Come and stand here. We are on a gently sloping, south facing hillside, the deep green grass is liberally scattered with small wild flowers, indicating rich, well-drained soil. The sea is only a few minutes away downhill. Not a building or a rig in sight, but this may not always have been the case. The gentle slope deserves more careful scrutiny.
There are faint parallel ridges at one point. The trace of a mound nearby, barely an inch or two above the surrounding levels. The outline of some long forgotten, manmade structures can still be discerned beneath the turf, or at least there are some very special people who can detect the traces and who are electrified by them. They are Viking, or rather Norse, foundations.
Shetland has raised some natural archaeologists over the years; folk who have an almost uncanny ability to find long vanished buildings by sensing their structures under the ground. The isles are now enriched by a whole department of archaeologists and their assistants, visiting specialists, excavations, talks, reports, field surveys and a host of events, all of which reinforce and interpret the finds and revelations under our feet.
Evidence is tenderly lifted from trenches and profiles. Research and tests of all kinds gather more data and a clearer and clearer image of life in the days when the sites were occupied is built up. School bairns learn more and more about Shetland during the Norse period; experts debate endlessly over the significances of this detail or that pattern, but it takes something else entirely to bring the whole subject into sharp focus, and “something else entirely” is exactly what Viking Timeslip is.
Viking Timeslip is the official title of a remarkable group of four people. As a working and performing team, they haven’t been all that long together, but as individual, skilled actor/craftsmen, with a scorching passion for history and Vikings in particular, they have been dedicated students and researchers for years and years.
This month saw them in Shetland, bringing their arts, knowledge and magic to six very fortunate schools and communities, and I was fortunate enough to share a Viking Timeslip visit to Skerries.
Picture a village hall, a large rectangular space, empty apart from a gadderie of gear set along one side. Against the wall leans a large loom, half filled with weaving; the loom weights dangling. A cauldron and a range of hand worked clay and wooden pots stands beside a fireplace on the floor. Some sturdy chests are arranged nearby and behind them a large wooden bed stands, over which are thrown a pile of furs and sheepskins.
A young woman sits cross-legged on the floor in front of all the furniture. She is dressed in a long coarsely woven robe, with a second one visible below. Her blonde hair braided in an unfamiliar style, tight to the scalp on either side at the top, with each braid free swinging below She is engrossed upon something in her lap. She lifts the object from time to time, turning it a little, examining it carefully, then bends over it again.
In a corner of the room a man sits on a stool, bent over a small wooden frame. Something metallic gleams from inside it. The man is intent upon his work, wrenching and twisting at an iron hook that protrudes from one end. He wears long, hand-woven robes and a pair of soft leather boots trimmed with fur. His hair is long and thick, drawn back, tied with a narrow woven cord.
In the opposite corner of the room a slightly older man, similarly clad apart from a leather apron, is working at a wooden table. He is pressing carefully on a small tool over a circular of leather. He rotates the piece a fraction and presses down again. The table is strewn with small tools, a leather pouch and a scatter of small coins and silver trinkets and pieces of wire. A bundle of leather and some lengths of wood can be seen on the floor below.
A third man wearing a close fitting woollen cap appears from a side room, crosses the hall and picks up a long wooden box. He turns and retraces his route, carrying the box, his long robe swinging over his fur-trimmed boots. There is an air of quiet industry about the scene. The four seem unaware of our presence. Then the woman turns and glances in our direction. She rises hastily and comes to meet us.
“I’m so sorry,” she says, smiling warmly. “I didn’t see you. Come in, come in.” We follow her and she gestures to the floor near the cauldron. “Please be seated. I’m Asa. (It sounds like ‘racer’). Welcome to my village. What are your names?”
We tell her our names and her face registers surprise. “Sharyn, Carla, Owen, Ivan, Scott, Ethan, Jill, Nieli, Linda, How interesting. I don’t think I have come across names like these before. Where do you come from?”
The children, caught off guard, play along with the idea. “We are from the Skerries.”
We sit, surprised by her manner of speaking. After all, we all know that the group has just travelled to the Skerries from Vidlin. They must know where we come from. We had expected a polite introduction to the group, their reasons for being here, their names, but this seemed almost like being welcomed as if we were from the same period; another Viking village just down the road. It felt strange, but exciting too.
She asks the children their ages and is astonished that Sharyn, 13, is not married. There is much hilarity, but Asa’s obvious dismay quietens the children.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean any offence.” she says anxiously, “It’s just that in our country, girls get married when they are 12.”
She tells us all about Viking customs. A girl marries at 12, receiving instead of a wedding ring, a key to her husband’s wooden treasure chest. A married woman wears a head scarf, distinguishing her from her unmarried siblings.
Asa asks the children about their village. She compliments them on their clothing, evidence that they are extremely fine spinners and weavers and appears hurt by their laughter.
It takes some time to explain to her what a “shop” is. She seems completely ignorant of such places, but settles after some debate with the notion that a shop must be something like a market.
She describes the scene and the activity of a Viking market. She and her husband, Ulfric, are traders and she obviously enjoys the life. She shows them her bags and purses, the items that they buy from various craftsmen, for selling at village markets in the area and paints a vivid picture in our minds of the amazing range of things available and the many different countries that the items and the other traders come from.
Little by little we are lured out of our own time and our comfort zones into another world. We are invited to close our eyes.
“You are all asleep in the long house,” she tells us. There are warm furs to snuggle into, but now and then someone’s arm, or knee pokes into you. There is only the one bed and all the family sleep in it. In a minute you will wake up, but for now just listen. Eyes all closed, we listen as she describes the scene we shall “see” when we wake.
It will be dark inside. There are no windows. It will be smelly. We can “hear” sounds of cattle and other animals that live in the lower end of our longhouse. We can “hear” our mother bustling about preparing the fire and the food for the day.
We are called to wake. We eat an imaginary breakfast, not unlike the traditional fare described by older Skerries residents from their and their parents’ childhood. We try out Viking dress in turn, learning as we do so about Viking under kirtles, over kirtles, belts, shawls, boots.
Frances, the nursery teacher, comes in with Aron, a little brother to some of the children. They introduce him to Asa. She is startled. “He has a name? But he can’t be five yet, surely!” Great puzzlement and more giggles. He is only four. “Goodness me, he has a name already!”
Asa seems shocked at the idea. Vikings, she explains in the villages she knows, never name a child until he or she reaches five. Too many young children die before the age of five that the custom is to wait.
And so the process goes on. We accompany Asa into her village life, the traditions, the activities, the customs, the routines. We even share in some of them. She takes us to her weaving workshop where we all learn to make “Naalbinding”, a one needle form of knitting, especially good for making socks. “Ulfric is wearing a cap I made for him from Naalbinding.” We remember the man with the cap, carrying a wooden box. A then more fun begins. We get to meet her friends.
She takes us to Ulfric’s workshop, where in a side room he is polishing a small knife. “Please sit over here. My tools are sharp and I don’t want anyone to hurt themselves. I’ll be finished in a moment.”
We watch quietly as he works and listen as he talks us through his working days. He seems never to have a spare moment. There is wood to be cut, wood for burning, wood for building, wood for working into tools, bowls, and furniture. There are wild animals to hunt and prepare for skinning and eating. Nothing is wasted. Every little bit is used.
He passes round a series of tools; small knife, long knife, a variety of axes, a spear. He has heavy, crude, blunt tools for this purpose; the sharp ones are kept behind him, safely out of reach. The children struggle to heave the heavy ones from one to another.
As Ulfric talks he builds scenarios of different tasks, involving each bairn in turn in the process, taking us one an imaginary wild boar hunt. A wild boar can grow up to eight feet in length.
“Who knows what noise a wild boar makes? I love mimicking animal noises. I can’t resist making a fierce grunt. Help! In a fraction of a second he has leaped, turned and “hurled his spear” in an imaginary attack. My heart is thudding from the shock.
He grins, glancing back from time to time, brandishing his spear, “making sure” that I am “properly” dead. “You can never be certain with wild boars” he growls. The children are delighted; the horrors!
Lastly he shows us “the only thing here which is not made to be a tool” his fighting sword. Gasps of admiration at the ivory handled, inlaid pommel and pattern-welded blade, gleaming with magical dark and light silver swirls where two grades of iron and steel have been beaten together. (This creation cost him £2,500. Really!) Over an afternoon we spend time with all the others. We make copper bracelets for ourselves with Wulfgar, watch Cathbad making a silver chain cord, try out “slingenbinden”, “tablet weaving” and “trollenbinden”.
We are well on the way to becoming “proper” Vikings. This magical group have in just a couple of hours embedded more “real” Viking history into the children, than they would learn in a term of school project work, and they will never forget it.
It’s time to go. But later in the day they return, with parents, grandparents, friends and neighbours for the “community Viking evening” and the fun starts all over again.
Viking board games are a “real” battle. Viking wrestling, weapons demonstrations and storytelling make for a great night for all. It is hard to imagine how they manage to pack all the gear into the blue Transit van the next day. But there they go, on the ferry, waving and smiling, still wearing their Viking dress, promising to try to return. I really hope they do.
This is the best kind of education possible. Meticulously planned and researched; not a word or an idea, a tool or a story that hasn’t been sourced from ancient texts, excavated artefacts or scientific tests.
Viking Timeslip is a group of four extraordinary people, passionate about the period, dedicated to bringing it to life for others. In an age where most things are factory made, shop bought, usually scrapped afterwards, the Viking ways of self sufficiency, whole community dependency, learning through doing, not schooling, there is much to enjoy and think about here.
Skilled in their crafts and 100 per cent committed to each other and the children and adults they work with, all Viking Timeslip need for the future is to secure enough funding. I very much hope that they do.
Jill Slee Blackadder