[From Manx Quarterly #13 1913]
By J. J. KNEEN.
Asketil vilti i trigu, aithsaara siin, i.e., " Whom Asketil deceived in security, contrary to his pledge of peace." A fragment of a Runic Cross bearing this inscription was found in Kirk Braddan Churchyard many years ago, and is now in the Museum at Distington, near Whitehaven.
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John Quirk was a great antiquary, in fact he was known throughout the length and breadth of Mann as " Old Quirk the Antiquary"; and. anything he did not know of the prehistoric past of his native Island was not worth knowing. There was not a living Manxman who did not consider it the greatest of honours to count Old Quirk among his acquaintances. Many learned papers he had read before the principal antiquarian societies of Great Britain, and he was appreciated by the foremost Archeological scholars of his time.
To know John Quirk was to love him. Nature had made up to him in geniality what she lacked giving him in stature. He was a very little man, with kindly grey eyes, a face cleanly shaven-except for a pair of sideboards, as the Manx people were wont to call them-and hair as white as the driven snow. He always wore a " parson's attire," black frock coat, high straight collar, and soft felt hat; in fact he was often mistaken for a minister, which seemed to give him a certain amount of pleasure.
One very warm day in September, Old Quirk was sitting on a flat tomb-stone in Braddan Churchyard-a favourite haunt of his listlessly watching the venerable grave-digger, who was busy opening a grave, and pausing every few minutes to remove the perspiration from his brow with a very large red pocket handkerchief.
With the exception of the slight noise made by the grave-digger's operations, all the rest of nature seemed hushed to rest. An almost perfect stillness reign supreme, intermittently broken by t lazy hum of a bee, as be flew from flower to flower gathering his winter store, the rasping caw of a rook, swinging be and forward on the branch of a tree f overhead, or the lowing of a cow on Kirby Fares, as she switched the flies off h back with her tail. Very occasionally th faint laughter of seekers after health an pleasure was borne thither upon the Autumn breeze, as a car rolled towards the Western City of Peel.
Suddenly a metallic clang rent the air which - metaphorically speaking - made Old Quirk "prick up his ears." The grave-digger's spade had encountered something which resented its further intrusion into the earth. And then Old Quirk's momentarily languid interest evaporated again, as the rays of old O were rapidly reducing him to a state of somnolency. The old grave-digger valiantly tugged away at the object which prevented him from using his spade to advantage, and at last succeeded in dislodging it, and lifting it out of the grave He placed it on the greensward, where he leisurely examined it, rubbing off the soil which adhered to it with a handful of grass. It was a piece of an old cross containing some strange markings, with which the grave-digger was familiar, the same kind of markings existed on other old stones lying about the churchyard; Learned people called them " Runes," and the old man-always having the word " ruins" in his mind-could never under stand why such a name should be applied to the " crosses and crosses" on the stones instead of to the stones themselves; to him the marks were a meaningless jumble of lines. It was not the markings which first attracted him, however, but the peculiar shape of the stone. " Another of them" he said, sotto voce, and care. fully charging his well-seasoned clay, and applying a lighted match thereto, he proceeded to wrap himself m a cloak of blue haze, the pungent odour of which pervaded the whole neighbourhood. He might have resembled Mann, when in the dim and forgotten ages of the past the old Celtic magician Mannanan-during one of his frolicsome moods-wrapped it up in a gauzy garb of mist, to prevent his curious neighbours in the adjacent islands from prying too closely into his affairs.
Old Quirk reclined peacefully on his stony couch, having succumbed to the gentle influence of the Goddess of Sleep. Suddenly, a big inquisitive blue-bottle fly collided with all its force against Old Quirk's olfactory organ, and it would be hard to say which of them was the more surprised-Old Quirk or Mr Bluebottle The former jumped out of his somnolescent attitude and assumed a sitting posture; what had happened he was not quite sure about, but he was very wide awake now. Chancing to look towards the grave which was being opened, his eyes alighted on the stone which the grave-digger had unearthed, and always having a mind on possibilities, he hastily arose to examine it. " What have you got here, my man" ? said Old Quirk in a voice of suppressed excitement. " Only one o' them oul' Runic Stones, sir," replied the digger, momentarily pausing in his operations, and resuming them again with an indifferent air. The antiquary's eyes gleamed with pleasure. "A most interesting find" he muttered to himself; and bringing it over to the seat he had just vacated, he proceeded to examine it. Carefully removing the soil from the interstices between the letters with the aid of his pocketknife, and brushing it with some dried grass, he at last succeeded in deciphering the runes. They read :
" Asketil vilti i trigu, aithsaara siin." Now, to the ordinary lay reader, these words would convey nothing, especially as they were written in strange characters long obsolete. But not so Old Quirk; the meaning it conveyed to his mind was " Whom Asketil deceived in security, contrary to his pledge of peace." It was very short and very vague, in fact it was but part of the original inscription, as the portion of the cross containing the remainder of it had been broken oú.
" Remarkable"! muttered Old Quirk. " Most extraordinary" ! He having-as is commonly the case with men of learning -developed the habit of talking to himself when in an excitable frame of mind.
He sat with the fragment of stone resting on his knees, gazing at it in an abstract manner, then placing it on the ground, and closing his eyes-as was his wont when meditating-he began mentally to conjure up its past history.
Suddenly the antiquary started out of his reverie; he was conscious that he was not alone; he lifted his eyes, and standing before him was a figure. " I beg your pardon," said Old Quirk, " but I did not know there was anyone present, save myself and the grave-digger"; and carefully adjusting his spectacles he looked up at the stranger, and the figure he saw standing in front of him made him gasp with astonishment. It was surely one of the old Vikings come back to life. The visitor was encased in a suit of mail from head to foot, wore long mustachios fiercely curling upward, and bore a ponderous sword in a scabbard at his side. It forcibly reminded him of the pictures of the old Vikings with which he had been familiar from childhood.
The being opened his lips and began to speak, and, remarkable to relate, he spoke in the speech of the ancient Northmen. Now, Old Quirk was as familiar with Icelandic as he was with his own native language. He was, therefore, able at once to interpret what this prehistoric visitant was speaking about, as the language he spoke did not materially differ from Icelandic, although, perhaps, a little coarser and more guttural, as one would naturally expect it to be.
" Thou art surprised at seeing me here"! said the stranger. " I am indeed," replied Old Quirk; " Who art you" ? " I am Utr," replied the stranger, " at least that is the name I was called when on earth." " Are you not on the earth now" ? queried the antiquary in a hushed voice. "Nay," said the stranger, " what thou beholdest now is but the spirit of him who once was." Old Quirk gave a start of surprise. The stranger continued : "The stone which thou hast just been gazing upon was erected in memory of the one who now standeth before thee." " Most interesting!" interpolated Old Quirk, who was so much taken with surprise that he could hardly find tongue to utter a syllable.
The stranger continued in a monotonous far-away voice, " Yes, as thou seest, but part of +he inscription remaineth on the stone, the rest hath perished with the stone. Wouldst thou hear my story"? interrogated the spectral visitor. " I would, indeed," said Old Quirk, gazing in awe at the figure which confronted him. " Then thou shalt hear it," answered the spirit of the dead Viking, and having said these words he seated himself on the tombstone beside Old Quirk and began to unfold the happenings which bad occurred in a bygone and forgotten age.
" The full inscription on my memorial stone read: ' Thorvaldr erected this cross to Utr, whom Asketil deceived in security contrary to his pledge of peace.' This cross was erected to my memory in the year 1098 of the Christian era, and a handsome cross it was too, one of Gautr's best workmanship." The spectre here paused a second, as if to recollect his thoughts, while Old Quirk gazed at him in expectancy.
The voice continued : " There were three of us-Thorvaldr, Asketil, and my self (Utr) ; and we were the greatest companions in Mann, sworn in fealty to each other. I was a Norwegian Jarl, and had the good fortune to rise to a lofty position in the land of my adoption, being Governor.
" Now, there was a beautiful maiden named Avericke, who dwelt in Holm Tun, the town which you now call Peel. This maiden was not of our nation, being a Celt. Her hair was black and glossy like the raven's wing, and such eyes! Blue like the doors of heaven! Alackaday! Words fail me to describe all her charms. " She spoke Celtic, and we must needs learn her barbarous tongue before we could hold any converse with her. We both fell in love with her, that is, Asketil and myself, but she showed no more favour to one than to the other.
" This happening was a serious blow to the intimate companionship which had existed between Asketil and myself, and although our relations were a little stra:ned, and we tried to outdo each other in serving the lady Avericke, we were still friends, although, naturally, a little distrustful of each other. Now, Thorvaldr was not a lover of women, and, seeing the breach gradually widening between Asketil and myself, would sagaciously shake his head and observe: ' Foolish fellows! Foolish fellows! Have nothing to do with women, they always cause trouble; and, anyway, a true warrior must not have a woman running after him, or he after her: His business is fighting, not love-making !'
" It is needless to observe that we heeded not the wise remarks of our friend Thorvaldr; had we done so, we should have been in better case.
" Now at this time there was a Celtic chieftain in Mann named Macmarus, who possessed great influence over the mostly Celtic population, and he was therefore my greatest enemy. Many internecine struggles there had been between the Celts and our race, but the Northmen always carried themselves with more valour in warfare. It was not that the Celts were not born fighters, but they always seerned to be split up into factions; they placed no reliance in each other, and it was ever the Vikings' motto that ' Union is Strength!' "
He here looked at the antiquary as though seeking confirmation of his statement, and the latter nodded his head in acquiescence.
" At last," continued the spirit of Utr, " affairs arrived at such a pass that an encounter between Macmarus and myself was inevitable, and at last the fatal day arrived. My army penetrated as far as the banks of the Sulby, and there, drawn up in battle array, was Macmarus and his army. We immediately engaged them, but met with a crushing blow, as. we were defeated with great slaughter. I, with the remnants of my gallant army, managed to escape and hide ourselves in a glen named Glion Vadh Byr, which meaneth the ' Glen of the Wading Ford.' We had many battle scars, and needed much rest, which the security of the glen amply afforded. Here we dwelt in peace, increasing the strength and number of our little army, as our friends gradually found out our whereabouts.
" Now, I had not seen my friend Asketil since the battle, and I fell a-wondering what could have befallen him. I conferred with Thorvaldr upon this matter, and ventured my opinion to him that Asketil had fallen on the field. Thorvaldr would not entertain this idea for one moment, but made reply in this ;ase: 'Asketil hath changed, Utr ; and I should not be at all surprised if he hath not joined Macmarus !' Of course, I immediately scouted his opinion, and asked Thorvaldr by what means he had arrived at such a conclusion. ' Ah, Utr!' replied Thorvaldr, ' thou wast ever of too trustful a nature. I have ears that hear, and eyes that see, and I always use them to the best advantage. Hast thou not observed how, of late, Asketil hath been watching thy every movement with his keen hawklike eyes, how he hath been prying into all thy most cherished secrets? If thou bast not-I have. He is jealous of thy governorship, and would be governor himself, and seeing that Macmarus bath now proclaimed himself King of Mann and the Isles, he courts his favour, and should things fall out as he hath planned, he w11 have the governorship and the Manx maiden to wife as well.' I reproved Thorvaldr for his base suspicions, 'for,' I observed, ' hath he not been my boon companion from childhood'? The only answer Thorvaldr vouchsafed was a grave shake of his head, and there the matter ended for the while.
Then one day a messenger arrived from the Celts, which caused me great uneasiness, fearing that they had dis covered our place of retreat. He handed me a letter, and breaking the seal thereof, I read as follows: ' Utr ! Thou wilt no doubt be aware that by this time I am with Macmarus, the great Celtic chieftain, who is now King oo Mann and the Isles'then Thorvaldr's suspicions were correct, I thought-' and I am his head chieftainnow, he having promised me the governorship. We know the haunt of thee and theo followers. If thou swearest an oath that thou wilt leave Avericke to me, and never attempt to see her again, I shall never betray thee and thy army to Macmarus ; if, on the other hand, thou doest not as I would have thee do, I shall persuade Macmarus to rout thee out of thy nest, and I may also inform thee that Macmarus has a very great following now.
I hope thou wilt take my counsel. Send an answer by the messenger who brings this. If thy answer be favourable, I guarantee thee ~iiy pledge of peace.-Asketil.' " Thou mayest well imagine my sur prise. I showed it to my dear friend Thorvaldr, who was mightily angry when he had perused its contents. ' I knew it!' he exclaimed, ' something told me that he had turned renegade.'
" However, be at last tried to persuade me to do as Asketil requested, and, of course, I was very much annoyed that my clearest friend should counsel me on this wise. We talked the matter over for a little time, and then Thorvaldr's counsel prevailed, and I resolved, rather than subject myself and my gallant little band to annihilation, to acquiesce in Asketil's proposal, although with ill-grace. I would leave the path of love open for him to pursue. I sent a message back to him to this effect, and heard nothing more from him. Thos mayest think, friend, that the course I pursued was cowardly, but thou must understand the life of that period was quite different from what it is now. Our loves blew hot and cold, one day we loved a pretty maiden, and the next day another; and although I was greatly attached to Avericke, I had to study my little army as well, for had Macmarus discovered our hiding-place he would assuredly have destroyed us. In sooth, the knowledge that I had been deprived of my governorshíp gave me more pangs of regret than the loss of the maiden.
" Then one day the sentry we had posted below the ford came running into the camp shouting: 'The enemy is on us ! The enemy is on us!' We hastily gathered our resources, and made ready to fight for our lives. The enemy steadily advanced and arranged themselves in battle array at the ford. Then with cries of 'Macmarus Aboo ! Macmarus Aboo !' they advanced towards us, and I could hold in check our brave men no longer; with cries of ' A Utr !' we dashed at them, and there and then occurred one of the most sanguinary conflicts I was ever engaged in! We hewed and hacked each other with battleaxes, till half our number were lying dead or wounded on the ground. The shrieks and groans of the dying filled our ears, and we fought the harder to drown the noise! Axe rang against axe, and sword against sword! My brave little band fought with such good effect that at last we succeeded in dislodging them from their position near the ford, and would have gained a victory had not something untoward happened. A band of fierce women came running down the side of the glen and assailed us with stones and anything they could lay hold on, so that we were completely demoralised.
" Then it was that I came face to face with Asketil. 'What meaneth this treachery, Asketil"? I observed. ' Didst thou not solemnly vow that thou wouldst leave me in security did I but assent to thy proposals'? ' It meaneth,' he made answer, ' that I could not trust thy word, and resolved that nothing but thy total undoing would leave my path clear for the end I have in view, as Macmarus has also promised to make me Governor of Mann in thy stead. So I cannot feel safe while thou art alive.' 'Renegade,' I made reply, ' wouldst thou join hands with the cursed Celt, whom our race despise'? ' Yes,' he answered, ' I would do anything to achieve my ambitions.' 'To sword'! I hotly exclaimed, and we drew sword and fought there on the greensward with the blood flowing from a hundred wounds. Alas! Asketil's sword pierced a vital spot, and I sank down on the grass in the agonies of death. ' Asketil !' I said m my dying, ' I trusted thee, and thou halt betrayed me; may thee and thine perish from off the earth, even as the winter's snows dissolve away at the coming of Spring'
" Then up came my tried and trusted friend Thorvaldr, and when he saw the sad plight into which Asketil had placed me, he gave a cry of rage, and, plucking his battle-axe out of his belt, he clove the head of the traitor in twain. ' Thus die all renegades!' he said, and then. turned his attention to me. ' My poor, dear friend Utr,' he exclaimed, and has that wolf slain thee. O woe! that I should have lived to see this fatal day'! I told him in my dying breath that I wanted my corpse buried at Kirk Brandon, and a cross-made by the great sculptor Gautrplaced on my tomb. All this he promised faithfully to carry out, while I passed into j Valhalla."
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" From my abode in spirit-land, I watched the happenings on earth, especially in Mann, where I had spent the greater part of my life. Thorvaldr faithfully carried out my wishes, and erected a beautiful cross made by the great Gautr in the Kirkyard of Brandon. As for the beautiful Avericke, she married a Celt, and our passing hence did not seem to worry her to any great extent. My dear friend Thorvaldr managed to escape back to our beloved fatherland, Norway, where he lived to a ripe old age, having faithfully served his native country all his life. Then he joined me in Valhalla.
" Macmarus ruled over the whole of Mann and the Isles, after slaughtering our army, with the aid of their Celtic wives and sweethearts.
" Thus the ages have rolled on, while my spirit has been peacefully wandering in spirit-land. Every time my grave is disturbed, I pay a visit to Mann. Several times have I come hither. One time the masons took part of my crumbling headstone and built it into the Kirk wall. I came hither on that occasion, but did not reveal myself to the desecrators of my grave. The last time I came here was when a grave-digger took the remaining portion of my tomb-stone and actually buried it in the grave. Then came to-day, and thou, stranger, art the first to whom I have revealed myself since my spirit and body parted. And now I have paid a visit to earth for the last time, for I know thou wilt carry the stone away with thee, and as that is the last link that binds me to earth, I bid Mann farewell for ever. Farewell my friend! Place the remainder of my memorial in safe keeping, and my spirit shall rest contented in Valhalla for ever! Farewell, my friend! Farewell! a long farewell!"
Old Quirk rubbed his eyes. Had he been dreaming, or was it reality? The figure had departed. The sun was fast sinking in the west, and the grave-digger had departed home from his labours. The antiquary felt cold and chilly; he got up and stretched himself, and carefully putting the piece of stone in a safe place where he should find it again, he wended his way homewards. But Old Quirk the Antiquary was never quite sure whether it was a dream or really the spirit of the dead Viking which had come to him that day in Braddan Churchyard.
The piece of monumental stone remained among his most treasured possessions, until he also went to spirit-land, when his large collection of antiquities was handed over to Distington Museum.
Perhaps Old Quirk and his erstwhile friend resumed their acquaintance in Valhalla; who knows?
Any comments, errors or omissions
gratefully received MNB
HTML Transcription © F.Coakley , 2007