A Very Viking Christmas? Yule be surprised!

With merchandise from Disney’s Scandinavian-inspired animation Frozen expected to top toy gift lists this year and the increasing popularity of Scandinavian-style festive jumpers, staff from the University of the Highlands and Islands’ Centre for Nordic Studies give an insight into how Viking culture has influenced Christmas traditions.

Yule Festival

While Christmas is predominantly viewed as a Christian celebration, many of the traditions associated with it are thought to have origins in Viking culture. Scandinavian people marked the time around the winter solstice, when daylight hours start to lengthen, long before Christianity came to Nordic regions. They would prepare food, brew alcohol and visit friends and relatives in the festival known as Yule, a term possibly derived from the Old Norse “jól”.

Dr Alex Sanmark, reader at the Orkney-based Centre for Nordic Studies, explains: “The meaning of “jól” is uncertain and no satisfactory explanation has been put forward, but suggestions have ranged from “the time of blizzards” to “joyous feast” and even “magic”.

“Drinking played an important part in “jól” celebrations. According to early Christian laws, all the farmers had to join together to brew beer for Christmas and this beer should then be drunk at a party for “peace and prosperity”. This is clearly a Christian version of a much older, pagan tradition relating to the fertility cult – a form of nature worship used to try to ensure that people, plants and animals were productive. One of the earliest usages of the word “jól” is in a poem probably composed around 900, where we find the typical expression “to drink jól”, again showing that alcohol was a central part of Viking midwinter celebrations.”

Singing, acting and Santa? 

A further Nordic tradition associated with Christmas involves dressing up, visiting houses and singing songs. Dr Ragnhild Ljosland, a researcher at the University’s Centre for Nordic Studies, reveals:

“Another custom surrounding Yule is that of dressing up in costumes and engaging in community drama. As a child in Norway in the 1980s, I remember dressing up to “gå julebukk” – to go Yule-goating. Julebukk involves dressing up with a mask and going to people’s doors to chase out Christmas around New Year time. You sing and carry a sack to collect cakes and sweeties.

“If we go a couple of hundred years further back in time, people used to walk in a group around the farms in the parish, dressed up so that nobody would recognise them. It was the custom for them to be offered something to drink and eat at each farm. These costumes could be rather frightening and represent fantastical animals, such as an effigy of a billygoat’s – or Yule Goat’s – head on a stick. Folk belief had it that supernatural beings were extra active at this time of year, so the costumes could also have represented the “Oskoreia” – a frightening collection of supernatural creatures chasing about. It was best to stay indoors when the Oskoreia sweeps across your farmyard.”

Another creature in Scandinavian folk belief was a small being known as the “tomte” or “nisse”, thought to live in byres and stables.

Dr Ljosland notes: “The “tomte” or “nisse” was an elf-like creature in grey clothing and a pointed hat. It was a good idea to be nice to this being, for example by offering him some food and drink now and then, as he could be helpful if you were kind to him and naughty if you were not. Nowadays, the “Jultomte” or “Julenisse” (“Yule-tomte” or “Yule-nisse”) is the one who brings presents on Christmas Eve. As a child living in a city, I remember putting out Christmas porridge for the “nisse” in our garage, in the lack of a stable. But it must have worked as it was all gone on Christmas morning!”

Aspects of these customs are echoed in aspects of the festive season we know today, including carol signing, Santa Claus and his elves, pantomime and first-footing.


A more recent addition to many families’ experience of Christmas is the Disney blockbuster, Frozen. Loosely based on the fairy tale The Snow Queen by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen, the film is full of references to Scandinavia and its traditions. The animation is set in Arendelle, a mythical kingdom inspired by the fjords, mountains and architecture of Norway. It features several items associated with Scandinavian history and culture, including Nordic runes, a maypole and trolls.

Professor Donna Heddle, director of the Centre for Nordic Studies, summarises the relationship between Nordic culture and Christmas: “There is no doubt the North has had an influence on the modern concept of Christmas and this is now being seen in popular culture, for example, in films like Disney’s Frozen.

“There is a real place in Norway called Arendal and Orkney gets our municipal Christmas tree from there every year – an interesting link which bridges the real and the imagined Nordic world.”

The Centre for Nordic Studies is part of Orkney College UHI, one of the University of the Highlands and Islands thirteen partners. You can find out more about its work and courses at www.uhi.ac.uk. The next intake for its Viking Studies course is January 2015. 

Hoping for a White Christmas? Seven Facts about Yuletide Snow!

By Dr Eddie Graham, University of the Highlands and Islands

We’ve already seen some snowfalls across Scotland over the past week – but what are the chances for there to be enough snow for Santa and his reindeers to pull the sledge this coming Christmas Eve? Meteorologist and lecturer, Dr Eddie Graham, describes seven things to watch out for if you hoping for a white Christmas:

  1. Look to the North! It is from the north that Scotland usually gets its snowiest and coldest weather. Initially, the best places to find snow are Caithness, Sutherland, around the Moray Firth and northern Aberdeenshire. For sustained and lengthy periods of snow across all of Scotland, the ideal conditions would involve a blast of frigid air directly from the Arctic (containing heavy snow showers within a ‘polar low’), followed by several days of fine, freezing weather as a cold anticyclone becomes established – we saw conditions just like this during Christmas 1995 and again at Christmas 2010.
  2. Easterly winds from Siberia are less likely to develop early in the winter, but in the past they have brought substantial snowfalls to east-facing coasts and hills (especially across the Borders and rural Aberdeenshire) – for example at Christmas 1996.
  3. Westerly winds can also bring snow occasionally, but it usually does not last for long at sea-level and tends to be slushy in nature.
  4. Visit the Highlands! The chance of snow increases markedly with altitude in Scotland, almost regardless of how little snow there has been near sea-level. So if you are desperate to throw a snowball or just touch the white stuff, make a beeline for a Corbett (above 2,500 feet) or a Munro (above 3,000 feet) – you are almost guaranteed to see some snow!
  5. Watch for hesitant, wavering fronts advancing slowly from the south-west – if deep cold air has become established over Scotland (for example, during an extended period of high pressure with frosty conditions), a slowly advancing Atlantic frontal system can potentially bring very heavy snowfalls on its progress north-eastwards.
  6. The best conditions for making a Snowman? Actually these are not to be found during coldest weather, but when the air temperature is near freezing-point or even slightly above. This is because snow sticks best when there is a little (liquid) water present. So roll your snowballs at the warmest time of the day! Powder snow, on the other hand, is much more likely at sub-zero temperatures (typically below -3°C, right down to sub double-digits °C) – these make the best conditions for skiing, especially off-piste!
  7. Can I predict snow or icy conditions at home without watching a weather forecast? Yes, certainly! Make sure that you have a thermometer – put it in a sheltered place outside (away from direct sunlight or sources of heat) and watch the barometer and the wind direction too. If the air pressure and temperature are both low and the wind swings into the north-west, north or north-east, then the chance of snow is definitely increasing!

For regular updates on the weather from the Highlands and Islands, you can follow Eddie on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/eddy_weather or read his weather blog at: http://bit.ly/1qGLyJm

A ‘passage exceeding hazardous’? The ferries of the Beauly, Cromarty and Dornoch Firths before 1900

Dr David Worthington, Centre for History

With the Kessock Bridge undergoing major repairs at the moment and the Cromarty to Nigg ferry due to open next week, Dr David Worthington, head of the University of the Highlands and Islands Centre for History, gives an insight into how people used to cross the Beauly, Cromarty and Dornoch Firths.

A ‘passage exceeding hazardous’? The ferries of the Beauly, Cromarty and Dornoch Firths before 1900

“…a pleasant prospect: the rich banks of the firth, crowded with farms, and animated with all the appearances of industry; small vessels sailing up and down; people busy for preparing and unloading them; fishermen attending their nets; the ferry boats ready at a call; the extensive prospects of the rich-lands in Ross-shire and a good inn seen among trees on the opposite shore.”[1]

Banff-born minister, Charles Cordiner, recorded these fond memories of being aboard a ferry heading southwards across the Kyle of Sutherland in 1776. He was not alone in being so positive about northern Highland ferries. In the 1790s, the Minister of Cromarty concluded that the ‘safety of this ferry [Cromarty to Invergordon] may be judged of’ since ‘no accident has been known to have happened upon it’, a point made also about the Ardersier to Chanonry route by his counterpart in Rosemarkie and by claims, in the 1830s, that, despite the absence of a steamship, there remained ‘no ferry in Scotland better attended to’ than the Inverness to North Kessock service.[2]


A postcard marked 1906, sent to a Mrs Muirhead, possibly of a Cromarty ferry of the time. [Cromarty Archive Image Library No: 276]

These pre-20th century vessels may have served local passengers well enough on the whole. However, sea crossings in northern Europe are scarcely ever placid and external commentators usually conveyed an impression that the ferries were dangerous, at worst, and uncomfortable and expensive at best. In the 1650s, English visitor, Richard Franck, described the Inverness to North Kessock route as ‘exceeding hazardous’ and ‘rugged’, believing he would be capsized not just due to the ‘luxuriant tides, and aggravating winds, that violently contract the surff of the sea’, but because of the ‘porposses’ [porpoises or dolphins] that he thought were in danger of leaping into the boat.[3] In the early 19th century, James Loch, estate commissioner for the first duke of Sutherland, remarked that the vessels were ‘without every accommodation which could make them either comfortable or convenient, the passenger being left exposed to all the inclemency of a variable and boisterous climate’, so that ‘the risk of crossing these narrow friths, hemmed in between mountains, was considerable’.[4] The Minister of Kincardine near Ardgay was justified in being perturbed about the Meikle Ferry crossing across the Dornoch Firth which ‘is considered one of the most dangerous and inconvenient in the north; and many lives have been lost in crossing it’.[5] Tragically, the ferry capsized there during a 1809 crossing causing up to 100 people to be drowned. Shortly after, Bristol-born poet and traveller, Robert Southey, met a son of one of those who died who ‘could never bear to set foot in a ferry boat after that catastrophe, and was thus cut off from communication with the south till this bridge [Bonar Bridge, 1812] was built’.[6]

Possible loss of life aside, travellers complained, even on calm days, of delays, discomfort and cold. In the 1760s, Bishop Robert Forbes was ‘long detained’ at Ardersier since ‘the Boat could not take over the Pasengers that appeared, the Horses and the Chaise all at once’.[7] James Loch said his horse and carriage were only ‘slowly and unskillfully put into the wretched boats’[8] and Southey claimed that passengers on the Invergordon to Cromarty service had been ‘sometimes obliged to mount their horses nearly a quarter of a mile from the shore, and ride mid-leg deep in the water’.[9] Despite calling the Kessock ferry the ‘best in Scotland’, Bishop Robert Forbes also noted that ‘they have no good means of getting carriages on board, and there was considerable difficulty with one of the horses’.[10]

Ferries in the firthlands could also be expensive. Moray minister, the Reverend James Allan, remarked in 1690 that ‘tho I kindled no smoak, they forced me to pay a shilling sterling’ on the Ardersier to Chanonry crossing. For Elgin man, Issac Forsyth, the ‘very considerable revenue exacted’ by the various ferry proprietors may have been ‘requisite for the support and navigation of the boats’, but still ‘few are satisfied with the provision made either for their accommodation or their safety in the passage of the ferries’.[11]

Thankfully, times have changed. Better piers have been built and the Nigg to Cromarty ferry, a service with origins dating back to the 12th century, has, in modern times, become a safe and pleasurable experience for tourists and locals alike. Now that rail and road have taken over though and the Beauly, Cromarty and Dornoch Firths have all been bridged, it is perhaps only through taking to the waters in this way or from the air that we can be reminded of the basics of geography and of the networks that operated to link Ardersier with Little Ferry in eastern Sutherland and many points between along this roughly indented stretch of coastline.

[1] Charles Cordiner, Antiquities and Scenery of the North of Scotland, in a Series of Letters to Thomas Pennant (s.n., 1780), pp.65-6.

[2] The Statistical Account of Scotland 1791-1799, 20 vols., (Wakefield, 1973-83.), XI, XII; The New Statistical Account of Scotland [hereafter NSA], 15 vols., (Edinburgh, 1845), XIV.

[3] Richard Franck, Northern memoirs, calculated for the meridian of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1821), pp.205-6.

[4] James Loch, An Account of the Improvements on the Estates of the Marquess of Stafford, (London, 1820), pp.17-19.

[5] NSA, XVI, p. 422.

[6] C.H. Herford (ed.), Robert Southey, Journal of a Tour in Scotland in 1819, (London, 1929), p. 129.

[7] J.B. Craven (ed.), Journals of the episcopal visitations of the Right Rev. Robert Forbes (London, 1923), p.151.

[8] Loch, An Account, pp.17-19.

[9] Herford (ed.), Robert Southey, p.121.

[10] Craven (ed.), Journals, p.167.

[11] Isaac Forsyth, A Survey of the Province of Moray: Historical, Geographical, and Political(Aberdeen, 1798), pp.338-9.