Review: Vikings, National Museum of Scotland

VIKINGS! You can picture it, can’t you? A monk looks up from his bean patch in the monastery garden beside the sea and to his horror sees a fleet of square-sailed dragon ships approaching.

VIKINGS! You can picture it, can’t you? A monk looks up from his bean patch in the monastery garden beside the sea and to his horror sees a fleet of square-sailed dragon ships approaching.

National Museum of Scotland


Fierce hairy men in horned helmets, all armed to the teeth with axes and broadswords, pile ashore. He shouts the alarm – “Vikings!” – but it is to no avail. The monastery has no defences. It is sacked and burned, its treasures looted, the monks murdered or enslaved.

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But that’s all unkind propaganda. It was the monks back in the eighth century who gave the Vikings such a bad press and the reputation has stuck. It wasn’t like that at all. Really they were nice domestic people. They wore furry hats and lace-up shoes. They lived in wooden houses, spent a lot of time combing their beards and were skilled craftsmen. They also had a bit of wanderlust and this made them pioneers of international trade.

Or at least that seems to be the underlying message of the exhibition Vikings! at the National Museum. There are sections in the exhibition labelled “Homes – Colourful and Bustling”, for instance, “Family Community”, or “Away on Business”. There is even a subsection labelled “Cooking, Eating and Good Manners” and another labelled “Combed, Shaved and Good Looking”. A significant number of combs are indeed on view but I am not sure how much good they do for the Viking image. Arab author Ibn Fadlan wrote an account of his journey into what is now Russia in 921. He met Vikings. He called them Rus and said they were the filthiest race God ever created, but also that they combed their hair every day.

Women could have status. The lady of the house carried ornate keys at her belt to mark it. They also wore massive brooches and jewellery, not only of gold and silver, but also of brilliantly coloured beads of glass and semiprecious stones. The status of mortal women was also reflected in the goddesses in the Viking pantheon. A massive brooch was evidently one of the attributes of the goddess Freia. What exactly it signifies is unclear, however. There is a lot of general information in wall panels, but the individual labels are minimal. Men and women of rank were alike accorded grand funerals. Boats were burned with them, perhaps to save timber – the Vikings had a drastic impact on the forests of Scandinavia.

Sometimes symbolically only the rivets were actually included. Part of a ship is recreated by a set of these rivets hung on wires like a three-dimensional diagram. The exhibition also traces the gradual spread of Christianity. The overlap with the old religion produced intriguing hybrids of pagan and Christian imagery.

The heading of the section Away on Business, sounds innocuous enough. A piece of gold ornament taken from an ecclesiastical object similar to the Monymusk Reliquary and reused as a brooch is, however, direct witness to looted churches and so to what that business was. A drawing on slate found on Inchmarnock seems actually to represent an armed man dragging a monk to his ship. Trade and raiding were connected as merchants had a direct interest in the outcome of a raid. The Vikings didn’t just trade Sara Lund sweaters, bobble hats and pickled herrings. Silver was their currency. A hoard found in Orkney weighed eight kilos. It included Arab coins and Irish brooches. One found in Sweden weighed 76kg.

Such wealth could only be earned trading a really valuable commodity. The merchants carried scales and weights. Small in size, they were for weighing silver. Their trade goods did not need to be weighed. They were people – slaves. That is why the Vikings ranged so far along the coasts. There were only so many monasteries to sack. Their main target was unprotected villages. The Annals of Ulster record in 821 how the village of Etar was “plundered by the heathens who took off a great many women”. The Irish girls taken then may have ended up in slave markets as far from home as Kiev, or Novgorod. Ibn Fadlan records a little pruriently how he witnessed the Viking slave masters publicly indulging themselves with the unhappy women who were their merchandise. Viking slave raiding in eastern Europe was so intense that it gave their name to the inhabitants, Slavs, or slaves.

Certainly the exhibition touches on all this. There are slave fetters included and some account is given of the slave trade, but the overall purpose is to give a more rounded picture of the people we call the Vikings.

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They did not use that name themselves, however. A viking wasn’t what you were. It was what you did. When you gave in to your wanderlust and took your family – there is a suggestion that this may have happened – on a trip to Scotland, or Ireland, or even much further afield to North Africa, the Black Sea, the Caspian and even the coast of America, you were going on a viking. Walter Scott introduced the word into English in his novel The Pirate. He borrowed it from contemporary Swedish literature where it was first used as a collective noun.

If the Vikings gave themselves a name at all, it was Norraener, or Norsemen. They were certainly warriors and there are some formidable weapons on view including massive broadswords and fearsome axes, but the inference is that they were no more warlike than was normal at the time. That may be true, but the monks’ complaint against them still stands. Their fearsome reputation reflects not their battle record, but the fact that their aggression was directed principally at people who had no defence against them.

As part of this general improvement of the Viking image, as you leave you are asked to remember that they didn’t wear horned helmets. That was Wagner’s invention. Although there is a figure in a little bronze relief wearing what looks very like a horned helmet, we are assured it is not. It was just the contemporary equivalent of a stage designer’s fancy, a helmet with birds’ heads on it, not horns, worn for some ceremonial occasion.

There is a great deal of information about the Vikings illustrated with a wide variety of objects, some 500 in all. The great majority are from the Swedish History Museum where the exhibition originates. Quite a few objects are reproductions, however. It is understandable with rune and picture stones. The originals are too massive to move, but several of the most precious items, a spectacular set of gold jewellery, for instance, are represented by copies, which is a little disappointing.

The Swedish objects are supplemented with Viking finds from Scotland. Scotland’s links were with western Scandinavia, with what is now Norway and Denmark. Coming from Sweden this exhibition focuses on eastern Scandinavia and so offers a slightly different perspective on the story, but perhaps in consequence, in spite of the inclusion of additional Scottish material, the exhibition seems to lack awareness of the close affinity between Scandinavian art and the contemporary art of the Picts and Scots.

The label for a display of animal imagery also claims that animal designs became almost exclusively Scandinavian after the 7th century. That does seem to overlook the extensive use of animal imagery in Pictish art. A beautiful reconstruction of a rowing boat at the entrance also suggests the fascinating story of the Viking legacy in Scottish boat design, but offers no comment. Finally there is a purse made of silver and squirrel fur. It was worn on a belt, and it is a sporran if ever I saw one, but there is no comment on that either. Someone missed a trick.

• Until 12 May

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