Tuesday, November 15, 2011

History: Viking Cruise

While clicking about on the computer Saturday afternoon I happened upon an intriguing article from the “Sunday Timeout” section of the Japan Times Online. While Sunday Timeout sounds like some group of talking heads discussing NFL football (something I would certainly watch, particularly if they dropped a nice word or two about the New Orleans Saints), this article is in fact about ornithologist Mike Brazil’s cruise around the British Isles and Iceland. Entitled “In the Wake of the Vikings”, Brazil’s piece is a lyrical look at his awakening to just how pervasive Viking culture became in the so called Dark Ages and is to this day.

Brazil, who writes regularly for Japan Times, was aboard Zegrahm Expeditions’ sailing cruise vessel Clipper Odyssey as an ornithology lecturer. He took three voyages aboard the ship over the course of a summer and learned about where, when and to some degree why the Vikings set up shop along the coastal areas of the Northern Atlantic from archaeologist and fellow lecturer Dr. Colleen Batey. The remote places they visited, and the insight gained, is only a small part of why Mr. Brazil’s fourteen page mini-travelogue is so engrossing.

As Brazil notes, the whys of Viking colonialism are still debated to this day. Was their raiding an aggressive reaction to the encroachment of Christianity into the far north? Was overpopulation causing hardships that spurred on an already eager-for-adventure generation? Did the death of Charlemagne and the resultant splintering of his Holy Roman Empire play a part? Different experts put different theories at the top of the list but, regardless of the cause, the Vikings went forth from their cold fjords, crossed the Baltic and left their mark all over Northern Europe, Russia, Iceland, Greenland and modern Atlantic coastal Canada.

Beginning at Plymouth, England, virtually from the steps where the Pilgrims set out for what would become the United States, Brazil travels to the Isles of Sciilly where a surprisingly temperate climate reigns thanks to the Gulf Stream. A 12th century church there, St. Nicholas Priory, appeared too late to be struck by Viking raiders but may have instead been built by the descendants of Viking settlers. The next stop is Skellig Michael where Brazil’s experience with the local birds produces some beautiful prose indeed. Here he finds the clochans of the 11th and 12th century, sugarloaf-shaped dry stone dwellings that were probably also built by Viking settlers. It is a certainty that, despite Skellig Michael’s isolation, its monastery was rich enough to attract Viking raiding parties in the 9th century.

The next stop on the cruise is even more remote: St. Kilda, Scotland. This island, inhabited for 2,000 years, was finally evacuated in the face of famine and disease in 1930. The Isle of Man is on the itinerary and this part of southern Ireland was once a thriving Viking settlement. Though the Vikings are often compared to the Barbary corsairs and the buccaneers of the 17th century, they might more properly be compared to any European nation during the Age of Exploration. Of course their raiding was legendary and certainly successful, but many times their goal was colonization rather than simple plundering. So it was on the Isle of Man, where much of the modern population has Scandinavian DNA and the red hair to prove it. Here too is the Tynwald, a parliament established by the Vikings in the 800s that is said to be the longest continuously running parliament in the world.

Brazil travels to Staffa; the island’s name is said to derive from the Norse word for the pillars that held up the roofs of Viking homes. Then it’s on to Iona in the Inner Hebrides. Here St. Columba established a monastery in 563 and some of the finest manuscripts of the Dark Ages ushered forth from it. The famous Book of Kells was illuminated here and then moved to the Irish mainland because of the ever present threat of Viking raids.

The Orkneys and the Neolithic settlement of Skara Brae are next. Here stone structures that were built before the Great Pyramid of Egypt stand to this day, doubtless used as navigational markers by intrepid Viking mariners.

The Faroe Islands come into view and it is here that another Norse parliament, the Tinganes, was set up in 850. Completing this pattern is the Althing in Iceland’s Thingvellier National Park. This parliament was established in 930 and exists to this day. Brazil tells us that the word thing in Old Norse, which informs Tinganes and Tynwald as well, meant assembly and thus parliament.

As Brazil poetically puts it, he saw “Iceland the way the first settlers must have viewed it – as a haven on the horizon.” Brazil’s piece, which I highly encourage you to read, reminds us of the unfortunately misremembered heritage we inherit from our Viking ancestors. Raiders they were, sure, with blood on their hands but above that they were pioneers, adventurers and, in some respects the first people to bring a social democracy to a new world. To leave you with one of Mike Brazil’s last thoughts:

[The voyage] fostered in me, too, a profound new respect for the journeys those past peoples made with none of the home comforts and high-tech gadgetry we availed ourselves of aboard the Clipper Odyssey.

Well spoken, indeed.

Header: Thingvellir National Park, Iceland via planetware.com


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Cool article (and beautiful pictures too)... As to "the whys of Viking colonialism" my answer is the old standby, "because they could".


Pauline said...

I thought the article was great on its own, but the pictures really give you a feel for all the places Mr. Brazil is talking about. Very well done.