"Here is a work for poets;
Carve the runes
Then be content with silence."
people first began to communicate in writing, their implements were
This forced them to make do with simple drawings that could
be easily scratched on stone or wood.
Over time these rough scratches developed
into more complex writing forms.
An example of this development is
the runic alphabets used by the Germanic peoples of western Europe.
Here, the scratched symbols developed into the angular lettering
known as runes.
Although there is evidence that an
early form of runic writing was in existence as early as the second
century AD, it is not known exactly where and when the runes we
recognise today were first introduced.
Runes are formed from angular, straight
lines, a shape dictated by the material used for recording the messages
usually wood, bone or stone. The message had to be cut quickly
with a blade or axehead - a method that was not conducive to overly-complicated
Not surprisingly given their mythological
origin (see side panel), the runes were first and foremost seen
as having a magical and ritual function.
They were used for divination as
well as other "magical" purposes, such as controlling
the weather, the tides and crops and other facets of daily life.
Magical runes were carved on amulets, drinking cups, spears and
ships to provide protection for the owner, or simply to enhance
the power of the object.
Over time, however, although the
magical power of the runes was still respected, they began to be
used more as a simple method of communication. By the end of the
Viking period they were no longer the property of soothsayers and
sorcerers but were commonly used by ordinary people.
Now runes were used to leave messages
as well as mark property and belongings.
When the Norsemen first
began arriving in Orkney in the 8th century, they brought
with them the art of rune-carving.
Runic finds in Orkney
A few sites across the islands have
yielded evidence of runes, the most
famous and extensive of which
is the collection in the Stenness chambered cairn Maeshowe.
Here, one of the largest
collections of runic inscriptions in Europe is on view to the
Aside from the Maeshowe runes, there
are 19 documented examples of runes found in Orkney - as well as
a few whose authenticity are open to question.
For example, when the Orphir
Round Kirk was demolished in 1757, a rune-inscribed stone was
discovered, apparently from the fabric of the building.
runes read: "the church is not good".
Other runic inscriptions can still
be seen in the stalled
cairn of Unstan and carved on one of the standing
stones within the Ring of Brodgar.