I'd made it. After a six-hour drive north from Edinburgh and a short hour aboard the MV Pentalina from Gills Bay in Caithness, I was finally in Orkney - South Ronaldsay, to be exact. The sun was shining, the car's windows were down, Ella Fitzgerald was crooning from the stereo, and I was ready for my first visit to Highland Park Distillery. Those of you who read the previous issue will know the reason for my visit already. But if you need to be filled in, here's the short story: I was in search of Highland Park's 'Viking Soul'. By this point I'd watched the original concepts for the brand's new packaging evolve from a few mood boards to the final, aesthetically pleasing bottle that's now hitting the shelves. I knew that the swirling designs of the glass and those embossed in the box were inspired by carvings on the north door of the 12th-century Urnes Stave Church in Ornes, Norway - a UNESCO World Heritage Site recognised for its significance as a melting pot of both Christian and Norse culture. I was also aware that much was being made of the distillery's 'Viking' values, which can be broadly understood as respect for the past, hard work and skill, honour, integrity, community and pride. Lastly, I understood that the history, landscape and people of Orkney itself were supposedly the inspiration for the distillery's new persona. What I didn't know yet was whether any of it was real.
Throughout my time in Orkney, what I found to be indisputable was that it is a place where you can't escape from history. From the distillery's gates one may pick a direction at random, start walking and be hard pressed not to trip over a site of some significance. The varied landscape of this cluster of around 70 islands (the number varies depending on how you define an island) is home to Neolithic chambered burial cairns, impressive standing stones, Iron Age brochs, Pictish farms, historic churches, an impressive cathedral, and ruined palaces - not to mention the scuttled remains of the German High Seas Fleet and the memorialised wreck of the HMS Royal Oak. I'm sure you'll agree that all of this is quite impressive when one considers that Orkney's total landmass is just 380 square miles (990 km2), which is only about as large as Islay and Jura combined.
It is a place where you can't escape from history
Of course, the Vikings certainly left their mark too. The islands are home to multiple burial sites and treasure hoards of international renown that remind us of the pioneers who dared to leave their homes behind and strike out for Orkney during the latter part of the 8th Century. Whether their integration with the resident population was gradual and peaceful or otherwise is up for debate, but the fact that the vast majority of Orcadian place names are today derived from Old Norse is indicative of which culture prevailed. Further examination of the names on a map of Orkney reveals something of the Viking personality - they were clearly a people who spoke in no uncertain terms. For example, the islands of Hoy (which has a number of hills) and Flotta (which has barely an undulation) take their names from words meaning 'high' and 'flat' respectively, while Tingwall - a place where Orkney's Viking inhabitants would meet in a parliament or moot to voice their opinions on pressing matters - comes from the old Norse word 'thingvollr' or 'assembly field'.
The legacy of these Vikings (a term which strictly speaking applies only to the Nordic pirates who raided and settled on foreign shores) was a Norse Earldom that ruled Orkney from AD874 until 1468, during which time the islands were unquestionably a Norwegian territory. In fact, it wasn't until King Christian I of Denmark and Norway was forced to relinquish both Orkney and Shetland, in order to settle the debt incurred by an unpaid wedding dowry, that the islands came under Scottish rule. By this point Orcadians had more than 500 years of Norse history behind them and their culture was resoundingly un-Scottish. Even today, Orcadian culture is quite distinct from that of the rest of Scotland. Orkney has its own flag - the design of which draws on both the Scottish and Norwegian designs, but looks far more like the latter - and, although politically more affiliated with Westminster than Holyrood, the islands' representatives have recently begun reviewing options for greater autonomy in the wake of Brexit. There have even been half-jokes about rejoining Norway!
The stories of the Norse Earldom's creation and the Earls themselves are told in the Orkneyinga Saga, a medieval text written by an anonymous author around AD1200. Although the sagas themselves cannot be taken as entirely factual (they were written a couple of centuries after many of the events described took place and incorporate elements of both history and myth), a great deal of its content has been verified by other historical sources. What can be said with certainty, however, is that the sagas tell of a brave, industrious, and fiercely independent people who would fight to defend their kin and support those they deemed honourable. In time, I would learn that this is a legacy that has resonated down the ages through the islands' cultural history and found a place in the modern Orcadian identity.
While the accomplishments of the Norse Earls and their people were certainly impressive, it is perhaps the runic 'Viking graffiti' adorning the stone interior of the Maeshowe burial cairn, at Stenness, that best reminds us that these were real people with hopes, fears, and a sense of humour. 'Ingigerth is the most beautiful of all women', 'Ofram the son of Sigurd carved these runes', and (my personal favourite, which I have toned down slightly) 'Thorni bedded, Helgi carved' are just some of the messages that have been discovered within the tomb. No matter how much time passes, one gets the feeling that some things never change. Finally, if there was any remaining doubt as to the Viking credentials of Orkney's past then a recent round of DNA testing has surely dispelled it for good. The study, which took place in 2015, found Norse genetic markers in around 30 per cent of surveyed Orcadians and concluded that about 26 per cent of their DNA was Scandinavian. What's more, the estimated introduction date of these markers coincides with established timeline of the Norse colonisation of Orkney.
But what does this all have to do with Highland Park? Well, for starters it certainly legitimises the distillery's claim to the Norse imagery utilised in its core range and the myths drawn upon in the Norse Gods and Viking Legend releases. But more than that, the Orcadian traits of distinctiveness and independence are reflected in the distillery's commitment to 'doing things their own way' by utilising locally cut peat, floor maltings, full sherry-cask maturation, and long marrying times. Drop in the genetic link and one can certainly bolster the proposition that Highland Park is quite literally crafted by 'modern Vikings'. So, taken at face value, I could've quite happily joined the dots, considered it a job well done, and headed home. However, even after learning all of this, in truth I still felt like I was chasing a missing link to this elusive 'Viking Soul'. Thankfully, it was about this time that I got the chance to meet the distillery team.
What I found was a straight-talking, passionate group of people (nearly all Orcadian) who had a lot to say about the local community, Orkney culture, and how much working at Highland Park meant to them. What's more, their actions back up their words - the average length of service at the distillery is close to 20 years, which I think says something of their loyalty. In fact, until recently the newest member of the production and management team had 'only' been at Highland Park for eight years. But that all changed 18 months ago when Marie Stanton decided, after seven years based in Dufftown at The Balvenie, to pack up her bags and move her family 160 miles north to Kirkwall. Like those early Vikings that struck out for pastures new, Marie didn't know if things would work out. "But when an opportunity like the Highland Park manager job comes along, you have to jump at it," she admitted. However, very soon Marie knew that it was the right decision and even now she is still 'skipping through the gates each morning'.
Like those early Vikings that struck out for pastures new, Marie didn't know if things would work out
"I learned very quickly how proud the team are of the work they do, but that pride was never reflected in the way the distillery was presented to the world," began Marie. "I nearly welled up when I saw what was printed down the side of the new box: Made With Pride On Orkney. It is so true." When I asked the distillery team about what they thought of the new pack, I was told enthusiastically about how the brand team had spent weeks in Orkney doing research, speaking to the visitor centre and production teams, and quizzing locals. Just like at the ancient Viking moots at Tingwall, everyone had a chance to make his or her voice heard. The long-awaited return of the embossed map of Orkney on the bottom of the bottle was a particularly popular decision, which reflects the importance of the location itself to the Orcadian identity.
"For me, Viking Soul isn't just about being descended from Vikings, or even being born on Orkney - you could be born here and be desperate to leave!" continues Marie. "It's bigger than that. It's about character. The attitudes and attributes of people that are drawn to Highland Park are distinct," she concludes. And I'm inclined to agree..
In a professional capacity, Highland Park is home to a team that includes experts in distilling, malting, peat-cutting, warehousing, hospitality, tour guiding, and more besides that. Of course, a concentration of skills within a small community has always been a necessity throughout Orkney's history - once upon a time, it was the only way to survive. Yet scratch the surface and you find that there's even more going on within the Highland Park family. Marie, for example, has a passion for learning new skills that has led her to play five instruments and recently pursue an Open University qualification in Classics 'just because it's interesting' - all the while raising a family. Then there's the warehouse team leader, Keith Moar, who is not only an expert oarsman but, following in the footsteps of his Viking ancestors, actually builds the boats he rows. Another warehouseman, Robbie Drever, is a talented carpenter and spends his spare time crafting bespoke furniture. Each of his Orkney chairs takes around 100 hours to build and fetches around £1000 at auction - with the proceeds often being donated to charity.
There's also Erik Smith, production team leader, and Ronnie Paterson, another warehouseman, who are just two of the distillery's many enthusiastic Kirkwall Ba' players for whom the game, which takes place on the streets of the town each Christmas Eve and Hogmanay, is 'in the blood'. For those of you unfamiliar with the mass football game known as The Ba', it was perhaps best summed up by a BBC reporter in the 1980s who said, "The Ba' is not so much a game… more a civil war." I have a feeling that the Vikings would have approved.
But it wasn't only this great variety of passions and skills that convinced me that Highland Park is staffed by a remarkable group of people. You see, there was one final theme that cropped up again and again - their commitment to the local community. "You don't just move to Orkney. You get accepted by being seen to 'muck in', to get involved and engage with the community," explains Marie. Pat Retson, visitor centre manager, first moved to Orkney in the mid-1990s and agrees, "It's part of the culture. Orcadians are very supportive of their community." While I can't claim to have knowledge of the philanthropic habits of all of Orkney's inhabitants, at Highland Park this certainly seems to be true. To list here the number of charitable activities (which include Christmas fairs, skydives, and circumnavigations of Orkney by boat) engaged in by members of the team would take more space than these pages allow. Suffice to say, they're committed to looking out for the people around them, their Orcadian kin, and those local organisations that help make the islands an amazing place to live.
The distillery team even plans to help with the development of the Orkneyinga Saga Centre, so that it may continue to educate both locals and visitors about Orkney's Norse history and help prevent the old stories from being forgotten. "Of course, it's a bit like this at all of the Edrington distilleries," adds Erik, as if this degree of philanthropy and solidarity is normal in every neighbourhood. "But Highland Park definitely punches well above its weight," he adds proudly. I may have set out looking for remarkable characters in the depths of Orkney's past, but I ended up finding modern-day Vikings proudly going about the business of crafting single malt at the distillery on the hill above Kirkwall. After spending four days there with them, hearing their stories, watching them work, learning about what's important to them, and observing how they follow in the footsteps of those who came before them, I think I finally understand what being a Viking Soul is all about.