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Folk Lore in Lowland Scotland
Chapter III - The Scandinavians


"......from Fife,
Where the Norwegian banners flout the sky."
SHAKESPEARE.

"When Denmark's raven soared on high
Triumphant through Northumbria's sky,
And the broad shadow of her wing
Blackened each cataract and spring."
SCOTT.

THE Phoenician tin-seekers and the Roman conquerors brought to Britain, as we have seen, new ideas and new beliefs, besides endowing us with new resources by opening up the hidden treasures of the mines. Each race as they came to trade or subject stamped traces of their residence on our folk lore, but it was undoubtedly the Scandinavians who left most impress on our character and customs. Their raven flag succeeded the all-conquering Roman eagle. The ensign bearing the king of birds had soared over Britain from the time the nameless Roman standard-bearer of the tenth legion, on their first approach to the strand, had earned deathless renown by leaping into the surf crying, Follow me," and the hesitating warriors followed their flag. From that time for some four hundred years the Romans ruled us, but when our southern conquerors followed their eagle back to its eerie in the Eternal City, in this northernmost Ultima Thule of their sword-acquired lands, the natives were gathering themselves together to grow into the world-possessing power the Druid sage had foretold would be Britain's destiny.

"Rome shall perish—write that word
In the blood that she has spilt;
Perish, hopeless and abhorr'd,
Deep in ruin as in guilt.

Then the progeny that springs
From the forests of our land,
Arm'd with thunder, clad with wings,
Shall a wider world command."

At that period a seemingly ill wind blew to our shores pillaging bands who in the end wrought this nation lasting good. As Mr. S. Laing explains in his Kings of Norway . All would have been Roman in Europe to-day in principle and social arrangement—Europe would have been like Turkey, one vast den of slaves, with a few rows in its amphitheatre of kings, nobles, and churchmen raised above the dark mass of humanity beneath them, if three boats from the north of the Elbe had not landed at Ebbsfleet in the Isle of Thanet fourteen hundred years ago, and been followed by a succession of similar boat expeditions of the same people marauding, conquering, and settling during six hundred years, viz., from 449 to 1066. All that men hope for of good government and future improvement in their physical and moral condition—all that civilised men enjoy at this day of civil, religious, and political liberty, the British constitution, representative literature, the trial by jury, security of property, freedom of mind and person, the influence of public opinion over the conduct of public affairs, the Reformation, the liberty of the press, the spirit of the age—all that is or has been of value to man in modern times as a member of society, either in Europe or in the New World may be traced to the spark left burning on our shores by these northern barbarians. The same seed was no doubt sown by the old Anglo-Saxons and by the Northmen, for they were originally the same people; but the seed of the former had perished under Roman superstition and church influence during five centuries in which the mind and property in every country were subjugated to the priesthood whose home was at Rome; and the seed of the latter flourished, because it was fresh from a land in which all were proprietors with interests at stake, and accustomed, although in a very rude and violent way, to take a part, by Things or assemblies of the people, in all the acts of their government."

It was well for us that the wind of God—the nor'-easter - encouraged these sea pirates to come "conquering from the eastward." "Lords by land and sea," they made a happy hunting- ground of our coasts, and owing to their blood we inherit that goodly heritage, the mastery of the ocean. They imbued us with an undying love for "the beauty and mystery of the ships and the magic of the sea," till—

"Never was isle so little, never was sea so lone,
But over the sand and the palm trees an English flag has flown."

These strong-handed, strong-willed Norsemen needed no laboriously-made road for their armed men to traverse. Their highway was across a field of foam, and with their sailor-trained, keen eyes and shrewd wits they judged from their galleys what manner of country they had reached and where the richest spoil lay. Ofttimes the poor Britons must have been terror-stricken when they saw the sails of these dare-devil Berserkers looming in the distance. They were a race who loved to look on the bright face of danger, to whom the scent of blood was sweet, and the clang of arms in battle intoxicating music. Possessed of a robust strength, and capable of accomplishing incredible exploits, they came and settled where they listed. They brought with them, not the culture and sins and civilisation of the Romans, but that glory in seafaring, that unquenchable thirst for world- wandering which, united to a grim courage, a love of enterprise and of freedom, has helped to weld Britain into an Imperial dominion. The legends and customs which are our use and wont to-day they brought with them. They dwelt with that wide thoroughfare, the German Ocean, for ever lapping or surging at their very doors, and also as if to spur them to ride thereon "with horse of tree"; above their homes, their veritable roof trees, there towered the Norway pines, each worthy to be the mast of some great ammiral." Thus, their spirit of adventure egging them on, with timber ready to hand, they turned naturally to shipbuilding. They wielded the axe and hammer with a will, for their hands longed to handle the oar. The necessity of foraging for food also drove them afield, for as Conan Doyle truly says, "Cold and poverty and storm are the nurses of the qualities which make for empire." The hardy Norsemen could not rest satisfied with steadily and bucolicly tilling their stationary corner of ground. Their instincts led them to plough the waves, and their brains were the brighter by reason of their wanderings. The Norsemen, when winter and rough weather held them captive, sat round their fires and recited tales of their own or their forefathers' doughty deeds. The chiefmost theme, however, were legends of Odin and his strong sons. Truly giants walked on the earth in their days, and the stories of their prowess did not diminish in the telling, indeed they grew in stature as time rolled on. "Far-away fowls have fine feathers" we know, and there is an equivalent Gaelic proverb which avers, "There are long horns on cattle in mist." These Northern heroes and the beings and monsters who figure in their myths grew bigger and bigger as the dark of ages enshrouded them. Their human prototypes had doubtless been splendid fellows. They came of a race whose portion and lot were likened to that of the younger brother of fairy story, who was compelled by ill-usage to go forth to seek his fortune. He went out into the world and worked—the elder brother stayed at home in slothful ease, in the slumberous air of the luxuriant East. The younger brother, strengthened with his trials and struggles, eventually grew into a renowned man. Honest of purpose, yet observant, he cleared away all difficulties which obstructed his path, and by his caution and cleverness he acquired wealth and received visible rewards. The younger brother's portion was the Scandinavians' and ours. His descendants carry on the tradition he left. From generation to generation they leave home to seek or improve their fortune. It is they who with a will take up the white man's burden and obey the injunction:—

"In patience to abide,
To veil the threat of terror
And check the show of pride;
By open speech and simple,
An hundred times made plain,
To seek another's profit
And work another's gain."

Besides fighting the savage wars for peace, they fight with the forest, and if it by its deep-rooted obdureness does not frustrate their efforts and feed on their bones, they extend civilisation and cultivate lands which have remained untilled since the creation. The Romans left us the ruins of altars to Sylvanus, their wood god. The Norsemen, with their axes and their stubborn courage, taught us how to clear away the impeding trees and turn what had once been primeval wood into fertile fields. It is these intrepid- spirited younger brothers of ours who to-day continue to extend the empire and defend its furthest outpost. They do not forget the—

"Grey old weary mother
Throned amid the Northern waters,"

but return again to her rich in this world's gear by reason of their perseverance, having used their talents with energy and wisdom. it is the younger brother who, when he has set his affairs in order, visits his opulent but indolent elder brother whose heritage is waning by reason of his despotic greed. It is he who fills full the mouth of famine," and institutes law, order, freedom, and education in the neglected dominion, as for instance Britain, the younger brother of to-day, has turned his attention to India, the rich, lazy, effete elder.

On our folk lore as on our character, the Norse left a deep indent. One, writing of the Northland and its battle-loving sea-rovers, who took long to adopt, or adapt themselves to, the gentle tenets of Christianity, says: It is not surprising that there, rather than in any other part of Europe, we should find the old world wants, and hopes, and fears, dark guesses, crude imaginings, child-like poetic expressions, crystalised into a pretty definite system of belief and worship. We can walk through the glittering ice halls of the old frozen faith, and count its gems and wonder at its fearful images; but the warm heart reachings from which they alike flowed, we can only darkly feel at best, and narrowly pry into here and there."

The barbarian Northmen formed out of their myths a healthy-toned worship of their own. Odin was their all-powerful ideal of a god-like man whose word was law. He ruled over Asgard, the stronghold he had created, throned on its heights among nebulous clouds. In it were Norns who spun perpetually the web which formed the destinies of men. They were the Fates, giants' daughters, the avengers of wrong. Odin dwelt truly under a roof tree for the great ash, the Yggdrasil, spread its branches over him. The editor of Mallet's Northern Antiquities says:

We are inclined to regard this mythic tree as the symbol of ever-enduring time, or rather of universal nature ever varying in its aspects, but subsisting throughout eternity. It is called somewhere "Time's hoary nurse," and we see the principles of destruction and renovation acting upon it." We annually welcome two offshoots of Odin's ash among us, for the Christmas tree and the gaily-bedecked Maypole are both saplings from this giant stem. From Asgard, where its stalwart heroes used to take walks abroad just to see if any entertaining adventure would befall them, we gather many of our legends and myths. The Northmen, who were so long in adopting Christianity, we conjecture from folk lore had, out of their romantic tales, concocted a scheme which accounted for the manner in which this earth's machinery moved. They also formed ideas in regard to their future state which had a ring of reasonable soundness in them. These sea-born ancestors of ours were gifted with forethought and judgment. Of course their scientific knowledge was centuries behind the times, but the practicalness and poetry in their theories and ideas comes into view when we read of the punishments meted out by Odin to the idle dwarfs and elves, which resulted in the ultimate benefit of mankind, for the ill-doing dwarfs were sentenced to toil in the darksome under-world to give to those above fuel and gems, and the light- fingered elves were taught to assist the sunshine and the showers in unfolding the secrets long wrapped in the sheltering snows of winter. Legend made Odin into a just, benign All Father, whose bravery and nobleness was an example worthy of worship. A fire-eater in these days was the only august personage, and Odin was great both as a warrior and as a ruler. The Norseman's heaven was a place full of men who had fought a good fight, taking their ease after war. They had a hell, one might almost say in these complacent advanced days, of the old- fashioned sort. It was a burning spot in the centre of the earth, and the dwarfs pressed to work for the good of the community were its stokers. Odin was a nobler, more practical deity than the gods the civilised Romans had bowed down to. Odin's followers in their downright, direct manner, from their mythical legends, forged and hammered out for themselves a high standard to attain in this life and a belief in the world to come. Their gods were deified men with aims and objects of human interest, masterful, noble giants, towering above other mortals by reason of their strength and force of character, triumphant conquerors in every fight. In those days when a strong sword was the best and only charter needed to claim land and honours, a mighty man was the now humble smith. The Norseman believing that to be slain in battle, or to deal a deadly wound to an enemy was a passport to the halls of Odin, was careful to take with him when he went hence his sword and spear, along with his smith's tools wherewith to sharpen his treasured weapons. He fashioned shield and buckler with all the skill he could, for he looked on them as his eternal companions. As tools of war were so all important centuries after the followers of Odin had been resting in Valhalla, the trade and skill of the smith was held in esteem. Odin, according to legend, wrought at the forge to make for himself flawless weapons worthy of his prowess. His horse Sleipnir, whose careering flight was likened to the swish of the wind rushing at terrific, unimpeded pace along, was shod by Odin's own hand, and perhaps owing to the reverence in which his steed was held, the shoe which it may have cast in its unsurpassed career was treasured, so horse-shoes to-day are held to bring good fortune to their finder. These Scandinavians bequeathed to us many a story, and named us many a name. Day after day as the weeks run round, we have obtruded on our notice the deities who were worshipped by our sea-loving forefathers. The Druids gave us the fashion of recording time by nights; the Scandinavians have named for us the days of the week, and so as we count the fleeting hours we keep in remembrance our pagan, pirate progenitors. Sunday may hulk largely as the first of the seven. It is to us " the quiet hollow scooped out of the windy hill of the week as George Macdonald calls it; but to the Norsemen Wednesday must have been all important, for it was named after Odin, commonly called Wodin. The old spelling is shown in the well- known ballad of Sir Patrick Spens :-

"We hoised our sails on a Moneday morn,
With all the speed we may;
And we hae landed in Norroway
Upon a Wodnesday."

Wodin's day came shortly after Sun and Moon days, but between Odin's twenty-four hours and those sacred to the Queen of Night came Tyr's day. Odin's thunderous son, he whose strong hammer sent sparks from the cloud, the powerful Thor follows \Vodin in our calendar, and after him came Freya's day. The last twenty-four hours of the week were dedicated to Stern. Besides these names in daily use the Northmen christened many a spot around our shores. Places easy to them of access became their headquarters. In winter when, owing to the smallness of their boats, they rested from their life on the ocean, they settled themselves on islands as being both secure and convenient, as there were many paths across the sea whereby to leave if a stronger force came. The Islands of the Hebrides bear trace of their residence in the names they gave them, for among the Celtic nomenclature there are many Scandinavian o's and ay's, for instance, eight Fladdas—i.e., flat isles, three Scalpas—ship's isles, some Pabavs priest (father) isle, and Raasav—roe isle.

The monasteries and nunneries which were near to the North Sea fared badly at the hands of the Scandinavian pirates. Even the Cross did not awe them. King Olaf Trgyvason, the "beautifullest man ever seen," went over Norway It a rough harrow of conversion " as Carlyle explained; but the Northmen had travelled down the ages far from Odin's creed, and along with their valour and robust strength they were deemed to he in no-wise unmanly, despite a vein of avarice and cruelty which made them steer towards the spoils of the Church, and not only men but women and children suffered from their blades, for such were the ethics of their day. They swept Out of the Outer Isles much material trace of the mission of St. Columba.

It was round their winter fire when inactive, owing to the season, that the tales of stirring deeds were told in these isles to keep green the memory of the men " great in song craft and hands that loved the oar." The fame of these heroes descended by word of mouth till collected about the time the Normans invaded England by Semund the Learned and others, and became known as the Edda. There is the poetic or Elder Edda full of the mythological tale of the birth of the world and the adventures of the gods, which was the golden age of the Northmen, but "the golden age ceased when gold was invented." The yellow metal became as an apple of discord among them, and the god-like heroes, seized with a lust for the acquiring of gold, quarrelled. The Skalds speak of the gold as feminine, " a worker of evil magic arts she knew and practised. Ever was she the joy of evil people." From one of these sagas we have an idea of the kind of life led by these heroes of Asgard. They for ever sailed westward. "Where shall we go?" asked Odin when he and his kinsmen looked for new worlds to conquer and settle in. "Southward," he explained, "heat lies, and northward, night. From the dim east the sun begins his journey westward home "Westward home," shouted they all, and westward they went. The name of their great saga, the Heimskringla (the world's circle) was a true one, conquering from the eastward they circled the globe." They settled in small, determined bands on our shores and took what they listed. They were not averse as time went on to turn their swords into ploughshares, though they were ever readier to handle the former. The men of the woods and wilds held that the plough was an enemy, and so it was to a hunting community. In northern lore there is always a hatred to peace and its civilisation, and the driving away of that spoil which falls captive to how and spear. The fairy arrows were always directed at the ploughman to scare him from his work. The Boer to-day resents the farmer growing crops and cultivating the veldt.

The Norsemen and the Anglo-Saxon (both sprung from the same stock) came here in the days before the world was waxen old. They were alike descendants of the "younger brother" who went out and did. We owe much to them. They inoculated us with a desire to assume the sceptre of the sea—a nation " whose merchants are princes, whose traffickers are the honourable of the earth." They laid the foundations of our Parliament. They had for their conclaves the green mound with its grassy steps for the speakers and hearers to stand or sit on. Tynwald Hill still hears the Manxman issue laws in that little kingdom in the centre of the British Isles. The name of this Thing " wald is in our place names in Scotland. Like the stone of destiny the lawmakers have journeyed off to the banks of the Thames; there, enclosed with walls and state, no longer, as in Asgard, with the "blue dome's measureless content" for a roof tree, they hold their conclaves.

The Norsemen were no architects. "The name of the main body of the Gothic church— the nave, naves or ship of the building—is the inside of a ship turned upside down and raised on pillars," but this word nave, suggestive of vaulted aisles, is all their contribution to our architecture. The axe was a familiar tool in their hands, and they wielded a hammer with the skill descended from Thor, so they made their houses as they did their ships of wood, and thatched them with rushes from the lake. Wood did not withstand the inroads of time. They left no sign of their whilom homes as did the burrowing Picts with the cunningly-narrow entrance which one man could guard. The Roman villas with their inlaid floors are laid bare to-day, but of the Scandinavians' homes we have no trace, though in their last resting-places we have still with us a trace of their handiwork. Their "grave goods" dug from the grassy barrows of the happier dead, where they laid their chief slain after battle, are in our museums, for they buried their dead with their clothes fastened by brooches which have survived. On the Fife shores of Tay was a field called locally the field of the Danes' gold. Digging there lately men of Victoria's era came on golden ornaments richly wrought in the precious metal. That same Fife, from its being a peninsula, was a spot overrun by the piratical Vikings, so it is not astonishing there was found there recently a man all in shining armour clad, buried in a knowe by the present roadside. Local folk lore dubbed the mound Norrie's Law. This armed man of old had struck terror into bygone Fifers with that self-same sword, and in that kingly suit of armour defied their blows. When death claimed him, his followers buried him in the silver mail and he—

"......whose gallant deeds
Haply at many a solemn festival
The skald hath sung,"

with his prized blade rusted, his bones dust, in the Victorian era was robbed of his long-preserved grave goods by the folk of Fife.

Though the Scandinavians left us no cathedrals to show their handiwork, the tales told by their hearths survive. In the long nights of winter, when anchored on land, within their wooden homes by their firesides, or at the banqueting board, skalds sang of their skippers' conquests in the summer, and of the prowess of the heroes long gone hence. So the history descended to us—

".....of the sea fight far away
How it thundered over the tide."

The Norsemen gloried to hear of the doughty deeds when winter and rough weather held them captive, and the time soon came when these oral tales of eld were written down. " A nation's literature is its breath of life, without which a nation has no existence—is but a congregation of individuals." The tales of the sea-kings make the heart of this nation still throb. During the five centuries in which the Northmen were riding over the waves and conquering wheresoever they landed, the literature of the people they overcame was locked up in a dead language and within the walls of monasteries. But the Northmen had a literature of their own, rude as it was.

Nowadays, with paper so attainable every child can get a book to scribble in, we forget at the time when the Normans were going to cross the silver streak and invade South Britain, that not only was a knowledge of writing needed to transcribe the sagas, but material on which to write. Parchment was rare; fair skin, dark skin, and wrinkled skin are names applied by Torfaeus describing parchment to his correspondent at Copenhagen, and to get parchment enough to inscribe a chronicle thereon meant money. The very derivation of the word book carries us back to the time when, as Collier in the opening page of his English literature describes how, in"' the depth of some Asiatic forest shadowy with the green fans and sword blades of the palm tribe, a sinewy savage stood one day long ago etching with a thorn on the thick fleshed leaf, torn from the luxuriant shrub wood around him, rude images of the beasts he hunted or the arrows he shot—the first step was taken towards the making of a book. Countless have been the onward steps since then, but the old fact that the tree is the parent of the book still survives in many well-known words. For example, take the Latin liber and the English book and leaf. Who does not know that liber means originally the inner bark of a tree. Book is merely a disguised form of the word beech, into which it easily changes when we tone down k to ch soft. The word leaf tells its own tale." Even with centuries of progress it took Torfaus time and money to get his various complexioned parchments sent to Iceland. It seems to us even nowadays a faraway spot, and strange that books should have emanated from there when written deeds were scarce, but we must remember from bare isles all that was good and cultured came. Iona sent us Christianity. From Lindisfarne, before its great church on the sandy islet was reared in stone, the monks made the most beautifully illuminated Bible, which is still to be seen, though the Priory's roofless aisles are crumbling. Iceland was formed by a colony of strong, intelligent men who had emigrated from Norway to avoid some tyrannical laws of Harold Haarfager's. "New England perhaps and Iceland are the only modern colonies ever founded on principle and peopled at first from higher motives than want or gain; and we see at this day a lingering spark in each of a higher mind than in populations which have set out from a lower level. The original settlers in Iceland carried with them whatever there was of civilisation or intelligence in Norway; and for some generations at least were free from the internal feuds, and always were free from the external wars and depredations on their coasts which kept other countries in a state of barbarism." So from the strange, ice-girt island with its volcanic fires laying it waste, there has been given us a written chronicle of these tales told in the Sea-kings' hall. We follow in black and white the deeds of valour done so long ago, and learn from this parchment history how these Northmen left us not only the birthright of their blood, but also laws and customs which are ours to-day, and also bequeathed to us legends and myths telling of the time when:—

"There dwelt men merry hearted
In hope exceeding great;
Meeting the good days and the evil
As they came in the way of fate."


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