Raiders and the lost arts

14th November 2003 at 00:00
North to the Southlands until January Inverness Museum and Art Gallery tel 01463 237114

The North to the Southlands exhibition at Inverness Museum and Art Gallery is packed with solid information about the impact the Vikings had on the Highlands, presented in a simple style and complemented by just the right amount of fascinating artefacts.

It shows that although the first incomers from Scandinavia were undoubtedly warriors, they were soon followed by farmers, settlers, traders and craftsmen.

The objects on display were mostly found in Caithness, Sutherland and Skye, the main focuses of Viking activity in the Highlands between the 9th and 12th centuries.

An 11th-century finger ring made from small chains of entwined gold was found in peat moss on Skye in 1851. Many of the silver coins came from England, the Continent and the Near East, indicating how well travelled Viking traders were. They also moulded silver into "ring money"; these bangles were worn on the arm and could have been used as currency.

Other evidence of Viking settlement in the Highlands occurs in place names.

Dingwall comes from "thing vallr", meaning the field where the the Viking assembly ("thing") met. Visitors can have a go at working out the meaning of other place names.

They can also practise writing in runes using the alphabet known as "Futhark", which features 16 characters that represent sounds rather than letters. And they can try out a Viking board game called "hnefatafl" which was originally played with smooth glass pebbles.

Copies of the kind of loose, layered clothing that the Viking settlers would have worn have been made for the exhibition. The women's clothing features replicas of the oval-shaped metal brooches used to pin their tunic straps at the shoulder. Some of the distinctive brooches on show were found n the graves of Viking women buried in the Highlands.

Viking women were also buried with small, intricately carved ironing boards. The show features a replica board and "linen smoother", a smooth lump of glass that the Vikings heated in the fire and then used to press their clothing.

No exhibition on the Vikings would be complete without some mention of their reputation as fearsome warriors. After all, the word Viking means "piracy" or "raiding".

For a warrior, it was a great honour to die in battle because they believed it would allow them to enter Valhalla - their heaven - where they would feast and do battle for evermore. A Viking man or boy would be buried with a traditional shield and weapons, whether or not he had used them in life.

In 1991, the grave of a Viking boy aged between eight and 13 was uncovered in Sutherland and found to contain a full-sized shield, sword and spear.

The children's book Scotland's Vikings (NMS Enterprises, pound;4.99), which is on sale in the museum shop, provides an excellent and inexpensive accompaniment to this exhibition.

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