Viking graffiti inside the burial chamber, Orcadia

Just as you’d think they would, the Vikings came upon a structure of religious and historical significance that had already been there a few thousand years, punched a hole through the roof because they couldn’t find the door, pulled out the bones and threw them outside, stayed only a few days, got bored, and left.

But in that time they scratched runes into the sandstone walls, some of the best examples of Viking graffiti in Western Europe. The bones of the families that were stored there in the small stone cells, tossed to the rough island weather on the treeless moors, taken off by wolves, wild dogs, chewed down to pieces, passed through stool, gone forever.

Past the signs for Humped Pelicans Crossing, Otters Crossing, Red Squirrels, Blind Persons, Blind Summits, Elderly Persons (depicted as two stick figures bent over a cane, hair tied back in buns) — we hug the A9 from Inverness north to our ferry, the Orkney Islands, and when we arrive, this is the quality of light at 1 o’clock:


The sun is like a bullet wound in the muscle of the sky, how the two move at odds with one another through some back and forth tension — or did the sky swallow the sun by accident, a milky marble, trying to get it down, or spit it out?

I arrive at the northernmost Scotch distillery in the world just a minute after the last tour of the week has started but they let me in, and I take fastidious notes, ask lots of questions, and at the end of it, in the tasting room, they bring out the goods: a 12-year-old, and a couple other ones I got for buying the mid-level tour, for £20.

Maybe it was the drive or the fact my kids and wife were waiting for me outside, getting antsy, but I just knocked the first one back while the others in the tour and the tour guide just stood there looking startled, and the tour guide tries to find a delicate way to say you really should let it linger a while, roll it in your mouth, chew it — and they’re still looking misty-eyed talking about it while my snifter is empty, and I don’t know what to do with myself, and feel like a classic American who doesn’t know the difference between tasting Scotch and drinking it, likely never will.

The Highland Park distillery, about 4 PM local time

The Highland Park distillery (estd 1798) , about 4 PM local time

It’s just me and an older couple, and the wife declines her tasting, shudders, looks away, says she can’t stand Scotch really, and the husband politely asks if he can have her portion, an obvious yes, and the wife goes kind of absent, looks away while he sips, later meets Dawn on the street and says I don’t like it when he drinks Scotch, which Dawn can relate to: I’ve now decided I’m going to taste all of the Scotch in Scotland now, or focus on the Highlands and the Islands at least, because they rhyme and they’re rougher — no ”Scotch for people who don’t like Scotch” for me — I want the oak, the girth, the sea salt, the smoke.

The Viking runes look like leafless trees, like Tolkien-stuff, and our tour guide translates them for us:

These runes were carved by the best rune carver in the world.

A second one is written by a woman, which is encouraging, and suggests women were literate at that time, at least enough to write graffiti.

Another reads,

Great treasure was taken from the mound and buried in the northwest.

A third is derisive about a woman named Ingebjørg, calls her a show-off, popular with men.

Another talks about treasure, likely a ruse, but no one knows for sure:

That will be true which I say, treasure will be taken away.

There are drawings too, depicting the wolf who destroyed the world by eating the sun and Odin, Fenrir — and his brother the snake, Jörmungandr, who restored things, tied in a magic ribbon — sons to Loki, a shapeshifter who turned himself into an otter.

Each character is placed vertically over the next and separated with a horizontal line, like panes in a comic, or to denote a different frame or scene. The runes are dated 1153, and our guide says it’s comforting in some ways to think people don’t change that much over time.

Outside the burial mound there are two hills off in the distance, and I think it probably looks about the same now as it did thousands of years ago — we just come and go. Sitting inside stone huts outside of the wind around a fire, with not much else to say we write banal, self-interested things on the rocks. “I was here.”

At dinner, the hotel lobby is flooded with rugby players getting off a bus, all of them in ties, carrying athletic bags around their shoulders, each has an open bottle of beer or two, and later, near midnight, they awaken us in the hundred-year-old hotel, with more fireworks for bonfire night, and the mad laughter and dialogue of drunks that kicks up like the wind, moves in the same senseless pattern with relentless force against anything it encounters, bends back the trees, breaks down cliffs, stops for a moment and then resumes with newfound strength, held up by its own weight. And if the winds were gods they were wrathful, and the sun would be a god too for how often it graced us — and the birds and wolves had spirits too because we were more like them then, as we huddle into our fox-den hotel room, the four of us, my family, listening to each other’s breathing sounds as we stir in the morning, pull back the drapes, and make plans to visit their remains.



Categories: travel

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18 replies

  1. “The sun is like a bullet wound in the muscle of the sky…”

    Nailed it!


  2. “The sun is like a bullet wound in the muscle of the sky, how the two move at odds with one another through some back and forth tension”? Vivid. What’s in that scotch anyway?


    • I know, it’s being at the top of the earth and without work for too long, and the light waning. Kind of losing my mind and kind of feels good, like dropping something in a pillow case off a bridge.


  3. i am fascinated by the runes and would love to see them


    • Yeah, they held a flashlight to them and they really looked like frail tree limbs, some with X’s through them. They didn’t allow photography inside, but I understand it’s pretty easy to learn how to read runes. Something I’ll likely never find use for, but interesting. I could put that on my LinkedIn profile, though!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Love your descrisption of the runes – and your final paragraph. So atmospheric, it feels as if you’re in the modern equivalent of a Viking longhouse, listening to the warriors carousing, snuggling down in your furs, hoping Fenrir won’t eat you in the night and that the sun will return soon and break the long night open…
    You’re channelling those Norse spirits along with the Scotch. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. perfect. i’m sure that would put you at the top of any hiring list.


    • Yeah, they have to have a field for that in the recruiters’ databases: rune reader. Could come in handy working college libraries, to decipher the heady graffiti in the bathrooms.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Perfect. The distillery scene had shades of Bill Bryson. Ever read his stuff? Always accessible but never dumbed down.


    • I’ve had A Walk in the Woods either recommended to me, or feel like I’ve read it, but can’t remember it, which is a bad sign and more on me than him. So no, I don’t think. Accessible, not dumbed down – that would be good. I don’t like dumb.
      So, drove down from the Orkneys today through hurricane-esque remnant winds across the UK, some exciting times driving over the narrow causeways with waves splashing, spraying over the highway. Kids loved it, I was pretty tense. Having a wind-down in the hotel room now with some Herbie Hancock. Nothing dumb about that. You’re really pushing 50 now. Or it’s pushing you.


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