I didn’t dip a toe into any sea area for The General Synopsis At Midnight this week, instead I experimented with time-travel.
Once upon a time, and not as long ago as you might think, Iceland simply didn’t exist. It was nothing more than the faintest wisp of a myth. Then, early in the ninth century an Irish (hurrah!) monk called Dicuil – now there’s a name you don’t hear shouted across many playgrounds – wrote about Irish pilgrim monks spending the summer on a remote land. And that’s the first recorded mention of the country. Not of the people, nor the volcanoes, nor the sea-bright air. The country. There were no people to construct unfathomable megalithic cairns. No-one to drop a darn-and-it-was-my-lucky-flint-too arrow-head. Over a thousand years before Dicuil took quill to parchment, a Greek explorer called Pytheas of Marseilles came up with the idea of land six days’ sail from the north of the British Isles. He called it Thule. Because it was the most northerly point anyone could imagine it became known as Ultima Thule. And even it wasn’t Iceland. (What Pytheas had come up with was most likely the Shetlands, or depending on how speedy a sailor his calculations were based on, possibly Norway).
Dicuil set the bar for travel writing high, partly because he described the country so evocatively, partly because he believed it actually existed. Of the permanent daylight in summer he wrote, ‘The setting sun hides itself at the evening hour as if behind a little hill, so that no darkness occurs during that brief period.’ Dicuil added that it was possible to pick the lice from your shirt as precisely at night as in daytime, thanks to the light. Clearly, here was a man who understood the vagaries of travel. (On Unst recently I was told this perpetual midsummer daylight is known by the lovely title ‘the Simmer Dim’).
Although they had yet to settle in Iceland, Vikings had been firing themselves at northern and central Europe for some years before Dicuil recorded the monks’ visit. The Viking age is generally considered to have started in 793AD, when they decided to have a crack at Lindisfarne, an island off the northeast coast of England. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle – a thousand-year old series of manuscripts charting the history of the Anglo-Saxons, not a British local paper chock full of small ads, in case you’re wondering – recorded, ‘In this year fierce, foreboding omens came over the land of the Northumbrians, and the wretched people shook; there were excessive whirlwinds, lightning, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the sky. These signs were followed by great famine…’
I like to imagine a couple of young monks standing at the door to Lindisfarne while marauding Norsemen stream up from the water’s edge like crazed sea monsters. One monk sucks his teeth and says, ‘Here, there might have been something in those whirlwinds after all.’
‘Excessive whirlwinds,’ says his pal.
‘Yeah. There was all that lightning too.’
‘And the dragons.’
‘God, yes! I’d forgotten about them.’
Over a thousand years later and all the countries of the Shipping Forecast have grown close to each other without having moved. Should we choose to now, we can find out what each other is up to all the time. We know each other’s weather – in fact, we make it our business to. Everything is transparent. Which made the recent BBC report Why Icelanders are wary of elves living beneath the rocks even more intriguing. With the constant prospect of invasion in island countries, it is easy to understand ancient beliefs in spirits of land and water. Forces that could protect and warn, that could provide shelter but just as easily cause harm. Belief in land-spirits is thought to have become especially strong in Iceland primarily because of its isolation. Land-spirits – ‘Landvettir’ – were powerful, responsible for the welfare of the land. Modernity doesn’t seem to have entirely done away with these beliefs: in a survey in 1998, 54.4% of Icelanders said they believed in the existence of elves. Why Icelanders are wary of elves living beneath the rocks claimed that work on a new road linking the Alftanes peninsula to a suburb of Reykjavik called Gardabaer was halted when campaigners warned it would disturb an Elf Chapel and a protected area of untouched lava. A local woman who claimed she could talk to these Huldufolk (believed to be the same size as humans, but invisible to us) mediated. The road went ahead on the basis that the roads department would carefully move the Chapel – aka a dark and craggy, 12 foot high rock – elsewhere. A pro-elf protestor commented, “To have people through hundreds of years talking about the same things… It is part of the nation.”
In Norway – a land that resembles a crackle of frost on a winter window, where the landscape itself is brought to life in stories of giants – the tomte was a benign spirit who took care of a farmer’s house, but only for farmers who worked hard. On Shetland it was once commonly believed that the hills and the sea were full of mysterious creatures, some more harmless than others. Music-loving fairies called trows lived underground in heather-covered knowes and went about their work at night. Shetland’s fishermen had a special language for use at sea. It was a form of code, just as the Shipping Forecast is. They did not refer to ordinary objects by their usual names, because they thought that would invite danger onto the boat. John Spence wrote in his 1899 book Shetland Folklore, “The movements of witches were always made against the sun, and by whirling a wooden cap in water … they were supposed to be able to raise the wind like Furies, and toss the sea in wild commotion capable of destroying anything afloat.” People travelling at night near streams and marshy ground kept an eye out for ghostly horses called nyuggles (top image). Should an exhausted traveller not realise what they were dealing with and hitch a free ride, the nyuggle would bolt for the nearest water. It never ended well, as you can imagine. The water spirits in Norway skipped the horse bit entirely and were said to take the form of a devil, eager to lure people to a sure death by drowning.
The famine that supposedly preceded the Viking attack of Lindisfarne reminded me of a story told to me by my grandmother a few years before she died. In 1921 she was eighteen and moved from Mayo to Cork to train in animal husbandry at the Munster Institute. She then got a job as a poultry instructor with the Department of Agriculture. She was the first woman in the west of Ireland to buy a car, she said. Seventy years later she still had a photo of the two of them together, with her leaning proudly against the driver door. (She would have been horrified by my timidity on Shetland with my rented Mirage.)
Her route around the farms of the west of Ireland took in the Aran islands; Inis Mór, Inis Meáin and Inis Oírr. Leaving her little car behind her on the mainland, she would stay on the islands for two or three days at a time, sometimes more if a storm got up and the boat couldn’t sail back. The islands were beautiful and she always enjoyed walking for miles around them going from farm to farm, crossing the fields at whatever place she chose. At first the farmers told her that she had to follow the roads and paths but she wouldn’t, which would have been typical of her I suspect. She must have been confident that no-one would make trouble for an Instructor ‘over from the Department’. She liked the locals so she never really minded getting stuck for an extra day, even though some of the lodgings were rough. On one of her visits she’d stayed in Inis Mór’s only hotel – such as it styled itself – and had woken up to find a rat sharing the pillow with her.
One morning on Inis Mór – which older islanders often called by its former name, Inis Bant – she set off to walk to a farm some miles away. She was enjoying the walk because it was a lovely fresh morning and she was as good a walker as she was a driver. All of a sudden she began to get hungry. It was the weirdest thing, she said, but she got hungrier and hungrier until her head was spinning and her knees crumbled under her and couldn’t go any further. It was the most she could do to pull herself along by the ditch as the grass around her appeared to be going black in front of her eyes. She was about to die, she was sure of it. And she was sickened that she’d never see her lovely car again, and worried would her mother know where to find her other prized possession, a gold medal King George had presented to her the year before, at the 1925 Royal Agricultural Show. Just as she realised she wouldn’t be able to crawl another inch, she heard a shout and from nowhere, a man grabbed her arm and dragged her over the ditch and onto the road. He pulled a piece of bread from his pocket and as soon as the bread went into her mouth she was immediately better, not hungry or thirsty at all. ‘Are you a mad woman?’ he said and before she could answer he turned and strode off. She was to be back on the island many times after that day but she never saw him again.
She had strayed onto Hungry Grass, she believed: famine grass, where a starving person had died. Planted by fairies, according to some. Nearly seventy years later, she ended her story with the advice, ‘always keep something small to eat in your pocket,’ and with a last, decisive click of her dentures, added, ‘hungry grass can trick a person, because it looks the same as any other.’
Stories are messages without bottles. Travel changes them, just as it does people. The Icelandic word saga is a cousin by marriage of the Old Norse segja, ‘to say’, which makes me wonder what a folklore map that covers the same territory as the Shipping Forecast would look like. Would there be any definite lines, any careful delineations? Wouldn’t those areas that don’t touch any land be entirely redundant, mere passageways from one harbour to another? I picture folklore and fairy tales moving invisibly through the air just as seeds are carried inside birds. Words hewn in Viking longhouses (the photo is of a reconstructed one on Unst), cast adrift in Norway and washing ashore in Scotland and Iceland and Ireland.
Stories were stowaways on Viking ships. Myths were breathed between monks patiently guiding their lonely rowboats to unknown lands. Huldufolk, trowes, tomte, the Little People… these are grafted from one tradition to another. Our lives are tales told in the cries of cormorants. Our fears cross dark seas, whispered by the waves.
The General Synopsis At Midnight is my exploration of the sea areas of the BBC R4 Shipping Forecast, thanks to the Maeve Binchy Travel Award. The earlier post ‘Counting Down To Midnight’ explains the project.
The Nyuggle was photographed from a line drawing used in a display board at The Shetland Museum and Archives in Lerwick. It’s a fantastic museum and worth exploring online if you can’t get there in person. www.shetland-museum.org.uk
Want to sea more?
Why Icelanders are wary of elves living beneath the rocks: http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-27907358
Old Norse-Icelandic Literature, a short introduction by Heather O’Donoghue. Blackwell Publishing 2004.
A big thank-you to Eilis Ni Dhuibhne for introducing me to the mystery and beauty of the folklore tradition.