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The hidden past – in which Christina Courtenay follows in the steps of the Vikings

Lately, my reading has included several books set in the 9th to 11th century, a period of time that comes to us as vague echoes through the mists of time. One of my recent reads is Hidden in the Mists, Christina Courtenay’s excellent dual time line book (more of that below) Her book made me curious: Viking settlements in Scotland? So I reached out, and Christina responded by writing the excellent post below! Enjoy!

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When you think about the Vikings and their travels, the first place that usually comes to mind is Lindisfarne, the small tidal island off the coast of Northumberland in the north of the UK. The raid there in AD 793 sent a shockwave through the Christian world and suddenly everyone knew who the Norsemen were – and feared them! But that wasn’t the first time they’d set foot on the British Isles, it was just one of the most brutal visits and the start of a new trend among some of them.

Orkney

If you travel by longship in a straight westerly direction from the southern part of Norway (from Bergen or anywhere south of there along the coast) you end up either in Orkney or Shetland. It was a journey that only took about 48 hours, so fairly easy. Therefore, it makes sense that it must have been one of the first places the Norwegian Vikings encountered when they started sailing across the sea.

Danish Vikings were more likely to end up on the Northumbrian coast and further south, perhaps first travelling along the European mainland, then sailing across the English Channel to southern Britain. And Swedish Vikings travelled in completely the opposite direction, across the Baltic Sea and down the Russian rivers as far as Byzantium.

The Norsemen that ended up in Shetland and Orkney, however, may have just seen them as stepping stones at first. From there, it’s not far to the Scottish mainland, then around the north coast to the Scottish Isles/Hebrides and down to places like the Isle of Man and Ireland. Although the longships were capable of sailing long distances across oceans, it was obviously safer to stay close to land if at all possible, and they would make landfall at night if they could so they didn’t have to navigate in the dark.

A broch

Contrary to popular belief, all Vikings were not wild marauders, and I believe the first ones to venture over to the British Isles came to trade. They had things like soapstone (steatite), amber and walrus tusks to barter with. While there, they must have noticed that the Orkneys had lots of fertile farm land, something that was in short supply at home. And perhaps some of them decided to stay and marry a local girl, or settle on an unoccupied piece of land. Word would have got round fairly quickly, and soon they were arriving in greater numbers between AD 800-900. When they first came, the islands were in the hands of the Picts, some of whom lived in brochs – impressive towers made of drystone walls. There is no evidence of fighting, although I’m sure the Picts would and could have defended themselves if the Vikings had tried to take anything from them by force. Archaeologists believe that the Picts and Vikings lived alongside each other eventually and probably just integrated fairly peacefully. Picts are such a mysterious people, it’s hard to know!

Fairly soon, the Northern Isles seem to have been fully ruled by Norsemen and they brought with them their own language, customs and legal system. Free Vikings were ruled by a þing – a court of justice or parliament that made laws and settled arguments – and this lives on in place names like Tingwall, the little port where I recently took a ferry to the island of Rousay. The Norse language also lived on and became a specific dialect called Norn, which was spoken locally until the mid-19th century, although for much of that time Scots was used as well. The last man to have spoken Norn died in 1850.

I recently visited the Orkney Islands, following in the footsteps of the Vikings for research purposes. I wanted to see for myself where they had settled and what it was like. The answer – it’s quite simply stunning! I was lucky enough to have good weather while I was there, which probably helped as I can imagine it would be rather cold, bleak and windy during winter. But at this time of year, the islands were at their best – green and fertile fields, fiercely blue skies and with bright sunlight that made everything feel a little bit surreal.

Birsay

There are only a few traces left of the Viking settlements, but enough that you can see what it must have been like. On the small tidal island called the Brough of Birsay, I found the outlines of quite a large settlement – a hall and other dwellings, a smith’s workshop, and a possible sauna – perhaps the stronghold of a man called Thorfinn the Mighty during the 11th century. This island can only be reached by a causeway during low tide, so would have been the perfect place to live if you wanted to defend yourself. It was also wild and beautiful, and the cliffs on one side held puffin’s nests. I’m afraid the Vikings might have eaten both them and their eggs, rather than admire these quirky-looking birds, as they did eat seabirds. But there were plenty of other things to eat so maybe they left them alone.

Deerness

Another spectacular location was a Viking settlement on top of a 30 metre high sea stack on a promontory sticking out into the sea near Deerness. To get there, we walked along cliffs that are now part of a nature reserve, looking out across the sea. Normally, the settlement would be reached via a narrow path, but unfortunately there had been a landslide so we could only look across to what was more or less an island. You could clearly see the outline of at least a couple of buildings though and whoever lived there had the most amazing views! In practical terms, there was a beach and cove next to it, which would have been perfect.

Although a lot of them could read and write runes, the Vikings didn’t use them to record much for posterity. They do seem to have been fond of scribbling on things though, like carving their names on items they owned or practising writing (like on the bear’s tooth in the photo which says ‘futhark’, the first letters of the runic alphabet), and occasionally indulging in graffiti. Inside the Neolithic tomb of Maeshowe there were over 30 pieces of graffiti made by Norsemen, as well as some lovely little drawings, and it made me feel closer to them. It was all so human, so normal – men who were bored, writing silly things and trying to outdo each other. You got the feeling that nothing much changes!

The Viking Age officially ended in 1066 with the Battle of Stamford Bridge, but Norse culture lived on in the British Isles for long after that. In 1266 the Norwegians gave the Western Isles and Isle of Man to Alexander III of Scotland, and later, Orkney also became part of the Scottish kingdom. Many of the jarls – the earls of Orkney – had married Scotswomen and in 1468 the Scots king James III married Margaret, the Danish king’s daughter who brought him Orkney and Shetland as her dowry. (The Danes had by then taken control over the islands rather than the Norwegians).

There is still so much in the islands to remind you of the Norse heritage though, not least the place names. Most of the individual islands are called something ending in -ey, which is Old Norse for ‘island’. For example, Westray = western island, Ronaldsey = Rognvald’s island, etc. It made me feel at home and I thoroughly enjoyed my visit – I can’t wait to set one of my stories there!

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Thank you, Christina!

Now, I have already mentioned her latest book, HIDDEN IN THE MISTS

A love forged in fire lives on through the ages

Skye Logan has been struggling to run her remote farm on Scotland’s west coast alone ever since her marriage fell apart. When a handsome stranger turns up looking for work, it seems that her wish for help has been granted.

Rafe Carlisle is searching for peace and somewhere he can forget about the last few years. But echoes of the distant past won’t leave Skye and Rafe alone, and they begin to experience vivid dreams which appear to be linked to the Viking jewellery they each wear.

It seems that the ghosts of the past have secrets . . . and they have something that they want Skye and Rafe to know.

MY REVIEW

It is now quite a few years ago since I first read a novel by Christina Courtenay. I remember being struck by how beautifully she described her settings in that first book, and if anything, Ms Courtenay has further honed her descriptive skills. I can almost feel the brisk wind, the nip of cold, while before me expands the panorama of the rugged Scottish coastland and the islands beyond.

Hidden in the Mist is a skilfully plotted dual timeline story, with the narrative shifting from the late 9th century to the 21st. It could have been disruptive for the reader to move from the POV of 9th century Asta to that of 21st century Skye, but somehow Ms Courtenay manages the transitions so smoothly, it never jars. Instead, the reader just glides from one time to the other, indicating just how skilled this writer is at weaving together her two time lines.

As always in Ms Courtenay’s books, the historical background is vivid, reflecting her meticulous research. And with a 21st century female lead who has embraced a do-it-yourself attitude to life, Ms Courtenay has ample opportunity to share her knowledge about everything from dyeing wool to fishing.

Skye Logan is living alone in her isolated Scottish home ever since her husband decided he’d had enough of the solitude and walked out. She is barely coping when Rafe Carlisle appears, looking for temporary work. Initial mistrust develops to a hesitant friendship, but with both Skye and Rafe keeping secrets, things will get complicated. Plus there is the matter of the disconcertingly vivid dreams both suffer from—and the shadowy outlines of people barely visible through the mist, people who leave no footprints, who simply vanish into thin air,

In the 9th century, Ottarr nurses a heated desire for revenge on the people who killed his family and enslaved him. After several years of servitude, he is now a free man again, a smith, but that does not mean his rancour against Thorfinn has in any way abated. Oh, no: Ottarr is merely biding his time. Unfortunately for him, Thorfinn sickens and dies before Ottarr can set his plans in motion. But the other men in the settlement are as guilty as Thorfinn. It is merely a matter of redirecting his vengeance to Thorfinn’s distinctly dislikeable nephew, Kettil. And, potentially, Thorfinn’s daughter, Asta. Except what Ottar feels for Asta has very little to do with revenge, especially once he realises just how vulnerable she is to the volatile temper of her cousin.

How the stories of Ottar and Asta, Skye and Rafe intersect, I leave to future readers to find out for themselves. I recommend setting aside several hours, because once you start reading Hidden in the Mist, it is quite, quite hard to put it down!

Buy it HERE

Christina Courtenay writes historical romance, time slip and time travel stories, and lives in Herefordshire (near the Welsh border) in the UK. Although born in England, she has a Swedish mother and was brought up in Sweden – hence her abiding interest in the Vikings. Christina is a former chairman of the UK’s Romantic Novelists’ Association and has won several awards, including the RoNA for Best Historical Romantic Novel twice with Highland Storms (2012) and The Gilded Fan (2014) and the RNA Fantasy Romantic Novel of the year 2021 with Echoes of the RunesHidden in the Mists (timeslip/dual time romance published by Headline Review 18th August 2022) is her latest novel. Christina is a keen amateur genealogist and loves history and archaeology (the armchair variety).

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