The group listens respectfully as they stand around the ruined chapel at Teampall Phàraig on the Kenavara headland.
But this is no ordinary tour. These are Icelanders, come to see for themselves the island setting for a popular novel: Vilborg Davíðsdóttir’s Auður.
Published in 2009, Auður (Aud) is the first book of a trilogy following the adventures of the Viking Auður from her childhood on Tiree to her voyage to become one of the first settlers in Iceland. Auður, a real historical figure, was notable because she was a woman in a man’s world and because she was one of the first Christians there.
Teampall Phàraig and Tràigh Bhì are the setting for the first scene of the book, when a mysterious man is rescued from the sea. The book’s fans were keen to walk along the white, shell sand beach (something they had not experienced before) and clamber along the muddy track to the ancient monastery site. Since Vilborg wrote the book, my researches into the Viking place-names of the island have confirmed many of her ideas.
The morning had been spent at the ruined thirteenth-century Kirkapol parish church and the early Christian rock-carved crosses beyond. The party, including a famous actor and a professor of Icelandic history, heard how an excavation in 2000 had found several skeletons under one of the church walls, presumably reburied from an older Norse graveyard on the site.
We then visited MacLean’s Cross in Soroby, while in the afternoon Julia Welstead took members of the party who didn’t fancy the long walk to Kenavara to the Hough stone circles and on a further tour. While we walked along the beach, I heard about the worries Icelanders have that their language is starting to weaken. There are so many foreign workers in the country now that it is becoming less common to order a meal or to be served in a shop in the capital using Icelandic. Vilborg told me how her own daughter appears to think in English, translating her thoughts into Icelandic. The country’s population is now 338,000 (somewhere between Aberdeen and Edinburgh), which is only five times greater than the population of Gaelic speakers.
At dinner that night in the Scarinish Hotel, one of the evening’s stars was our own Ishbel Campbell, who sang two Gaelic songs and became an instant hit with the visitors. I sat with Svavar Halldórsson, who I discovered was the designer of an advert that had caught my eye as I flew home from Washington to Reykjavík last year. While working as Director of the Icelandic Lamb Marketing Board, Svavar had composed the slogan ‘Roaming Free Since 874’ beside a film of Icelandic sheep. His wife, the well known journalist Þóra Arnórsdóttir, had run for President of Iceland in 2012. She was able to show me on her phone her family tree going back a staggering thirty-one generations – to Auður herself. Apparently, this is common in Iceland. And if she had been able to go back one more generation, she might have found a Tiree name.
After Tiree had been settled by Viking men in the ninth century, some Norse men decamped once more to seek new pastures in Iceland when that country was opened up. Taking wives from the islands, around half of Icelandic women today are of Hebridean or Irish descent. Many of the tour were actually coming to see their ancestral home, as much as re-living the stories in the book. This was Vilborg’s second attempt to reach the island, as her previous trip in May had to be cancelled within sight of Coll when the Clansman broke down.
They are a tough lot though, as their indifference to the muddy scramble and a heavy shower showed. And we haven’t seen the last of Vilborg as she seeks an English publisher for her book. She has two further tours booked for 2020 and even that cannot satisfy the demand. And the final twist? Her book’s front cover features a triskele, the design on the rock carving discovered a few weeks ago in Balemartine.