also heavily dependent on GMB’s lyric gifts. The sea crossing from desolate Scrabster to Orkney Mainland involves a £28 million floating Mall, the rather fine ferry, MV Hamnavoe, which negotiates the dangerous straits of the Pentland Firth. Here, Atlantic contends with North Sea, some of the fiercest tidal rips in the northern oceans; eight mariners were taken by it, tragically, in early January 2016. But as you approach the ferry, you may be struck, axe-wise, by the fascistic logo that currently offends the entire length of the Hamnavoe – a massive popular-cultural beardy Viking, pointy helmet, raised arm, purposeful, – ‘Til Orknøyene!’

IF THE ‘VIKINGS’ (‘bay-men’, ‘settling-men’, ‘fighting-men’) had arrived on the Hamnavoe during the time of their first raids, possibly as early as the 790s, they would have very quickly rounded up all non-essential trades. The entire male artistic and middle management personnel of Stromness (which didn’t then exist) would have been neck-manacled and despatched for slave-sale to Dublin. And as for the women-folk, and children, well.

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By 825, priests and hermit anchorites of the Celtic Church were fleeing south to Orkney in vain attempts to escape Norse raids.

By around 825, priests and hermit anchorites of the Celtic Church were abandoning the Faeroes, above Shetland and fleeing south to Orkney in vain attempts to escape Norse raids. Three centuries later, when the Scandinavian expansion was at full force, the slaves might have been transhipped on from Dublin to the North African kingdoms, and, if appropriate matériel, to the harems and brothels of Arabic southern Spain, or, through networks of Slavic [‘slave’] rivers, for onward dealing to eastern Islam. The fate of the indigenes of Orkney, ‘Pictish’ people?, is still hotly debated: slaved, killed, or married, by the incomers? The Isle of Man poses a similar conundrum. But the high incidence of Norse genetic trace in some parishes of Mainland Orkney — Birsay in particular — suggests wyf-taking, and therefore man-slaving. If the nature of the Scandinavian presence in the Northern Isles is genetically contentious, in Russia, the extent of the Swedish—Viking contribution to the beginnings of ‘Rus’, the first Russian territory, if not yet state, is dangerously political, always raising inflammatory questions around ethnic/race cultural identity. Vlad Putin would not welcome being styled President of ‘Greater Sweden’, the title often given to Rus territories in the Norse Saga literature.1

Norsemen raiders carved runic graffiti inside Maeshowe, the monumental chambered tomb dating from c. 3,000 BCE, when they broke into the mound, seeking treasure, in the mid 1100s. The Neolithic sacral space was then used by Vikings to take captured women when they wanted some privacy.2 In Constantinople, Hálfdan scored his rune-name on a marble balustrade in the upper galleries of the Hagia Sophia, around the same time, perhaps during some interminable service – the raiders and traders were convertites by now. By the later twelfth century, the Norse expansion was faltering, become anachronistic, but rune-makers were still cutting their names on a marble lion in Piraeus harbour, Athens (subsequently looted away to Venice, where it now guards the entrance to the Old Arsenale).

The pillaging of the Northumbrian monastery on Lindisfarne in 793 by Northmen freebooters was perceived across Europe as a barbarous outrage, the wanton destruction of a spiritual and cultural powerhouse.

The pillaging of the Northumbrian monastery on Lindisfarne in 793 by Northmen freebooters was perceived across Europe as a barbarous outrage, the wanton destruction of a spiritual and cultural powerhouse. This attack remains notorious, and marks the beginning of the Norse invasions on the North East: ‘some (of the brothers) they took away with them in fetters; many they drove out, naked and loaded with insults; and some they drowned in the sea’ (Simeon of Durham). Bede’s monastic abbey, Wearmouth and Jarrow, was pillaged in 794, Rathlin Island and St Columba’s Iona in 795, Iona again in 802 and 806; attacks were soon reported from island communities off Aquitaine. By the 830s, The Gesta Danorum of Norsemen savagery became sustained, along the Saxon coastline, across Friesland, France and central Europe. ‘But the chief target of Viking raids in the early years of the ninth century was Ireland: by c. 834 they had raided the greater part of the country, destroyed its ancient civilization, and established bases on its coasts from which they could conveniently send expeditions’.3

In 843, Northmen raiders overwintered in Gaul for the first time, attacking throughout the Loire and Garonne regions, and menacing Muslim Arab centres such as Lisbon, Cadiz and Sevilla. In 845, a Danish fleet arrived to pillage Hamburg; Paris was destroyed on Easter Sunday the same year. In 865 and 907, Varangian Vikings, (the ‘Rus’?) attacked Byzantium from the east. From then on, nowhere was secure. Read through the year-by-year annals of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, from 866 onward, to follow the incursions of ‘the raiding-army’ from East Anglia, via Northumbria and into Mercia, for frank notation of a continual destruction and land-take. Moments of resistance are vivid: 878, the raiding-army seized Wessex, the local population fleeing or submitting, ‘except for Alfred the king, and he with a small troop went with difficulty through woods and into swamp-fastnesses’. As a liegeman of the Lady Wulfruna, I am proud to note the year 910: ‘In this year English and Danes fought at Tettenhall [near Wulfrunehaetun, Wolverhampton], and the English took the victory.’4 Just how the graphic design team for Northlink Ferries square this kind of ‘Viking’ behaviour (we might call it, history) with the cute bloke plastered on the side of the Hamnavoe, is an open question. The ferry used to be a light-blue vessel bravely making way through the cross-currents between Hoy and the Black Craig, as it came in to the calms of Stromness sound; now it looks like a sinking billboard, dragged under by a weight of signage.

So, it’s difficult to get these intrepid ingenious cultured barbaric Norsepersons into a single perspective. Saint (really!) Rognvaldr jarl Kali Kolsson, Earl of Orkney (c.1100–1158) confounds the popular notion of ‘Viking’ even further. His achievements are currently described within the Europe-wide and beyond ‘twelfth-century Renaissance’, which included the construction of Chartres Cathedral, the flowering of the Chartres philosophical school – thank goodness the dragon boats never reached that locality – La Sainte Chapelle, Paris, ars nuova, Troubadour song, the career of Dante Alighieri, and the profound cultural contributions of Islamic Baghdad and Arabic Southern Spain. This was also the period of the middle Crusades. Rognvaldr Kali Kolsson was touched by many of these currents, if not by John of Salisbury’s Metalogicon. Rognvaldr’s skaldic dróttkvœtt [‘verse suitable for reciting at court’] can be read as highly cultivated responses to this dynamic period. Rognvaldr was no longer ‘Viking’, whatever that may have meant in the centuries before; he was a shrewd, gifted individual, innovating with the older cultural traditions and conventions for new circumstances. As the premier historian of Orkney puts this, ‘In the reign of Rognvaldr … Orkney ceased to be “Viking”.’5

Earl Rognvaldr, as a supremely skilful politician, contrived the sanctification of his mother’s brother, Magnus Erlendson, who had been ‘martyred’ (murdered in a territorial dispute) by his cousin, Haakon, 20 years earlier. Rognvaldr needed to manufacture a saint for Orkney, bowing to complex theologico-political demands. Emergent states of this period required specific patron saints to bestow prestige on their ecclesiastical and political institutions; St Olav had been fashioned as patron for Norway 100 years earlier, Halvard of Oslo similarly. Having contrived the sanctification of Magnus Erlendson, Rongvaldr then built his sainted uncle an appropriate shrine as focus for accruing further status – the miraculous structure of St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall, Kirkjuvágr, ‘Church Bay’. The Orkney diocese had been threated with episcopal takeover from the far North, by the bishopric of Trondheim, and from the South, by that of York. Creation of strong bishops and their associated fiefdoms was a priority for the period, as at Dunfermline, Glasgow, Trondheim, and slightly later, St Andrews, where the cathedral site is now a blackened shell. Orkney is so fortunate that Rognvaldr’s St Magnus survived the traumas of the Scottish Reformation intact. You read nothing of these power-political games in Orkneyinga saga, a manga-narrative contrived around the end of the twelfth century that includes Rognvaldr’s verses and a highly selective account of his life; nor is there the faintest suspicion of this power-play in current hagiographies of the Blessed Magnus available from his Cathedral.6

Earl Rognvald’s character seems to represent a fashionable revival, an over-elaboration of an otherwise contemporary way of life belonging to another period of history.

Rognvaldr performed in many guises, a post-Viking self-fashioner: ‘there is something chic and modern about his skaldic and Viking mannerisms, which are more a young man’s acquired attitudes than a continuation of heritage and tradition. Earl Rognvald’s character would thus seem to represent a fashionable revival, an over-elaboration of an otherwise contemporary way of life, with opinions and attitudes belonging to another period of history.’7 He was a Jórsalafari, ‘Jerusalem farer’, by 1151 feeling secure enough in his hold over the Orkney archipelago to make pilgrimage to Jerusalem, with a fleet of fifteen vessels, taking along his bishop-dependent, William the Old, as translator. Paris-educated William, his name suggests, was Norman French. Some rune-wits speculate that the Maeshowe graffiti could have been carved by members of Rognvaldr’s expedition on their return; there is a Cross cut, among the infantry-style boasts and obscenities.8 This pilgrimage was a dangerous undertaking; there was the journey itself, a route still convulsed by the violence of the Second Crusade (1147–49), which Rognvald must at some point have decided, prudently, not to join, and the Earl was also leaving his rule on Orkney at risk of fragmentation and unrest. En route, Rognvaldr, now 50, paid court to the 30-year old Viscountess Ermengard of Narbonne, during the winter 1151/52 — perhaps a stop-over on the pilgrim trail between Toulouse and St Gilles; here he and his companions competed poetically with the Troubadours who also graced Ermengard’s cultivated society. Orkneyinga saga gives a predictably romance-generic account; we have to imagine Bishop William at Rognvald’s side, translating sweet-nothings:

The Earl was sitting feasting one day when the Queen came into the hall escorted by a group of ladies and carrying a serving-bowl of gold. She was in her finest clothes, with her hair falling loose as is customary with virgins, and a golden tiara upon her forehead. She served the Earl, while her companions began to entertain them with music. The Earl took her hand along with the bowl, and sat her on his knee, and for the rest of the day they had a great deal to say to each other. Then the Earl made a verse:9

____Who else hoards such yellow
____Hair, bright lady – fair as
____Your milk-mild shoulders,
____Where milled barley-gold falls?
____Chuck the cowled hawk, harry
____Him with sweets. Crimsoner
____Of eagles’ claws, I covet
____Cool downpours of silk; yours.10

Standard surveys of Rognvaldr’s poetry give very little sense of the historical reality of this promisingly romantic Viscountess of Occitaine, other than as a gracious recipient of Rognvaldr’s poetical attentions. Significant female contemporaries who are remembered today include Heloise, Hildegard of Bingen, and Eleanor of Aquitaine; in her own day, Domna Ermengard was as celebrated as Eleanor. Born around 1129, becoming heir to Narbonne, Ermengard was pledged in marriage, aged 13, to Count Alphonse Jordan of Toulouse, a token to be exchanged for Toulouse’s possession of the title and wealth of Narbonne, which was considerable; the town was strategically located for trade in all directions, and grew wealthy as an entrepôt for woollen goods. Ermengard’s nominal marriage was dissolved within a year, and a campaign fought to free Narbonne from the Toulouse claim. Nothing is known of Ermengard’s second marriage, but for the next half century the Viscountess operated as a successful contender within the complex, dangerous currents of Occitan politics. In other words, Domna Ermengard was arguably equal, if not superior, to Earl Rognvaldr as a courageous, shrewd leader, and far exceeded him in terms of wealth and status. Hardly anything is known of her as an individual; she was said to be the lover of the troubadour Peire Rogier, and was the subject of address in many Troubadour lyrics. Fredric Cheyette’s rigorous and original monograph on Viscountess Ermengard argues that the discourse of lyric praise expressed in this poetry actually carried political consequences in terms of status and allegiance, and was far from the supposed antifeminist stereotyping of romantic medieval poetry that has been the prevailing view of scholarship in recent decades. Do Earl Rognvaldr’s praise poems to Ermengard find a place within this kind of gender-and-power discourse? Cheyette argues that the culture of Occitan courts and society in general allowed for significant female ‘agency’, in ways that again confound prevailing assumptions about female status in the period.11

This context and the nature of Rognvaldr’s sojourn is worth closer study; the Narbonne court attracted a number of significant poets, Rognvaldr and his companions may have learnt of other high-status trobars who had passed through. These may have included the Welsh poet-prince Owain ap Gruffudd ap Maredudd of Powys (better known as Owain Gwynedd), who ruled Cyfeiliog, Gwynedd, from 1149 until 1170, when he retired from the world into seclusion at the Cistercian monastery, Strata Marcella (for which he had provided land in 1170). Owain Cyfeiliog was involved in the desperate resistance against, and ultimately negotiations with, the ‘English’ (Anglo-Norman-French) incursions into west central Wales.12 His Hirlas Owain, ‘Owain’s tall blue [drinking horn]’, is described as ‘one of the most interesting poems of this period’.13 Like Rognvaldr, Owain was a warrior prince and a gifted poet, quite distinct from the majority of court poets, who were low-status professional performers, not much better than jongleurs. The persona of Hirlas Owain leads a war band, just returned (probably from raiding into England along the Severn valley), praising his warriors from his position of host, rather than as a grateful suppliant seeking reward for poetic celebration of his lord’s beneficence.

OWAIN CYFEILIOG IS read among the Gogynfeirdd, or ‘rather early poets’, a ‘closely-knit and manifestly esoteric school of bards’, associated with the Welsh warrior courts of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.14 The Vikings, in their latest incarnation as the Norman French, were now threatening the survival of the independent Welsh territories, just as they had so easily overtaken Pictish Orkney. By 1090, only a few decades after William’s roll-over invasion of the Saxon mainland, the disparate cantrefs of the Welsh-speaking territories were close to subjugation. The twelfth century was their period of resistance and fragile reclamation of Welsh rule, creating a division between north-west and south-east Wales, between Pura Wallia, central and north Wales, and the Marches and south, that persists to the present, between Welsh and English-speaking areas. The poetry of the Gogynfeirdd was in part a creative response to this phase of resistance and temporary victory for the Welsh fiefdoms.

Cyfeiliog’s Hirlas can also be derived from conventions and diction established by the Cynfeirdd, ‘the First Poets’, specifically Aneirin’s ‘Y Gododdin’, which the Hirlas consciously evokes, and to the revered memory of the early kingdoms, Hen Ogledd, ‘the Old North’, Bernicia, c 600. Similarly, Rognvaldr’s dróttkvœtt may distantly evoke the ecstatic shamanic invocation songs of seiđr practices, calling up the battle-god Ođinn, and late Iron Age tribal values, now morphing into proto-state formation, precisely during the ‘Viking’ phase, 900/1200.15 Paul Bibire argues that Norwegian courts ceased to employ skalds and poets after the early eleventh century, period of the formal conversion of the country to Christianity; subsequently it was only rulers like Rognvaldr who took upon themselves the verse arts. ‘It is tempting … to conclude that the court poet might have fulfilled quasi-sacral functions in paganism, which did not continue thereafter’.16

Ian Crockatt is a gifted poet in his own right, and gained a doctorate at Aberdeen University on the translation of Old Norse skaldic verse; Pure Contradiction (Arc, 2011) is his award-winning selection of translations from the works of Rainer Maria Rilke. I am in no position at all to judge the quality of his translations of Earl Rognvaldr’s Old Norse skaldic metre, in Crimsoning the Eagle’s Claw. The Viking Poems of Rognvaldr Kali Kolsson Earl of Orkney, but Ian Crockatt’s helpful introduction and careful apparatus to the texts demonstrate that he knows this material intimately; Kevin Crossley-Holland, in his Preface, certainly admires the translations, and gives them his warmest endorsement. George Mackay Brown described the dróttkvœtt form as ‘impossibly difficult’; Ian Crockett writes that GMB’s lyric imitations of the Old Norse poetic convention are ‘exquisite, but entirely un-skaldic’ (18). He argues that only William Morris came close to successful imitation of Norse idiom, in his aureate translations of the sagas. Old Norse was a ‘highly-inflected’ language, so cannot carry over into ‘sparsely-inflected English’ at all precisely (19); it had no future tense, to speak of, which is somehow true to the realms of Yggdrasill and Ragnarok. Crockatt defines the mechanics of skaldic convention: ‘The Dróttkvœtt stanza is an extreme example of poetry in which the verse-form and exaggerated language are essential to the experience the poem offers. It might be described as exoskeletal, like a crab’s shell and claws: its rigid outer form shapes and defines it’ (18–9). Parallels with the highly wrought poetry of the contemporaneous Welsh courts suggest themselves: ‘the poetry of the Gogynfeirdd is unquestionably the most difficult corpus of verse to have survived in Welsh and “linguistically one of the most difficult bodies of verse in any European language”’.17

These dróttkvœtt registers were a resource entirely distinct from the classical and Christian origins of all other European poetics — and prized as such.

The dróttkvœtt was an elite convention, distinct from metres of the more demotic forms of narrative epic, versions of which are still performed in Iceland.18The verse and its conventions were first given during the ninth century, apparently springing fully formed from no-one knows where; the genre flourished until the late twelfth-century, waning with the ‘Viking’ age itself. The diction of the dróttkvœtt was also privileged, a charged vocabulary of elaborate periphrases, the ‘kennings’, which allusively summon entire networks of ritual, belief and mythology, functioning as a sacral exercise in ‘memnopoetics’.19 These dróttkvœtt registers were a resource entirely distinct from the classical and Christian origins of all other European poetics — and prized as such. A comparison might be drawn with the extended, Vergilian simile, and as developed in Milton’s Paradise Lost, metaphor on epic scale, invoking many levels of allusion; Milton also negotiated between a pagan symbolic and the revealed Word. The dróttkvœtt kennings may be invocations of a belief-system now reluctantly abandoned, the poetics of a complex phase-transition between two figures hung upon a Tree, between Ođinn ‘the Frenzied One’ and the unsatisfactory, pale god from South. There are more than 150 word-knots to evoke Ođinn: the High, the Third, He who puts to sleep, the Flame-Eyed, the Double …. A linked performance of dróttkvœtt verses was difficult to create, because the centrifugal force of each stanza is so strong, bound into its own form and meaning; a successful series was described as a ‘flokkr’, yes, flock, but the most esteemed performance was a ‘drapa’, an individual, crafted gem, a shield-boss of poem, sword-sound. This was the kind of smith-work that Rognvaldr emulated.

The obsessively inwrought art of the dróttkvœtt became the preserve of Icelandic skald-workers, a landscape and a society ‘where obsessions can have the mute erosive drive of lava…

The obsessively inwrought art of the dróttkvœtt became the preserve of Icelandic skald-workers, a landscape and a society ‘where obsessions can have the mute erosive drive of lava … Products of a culture that did not waste syllables, where the shapes of stillness, of what is not uttered, had their own meanings’ (Frank, 23). If you know North Ronaldsay, this will carry resonance. These skalds (cogn: ‘scold’, OE: ‘scop’) were not praise-makers, suppliant bards earning their bread and ale by their tongue at the end of the war-band’s board. They were feared, said to be inspired in sequestered, darkened places, out of their right minds, drawing on taboo knowledge and words. This connects them with the shamanic Iron Age and earlier practices of seiđr in the circumpolar regions; the form therefore not emerging ex nihilo at all, but from a long and occulted gestation. As much as it is the current perspective to construct Rongvaldr and his times within a progressive frame, the proto-Renaissance of the European twelfth century, it is also possible to hear these archaic vestiges inwith the kennings and memnotechnic of his dróttkvœtt. Whether these verses were sung, accompanied by harp or lyre, or declaimed in a heightened tonality, is debated; though in an early boast-verse, Tafl em’k orr at efla / ithróttir kann’k níu [Crockatt: Who’ll challenge my nine skills? / I’m champion at chess. Bibire: Chess I am keen to play, I know nine skills], Rognvaldr’s proudest claim is hvárt veggja kann’k hyggja: / harpslótt ok bragthóttu [C: Best of all, I’ve mastered / harp-play and poetry. B: I know how to evaluate both harp-playing and poetry]. In what spirit they were received, by which audiences, is also unclear, perhaps a form that confronted, threw down a challenge to its listeners, demanding a complex engagement, a crypsis. Snorri Sturluson’s Skaldskaparmal [The Language of Poetry], gives a brain-ploughing account of the complexities of dróttkvœtt convention, in the latter half of his Prose or Younger Edda (c.1300). Earl Rognvaldr is also associated with a treatise on verse forms, the poem Háttalykill, preserved only fragmentarily, and perhaps jointly composed (in Kirkjuvágr?) with one of the Earl’s court poets, Icelander Hallr Thórarinsson.20

Ian Crockatt has translated all thirty-eight of Rognvaldr’s surviving verses, which were preserved in the (textually complex) Orkneyinga saga. Rognvaldr may again have been profoundly innovative here, as one of the earliest Norse authors to have his vernacular work preserved in written form, rather than recited from generation to generation; he wrote in his boast-verse, tiđ er mér bók ok smiđir [C: well-read, a red-hot smith. B: book and handicrafts are usual for me]. Crimsoning the Eagle’s Claw presents the thirty-eight stanzas in eight sections, each headed with a fine monoprint by Wenna Crockatt (whose work is also featured on the cover of Crimsoning): ‘Early Poems’, ‘Incidents in the Earl’s Daily Life’, ‘Shetland Shipwreck’, ‘The Lady Ermingerd’, ‘Seafaring and Piracy’, ‘Jerusalem’, ‘Sailing to Byzantium’, ‘Illness, Loss’ (and a final praise-verse to the Earl by Skald Crockatt). These subheadings reveal the startlingly autobiographical nature of the poetry, and its range of subjects, often treated with a wit and humour that contrast with the violent severities of the convention as established.

The thing is: how to bring over the infinite deep resoundings of this craftwork? Thing: Ting, the gathering for debate, dispute settlement, law-giving and taking. Althing, convened in Iceland, Thingvellir, June 930 (suspended temporarily in 1978 when shifted to Reykjavik): ‘With law shall the land be made, with lawlessness laid waste.’ Orkney is scarred and blessed with Things: sites of human debate, resolution, where swords were laid aside, even if momentarily. At Tingwall there is a great mound, unopened, at Maeshowe there is a blank space beside the tomb mound, where they may have met to parlay. The thing is: Ian Crockatt explains his compromise in attempting to bring over the complexities of skaldic allusiveness: ‘I have tried to catch something of each kenning, or to use some image derived from it, and sometimes I have created new ones in an effort to convey something of the vivid experience, if not always the literal sense, of Rognvaldr’s originals.’ (17).

Let’s go back to Crockatt’s translation of Earl Rognvaldr’s praise-poem to Domna Ermingard, and compare his version with Paul Bibire’s text and commentary on the same verse.

Víst’s at frá berr flestu
Frođa meldrs at góđu
vel skúfađra vífa
voxtr thinn, konan svinna.
Skorđ lætr hár á herđar
haukvallar sér falla,
átgornum rauđ’k erni
ilka, gult sem silki.

Paul Bibire translates: ‘Truly your tresses, wise lady, surpass (the hair) of most women with locks of Frođí’s milling. The hawkland’s prop [‘hawk-plain’ in the commentary] lets hair fall on to her shoulders, yellow as silk – I reddened the greedy eagle’s claw.’ Ian Crockatt’s version chooses not to bring over the kenning ‘locks of Frođí’s milling’, and gives ‘where milled barley-gold falls’. Similarly, he does not translate Skorđ haukvallar as ‘hawkland/plain’s prop’, that is, the forearm of the noble woman on which a hawk sits during the hunt, but gives ‘Chuck the cowled hawk, harry / him with sweets’. If Bibire has translated more literally, then we can see what Ian Crockatt decided to alter and omit in his version.

Why is the sea salt? One answer might be, tainted by tears for all the souls it has taken. Tale types around the world give versions of the same narrative; Snorri Sturluson’s Edda preserves the Northern Isles variant. There was a grind-stone quern, Grótti, owned by King Fróđi, and the stone-mill could grind out whatever was asked of it, not just meal from the bere barley – but gold, prosperity, and beyond these, most precious of all, peace. Two slave women rotated the magick quern, Fenja [fen-dweller], a fore-knowing giantess, and Menja.

Why is the sea salt? In mid-afternoon, Saturday January 3, 2016, the ferry Hrossey, Lerwick to Aberdeen, came across the hull of a cargo vessel, inverted, at the eastern mouth of the Pentland Firth; the hull then proceeded to sink, stern-first, watched with horror by passengers and crew on the ferry. The Cemfjord, a cement carrier, flagged in Cyprus and sailing out of Hamburg, had taken on board 2,000 tonnes of cement at Aalborg, Denmark, and was making for Runcorn, Cheshire, scheduled to arrive on the following Monday. Conditions in the Pentland Firth were very poor, and in westerly gales the Cemfjord was last recorded on tracking radars at 13:15, Friday, near to the island of Stroma at the eastern entry to the Firth; at 13:45 the vessel routinely reported its position, and that all was well. At some point in the next twenty-four hours the disaster occurred; one extraordinary aspect of this loss is that it was not observed on the radars that plot all shipping movements in the Firth. These are obsessively followed by many Orcadians via home computer. The local paper reported, ‘Seven Polish seafarers and one Filipino mariner are missing, presumed dead.’ No distress calls had been made, nor had an emergency beacon activated; those with experience of the area could only speculate that a massive ‘lump’ of water had struck the Cemfjord, 83 metres in length, capsizing the vessel before there was time to react. The Longhope, Stromness, Wick and Thurso lifeboats searched an area of 200 square miles, as did the Shetland Coastguard helicopter and an RAF rescue helicopter, together with vessels in the vicinity, including the Hrossey. No survivors or bodies were found, and the crew are presumed to have been trapped inside the hull, which was finally located by sonar, on the seabed 12 miles east of Muckle Skerry, at 70 metres depth. It’s feared that extreme currents in the area make recovery of the bodies from the hull very unlikely.

Maybe I make too much of Northlink’s rather bold iconography on the side of the Hamnavoe; maybe it’s no more than another valiant attempt to attract visitors to the Orkney Isles and sustain the local economy. What was the fabrication of Magnus Erlendson’s sanctitude other than a similarly calculated ‘iconic’ gesture? And the building of his eponymous Cathedral? And the boastful self-fashioning of Rognvaldr’s thirty-eight skaldic gems? Perhaps we should just think of it as a slightly inept tribute to one of the key figures in Orkney’s post-Viking development:

Earl Rognvald died on the fifth day after the Feast of the Assumption. Earl Harald and his men sailed in great style from Thurso to Orkney with the body, and buried it at St Magnus’ Cathedral … Earl Rongvald was deeply mourned for he had been much loved in the isles and in many other places too. He had been a good friend to a great many people, lavish with money, moderate, loyal to his friends, a many-sided man and a fine poet.21

Nigel Wheale is the author of Raw Skies: New and Selected Poems (Shearsman 2005) and The Six Strides of Freyfaxi (Oystercatcher 2010). His academic texts include The Postmodern Arts (Routledge 1995) and Writing & Society: Literacy, Print and Politics in Britain 1590-1660 (Routledge 1999). An archive of his work for the Fortnightly may be found here.


  1. Gwyn Jones, A History of the Vikings (Oxford UP, 1968), 4, ‘The Movement East: The Baltic Lands, Russia, Byzantium’, 241–68; 244–8, for the highly contentious issue of the ‘ethnic’ origin and naming of ‘Rus’ (‘men of the rowing-way’?)
  2. Barbara E Crawford, ‘Runic Inscriptions’, in The Northern Earldoms. Orkney and Caithness from AD 870 to 1470 (John Donald, 2013), 51.
  3. R.H.C. Davis, ‘Vikings, Saracens, and Hungarians’, A History of Medieval Europe. From Constantine to St Louis (Longman, 1988) 2nd edn., 156-7. Jones, History of the Vikings, 3, ‘The Movement South and South-West to 954: the British Isles, the Frankish Empire, the Mediterranean’, 204–40, Ireland, 204–8.
  4. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, translated and edited by Michael Swanton (Phoenix, 1996), 68–94. The year 943: ‘Here Olaf broke down Tamworth and a great slaughter fell on either side, and the Danes had the victory and led much war-booty away with them. Wulfrun {‘A high-ranking Mercian lady’} was seized there in the raid.’ Probably for ransom. Ibid., 111. Tamworth is fascinating, capital of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Mercia in the time of Offa and the Heptarchy. Offa’s palace at Tamworth would have looked and functioned very much like Hrothgar’s ‘Heorot’, Beowulf, 67ff.
  5. William L.P. Thomson, The New History of Orkney (Mercat, 1987, 2001), 101.
  6. For the remarkable Nordic iconography of the East End and High Altar of St Magnus, see my earlier Fortnightly report, ‘Scottish Independence – The View from Orkney’.
  7. Ole Bruhn, ‘Earl Rognvald and the Rise of Saga Literature’, in Coleen E. Batey, Judith Jesch and Christopher D. Morris (eds), The Viking Age in Caithness, Orkney and the North Atlantic. Select Papers from the Proceedings of the Eleventh Viking Congress, Thurso and Kirkwall, 22 August–1 September 1989. (Edinburgh UP, 1993), 240–47, 240.
  8. R.I. Page, Elrington and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon Emeritus, Cambridge, considers the Maeshowe runes as ‘post-Viking’, and ‘not dissimilar to modern graffiti’: Reading the Past: Runes, (British Museum Press, 1987), 59.
  9. Chapter 8, ‘Earl Rognvald in Galicia’, Orkneyinga Saga. The History of the Earls of Orkney, translated with an Introduction by Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards (Penguin, 1978), 165–6.
  10. Ian Crockatt’s translation, Crimsoning the Eagle’s Claws, 53. For Paul Bibire’s prose and commentary, see below.
  11. Frederic L. Cheyette, Ermengard of Narbonne and the World of the Troubadours. Conjunctions of Religion and Power in the Medieval Past (Cornell UP, 2001): ‘Troubadour poetry re-enforced the values that underlay political dealings – which “could only have enhanced the power of women rulers” and served to “promote the legitimacy of the domna” (247)’. Bruce L Verarde, The Medieval Review, 03.02.11.
  12. Kari Maund, The Welsh Kings. Warriors, Warlords and Princes (History Press, 2006), 162–71.
  13. Ceri W. Lewis, ‘The Court Poets: Their Function, Status and Craft’, in A.O.H. Jarman and Gwilym Rees Hughes (eds) A Guide to Welsh Literature (Cardiff, 1992) I, 146 ff. Gruffydd Aled Williams, the latest editor, considers that Hirlas Owain might have been written by Cynddelw Brydydd Mawr, with Cyfeiliog contributing (Wiki). For Cynddelw Brydydd Mawr, see Jarman and Hughes (eds), 134–40, 166 –72 and passim
  14. Lewis, 123.
  15. Neil S. Price, The Viking Way. Religion and War in Late Iron Age Scandinavia (Aun 31: Uppsala 2002). ‘… through intimate links with divinities such as Óđinn and Freyja, and also in its underlying principles which included some of the soul beliefs reviewed above, the whole structure of sorcery was interlaced with that of cult … it is clear from the written sources that one concept above others lay at the core of Old Norse concepts of magic. Its name was seiđr … ‘saythe’, rhyming with the modern English ‘swathe’, but with a slightly inflected ‘r’ sound …. Several scholars have noted that etymologically it seems to belong to a group of Indo-European words with connotations of “binding”, especially in a sorcerous context (for example, Ursula Dronke, The Poetic Edda: Mythological Poems, (Clarendon Press, 1997) 133).’ Chapter 2, ‘Problems and Paradigms in the Study of Old Norse Sorcery’, pp. 49–89, 64.
  16. Bibire, ‘Appendix to the Poetry of Earl Rognvaldr’s Court’, in Crawford (ed.) St Magnus Cathedral and Orkney’s Twelfth-Century Renaissance, 213.
  17. Lewis, ‘The Court Poets: Their Function, Status and Craft’, in Jarman and Hughes (eds), A Guide to Welsh Literature, I, 145.
  18. For example, Rímur: A Collection from Steindór Andersen (Naxos World, 2003), ‘a traditional form of narrative Icelandic epic song chanted or intoned in a specific manner … The inner structure and content partially can be traced to Eddic and Skaldic poetry of the Viking Age’. Thanks, once again, to Peter Riley, Skald.
  19. I base this description of skaldic conventions on a remarkable monograph, also cited by Ian Crockatt: Roberta Frank, Old Norse Court Poetry. The ‘Dróttkvœt’ Stanza. ‘Islandica’ XLII (Cornell UP, 1978): ‘memnopoetics’, Frank, 25.
  20. Paul Bibire, ‘The Poetry of Earl Rognvaldr’s Court’, in Barbara E Crawford (ed.) St Magnus Cathedral and Orkney’s Twelfth-Century Renaissance, 208-40, 208; and Hermann Pálsson, ‘A Florilegium in Norse from Medieval Orkney’ in Alexander Fenton and Hermann Pálsson (eds), The Northern and Western Isles in the Viking World. Survival, Continuity and Change, (John Donald, 1984), 258–64, 258.
  21. Chapter 104, Orkneyinga Saga, 214.

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