Maritime women: Connections across time

A woman buried at Scar, Sanday, CE 895 to 1035

The Viking boat burial at Scar in Sanday, Orkney, was exposed in the island’s eroding coastline by storms, and then excavated in 1991.  This remarkable burial consisted of a man who was aged around thirty at the time of his death, a woman who seems to have been in her seventies, and a child of ten or eleven years old.  They were all buried at some point between CE 895 and CE 1035 in a seven metre long boat along with an array of grave goods.

Iron fastening, Scar, Sanday. Date: CE 895 to 1035
One of the 310 nails and rivets recovered from a Viking boat burial. They are hand forged and of various lengths.
Orkney Museum 1992.22

The woman’s items were mainly of a domestic nature and included a whalebone plaque; a “Troms-type” equal-armed brooch – named after the Troms district in northern Norway, where a number of examples of these types of brooches have been found; a bone comb; shears; a needle tidy and spindle whorls.  We have decided to concentrate on sharing details about some of the items that are associated with the buried woman.

Further on, we will consider the ways that these objects link to an image of a ‘fisher girl’ photographed sitting and knitting in her accommodation hut in Stromness sometime around the year 1900.  In the photograph there is a wooden kist beside the woman, which she may have used to bring her possessions with her to this hut.  It seems that a wooden box also accompanied the woman buried at Scar.  It is possible that both of these women travelled by sea to Orkney, bringing the trappings of home and daily life with them.

Whale bone plaque, Scar, Sanday. Date: 8th – 9th centuries
This plaque was buried in the Scar boat grave, and is associated with the woman buried there. Find out more about the people and objects that were buried with her here and see the plaque on display at The Orkney Museum.
Orkney Museum 1992.22.139

The carved whale bone plaque has been decorated on one side. Two stylised, inward-looking animal heads have been carved into the top. Two bands following the outline of the plaque, and ring and dot decorations have also been incised onto the front side of the plaque.   It is 266mm high, and 173mm at the widest point.   It is thought to have been made and used as a smoothing board for pressing small linen garments, perhaps for ceremonial occasions.  It is likely to have been made in Norway, and to already have been of some age when it was buried with its owner.

An iron weaving batten, 365mm long, was also found. It is thought to have been broken and/or missing a handle. Weaving battens are common in women’s graves in Scandinavia, but rarer in Scotland, although this may be because they have been misinterpreted and thought to be other objects.  Its identifier is Orkney Museum 1992.142.

The shears were found lying to the right of the woman’s body.  A spindle whorl and various textile and wood fragments had become attached to them by corrosion products, during the time that they were in the ground.  The shears seem to have had cloth wrapped around them when they were buried.  Shears are frequently found in Viking women’s graves and the 210mm length of this pair suggests that they were probably used as scissors, perhaps in clothes-making.

Shears and spindle whorls, Scar, Sanday. Date: CE 895 to 1035
Shears found lying to the right of the woman’s body in the Scar boat grave. One whorl is attached to the shears.  The larger whorl is made from sandstone.
Orkney Museum 1992.22.154 and 1992.22.143

The whorl attached to the shears is made of an unusual type of talc rock that does not occur in Scotland.  It is thought to be made from Scandinavian rock and brought over from Norway.  It is the smaller of the two whorls that were found in the grave, with a diameter of 24mm.  The second whorl is made of a red sandstone which occurs naturally in Sanday and so it may have been made on the island.  With a diameter of 41mm, it is larger and heavier than the other.  Spindle whorls are the most common items used in textile production to be found in women’s graves from that time.

The needle tidy that was also found with this woman appears to be a wooden cylinder with yarn or thread wrapped around it.  X-rays have revealed that one end is solid, and the rest of the length hollow.  At least two iron needles are still contained within it, each with thread wrapped around them.  The unique identifier for this item is Orkney Museum 1992.161.

The components of a wooden box – believed to have been the container for the shears, spindle whorls, and the needle tidy at the time of burial – were also found.  Fifteen round-headed iron nails, a staple, thirteen iron band fragments, and a possible lock – all with mineralised wood attached – suggest that these were the parts of what was once a finely smoothed maple box, decorated with iron bands.  Its identifier is Orkney Museum 1992.146.

Fisher Girls at their hut near Stromness, c.1900, taken by R. H. Robertson
Orkney Library and Archive rhr4825

‘Fisher girls’ at Stromness, c.1900

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the port of Stromness saw an influx of around 2,000 fishermen and as many gutters and packers during the herring fishing season, which lasted for about six weeks in summer. The Scots fishing girls worked long hours gutting and curing, but what little spare time they had they spent knitting. Their accommodation was often a hut, which they set about making a home from home, with wallpaper and pictures on the wall and an oilcloth on the table.

A Fisher Girl inside her hut at Stromness, c. 1900, taken by R. H. Robertson
Orkney Library and Archive rhr5258

On the surface, the women represented in these diverse exhibits seem to have had little in common.  The high rank of some women in Norse times, inferred from the wealth and complexity of the items buried with them, their grave goods, has been well recorded, notably in the Birka cemetries of Bjorko in Sweden, although researchers debate whether the women held these positions in their own right or due to their association with men who were seen as being of high status.  The elderly woman buried at Scar, is generally agreed to have been one such woman, as shown by her burial in a boat and by the grave goods that were buried with her, as well as the suggestion that only people with wealth would have travelled from Norway, under sail in the Viking Age. 

In contrast, usually migrating workers, the ‘fisher lasses, came from humble backgrounds and were housed in simple huts with their meagre possessions.  Yet, these women played an important role in the fishing industry dependent on their work.  Their speed and dexterity when gutting the herring was apparently something to behold.  Images of traditional ‘fisher lasses’ are still frequently used as typical depictions of the herring industry, throughout the British Isles.

Although apparently wealthy, the Scar woman did not lead an idle life. Changes to the metacarpals, bones in her hands, suggest much of her time was spent spinning, an activity which involves the first two fingers and thumb being held together and the fourth and fifth fingers spread, particularly when spinning with flax.

Separated by time and possibly status, the woman at Scar, and the herring gutter at Stromness lived in maritime communities to which they had migrated by sea.  Each spent time making textiles, in some form or other, and we can see now that each had a significant role in the economies of their time.

The women who processed the herring catch were generally only temporary residents.  The work was seasonal and mobile; they followed the fleet, as the fleet followed the movement of the herring shoals around the seas of the British Isles.  Yet, they obviously felt the need to make each place feel as much like a home as possible.  We can see the homely interior in the photograph of the ‘fisher lass’ in her hut. Accounts from the time speak of the religious habits of the herring gutters in Orkney, including regular attendance at the kirks in each place that they worked; another way of making themselves at home, perhaps?

The woman buried at Scar is thought to have been from the western seaboard of Norway, inferred from the method of her burial and by some of the grave goods that were included in the boat burial, but it is thought that she was living in Sanday at the time of her death.  The boat that she and her companions are buried in is more of an inshore vessel rather than ocean-going one.  They are likely to have been part of a settled Viking community whose other members gave them this burial. She too seems to have brought key artefacts of a domestic life with her, including the whale bone plaque, believed to have been an heirloom at the time of burial, and the maple wood box and its contents.

Rather than isolated groups in remote areas, the people buried in a boat by the sea at Scar and the migrating ‘fisher lasses’ can be seen as representing  long and continuing traditions of people from and of maritime societies making their home, temporary or otherwise, in other maritime areas;  the sea being their means of transport and communication, central to their lives and livelihood, a part of home in fact.

Connections through time and across the Northern Isles

Women and men continue to work alongside each other, in Orkney and in Shetland, processing the catches from fisheries in both archipelagos; from crabs in Westray, Orkney to mackeral in Lerwick, Shetland.

Many people across Shetland still remember working at J & M Shearers in Garthspool, Lerwick. People recall not only the work, but sharing of humour, music and stories, during the work, and in the eveings, in the worker’s accommodation huts positioned around the station

Packing, Shearers’ station, Lerwick, Shetland. Date: 1960s
This photograph shows women packing herring in barrels at J & M Shearers herring station, Garthspool, Lerwick.  The women worked alongside the male coopers who sealed the barrels. The hardships of the work meant lasting friendships and marriages were forged.
Shetland Museum and Archives 00132

To watch the New Connections Across the Northern Isles film series and hear and see contemporary maritime women and men speaking about their care for their maritime culture/natures and the importance of remembering these forward for sustainble futures click here.

Please cite New Connections Across the Northern Isles (2019) when referencing materials from this virtual museum.

Find out more

Find out more about the boat burial site by clicking here.

Find out more about the Scar boat burial items in The Orkney Museum collections by clicking here.

Find out more about the photographer R. H. Robertson at the Orkney Library and Archive website by clicking here.

Visit The Orkney Museum website by clicking here.

Visit the Orkney Library and Archive website by clicking here.

Visit the Shetland Museum and Archives’ online gallery of photographs by clicking here.

Further Reading:

BROWN, G. M., PARK, J. A., WILSON, B. S., TROUP, J. A., 2008. Stromness: Late 19th Century Photographs. Revised with additions. Orkney. Orkney Natural History Society.

BUTCHER, D., 1987. Following the Fishing. Tops’l Books.

DOMMASNES, L. H., 1991. Women, Kinship and the Basis of Power. In: R. SAMSON, ed. Social Approaches to Viking Studies. Glasgow. Cruithne Press.

NADEL-KLEIN, J., 2000. Granny Baited the Lines: Perpetual Crisis and the Changing Role of Women in Scottish Fishing Communities. Women’s Studies International Forum, 23 (3) pp 363 – 372. USA. Elsevier Science Ltd.

OWEN, O. and DALLAND. M., 1999. Scar: A Viking Boat Burial in Sanday, Orkney. East Linton. Tuckwell Press.

RINGSTEDT, N., 1997. Economic and Social Aspects: A Quantitative Analysis. Current Swedish Archaeology (5).

WESTERDAHL, C., 2015. Sails and the Cognitive Roles of Viking age Ships. In: J. H. BARRETT and S. J. GIBBON, eds. Maritime Societies of the Viking and Medieval World. Routledge 2015, chapter 2.

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