Runic writing in Orkney
: expression of a Norse identity?

  • Andrea Freund

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy (awarded by UHI)


This thesis concerns itself with the Orcadian corpus of runic inscriptions and how identity is expressed in it.
In this PhD project, the 54 Viking Age and Late Norse runic inscriptions from Orkney have been reviewed, with some addition and removals from the corpus, and put into a wider context, using interdisciplinary methods from runology, linguistics, philology, onomastics, and archaeology. The inscriptions are used as sources of identity expressions for various aspects of the Norse in Orkney, such as gender, linguistic identity, personal beliefs, commemoration of people and events, and social status. The materials used for carvings, the date ranges of inscriptions, the find spots of runic inscriptions and the ratios of portable compared to immovable objects with runic inscriptions are analysed, and connections across the sea are examined.
The results demonstrate that rune carving was performed primarily, but not exclusively, at a number of high-status sites with visibility to the Norse community in Orkney, such as the locations of halls and of the top-level assembly, by male and female carvers. Particularly during the twelfth century, carvers situated themselves consciously and deliberately within the Norse world. This is interpreted in light of the political situation of Orkney as a Norwegian earldom during the relevant period. The argument is made that the rune carvers must not necessarily have been travellers from other Norse settlements or Scandinavia. In discussing if the Norse in Orkney should be considered diasporic, the runic evidence in this thesis suggests that, at least for the period that most dateable inscriptions were produced in, the concept of a diaspora is not suitable to contextualise these inscriptions. The analysis of the corpus as a source for identities underlines the suitability of runic inscriptions as written sources for pre-thirteenth-century Orkney.
Finally, some reflections on the modern use of runes in Orkney are made, and it is shown that in modern Orkney, runes also serve as expressions of a Norse identity.
Date of Award26 Feb 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of the Highlands and Islands
SponsorsScottish Graduate School for the Arts and Humanities, Orkney Museums Service & Scottish Funding Council
SupervisorAlexandra Sanmark (Supervisor) & Stefan Brink (Supervisor)

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