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Sunday, Nov. 13, 2011

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Bathers enjoy the geothermally heated water of the Blaa lonid (Blue Lagoon) spa in a lava field at Grindavik on the Reykjanes Peninsula of southwest Iceland. ALL PHOTOS BY MARK BRAZIL


In the wake of the Vikings

At both its western and eastern extremes some 10,700 km apart in France and the Russian Far East respectively, the great, fused supercontinent of Eurasia breaks into fragments, into not quite matching fringes of islands.

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The gannetry on Little Skellig off southwest Ireland, with Skellig Michael rearing up from the North Atlantic beyond.
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Bales of hay wrapped in plastic lend a sci-fi look to these fields in southern Iceland.
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Seydisfjordur fiord on the east coast of Iceland is a picture-perfect example of a glaciated valley "drowned" by changes in land or sea levels, or both.

In the east, there are the likes of Hainan, Taiwan, the Japanese archipelago and the Kuril Islands; while off the western mainland lie the British Isles, the Shetland Islands, the Faroe Islands and Iceland.

In both the east and the west, settlement of these outlying fringes by humans seems to have taken place over an extended period of several millennia, with colonists coming largely from the nearby continent.

The recent underwater-archaeological discovery of a partially intact Mongol ship on the seabed off Nagasaki Prefecture is a reminder of how Japan was only saved from invasion when the approaching fleets of Kublai Khan foundered there, in both 1274 and 1281, before the great 13th-century Mongol ruler had chance to conquer these islands.

In contrast to Japan, the western fringes of Europe were not so lucky, since, unlike the Mongols whose base was the steppes of central Asia, early European civilizations and empires were very much coastal. The Phoenicians (from lands along the eastern Mediterranean), the Greeks and the Romans were all extremely competent ocean-goers; the Romans also excelled on land and came to dominate western Europe, North Africa and the Mediterranean more than two millennia ago.

Greek and Roman empire-builders apart, though, more than 1,000 years prior to the Norman invasion of England in 1066, western Europe experienced repeated waves of unrest, warfare and invasion — among them perhaps the most infamous were launched by the Norse people (renamed Normans when they conquered northwest France), who we now most frequently refer to as the Vikings.

These Scandinavian merchants, explorers and traders were largely coastal dwellers, and among their many skills they were most importantly masters of the sea.

In the late 700s, their peaceful activities evolved into plundering raids beginning with attacks on monasteries and coastal settlements. For nearly four centuries, from the late 8th century to the mid-11th century, these raiders and traders extended their reach up around the Scandinavian coast and into the White Sea, even to the Volga River, and south around Iberia then east into the Mediterranean, and beyond that into the Black Sea.

The reasons behind this aggressive expansionism are much debated, but include: a response to northward incursions of Christianity; a shift in the balance of power in continental Europe at the end of the reign of Charlemagne in 814, after which the Holy Roman Empire he headed began to fragment; overpopulation in the relatively unfertile Norse homelands forcing emigration; and a spirit of adventure driving them to explore and discover and plunder.

Their most frequent routes took the Vikings into the Baltic Sea, across the North Sea and all around the British Isles (used in the geographical sense to include Ireland, England, Wales and Scotland) and the northern islands such as the Orkneys, Shetlands and Faroes — but their journeys did not stop there, as their voyages made in open sailing boats no more than about 15 meters long spanned the North Atlantic and took them as far as Iceland, Greenland and even Newfoundland.

Almost everywhere I traveled during my three consecutive voyages this summer as ornithology lecturer for Zegrahm Expeditions aboard the 102-meter, 5,200-ton expedition-cruise vessel Clipper Odyssey was redolent of past exploration, colonization or warfare — whether of the Pilgrim Fathers in Plymouth, England, of those seekers of monastic solitude the Irish monks of Skellig Michael, or of the British Grand Fleet based in the Orkneys' Scapa Flow (an extraordinary natural harbor) during World War I.

One theme, however, resurfaced again and again — the Vikings.

My odyssey began on July 1 in London, and by Aug. 6 I had traveled to some of the remotest places on the fringes of Europe — clockwise around Britain from Plymouth to Edinburgh on the first voyage; from there to Reykjavik on the second; and with a clockwise circumnavigation of Iceland that started and finished in the capital as the final voyage.

"Remote" and "Europe" are words perhaps not frequently combined in one sentence. After all, this is a region that has been settled for millennia; a region rich in archaeology, history, folklore and custom, supporting a large human population. It has characterful pubs, imposing castles, elegant country estates, ancient archaeological sites, and the world's oldest parliaments. What's "remote" about that, you might well think.

When we imagine places that are remote, they tend to be such as the Kuril Islands in the Russian Far East, the Aleutians in Alaska, central Pacific islands like the Marquesas or Pitcairn, or the sub-Antarctic islands of New Zealand. Yet scattered along the northwestern fringe of Europe, in dramatic, scenic settings, are islands that are as remote as can be imagined — not merely the Orkney, Shetland and Faroe islands, but including the likes of Skellig Michael, St. Kilda, the Flannan Islands, Mousa and Heimaey. "Where?" You might well ask !

Voyaging by sea around the southwest of England, the south and west of Ireland, off the Scottish coast and thence, by way of the Orkney, Shetland and Faroe islands to Iceland is not the normal way to see Europe. Even though I was born in England and consider myself well traveled there, this journey took me to many places I had only dreamed of visiting; islands that time, weather and circumstance make it difficult to reach, and where even landing can be exceedingly difficult.

I am foremost a traveling naturalist marveling at landscapes, biodiversity and adaptations wherever I go. In some parts of the world, though, those landscapes have been powerfully shaped by human history — few more so than in western Europe.

The human stamp is, in one form or another, everywhere, and that history, some ancient some modern, has an irresistible allure. Even had I wished to avoid the impact of the Vikings, I would have been unable to, since I was traveling in the esteemed company of one of Europe's leading experts on the subject, Dr. Colleen Batey, senior lecturer in archaeology at the University of Glasgow. We soon fell into a simple knowledge-bartering agreement: wildlife for history.

As a naturalist, it was the wildlife that made my voyage from southwest Britain to the Arctic Circle north of Iceland so exciting. The wealth of seabirds encountered was stunning.

I couldn't help being inspired by the ease with which the Northern Fulmars slid past, their wings locked into a seemingly endless glide. Manx Shearwaters, bold in their contrasting black-above and white-below plumage, careered across the sea, flickering skyward in wheeling arcs of motion. At dramatic seabird cliffs, the rumbling growls of crowded colonies of Common Guillemot and Razorbill (living relatives of the original penguin, the now-extinct Great Auk, known scientifically as Pinguinus impennis) were deafening.

Dapper in their form-fitting feather coats, the Razorbills are Europe's most elegant auks, but it was the Atlantic Puffin, and its colonies, such as those on Great Saltee and Skellig Michael, that were most mesmerizing. It was so easy to lose track of time while admiring that bird's colorful adornments and watching their comical antics. Even as a trained ornithologist it is hard to take puffins seriously: their permanently surprised expression, their proud and portly demeanor, their whirring, blurring wing-beats, that multi-colored bill and their fascinating behavior, all serve to make them irresistible to watch.

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Clochans (dry-stone dwellings dating from the early Middle Ages) on top of Skellig Michael, with Little Skellig behind and the Irish mainland on the horizon 14 km away.
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Evening light bathes the Broch of Mousa in the Shetlands, a 13-meter-high dry-stone round tower built around 100 B.C.E.

At Little Skellig off southwest Ireland, and at the Bass Rock in Scotland's Firth of Forth, the largest of Europe's coastal breeding seabirds, the Northern Gannet, holds center stage. These enormous birds, nearly a meter from bill to tail and nearly two meters across the wings, are inspirational in their command of air and water.

Few things are more spectacular to see than a squadron of gannets flying effortlessly above the waves transform, with barely a flick of their wings, into honed predatory darts plunging down beneath the water to catch their piscine prey. This is a pointed bird; its beak, tail and wings all sharp and elongated in all directions. Its long, creamy-white wings are smartly tipped with black, and it wears a creamy, golden-yellow cowl. Individually they are gorgeous, but en masse, in their thousands at colonies such as those I visited off Ireland and Scotland, they are stunning to behold — the din can be deafening, the aroma is ripely distinctive — but the sight is unforgettable.

My journey to Europe's western fringes began with a relaxing ride by train from London's Paddington Station to Plymouth, then a brief exploration of the wild open expanses of Dartmoor National Park to the north, with its seemingly endless heather moors, its ancient roads, the medieval clapper bridge made of huge stone slabs spanning pillars near Postbridge and the Warren House Inn, the highest pub in southern England, at 434 meters.

Back in Plymouth, I passed a short flight of steps of monumental significance — they were made famous on Sept. 6, 1620, when the Pilgrim Fathers set sail from there in the Mayflower bound for a New World and a new life. Under infinitely more comfortable circumstances than theirs, I set sail with around 100 adventure tourists in the Clipper Odyssey, bound for the most southwesterly point of the British Isles — the Isles of Scilly.

These islands have, despite their location at nearly 50°N (about the same latitude as Vancouver, central Newfoundland and Sakhalin), a warm-temperate climate. They are bathed by the Gulf Stream and Tresco in particular, with its rugged coastline, rocky coves and sandy beaches, is a mild, tranquil spot boasting Abbey Garden, which spreads around the 12th-century St. Nicholas Priory. The garden provides a sense of familiarity to visitors from around the world, with its plants from as far afield as Australia, the Americas, southern Africa, East Asia and even Japan.

From the mild Isles of Scilly my travels took me off the Pilgrim Fathers' route and northwest across the Celtic Sea. Passing the southernmost point of Ireland, Fastnet Rock, with its distinctive tower lighthouse, I first realized the much earlier reach of the Norsemen, for the name Fastnet, so English-sounding, is actually derived from the Old Norse word "hvasstann-ey," meaning "sharp-tooth isle." I was on the track of the Vikings.

My next destination, the Skellig Islands, can only be landed on when wind and sea conspire to allow it. Skellig Michael (Great Skellig) rises steep and rugged from the cold North Atlantic more than 14 km offshore. Can there be any more imposing a place to have founded a settlement? Amazingly, during the 6th or 7th century, Irish Christian monks founded a retreat here and ultimately an eremitic monastery.

Even if making a landing is possible, scaling the almost sheer flanks of the island by the precipitous stone steps the monks hewed out defeats many visitors. The scramble to the 230-meter summit of this UNESCO World Heritage Site is, however, well worth it for the view alone. Spectacular clouds of white gannets shroud its nearest neighbor, Little Skellig, while the slopes of Skellig Michael itself are riddled with the burrows of puffins.

Yet it is the scene at the top of the island that inspires most, with its clochans — simple dry-stone dwellings that date from the early Middle Ages and are shaped like old-fashioned beehives, with corbelled stone roofs; its oratories and stone grave slabs; an impressive monolithic cross; and the later (13th-century) church of St. Michael.

As if the extreme remoteness and inaccessibility of the monastery on Skellig Michael were not awe-inspiring enough, across on the southwestern peak of the island, and far too hazardous for modern-day visitors to approach, is the Hermitage. Isolated from the monastery on the main peak, the Hermitage was a place of extreme retreat for those who wished true isolation. Looking out from this spot, whether religious or not, it's impossible not to admire the depth of belief and the driven sense of spirit that the monks once cut off here embodied.

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