Bressay Stone Shetland And Beyond

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In 1855 the Irish archaeologist James Graves examined the ogham inscription on its edge, and proposed that the stone was a joint memorial to the daughter of someone called Naddodd, and to the son of a Druid called Benres. Graves thought that Naddodd was probably the Viking of that name who discovered Iceland in the ninth century, and he concluded that the inscription must be a mixture of Irish and Icelandic . His view that the Bressay stone is late, and that its inscription contains words from two or even three languages, was influential .

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Why did the Pictish language of Shetland and Orkney disappear? Gillian Fellows-Jensen suggests that it was because there was 'no communication' between Vikings and natives in the islands . Barnes disagrees. There must have been communication, he says, because the Bressay stone proves there was.

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He reckoned that it was a poor copy of a much more impressive sculpture from Papil, in the isle of Burra, to which he now assigned 'a date only just, if at all, prior to the Norse occupation of Shetland .' The Bressay stone was, he concluded, part of the 'dregs of Pictish tradition' .

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Jackson's remarks about the Bressay stone, like Stevenson's, were brief, but they have had an inordinate effect on the War and Peace debate. So has his view that the Picts spoke an ancient and unfathomable language.

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During his discussion he too considered the Bressay stone. He spotted the word 'meqq', meaning , on it, and assumed it was a primitive Gaelic word. He argued, following Stevenson's dating of the stone, that the oghamist had used a Gaelic rather than a Pictish word because the stone was very late. On the other hand he regarded the word 'dattrr' on the stone as the Norse word for 'daughter'. '[T]he whole thing', he concluded, much as Graves had said in 1855, 'seems to point to a very mixed language in Shetland in the late ninth or early tenth century, after the Norse settlements there' .

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And what of the Bressay stone? Is it as young as Stevenson imagined? Is its language as 'mixed' as Jackson proposed? Stevenson reopened the question in 1981. In the meantime Charles Thomas had written an important article about Shetland's sculptured stones. Thomas didn't mention Bressay, but he concluded that the Papil stone was sculptured sometime after AD 750: that is, before Scandinavians arrived in the Northern Isles . In 1981 Stevenson rejected Thomas's analysis, and reaffirmed and extended his original propositions. He still dated the Papil stone to the very end of the eighth century, and he now said that the Bressay stone 'seems to be a considerably later copy'. He claimed that the Bressay stone was a grave-marker for what he called a 'half-Pict', and concluded that 'there were in Shetland active Christians erecting sculptured monuments in the tenth century' .