A modern Viking raid in Caithness

A fictional reality disaster tale concerning “arky-somethin-or-other

by Gordon Mooney

Work! Work! Work! It can’t be Monday already. It was only Friday afternoon a few hours ago, it seemed. That bleeting, whining alarm has aggravated me out of a gorgeous deep sleep filled with Viking longships and robust buxom maidens with hair in golden braids. Now I have to think about work. Damn, blast and buggeration! The motto ‘Laborare est Orare’ was indelibly etched into my somnolent brain as a miserable failed Latin scholar at 'Scholae Regia' in Edinburgh. This last remnant of Latin that I can recall means "To Work is to Pray." The Romans would have liked the Presbyterians for their pious Protestant work ethic - a work ethic that was drummed into me from childhood.

"You have to work laddie, an’ hard work never hurt anyone," I hear my dad’s words still ringing in my ears, and I still guilt trip if I’m not busy or at least faking that I’m working.

In school science they defined work in terms of watts, joules and horse power. My own work definitions derive from delivering frozen milk bottles and cold damp newspapers on bitter Scottish mornings. How I hated getting up in the dark to freeze all morning in my wee short trousers. And now 40 years later I still hate getting up to go to work, and still don’t get the connection with work being Prayer as I stumble out of bed, dress, eat and stagger blearily down the street to the office.

"Good morning lad," John hails me with his big hearty voice with its strong Caithnesian brogue.

"Hi, John," I mutter. "Very cold this morning."

"Aye it is that," he replies, "cold enough tae freeze yer ba’s’ aff."

Caithnesians are as direct and blunt as Thor's hammer.

"Is the Boss in today?"

"Oh he's surely on his way, I think." John winks. It’s our little private joke.

The phone rings. I answer it with my long-practiced bureaucratic lack of enthusiasm.  

"Hello, Caithness Planning Department, James Gordon speaking." I brace myself for some stupidly complex question about planning permission for a simple garden shed, but as I listen to the caller, my jaw drops.

"What’s that? You were walking your dog along the beach, and it came running back to you with a human skull in it’s mouth! I didn’t quite get that, did you say that there are bones all over the beach and fields, and someone stole a sand dune that was there yesterday? Are you sure?" I asked again, not believing my ears. "I’d better take some details. Can you calm down and tell me your name? OK, Mrs Sutherland where is this missing sand dune or rather, where are the bones? Near Inckergill Tower? Ok I’ll get our Enforcement Officer to go out and investigate...Thanks Mrs. Sutherland, I’ll call you back once we have looked into this."

"John, you’re not going to believe this, I blurted. "Someone seems to have nicked a sand dune and scattered human bones all over the beach at Inkergill. And we know it's not a Gowks Day joke, because it's not the first of April yet. Can you take your camera and mobile phone and go for a look?"

"I dinnae believe ye, yer  pu-ing ma chain" retorted John. "But ye ken these days in this crazy place aething is possible. Gie me ten minutes ee get a cup o tea and get organised, then ee’ll tak a run oot. When the Boss cams in better teh him a aboot this."

An hour later the phone rings: John is on his mobile phone.

"Hello, lad, aye, hello, its effin freezing oot here. Ye want tae see this. The buggers have carted awa hunners o tons o sand an there’s bones scattered everywhere. But it gets better...Ye ken that Dr. Jones, the daft eco-warrior Sassenach do-gooder - and aye he wid be a tree hugger tae - if there were ony trees that wid hae him. Well his car hes bin wrecked and he’s got a broken neb. Jones was trying to stop Billy Sinclair frae leaving the field wi his digger by parkin his car across the gate, but Billy just bulldozed the car and then gubbed Jones after he tried to pull Billy oot o’ the cab. The polis are here an they’re takin statements. Billy’s been arrested an taken tae Wick Nick," John raved on. "Looks like they’re human remains a oer ee field but it’s hard tae tell if there’s been mass murder or if the bones are auld. The polis have bagged up the skulls and taken them for forensic  zamination. I’ll take plenty o photies an cam back tae ee office. See ya in an oor or twa."

I thought to myself that Dr. Jones should have known better than to argue with a man in charge of a ten-ton digger. Mechanical diggers and excavators have real power status in Caithness, the equivalent of a Vikings double-headed battleaxe.

"Ok," I said. "I better call the archaeologists at Inverness and see if there are any archaeological sites in that vicinity. See you soon, John. I’ll put the kettle on."

When I finally did get through to the Inverness archaeologist, I was aghast at what he told me.

"Bloody Hell!" I shouted into the receiver. "You mean there was a Viking cemetery at Inkergill that was actually excavated in the late 1930’s... and you say they found dozens of graves and a Viking ship burial - but had to cover it up when the War broke out - and they found weapons, runic carvings and white crystals on the cists? Is the site a Scheduled Monument?.... No!... No Protection?  Why not? So you're saying to me that it wasn’t a priority, and that Historic Scotland didn’t think it was at risk in such a remote, quiet place as Caithness. Bloody Hell!" 

When John returned to the office, he loaded the pictures from his camera onto the computer. The images showed the site looking like a bomb had hit it - bones scattered around everywhere and a huge excavation in the dunes.

"They must have taken thousands of tons of sand," I said. "And look - those white stones the archaeologists mentioned."

"Aye, chuckies or peerie stanes," John said. "Every bairn in Scotland kens what they are. They’re powerful magic tae keep awa the De’il or worse."

"What could be worse than the Devil?"

"Aye, that’s fir me tae ken an ee tae find oot. Ye dinnae gae desecratin a Viking grave an expect naethin tae happen, dae ye?"

John wasn’t joking.

On Tuesday afternoon the buzzer went, there was someone at the public hatch. It was the young woman I'd seen about town over the last week. She stood out as a stranger with her bright clothes and tanned complexion. I'd seen her in the local caf?, sitting with a laptop computer, typing away, deep in concentration. I thought she was very attractive, and now here she was right in front of me. I felt a flush of embarrassment at my wayward thoughts.

"Hello, how can I help you.?"

"Hi, I wonder if you can," she said with a warm juicy American accent. "Is this the Caithness Planning Office?"

"Yes, yes, yes indeed," I stammered.

"I’m a journalist researching an article for Quantum Magazine. Can you spare some time to give me an overview of developments in Caithness? By the way, my name is Nancy.

I led Nancy into the interview room and began to outline the major developments in Caithness such as the decommissioning of the Dounrey nuclear plant, the new housing projects, the controversy over the many wind farm developments. But Nancy kept asking about the archaeology and what effect all these new developments were having on the historic sites and people's traditional ways. I suspected that she'd heard about the ‘Rape of Inkergill.' Telling one person a secret in the Caithness goldfish bowl is as good as taking out a full page advert in the John O'Groats Journal. Sure enough, as I found out later, it was in the Norse Bar where Nancy got wind of the desecrated Viking cemetery and the bones in the sand. It was from two hardfaced drinkers slobbering over the days events, and she realised she was on to a scoop.
What Nancy heard likely went something like this:-

"Aye, hae ee heard the latest? Billy Sinclair’s bin taen tae Wick nick. Seems he’s bin nickin sand frae Inkergill an got caught. An it seems he’s dug through one o’ thae Time Team sites, ye ken, what’s ee word, arkysomthin. Some kind o’ ology. One o  they protected sites."

"Man, that’s terrible."

"Whit’s terrible? Destroying the protected site?"

“Naw it’s terrible o him, getting caught. That’ll spoil it fur the rest o us. Nae mair free sand tae build with! Bastard! One good thing though."

"Whit’s that?"

“He gubbed the Sassenach arsehole Jones.”

"Aw nice wan."

"An the Piper and the Fox are runnin aboot a oer the county tryin tae find the missin sand an banes."


"Aye, the sand’s fu o auld Viking banes."

Although the Caithnesian accent and language, a mix of Old Scots and Norn, confounded Nancy at times, she got enough of it - Viking...bones...sand... and 'arkysomthin' - to be intrigued. She enquired of the men as to who ‘the Piper’ and ‘the Fox’ were, and that’s what led her to the Planning Office and to me...

The next day, Nancy called me for an update on the Inkergill fiasco.

"Well, we managed to find out where the missing sand has gone," I said. "Thousands of tons have been sold to a local contractor building one of the big wind farms out on the peat bogs near the Grey Cairns. The sand, complete with bones, has been mixed with stone and cement for the concrete mix for the huge turbine bases. The bones have been entombed once again," I laughed darkly. "We believe that another few thousand tons have gone to the nuclear plant to be used for making concrete or something they call ’Black Glass’ to encase nuclear waste. But true to tradition, we couldn‘t get any clear information from the Atomics."

"You mean the de-com workers out at Dounrey, or their PR spinners?" Nancy quizzed.

"Aye, the spinners. We also know that several hundred tons have been sold to local builders to mix in their cement for all the new houses that were being built with the money from the wind farms and the nuclear decommissioning...Say, Nancy, meet me in the Norse bar in an hour and I’ll tell you more."

This smart lassie had somehow figured out that I was "The Piper" and that John was "The Fox." When we met in the Norse Bar I gave her an earful of some of the stories and legends of Caithness that John, the Viking-blooded Caithnesian, had regaled me with and the strange reaction of locals to the scandal of the Viking bones...

"John was all excited yesterday," I said to Nancy. "He was telling me about something he had not seen since his childhood. 

He told me in his natural voice that I tried to mimic, “Ye ken lad, there’s some strange thing gaun on. Last night I saw something I haven’t seen since a wis a wee laddie. There were wee boaties wi lichts in them floating doon the Wick river. It used tae be that when someone died, a flame, usually a candle wis placed in a small roughly carved boat an’ set adrift in ee current o ee river, ee river would tak ee boatie oot tae sea. They say it wis a symbolic custom frae ee Vikings who used tae send their dead sea-faring leaders oot tae sea in a blazing long-boat. The pyre would release their souls an bodies intae ee great ocean. The old folks used to say that if ye saw a strange light on ee river or a light on ee ocean it foretold a death by drowning."

"Really?" Nancy gasped.

"Yes," I said, and went on with trying to reproduce John's voice. 

"I think maybe that folks that got banes in their building sand hae been putting ee banes in wee boaties tae mak sure that they get back tae their owners. Aye, ye ken,” John says to me.. "'It’s really bad shite what thae’ve done to the auld mound at Inkergill. The auld folks believed they mounds were built by the fairies and tae break intae a Fairy Mound is sure to bring a sorts o misfortune.'"

"Oh this I know!” yelped Nancy. "At Ireland's Shannon Airport they changed the location of an airstrip they had built after it was discovered it was on a fairy path! Weren't going to let any fairies bring down a 747!"

"Aye" I laughed. "John told me  another tale about a Wizard Donald. As John put it, “this wizard wis told by ee Queen o’ Fairies where he might find a special box that wid bring gid fortune, but she added a grim warning that on nae account must it be opened. He dug it frae ee fairy mound but bein foohardy an reckless he opened ee box. Oot swarmed thoosands o  fairies a shouting an demanding Work! Work! Work! Donald first told them tae mak heather ropes to keep them busy but they completed the task in minutes. Then he set them tae draining lochs an’ building mountains. Still they didnae tire, an’ screamed at him, Work! Work! Work! Eventually he came up wi a clever idea an asked them to mak a bridge o’ sand across the Pentland Firth and that’s why ee Firth has ee worst storms an’ currents because ee fairies ropes made o’ sand keep breakin.”

"You know," I said to Nancy, "maybe we could get those wee fairies to put all the sand back to Inkergill."

The following day I visited the site at Inkergill to see the damage for myself, and to meet an Inspector from Historic Scotland. I was astounded to see dozens of small sacks of sand placed on the large excavation. The locals were taking no chances about having Viking bones interred in their nice new houses. During the night, they had returned their bags of sand to Inkergill. These first bags of sand started appearing back at the burial site a day after the word went around. What I did not know then, was that two weeks later, several tons of sand would mysteriously reappear. The Historic Scotland Inspector  was horrified at the damage to the site. 

"I should have had this site scheduled as an ancient monument years ago," he said.

"But we have been short staffed and other priorities keep coming up. You may be interested to know that the site was excavated in the 1930’s. They found Viking remains indicating as many as 30 burials, mostly warriors. One of the runic carvings read, ‘Eric of the Hard Axe lies here. We think it may have been the grave of Eric Gunnerstrum," the Inspector continued. "He is documented in the Orkneyinga Sagas, and he was a particularly nasty piece of work by all accounts. You wouldn’t want to meet him on a dark night in Caithness! Ha! His speciality was cutting people in half with one blow of his axe. By the way, the Northern Archaeology Society is having a conference at the Lybster Arms this weekend. We shall be having an illustrated talk on the Vikings in Caithness and their burial sites in particular.You should come, it's open to the public.”

"Yes, I'll come along and bring an American friend."

The NAS conference was held in the rather opulent setting of the Lybster Arms Hotel. There were university professors and archaeologists from all over the UK, and specialists in Runes and Viking glass from Europe and North America. We heard from Professor Curle about the wealth of pagan Viking graves in Caithness, most of which were found in either natural or man- made sand dunes and cairns. There was a rich Viking grave found in Sandside Bay under a cairn of stones. Along with a large skeleton was an iron axe, a shield boss, jewellery and an iron sword. At Huna, a Viking ship burial was found in 1935. Throughout Caithness, mostly on the coast, there was tantalising evidence of much Norse settlement. The conclusions drawn, at the conference, were that Caithness is immensely rich in archaeological remains, mostly because it had not experienced much change and development in modern times. That was rapidly changing now, and there were serious threats to important sites in the area from large scale developments.

Nancy and I chatted with the archaeologists, who turned out to be a jolly fun loving group. In the evening we went into the hotel ballroom for the dance ceilidh, where I intended to show Nancy what a mad dancing Scot I was, as well as a piper. The band started to play. The accordionist announced, 

“Take your partners for 'The Gay Gordons'.” I recognised the voice and smiled.

The player of "the Box" was of course "the Boss" - and so with Nancy we danced our cotton socks off with 'Dashing White Sergeants' and 'Stripping the Willow'. It was indeed a stripping night to remember.

I didn’t think that I would ever believe in curses or superstitions but I began to change my mind when I arrived at work on Monday and listened to John. He was all excited. I was still suffering from the exertions of the weekend.

"Mornin Lad. Did ye hear aboot the win farm?"

"No, what happened?"

"A big accident they say. Something went wrang wi the electrics last night. It might hae been lightning...ony ways it a burnt oot. Them that saw it said it wis awesome, big blue flashes in the night sky, flames and the blades o the turbines burning. Twentyfive big turbines are just stopped and the transformers are melted. A better show than ee Northern Lights they say. Didn’t a tell ye that there would be hell tae pay fur them banes? An’ Billy Sinclair, poor bugger, they found him at the garage where he keeps his digger, seems that he'd been drinking and was trying tae fix something wi his digger's engine and got mangled in the machinery. He wis cut nearly in twa. But strange too, there was a big old axe lyin on the garage floor, aside im. I just hope the 'Atomics' at the Nuclear plant haven’t mixed any o the Inkergill sand wi their radioactive stuff!" John laughed his big hearty laugh.

"Don’t worry lad," he finished."The Box will be in later to sort it aw oot. Say now, do ye member where'd we put that copy o the Critical Nuclear Incident, Emergency Procedure Manual?"