When asked to give the name of his nearest mainline rail station on a Parliamentary expenses questionnaire, former liberal MP for Orkney Jo Grimond gave his reply as Bergen, Norway. This facetious response turned out to be correct, as Bergen’s rail station is situated 340km from the Orkney constituency, compared with the Highland Main Line station at Inverness 420km away. This geographical closeness between Norway and Scotland has provided the grounds for a lasting relationship between the two countries, with Scandinavian culture and language leaving an indelible mark upon Scotland.
From about the 8th century onwards, the North Sea was awash with Vikings, setting sail by longship on their infamous plundering invasions. Initially attracted by gold and treasures held within monasteries in the north of Scotland, Vikings could reach the Islands of Shetland in less than 24 hours by longship under good seafaring conditions. Over the centuries, Hebrides and Caithness would come under Norse rule, with Orkney and the Shetlands remaining Norwegian earldoms until 1468. Nowhere is Norwegian influence more prevalent than in the northern isles, with almost half of all people on Shetland and 30% on Orkney claiming Viking ancestry.
These days the longships have been swapped for short-haul planes, as direct flights operate between Edinburgh and Oslo. I’m writing this blog entry from Trondheim, Norway’s ancient capital. It’s a beautiful little town about a third of the way up Norway; with continuous streets of wooden houses painted in an array of different colours, Gothic architecture intertwined with modernity and innovation, and of course, snow covering everything. The city was founded in 997 as a trading post by Viking King Olav Tryggvasson, and remained the capital throughout the Viking age until 1217. The magnificent Nidaros Cathedral is located in the middle of the city, and at over 1000 years old has an impressive history, changing religious hands from Catholic to Lutheran during the protestant reformation in 1537.
My Norwegian essentially consists of one word – ‘takk’, so while watching a film last night with Norwegian subtitles I was trying to match up the words as I saw them on screen with what I could hear. I came across the Norwegian word for toddler – ‘barn’, which I thought resembled the Scots word ‘bairn’. Turns out ‘bairn’ is a direct derivative of Old Norse, along with many other Scots words including midden (rubbish dump), muckle (large) and even kilt, from the verb ‘kjalta’ (to fold).
Scandinavian heritage is also evident amongst Clans, with some being able to trace their roots back to Norse Kings. Clan MacLeod and Clan MacLeod of Lewis claim their descent from Leòd, who lived in the 13th Century. It was thought that Leòd was a son of Olaf the Black, the Viking sea-king who ruled the Isle of Mann. However this genealogy has been contested, with articles recently published in the MacLeod Clan magazine suggesting that Leòd was in fact a distant cousin of Magnus, the Last King of Mann. The name Leod is the anglicised version of the Gaelic name Leòd, which is thought to have derived from the Old Norse name Ljótr, meaning ugly. Mac is the Gaelic word for son, therefore MacLeod stands for Son of Leod. Clan Gunn in the North and Clan MacDonald of the Isles can also trace their lineage to Norse descendents.
Cultural similarities also exist in modern times, with each country sharing an interest in gloomy, gritty crime drama. The success of Norwegian detective writers like Jo Nesbø and Karin Fossum echoes that of the ‘Tartan Noir’ writers including Ian Rankin, Val McDermid and William McIlvanney. In an interview with the BBC, Ian Rankin suggested that the similarities in each countries fiction hint at something deep rooted in the national characteristic. “In countries where it’s dark half the year, you do tend to have a great tradition of storytelling … Both sides tend to share quite a dark view of the human condition, and are certainly a long way from the Agatha Christie school of crime writing.”
One thing that isn’t so similar is the price of living, in particular alcohol. On my first night here I was mortified when I went to pay for one bottle of beer, at almost £14 a pop. Punitive taxes placed on alcohol by the Government, combined with the strength of the Krone make for very expensive nights out.
You can read more about the return of Orkney and Shetland to Scotland here