We have been given this story by our colleagues at Greenock Writers Club. It's a Viking tale from Jim Carnduff.
Jim trained as a compositor and was employed in newspaper production during his working life. He also freelanced news events for two local newspapers, adding photo coverage when he retired in 1987. His interest in creative writing has fuelled his attempts to submit stories and poetry for publication with occasional success. He served with the RAF in Burma during the Second World War and qualified for the Burma Star campaign medal. This story was written in memory of the late Alan RocheYou can also hear an audio recording of the story by writers club member Isobel Watt below, or on our soundcloud page.
The tiny piece of artwork above is another sneaky Andy Lee detail from our own Viking project, which will be on display in Largs during the Viking Festival.
The Raven's FlightInga's eyes betrayed troubled thoughts.
She was not seeing the weakening evening light with traces of muted pink, or gannets plummeting off the headland point, nor the dark outline of Cowal hills in the north. Her mind was on events that could bring tragedy.
King Alexander had assembled his troops on the moorland hills above Largs. Haakon's Viking fleet had already entered the Clyde.
She stepped away from the croft door and took the path down the hill. She felt the chill and withering touch of autumn. On the grassy plateau above the beach she could see her two daughters. They were skipping to a rhyme and as the tempo quickened they tripped and fell laughing in a heap.
Like herself they were both blonde, yet their father was a Gael with dark features. Ann was12 and Mary 10. She had chosen Christian names for them when they were baptised in the Chapel of the Blessed Brigid in her home village of Rothesay.
Her parents had opposed her marriage to Angus the Dalriad. Up until then her line was pure. But she had not heeded. An ancestor had fought with Somerled and she was proud of her heritage. Now it mattered little to ordinary folk which king had sovereignty over the islands. Gael and Norse had lived side by side for centuries. Their offspring were the `gall ghaidheill,' a virulent stock unfettered by old loyalties.
Her grandmother had witnessed the seige of Rothesay castle. Eighty Viking ships had come to Bute with troops recruited from the Western Isles and the Isle of Man to counter the threat to Norse suzerainty. The besieged garrison had fought tenaciously, pouring down burning pitch and lead on the attackers. Three hundred Vikings perished before the Scots were overcome and the castle destroyed.
Now there would be an even greater battle.
Daylight was fading. Inga caught up her skirt and ran down to the platform of the grey rock where she could see the sweep of the Firth.
`Can you see your father's boat?'
The two girls stopped their play. Their mother repeated the question.
`Yes.' they chorussed. `He's coming up from porpoise bay. We can see his sail.'
`You should have told me!' Inga was cross. She retraced her steps.
As she mounted the hill a hoarse croaking made her look up. Black wings appeared for a moment. It was a raven. The sight sent a chill through her: the creature was an ill omen. It flew to a nearby tree. She had never seen a raven on Cumbrae island before.
Returning to the house she roused the fire. Venison was cooking in the pot. As a treat for the girls she had a bramble tart with honey and cream.
She shooed hens out of the house, swept the flagstones and set the table. Before lighting the lamps she placed a hand on the table and said a grace: `Holy Virgin take my hand. Holy Spirit be in our midst'.
For a moment Inga kept her hand resting on the surface. The table was her proudest possession. It had been a wedding gift from her parents and been in the family for generations. Maybe if she put her ear to the familiar surface she would hear voices from the past. She lit the lamps.
Angus arrived hand in hand with the girls. He was a thick-set man with an assured manner, a ferry-man for the island and crofter. Inga always felt relief on his return. She was never relaxed on her own. Her nearest neighbours were the Nicolsens, a mile away at Eiggan farm.
Mary held up a red apple.
`Look what father's brought from Largs. He's got a basketful!'
`Who gave you the apples?' Inga asked.
`Tam Duff, the weaver.' She held it up.'
Inga took the basket, smiling at her daughter's pleasure. `Tam is a good man.'. She looked at Angus and asked if there was any news.
She sensed caution in Angus' terse reply. Their eyes met and she understood. He couldn't explain while Ann and Mary were within earshot.
At bedtime Inga combed the girls' hair and tucked them up in their cots. A pang of fear quivered at her heart. They were so dear and so innocent.
At the fireside Angus spoke in a whisper.
`Viking ships will be here tomorrow. Nicolsen was sent to tell me. Cattle, sheep and livestock on the island are to be confiscated. The fleet is short of food. They will set up their headquarters at the Hall and it will be used as an armoury and a hospital. Ground has to be prepared for graves near the ruins of St. Columba Cathedral. King Haakon may come too. Rumour is that he has been ill since he left Bergen in July. The princes want to relieve him of command.
He paused and looked questionly at his wife.
`Inga. You and the girls will need to leave tomorrow. I'll take you to Kirsty at Toward.
Inga said nothing, her face impassive. She stood up clasping her arms tight against her bosom.
`I saw a raven tonight.'
She sat down again and glanced at the recess where her daughters slept.
`Odin sends his ravens to watch the warriors in battle. Only the bravest and most daring are selected to live with him in Valhalla – the hall of the slain. The ravens return like carrier pigeons: the chosen warriors are escorted by the Valkyrie maidens to Valhalla, there to live forever in feasting and fighting.' She hesitated as if reluctant to continue.
`But Odin has living recruits – the Berserkir, the bear-shirted ones – fanatics who work themselves into a frenzy and howl as they enter the fray.'
`Inga . . . ' Angus began to protest but she put her hand to his mouth.
`I know it's wrong to believe pagan myths, but I am uneasy. Tomorrow is the Sabbath. I want you to take the children at first light to the church at Innerkip on the mainland. While you are away I will pack food and take what we can on the boat. When you return I will have everything ready and, God willing, we will get away before the invaders come.
The morning dawned to the sound of gusting winds snarling round the croft: rafters creaked and the thatch rigging rustled restlessly in the gale. Angus went to the door. A southerly wind was sending long raking seas up the Firth. If conditions got worse they would be storm bound on the island – and could he manage to sail back against such a gale if he took the girls to Innerkip.
Inga roused her daughters. They were excited at the prospect of going to Innerkip. They liked the vicar there. He was a monk from the Abbey at Paisley and he told them stories about places in Scotland. Inga gave them each a bundle to carry and insisted they put on their winter sheepskins. Ann was allowed to take her slate and coloured chalks and Mary wanted to sit in the prow.
Angus ran the heavy boat over poles down to the water's edge. The big sail, half raised, was snapping in the wind. He lifted the girls on to the vessel and told them to go for'ard to the awning- shelter until he shoved off from the shore.
Inga watched and waved until they got underway. Halfway up the hill she looked back. The craft was being swept up the estuary towards Kelly Quay and Innerkip. On the opposite shore, rounding Craigmore Point, Viking longboats appeared.
Inga stood transfixed. They were unmistakable. Red-striped sails filled the horizon. Fear gripped her heart. She felt breathless.
She hurried to the house anxious and confused. She steadied herself at the table and felt reassured as her hands touched the familiar surface. She would gather her valuable possessions and essentials for the journey, heap them on the table and tie them up in shawls and blankets and be ready for the boat returning. Then she would see to the animals.
But as she worked her mind was filled with the dread of war – and the hoarse croak of a raven!
With everything ready for the boat she went to the top pasture to get the cow. From there she could see the approach of the warships.
Thirty or more great vessels with sails billowing made an awesome pageant as they ploughed through the heavy seas. Fastened to their sides, the shields of the warriors glistened amid the splashing oars and flying spume. The leader had the great Viking serpent emblazoned on his sail. And in the sky above this menacing spectacle, Inga saw a skein of greylag heading for Bute. She thought of Rothesay and her home. Her mother would be worried for their safety.
She hastened back, milked the cows and fed the hens. In the house she smoored the fire. The peat would burn slowly for several days. Her wish was that she would return and find it still alight. She took the dried-herb box from the shelf on the chimney breast and put it on the table.
A noise made her look up.
She became aware of a figure framed in the doorway – silhouetted against the light. She looked in alarm. It seemed like a helmetted man, his face half hidden by a metal visor. She felt the blood draining from her face. The apparition didn't move. It kept staring. The mouth was grimacing. She shrank back, her senses reeling. She stumbled and fell screaming as the warrior came towards her. She lay helpless, the figure astride her, leering. His hands gripped her clothing. She summoned up all her strength and dug her nails into his face.
`Inga! Inga!' Angus was shouting, `In the name of heaven, get control of yourself!'
She lay limp for a moment.
Angus was dabbing his mouth with the back of his hand. There was a smear of blood on his face.
`Angus. I thought you were a Viking.'
`My God woman, you nearly ripped my face off!'
`I'm sorry. What a shame. I'm so sorry . . .
Angus took her arm and helped her up.
`Inga . We'll need to hurry. Let's get the bundles and go now.
They ran down to the beach with their possessions. Inga steadied the boat as Angus loaded the bundles. He told her to get on board.
'Wait. Angus. Could we not take the table?'
Angus started to protest. `We'll never get the table on the boat as well!'
`Yes we will. We can lash it upright to the mast. That's how we brought it here.
Angus shook his head. He didn't have time to argue. `Right. We'll take it. But you are taking a risk! Haakon's men could be here at any moment.
They raced back to the croft and between them they brought the table down to the boat.
Once the table was secured and the boat underway, Inga looked back. The island was being swept by a gale gaining in fury, The woodland that shouldered the hill swayed and protested angrily. Above the trees the raven fought the wind in agitated flight. Then, as if seeing their escape, it descended hawk-like alighting on the shore. It hopped down the keel marks of the boat to the water's edge. Inga crossed herself and looked away.
Beyond the shelter of the bay the sea was running in great troughs. As they met the surge, Angus felt the awesome power of the ocean as he struggled with tiller and sail. The weather had worsened since his trip with the girls. A darkening sky brought driving rain and drenching spray added to their discomfort. The wind was almost due south, thrashing in from the Irish Sea to a Clyde estuary with little shelter from the storm's direction. Angus looked anxiously at the table which had already loosened from its lashings. And as he watched the dark threatening sky, he knew the Vikings could never land their vessels to engage the Scots in these weather conditions.
Inga sat amidships, gripping the mast and glancing anxiously at Angus each time the boat shuddered. But his face was set hard-jawed with the stress of the moment. She looked ahead. Tears clouded her vision. She thought of her house now deserted and unprotected. Should she have stayed. Perhaps the battle would not have touched them. Had she forsaken her home on a superstitious whim.
Angus watched the table with some concern. What would happen if it came loose – he couldn't leave the tiller. He knew the storm would carry them past Innerkip, but he dare not risk turning and taking one of these waves abeam. The vessel would be engulfed in no time. He hoped for calmer water beyond Ardgowan Point.
The boat was swept swiftly up the Firth. They passed close to Innerkip. Just beyond, where the shore turns eastward, Angus glimpsed calmer waters. He prepared to come about and shouted to Inga to hold on. He leaned heavily on the tiller. As the craft took the full force of the sea, waves crashed on board. They were in danger of foundering as the boat shipped water. Angus fought the protesting tiller and held his course. Inga stood clinging to the mast, shocked by the cold sea striking her. Then as they cleared the Point they met calmer water and safety. Angus let the vessel run on to the shore.
On Cumbrae a thousand Norsemen had landed – the vanguard of the Viking army. They sought shelter and scoured the island for food. Homes were ransacked, animals killed, women molested and resistance punished by the sword.
The following day the Viking captains stood by to launch an attack. They could see the Scots across the three-mile stretch of water. The wind was still blowing fiercely and several support vessels from Arran were driven ashore below the Scots' positions. But Alexander's army stood their ground. King Haakon watched and weighed his chances. He decided to wait.
As another day dawned his hopes for a respite in the weather were dashed. The Norsemen looked at the white streaked sea and accused the Scots of witchcraft. But their leader had lost patience. He summoned his fleet to action.
The seaborne forces, hampered by the fury of the elements, landed in disarray. The waiting Scots seized their advantage and harassed the Vikings as they came ashore. A short and straggling bloody battle ensued along half a mile of coastline, but the Scots held their opponents and drove them back to their ships.
The Vikings attacked again the next day and in a fierce engagement drove the Scots back to their hill positions. But Haakon, realising that outright victory was beyond his grasp, called for a truce.
The horse and cart came slowly up the hill to the cemetery. Behind walked the bereaved relatives. At the graveside, the tall figure of a monk, hands clasped over the folds of his grey habit, stood with bare-headed mourners. The coffin was carried through the gate and brought up the path, the silence broken only by the pall-bearers' crunching tread on the gravel and a faint sobbing. Accompanied by a Latin liturgy, the body was committed to its resting place. Then in the soft Gaelic tongue, the priest spoke of the lad and their loss. He had fallen with his brave Scottish comrades in a battle which, God willing, would bring a lasting peace. The sadness they suffered was shared by all. Inga looked at the woman who had befriended her and lost her son. She went over and embraced her.
For a moment those assembled stood with their silent thoughts in memory of the village lad who had died facing the Norse invaders. Reluctantly they turned away from the grave, the women first, and the men following. Sunshine broke through on the Cowal coast and raced fleetingly along the hills. The storm had passed.
Inga and Angus with their daughters made their farewells and walked down to the estuary. The boat was moored and ready to sail. Some children came running down to the water's edge to watch, making crosses and circles with their bare feet on the wet sand as the sail was raised. With a signal from Angus they pushed the boat out in an excited mellee, laughing and cheering them away.
Hastened by a fresh westerly breeze, they were soon in sight of Cumbrae. The table was still lashed to the mast.
`Mother. Why did you bring the table on the boat?' the younger daughter asked.'
`Just in case it got damaged.' Inga answered.'
`Who would damage it?'
`Well. The soldiers might.'
`Maybe to break up for firewood. Soldiers don't care about people's property.'
As they sailed into the bay below their hillside croft, their eyes searched the familiar landscape as if seeing it for the first time.
There was something lying on the shore at the high water mark.
The boat grounded and Angus jumped ashore and made fast with a rope. He helped the others off and the girls made to see what had been washed up. But Inga stopped them.
`Stay where you are. It's something you don't want to see.'
She went to look for herself – She knew what she would find.
He had blonde hair and his eyes were open. A trailing piece of seaweed was caught in the top fastening of his coat.
She turned away.
`It's a dead Viking.'
Angus went forward and looked at the corpse.
`He's only a laddie.'
He knelt down and straightened the body, placing the hands together on the chest. He closed the eyes and placed a pebble on each eyelid. He stood up and made the sign of the cross.
`I'll put him in the boat tonight and take him to the Hall in the morning.'
The house was strangely quiet. The hens and the cow had gone. Inside there was no sign of any disturbance.
Inga knelt by the fireplace. She took the bellows and gently sent a draught of air into its embers. She said the prayer her mother had taught her. It would be a blessing if it did not have to be rekindled. There was a puff of ash, then a trace of smoke and gradually a red glow. She fed the fire with some dry twigs.
She went outside and stood. She missed the hens fussing around her. Taking the cow-stick from the byre wall, she walked up to the top field.
`Poor Daisy. What a shame.' she said aloud with tears in her eyes.
She looked across the water to Kilchattan. How did they fare in Bute she wondered.
She left the empty pasture and as she came by the wood something on the ground caught her eye. She bent down and picked up a black feather. She looked up through the branches. There was a movement. She glimpsed a red breast.
It was a robin and it sang its melodious song as if it was springtime.
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