To Noroway o’er the Faem

To Noroway, to Noroway,

To Noroway o’er the faem;

The king’s daughter of Noroway,

‘Tis thou maun bring her hame.

THE lines from the great ballad of Sir Patrick Spens ring down through the centuries as testimony to a shared cultural heritage on both sides of the North Sea. For, beginning with the first Viking attacks on Iona and Skye in the year 795, for more than six centuries the Norsemen dominated huge areas of what we now call Scotland. Indeed, the formation of Scotland as we know it today was marked by two crucial events relating to Scandinavia: the mortgaging of the Northern Isles to the Scottish Crown in 1468, in lieu of a dowry for Princess Margaret of Denmark on her betrothal to James III, and the ceding of the Hebrides from Norway to Scotland following the treaty of Perth in 1266.

Still today, you hear those outer isles referred to in Gaelic as Innse Gall – the foreign islands – because of the Norse influence there. In the Lowlands, too, it is the Norse element which still marks major differences between our Scots language and Standard English. We have, for example, kirk, kist, breeks, brig and rig for the English church, chest, breeches, bridge and ridge.

The links between Scotland and Norway then are ancient and of great consequence to the story of both countries. The daughter of Alexander III married King Erik of Norway and their daughter, The Maid of Norway, would have become Queen of Scots had she not died on her fateful voyage from Noroway o’er the Faem.

Following the union of Norway with Denmark, the ties between the countries and their crowns were ­continually strengthened by marriage – James III to Princess Margaret, and James VI to Anne of Denmark. At the fortress in Bergen which was built by Scottish craftsmen, there is a stone cairn built to commemorate the lives of this historic dynasty that bound Scotland and Denmark/Norway so closely together. When James VI married Anne, he made a procession through her country and was regally entertained by the substantial Scots community in Elsinore.  

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A result of the royal marriages and of the ­numerous treaties signed was a rise in commercial trade ­between the countries. The Scots dominated the ­Norwegian timber trade of the 16th and 17th centuries to such an extent that it was in fact called the ­skottehandelen, the Scotch trade. It still is, and the place names and oral tradition of the Ryfylke district in particular are full of Scottish references.

The occasional problematic Scottiah pirate apart, relationships that developed through the trade were generally cordial and warm.

Our own historian Chris (TC) Smout tells a story involving a friendship that developed between the family of a Norwegian sawmill owner and that of a Fife merchant who “tied up at the woods” in the fjords every year.

The story goes that on one trip, the skipper had no time to delay as his wife was heavily pregnant, with the bairn due any day. Thrilled for her friends, the Norwegian lady offered practical help; she made a pot of a local speciality for him to take home to his wife, a fortified porridge dish ideal for restoring ­women after childbirth. So, while the skipper loaded the timber, she made the porridge, happed the pot in a muckle blanket and, setting sail immediately with a fair wind, tradition has it that the porridge was still hot when it landed in Kirkcaldy!

The importance of the ­skottehandelen to our east-coast skippers can be gauged in the fact that up to seven out of every 10 ships from places like Dundee were ­engaged, as the records put it, “in bringin hame gret timmer”.

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To Norway, too, the trade was highly ­lucrative and its heyday in the 17th ­century is known in local history as the Skottetiden – the Scottish Period. Many Scots, of course, never came hame, but stayed on, their families contributing ­immensely to the culture of their adopted homeland.

The most famous and popular ­Norwegian writer of the 17th century was Petter Dass (1647-1707), son of ­Peter ­Dundas, a merchant of Dundee who ­arrived in Norway in 1640.

Born on the island of Nord Heröy, Dass is the classic Scots lad o pairts. He ­somehow managed to cram into his life ­pastoral work as a parish minister­, ­lucrative trade as a herring merchant in Northern Norway and stunning ­creativity in two very different ­genres of literature, religious hymns and ­descriptive poetry.

Both are still sung and recited. I have a CD by Bodø Domkor, the Cathedral Choir of Bodø, singing gorgeous, ­moving hymns like Alterens Sakramente. For the launch of my book The Scottish World at the Edinburgh Book Festival in 2006, I ­translated Dass’s song into the other ­language he would have grown up ­speaking, Scots:

Alterens Sacrament

O, Jesus at your alter fuit

we bou oor knie tae bend

an there we seek a sauf remeid

oor dwinin sauls tae mend

Yer Haly biddin gars us come

as guests tae yer waddin board

there to be fed wi your manna.

Gie us a blissit taste o Lord

that we can gie baith laud and gloir

an sing a loud Hosanna

Lat pleisure looin-lickerish race

wi heckin, gar thaim grue

run tae the stores an stow their face

an stap their wames richt fu.

Tae heck tae excess they arenae laith

While I masel gae tae brod an claith

the lord hes spreid afore me tae dine

an wi his bounty I’m mair content

gin I the gowd o’ ilka land wes sent

an aw the haill wide warld wes mine

We’ll mind o ye, Jesus oor Lord

in speirit, hert an thocht.

Sae lang as breid is wrocht fae corn

an grapes fae vines are socht.

Whaur’er the haly breid duis brak

baith young an auld they shallnae lack

they sall the Guid Lord’s daith proclaim.

Till ye appear amang us, yer fowk, for ever

intae yer kinrik eterne, tae gaither.

For aye, tae rax us hame.

On my CD, there is also an arrangement of part of Dass’s famous poem in praise of the landscape and the people and the way of life of Norway’s North Country, Nordlands Trompet. To this day, every Norwegian learns the opening lines of the poem which begins “Vær hilset i Nordlands bebyggende Mænd/Hail ye, you inhabitants of the Northland, everybody from the master in the house to the humble servant”. So loved and idolised was Dass in life, that when he died, the sails on northern fishing boats had a black trim for almost the next 100 years.

The North Sea herring trade was ­another sphere of Scottish influence, with Jacobite exiles crucial in the rise of ­Kristiansund as a great port for ­exporting fish in the 18th century. They were ­regarded as scrupulously fair in their business dealing but nevertheless, they did fall foul of the local Kirk, as many of them were suspected of having wives and families on both sides of the North Sea!

It got so bad that local pastors ­refused to bless marriages between the Scots and Norwegians. Some, though, were ­legitimate, and there are east coast names like Milne and Ramsay in the ­local ­telephone directory today.

Bergen also attracted Scottish ­merchants, indeed they superseded the Germans as the most important foreign merchant community there. Among those who put down roots were the ­families of two of Norway’s greatest sons, the ­composer Edvard Grieg and the ­statesman WFK Christie. What is ­remarkable about both is their ­importance in heightening Norway’s sense of national identity in both the cultural and the political sphere during the 19th ­century.

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They were prime movers in a ­movement which culminated ultimately in ­Norwegian independence in 1905, Christie presiding over the Norwegian Assembly which drew up the nation’s ­constitution. For his pivotal role in ­driving the national movement, he is ­revered by all Norwegians.

There is a statue to him outside the Norwegian Parliament building in Oslo, and Christie is to the fore in the famous painting of the signing of the ­constitution at Eidsvoll, which dominates the ­chamber of the parliament and featured on the country’s bank notes.

I tracked down the descendants of ­Wilhelm Friman Koren Christie and they held a family gathering for me in Oslo.

Although resident in Norway since 1654, they maintained business and educational ties with Montrose and ­Aberdeen for many generations, and they still maintain a strong family association, which organises trips back to Scotland to visit the land of their forebears.

Jan Christie said: “We are proud of ­being of Scottish heritage, absolutely, and when we have now been to Scotland twice, we had enormous interest from the members and I think that is proof of how we look at Scotland as our fatherland or motherland!”

The family are still producing major figures who grace Norwegian society, the world-famous criminologist Nils Christie and the great 20th-century poet Ehrling Christie to name but two. Remarkably, the Christies are also involved in the ­lineage of arguably the most famous of all of Norway’s artists, Edvard Grieg.

The National: Petter Dass commemorated in sculpture in SandnessjoenPetter Dass commemorated in sculpture in Sandnessjoen

I visited Grieg’s beautiful home at Trolldhaugen near Bergen, perched above a fjord with inspirational views all around. My guide was Lizsy Sadler, who had lived in the house most of her life, so was steeped in the history of the ­composer and his family. In one room, there is a splendid collection of family portraits which includes the substantial figure of Edvard Grieg’s great grandfather Alexander Greig. He arrived in Bergen in 1770 and began exporting fish and lobster back to Britain, a business which passed from father to son down to Edvard’s day, when his brother took it over.

Lizsy mentioned that on the ship ­bringing him over, Alexander Greig had met two other young men from the ­Bergen Scots community called Valence and Christie, who had been studying at Aberdeen University.

Greig became close friends with the Christie family, to such an extent that he eventually married the boy’s sister. Our conversation continued as follows:

“So he had Scottish blood on both sides of the family?”

“Yes, he had Scottish blood on both sides, maybe it was closer on the father’s side than the mother’s side.”

“But you still claim him as Norwegian?”

“We claim him as Norwegian, we just let the Scots get a little, little bit of him, but we never deny his Scottish ancestry, of course!”

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I was being cheeky, I know, but there is no denying Grieg’s seminal role in ­making Norwegians aware of the vitality and beauty in their own culture – ­remember that it was a society dominated ­culturally and politically for many ­centuries by ­Denmark then Sweden – and in opening people’s eyes to the treasures in their ­culture, it gave them the confidence to proceed to political independence.

What is remarkable looking back to the period between the 17th and the 19th centuries is how easy and open communication was between these countries.

Because of the regular ships that plied the routes, the homeland and the adopted land were easily accessible, if the will was there.

“Greig’s great grandfather, Alexander Greig who came from Scotland, he was a very religious man. So after he had come to Norway, he returned twice a year to Scotland to go to the Holy ­Communion in the old church of Rathens in ­Cairnbulg … went in a little ship across the ocean twice a year, so it must have been very ­important to him!”

The family of the late Scottish poet George Bruce, herring curers in ­Fraserburgh, had connections with two of the main branches of the Eastland trade, fish and timber – they exported cured herring in barrels all over the ­Baltic, while in the making of their own barrels, Norway was a major source of timber for the company’s cooperage. But there is one piece of oral history from the family which has never been told until now, and will be fascinating for ­historians of ­music and the Scottish diaspora.

This is how George told me the tale: “My great grandfather William Bruce was a cooper, and I was standing outside of Inverallochy with James Buchan and he said, ‘You’ll know where your ­forebears the Bruces lived?’ and I didn’t, and he pointed inland and said, ‘dae ye see that hoose there, that’s far yer ­forefathers were, an the nearest hoose tae that aboot half a mile away, that was far the Griegs or Greigs stayed – you know the ­composer Edward Grieg – I believe it was Grieg’s [great] grandfather who left here for Norway, but the Bruces were known to go across to the house to make music there, and the Griegs or Greigs would ­return the compliment’.”

One of the Greig family who inherited the family love of music in Scotland was Gavin Greig, who collected the great songs and ballads of his native north east. So when you hear a classical ­violin playing one of Grieg’s airs based on a Norwegian folk tune, and feel yourself respond emotionally, you might ask ­yourself if there is an echo there of music that emerged from the landscape of Buchan, and, like me, you can regress in time to the Greigs and Bruces playing their ­fiddles in a country cottage near ­Inverallochy, with the sound of the sea breaking against the cliffs ­nearby.