In the wake of the Vikings

by Mark Brazil

At both its western and eastern extremes some 10,700 km apart in France and the Russian Far East respectively, the great, fused supercontinent of Eurasia breaks into fragments, into not quite matching fringes of islands.

In the east, there are the likes of Hainan, Taiwan, the Japanese archipelago and the Kuril Islands; while off the western mainland lie the British Isles, the Shetland Islands, the Faroe Islands and Iceland.

In both the east and the west, settlement of these outlying fringes by humans seems to have taken place over an extended period of several millennia, with colonists coming largely from the nearby continent.

The recent underwater-archaeological discovery of a partially intact Mongol ship on the seabed off Nagasaki Prefecture is a reminder of how Japan was only saved from invasion when the approaching fleets of Kublai Khan foundered there, in both 1274 and 1281, before the great 13th-century Mongol ruler had chance to conquer these islands.

In contrast to Japan, the western fringes of Europe were not so lucky, since, unlike the Mongols whose base was the steppes of central Asia, early European civilizations and empires were very much coastal. The Phoenicians (from lands along the eastern Mediterranean), the Greeks and the Romans were all extremely competent ocean-goers; the Romans also excelled on land and came to dominate western Europe, North Africa and the Mediterranean more than two millennia ago.

Greek and Roman empire-builders apart, though, more than 1,000 years prior to the Norman invasion of England in 1066, western Europe experienced repeated waves of unrest, warfare and invasion — among them perhaps the most infamous were launched by the Norse people (renamed Normans when they conquered northwest France), who we now most frequently refer to as the Vikings.

These Scandinavian merchants, explorers and traders were largely coastal dwellers, and among their many skills they were most importantly masters of the sea.

In the late 700s, their peaceful activities evolved into plundering raids beginning with attacks on monasteries and coastal settlements. For nearly four centuries, from the late 8th century to the mid-11th century, these raiders and traders extended their reach up around the Scandinavian coast and into the White Sea, even to the Volga River, and south around Iberia then east into the Mediterranean, and beyond that into the Black Sea.

The reasons behind this aggressive expansionism are much debated, but include: a response to northward incursions of Christianity; a shift in the balance of power in continental Europe at the end of the reign of Charlemagne in 814, after which the Holy Roman Empire he headed began to fragment; overpopulation in the relatively unfertile Norse homelands forcing emigration; and a spirit of adventure driving them to explore and discover and plunder.

Their most frequent routes took the Vikings into the Baltic Sea, across the North Sea and all around the British Isles (used in the geographical sense to include Ireland, England, Wales and Scotland) and the northern islands such as the Orkneys, Shetlands and Faroes — but their journeys did not stop there, as their voyages made in open sailing boats no more than about 15 meters long spanned the North Atlantic and took them as far as Iceland, Greenland and even Newfoundland.

Almost everywhere I traveled during my three consecutive voyages this summer as ornithology lecturer for Zegrahm Expeditions aboard the 102-meter, 5,200-ton expedition-cruise vessel Clipper Odyssey was redolent of past exploration, colonization or warfare — whether of the Pilgrim Fathers in Plymouth, England, of those seekers of monastic solitude the Irish monks of Skellig Michael, or of the British Grand Fleet based in the Orkneys’ Scapa Flow (an extraordinary natural harbor) during World War I.

One theme, however, resurfaced again and again — the Vikings.

My odyssey began on July 1 in London, and by Aug. 6 I had traveled to some of the remotest places on the fringes of Europe — clockwise around Britain from Plymouth to Edinburgh on the first voyage; from there to Reykjavik on the second; and with a clockwise circumnavigation of Iceland that started and finished in the capital as the final voyage.

“Remote” and “Europe” are words perhaps not frequently combined in one sentence. After all, this is a region that has been settled for millennia; a region rich in archaeology, history, folklore and custom, supporting a large human population. It has characterful pubs, imposing castles, elegant country estates, ancient archaeological sites, and the world’s oldest parliaments. What’s “remote” about that, you might well think.

When we imagine places that are remote, they tend to be such as the Kuril Islands in the Russian Far East, the Aleutians in Alaska, central Pacific islands like the Marquesas or Pitcairn, or the sub-Antarctic islands of New Zealand. Yet scattered along the northwestern fringe of Europe, in dramatic, scenic settings, are islands that are as remote as can be imagined — not merely the Orkney, Shetland and Faroe islands, but including the likes of Skellig Michael, St. Kilda, the Flannan Islands, Mousa and Heimaey. “Where?” You might well ask !

Voyaging by sea around the southwest of England, the south and west of Ireland, off the Scottish coast and thence, by way of the Orkney, Shetland and Faroe islands to Iceland is not the normal way to see Europe. Even though I was born in England and consider myself well traveled there, this journey took me to many places I had only dreamed of visiting; islands that time, weather and circumstance make it difficult to reach, and where even landing can be exceedingly difficult.

I am foremost a traveling naturalist marveling at landscapes, biodiversity and adaptations wherever I go. In some parts of the world, though, those landscapes have been powerfully shaped by human history — few more so than in western Europe.

The human stamp is, in one form or another, everywhere, and that history, some ancient some modern, has an irresistible allure. Even had I wished to avoid the impact of the Vikings, I would have been unable to, since I was traveling in the esteemed company of one of Europe’s leading experts on the subject, Dr. Colleen Batey, senior lecturer in archaeology at the University of Glasgow. We soon fell into a simple knowledge-bartering agreement: wildlife for history.

As a naturalist, it was the wildlife that made my voyage from southwest Britain to the Arctic Circle north of Iceland so exciting. The wealth of seabirds encountered was stunning.

I couldn’t help being inspired by the ease with which the Northern Fulmars slid past, their wings locked into a seemingly endless glide. Manx Shearwaters, bold in their contrasting black-above and white-below plumage, careered across the sea, flickering skyward in wheeling arcs of motion. At dramatic seabird cliffs, the rumbling growls of crowded colonies of Common Guillemot and Razorbill (living relatives of the original penguin, the now-extinct Great Auk, known scientifically as Pinguinus impennis) were deafening.

Dapper in their form-fitting feather coats, the Razorbills are Europe’s most elegant auks, but it was the Atlantic Puffin, and its colonies, such as those on Great Saltee and Skellig Michael, that were most mesmerizing. It was so easy to lose track of time while admiring that bird’s colorful adornments and watching their comical antics. Even as a trained ornithologist it is hard to take puffins seriously: their permanently surprised expression, their proud and portly demeanor, their whirring, blurring wing-beats, that multi-colored bill and their fascinating behavior, all serve to make them irresistible to watch.

At Little Skellig off southwest Ireland, and at the Bass Rock in Scotland’s Firth of Forth, the largest of Europe’s coastal breeding seabirds, the Northern Gannet, holds center stage. These enormous birds, nearly a meter from bill to tail and nearly two meters across the wings, are inspirational in their command of air and water.

Few things are more spectacular to see than a squadron of gannets flying effortlessly above the waves transform, with barely a flick of their wings, into honed predatory darts plunging down beneath the water to catch their piscine prey. This is a pointed bird; its beak, tail and wings all sharp and elongated in all directions. Its long, creamy-white wings are smartly tipped with black, and it wears a creamy, golden-yellow cowl. Individually they are gorgeous, but en masse, in their thousands at colonies such as those I visited off Ireland and Scotland, they are stunning to behold — the din can be deafening, the aroma is ripely distinctive — but the sight is unforgettable.

My journey to Europe’s western fringes began with a relaxing ride by train from London’s Paddington Station to Plymouth, then a brief exploration of the wild open expanses of Dartmoor National Park to the north, with its seemingly endless heather moors, its ancient roads, the medieval clapper bridge made of huge stone slabs spanning pillars near Postbridge and the Warren House Inn, the highest pub in southern England, at 434 meters.

Back in Plymouth, I passed a short flight of steps of monumental significance — they were made famous on Sept. 6, 1620, when the Pilgrim Fathers set sail from there in the Mayflower bound for a New World and a new life. Under infinitely more comfortable circumstances than theirs, I set sail with around 100 adventure tourists in the Clipper Odyssey, bound for the most southwesterly point of the British Isles — the Isles of Scilly.

These islands have, despite their location at nearly 50°N (about the same latitude as Vancouver, central Newfoundland and Sakhalin), a warm-temperate climate. They are bathed by the Gulf Stream and Tresco in particular, with its rugged coastline, rocky coves and sandy beaches, is a mild, tranquil spot boasting Abbey Garden, which spreads around the 12th-century St. Nicholas Priory. The garden provides a sense of familiarity to visitors from around the world, with its plants from as far afield as Australia, the Americas, southern Africa, East Asia and even Japan.

From the mild Isles of Scilly my travels took me off the Pilgrim Fathers’ route and northwest across the Celtic Sea. Passing the southernmost point of Ireland, Fastnet Rock, with its distinctive tower lighthouse, I first realized the much earlier reach of the Norsemen, for the name Fastnet, so English-sounding, is actually derived from the Old Norse word “hvasstann-ey,” meaning “sharp-tooth isle.” I was on the track of the Vikings.

My next destination, the Skellig Islands, can only be landed on when wind and sea conspire to allow it. Skellig Michael (Great Skellig) rises steep and rugged from the cold North Atlantic more than 14 km offshore. Can there be any more imposing a place to have founded a settlement? Amazingly, during the 6th or 7th century, Irish Christian monks founded a retreat here and ultimately an eremitic monastery.

Even if making a landing is possible, scaling the almost sheer flanks of the island by the precipitous stone steps the monks hewed out defeats many visitors. The scramble to the 230-meter summit of this UNESCO World Heritage Site is, however, well worth it for the view alone. Spectacular clouds of white gannets shroud its nearest neighbor, Little Skellig, while the slopes of Skellig Michael itself are riddled with the burrows of puffins.

Yet it is the scene at the top of the island that inspires most, with its clochans — simple dry-stone dwellings that date from the early Middle Ages and are shaped like old-fashioned beehives, with corbelled stone roofs; its oratories and stone grave slabs; an impressive monolithic cross; and the later (13th-century) church of St. Michael.

As if the extreme remoteness and inaccessibility of the monastery on Skellig Michael were not awe-inspiring enough, across on the southwestern peak of the island, and far too hazardous for modern-day visitors to approach, is the Hermitage. Isolated from the monastery on the main peak, the Hermitage was a place of extreme retreat for those who wished true isolation. Looking out from this spot, whether religious or not, it’s impossible not to admire the depth of belief and the driven sense of spirit that the monks once cut off here embodied.

Their remote isolation, though, was not enough to spare those men of the cloth from becoming targets of 9th-century Viking raiders. Could they really have generated sufficient wealth to be worthy of attack? Or was their fate linked to a broader attack on the tenets of the Christian church?

More remote even than Skellig Michael off Ireland, is St. Kilda off the westernmost islands of Scotland. It was a place I had long dreamed of visiting, with little expectation that I would one day realize that dream. The most outlying of the Outer Hebrides by some 64 km, this island is stark, dramatically rugged — and now somewhat desolate and lonely. Despite having been permanently inhabited for more than 2,000 years, the remaining 36 people on Hirta, in the St. Kilda group of islands, were evacuated in 1930 as they faced twin terminal threats of crop failure and disease.

St. Kilda, which was made a World Heritage Site in 1986 — rarely for such sites, being listed for both its cultural and natural qualities — now belongs to the National Trust for Scotland, which took over from Britain’s defence ministry. These days, the only forces you’ll find there are squads of summer volunteers.

While Skellig Michael and St. Kilda are both physically remote, between them my voyage took me to much more accessible parts of southern Ireland and then up the Irish Sea to the Isle of Man. Settled by man for more than 6,500 years, guess what — the Isle of Man was also raided, and settled, by Vikings. In fact by the time I had traveled along the Irish coast and north to the Isle of Man, I was beginning to wonder if there was anywhere the Vikings hadn’t been.

Providing a direct connection with those days of Norse colonization is another site I was able to visit known as Tynwald — the outdoor Norse parliament dating back to the 9th century, and which Manx folk (as Isle of Man people are known) believe has the longest unbroken record of any parliament in the world.

Reality, and the stuff people believe, came into question at my next stop after the Isle of Man, a World Heritage Site in County Antrim, Northern Ireland. Here the famous Giant’s Causeway is either, as my shipboard colleague Dr. Tom Sharpe, geologist at the National Museum of Wales, pointed out, a collection of some 40,000 basalt columns resulting from an undersea volcanic eruption 50 million or perhaps even 60 million years ago — or it’s a causeway that the Irish warrior-giant Finn McCool built to reach Scotland so that he could fight the Scottish warrior-giant Benandonner.

Either way it is an impressive coastal feature and remained one of the few places I visited all summer where the word Viking wasn’t even mentioned !

However, legend and geology conspire to reinforce one-another in that the “other end of the causeway” can be found further north in the Inner Hebrides. There, on the Isle of Staffa off the west coast of Scotland, is to be found Fingal’s (Finn McCool’s) Cave. But that cave made famous by Felix Mendelssohn’s overture of the same name, did — after such a short interlude — bring us back into the realm of the Vikings, because it seems the island’s name, Staffa, is derived from the Old Norse word for a stave or pillar — referring to its similarity in appearance to traditional Norse buildings made with vertical pieces of wood.

My journey between both Irish and Scottish ends of the Giant’s Causeway was somewhat blurred by the obligatory visit to a Scottish whisky distillery, this one on the island of Islay, and a tasting session at which more drams were poured than guests attended. What to do? Operating on the principle that if tasting different strengths of Lagavulin Single Malt is the way to learn how to distinguish between them, then practice can only make perfect. Some considerable “practice” later, my colleagues and I were well fueled for further travels.

Islay is a large island in the Inner Hebrides of Scotland that is world famous for the diversity of its single-malt whiskies, and a week here would have been well spent. But with Iona, Staffa, St. Kilda and the Flannan Islands all beckoning to the north, it was time to move on.

Iona, in the Inner Hebrides, is a special place of pilgrimage. For modern Christians it is a place of retreat; for historians it is a renowned site of learning; for geologists it is an outcrop of Precambrian Lewisian gneiss; and for ornithologists such as me it is home to the rare and elusive Corncrake.

A monastery was founded here in 563 by the Irish monk Columba, and ultimately it became the lynchpin in the monastic system of the British Isles. Its scriptorium produced some of the most important hand-written, hand-copied and lavishly illustrated documents and books of those pre-printing times, perhaps even including the famed and truly gorgeous “Book of Kells” (sometimes known as the “Book of Columba”), which was moved from Iona to Ireland in the face of Viking attacks and now resides on public display in the library of Trinity College, Dublin. As well, Iona’s stonemasons produced beautifully sculpted, tall crosses, and the ones here may have been among the very first Celtic crosses.

However, as the island’s famed craftsmen brought wealth to the island, that inevitably attracted the attentions of the raiders. Beginning in 794, the Vikings began a series of attacks that ultimately led to the monastery being abandoned in the mid-9th century. It wasn’t until the early 1200s that a Benedictine abbey and nunnery were established there, and it is the remains of these buildings, rebuilt in the early 1900s, that attract most visitors to the island today.

Islands are arranged around the Scottish mainland in clusters and archipelagoes as if the mainland is a spinning celestial body enshrouded in rings of debris — a Saturn of the north.

The Inner and Outer Hebrides, with St. Kilda far out there, lie to the west, while to the north lie the islands of Orkney, Fair Isle and Shetland. Like St. Kilda and the Flannan Islands, I had long dreamed of visiting the Orkneys, and this summer gave me my chance at last. The skilled rhetoric of my colleague Dr. Batey, an expert on the archaeology of the islands, brought to life an array of grass mounds and piled stones that would otherwise have been just so to me. Soon, instead, I too was marveling at the Neolithic settlement of Skara Brae situated on the west coast of the main island, Orkney, itself, and striving to imagine the lives of its occupants some 4,000 to 5,000 years ago.

Just one of four World Heritage Sites in the heart of Neolithic Orkney, to the uninitiated Skara Brae has to be the most impressive — dating back as it does to beyond England’s Stonehenge and Egypt’s Great Pyramid.

The Maes Howe prehistoric chambered cairn of Stenness in Orkney dates back to a similar period, and is no doubt of tremendous archaeological interest, but it was the more visually appealing standing stones at the Ring of Brodgar that impressed me far more. There, out on the open moor, with the wildflowers and the sound of the birds, my imagination ran riot with thoughts of what motivated ancient peoples to invest so much time and energy in a monument that has lasted not just centuries, but millennia. Such sights invariably raise in me the question: How many of our current structures will pass such a test of time?

Similar thoughts were in my mind as I lay on the turf a few days later staring up at the night sky over the Shetlands with my head to the base of the Broch of Mousa. There in the Shetlands, almost 180 km northeast of the Orkneys, we were again most definitely in Dr. Batey’s realm — especially during a visit to Jarlshof, the islands’ best-known archaeological site.

Overlying levels of construction from the Bronze Age, the Iron Age, Picts and Vikings, comprise this enormous site at the south end of the Shetland mainland — but with respect to my learned colleague, it was a smaller site off the east coast, on the island of Mousa, that left the greater impression on me.

The dry-stone tower, known as a broch, that’s located there is one of the best-preserved prehistoric buildings in Europe. Built some 2,100 years ago — whether as a lookout point, fortified house or place of retreat under threat no one is sure — this powerful structure is, at 13 meters high, the tallest of its kind left standing. The opportunity to visit after dark, to lie next to that ancient monument to human endeavor (and vulnerability), and at the same time to listen and watch as dozens of small, black-and-white European Storm Petrels flittered and crooned their way into their nesting holes among the man-wrought stones, was a magical experience never to be forgotten.

Continuing northward across what were almost uniformly benign seas throughout the whole five-week odyssey, our next port of call was the Faroe Islands, situated 320 km north of the Scottish mainland, and 450 km south of Iceland.

Despite their geographical location, these islands are politically within the Kingdom of Denmark, though largely self-governing. Like the Isle of Man, their parliament dates back to the Vikings, who set one up here in 850 on the Tinganes Peninsula, in what today remains a colorful part of the town of Tórshavn, the islands’ capital.

I could as well have been on a journey connecting the dots between the ancient parliaments of Europe, for after the Manx Tynwald and the Tinganes parliament I was also able to visit the Althing in Iceland. Etymologists among you may note some phonetic similarity between those three names. They are all variations of “thing” — thing being an Old Norse word for an assembly. In Iceland, the Althing dates back to 930, and is located in what is now Thingvellir National Park — another World Heritage Site. Its dramatic location in southwestern Iceland, not far from the capital of Reykjavík, and astride the rift valley marking the impact of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge on modern Iceland, make it among the most popular sites for visitors to the country.

My voyage from the south coast of England reached its climax in Iceland. It was, among other things (no pun intended), a journey of nostalgia, because I had spent three summers doing fieldwork in northeast Iceland as a postgraduate student, and for 30 years I had been looking for an opportunity to return.

The post-bubble economic crisis and its impacts on this tiny nation notwithstanding, the country was much as I recalled it: dramatic, raw, beautiful, and dynamic. Geological forces are in evidence at every turn in Iceland. The moody landscapes are mainly comprised of lava flows of varying ages and at various stages of revegetation, while the skyline is marked with volcanoes — it was the eruption of one of them, Eyjafjallajökull, between March and May in 2010 that disrupted so much European and North American air traffic.

During previous travels around Iceland, I had seen much of the interior, but this time, by ship, I was able to visit the islands around its coast, its capes and headlands, and see Iceland the way the first settlers must have viewed it — as a haven on the horizon.

From the dramatic cliffs of Látrabjarg to the low island of Vigur in the west, and from Grímsey to Mývatn in the north and northeast, birds were in ascendance — seabirds and waterfowl mainly — but offshore we found Humpback Whales and White-beaked Dolphins, and in the harbors and maritime museums we encountered in the fiords around the coast, such as Siglufjörður in the north and Seyðisfjörður in the east, we saw the past glories of the fishing industry, particularly that of the once-abundant herring.

Grímsey nudges the Arctic Circle and is the northernmost inhabited island in Iceland; only the tiny uninhabited islet of Kolbeinsey lies further north. The island, however, feels relatively mild, and for the true Arctic experience in Iceland it’s necessary to head for a location far away in a national park in the southeast: Vatnajökull.

There, Iceland’s largest glacier brings the experience of year-round winter. It is, too, the largest ice cap by volume in Europe and the second-largest in area (after that on Svalbard). The views from the glacier, best experienced on foot or by snowmobile, are dramatic enough, but from the south coast of Iceland seeing the fingers of the glacier reaching down toward the black volcanic rocks and sand of the coast is a truly spectacular vista. Greatly in retreat, the thickness of the glacier is shrinking and its outstretched fingers are shortening. But nevertheless, at Jökulsárlón the glacier lagoon is dotted with bergs calved from the nearest “tongue” of flowing ice.

From Europe’s largest glacier, to its oldest parliaments, from the land that gave us the Icelandic name (geysir) for the original hot water spout, to the steps from which America’s founding fathers set sail, from eider farming to sheep farming and coastal fishing, my summer journey from England to Iceland brought me a new depth of understanding of the reach of the Vikings, and of the lands that Neolithic peoples first colonized. It 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.

Mark Brazil is a British travel and natural history writer, a photographer, and an eco-tourism consultant based in Hokkaido who has written his “Wild Watch” column in The Japan Times for 29 years. His travels take him worldwide, though he returns most frequently to South Asia and South America. You can find out more, including about his numerous books and how to order them, at: www.wildwatchjapan.com.