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Viking-Age Runestone Unveiled in New Edinburgh Home

31st March 2023 | Categories: Consultation, Partnership, Research, Uncategorised

In March, the Society was delighted to attend the unveiling of Edinburgh’s 1,000-year-old runestone in its new home on the University of Edinburgh campus.

This event celebrated the completion of the stone’s conservation, relocation and interpretation; a project which has involved a range of organisations and people, including the Society, the University of Edinburgh, the City of Edinburgh Council and National Museums Scotland. The project was funded and supported by several organisations and people, including Edinburgh World Heritage, the National Lottery Heritage Fund, Scottish Society for Northern Studies, Mr Mats Köbin and other donors.

Originally from Uppsala in Sweden, the runestone was gifted to the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in 1787 by Sir Alexander Seton of Preston and Ekolsund, the adopted son of the owner of the estate on which the stone was located.

Photo of a carved runestone slab with an interpretation board

The runestone in its new home outside 50 George Square in Edinburgh.

A genuine granite runestone dating from the eleventh century (c. 1010-1050 AD), it is one of only three Swedish examples in Britain. The other two are on display in Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum.

In 1821, the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland presented the stone to the proprietors of Princes Street who were looking to improve Princes Street Gardens. There the stone stood, just below the parapet of the Castle Esplanade, for the better part of two centuries.

By 2013, the stone had been enclosed by a fence built to deter the public from the foundations of the temporary stadium erected annually for the Edinburgh Tattoo. The stone was also in danger of being damaged when the stadium was constructed each year. As well as being inaccessible to the public, no official interpretation of the stone was provided. This led to the genuine nature of the stone being largely forgotten, with Ordnance Surveys in the 1950s and 1970s even suggesting that the stone was fake and of no significance.

In 2013, Eva Åkerman and Thorvaldur Arnason visited the Society and explained that the runestone had come from Eva’s family farm at Lilla Ramsjö, and that they were keen to see better interpretation for the runestone. In 2014, Mats Köbin, also from Sweden, contacted the Society about the stone and an ongoing project to create a copy in Morgongåva (“morning Gift”) near the stone’s original location. In September 2014, a replica of the stone was created by Kalle Dahlberg and erected in the village of Morgongåva, resplendent in all its colours.

In November 2014, the Society convened a meeting between representatives of the City of Edinburgh Council (who technically owned the stone at this time), Historic Scotland, and others. At this meeting the Society agreed to lead a collaborative programme of work to better understand, conserve, move, and display the monument, and set about raising funds for this project.

In early 2017, an offer to locate the runestone at the University of Edinburgh was received from Dr Alan Macniven, senior lecturer in Scandinavian Studies at the Department of European Languages and Cultures. National Museums Scotland (NMS) also subsequently expressed an interest in acquiring the runestone for the national collection. The Society supported City of Edinburgh Council colleagues in proposing the relocation project and transferring ownership of the stone to the NMS, which was agreed in 2017.

The runestone being moved from Princes Street Gardens, Edinburgh, Scotland to a new location at 50 George Square, outside the Department of Scandinavian Studies, Edinburgh, Scotland (© Margaret Ferguson Burns via WikiCommons, CC BY-SA 4.0)

The runestone being moved from Princes Street Gardens, Edinburgh, Scotland to a new location at 50 George Square, outside the Department of Scandinavian Studies, Edinburgh, Scotland (© Margaret Ferguson Burns via WikiCommons, CC BY-SA 4.0)

With funds finally secured from both private donors and the National Lottery Heritage Fund, as well as the Edinburgh World Heritage Trust, the Society received Scheduled Monument Consent in September 2017 to excavate and remove the runestone for a full conservation appraisal and any work required before relocating it to the University of Edinburgh. AOC Archaeology Group were contracted by the Society, and the runestone was removed from Princes Street Gardens by excavation in December 2017 and taken to AOC’s conservation lab.

At the lab, experts found that the engraved runes are in good condition. Red paint remains within the rune engravings and is thought to have been added in the twentieth century by a well-meaning Swedish antiquarian using paint from a local hardware store!

A new base to support the stone was constructed by Graciella Ainsworth Stone Conservation who undertook some conservation work and on the morning of 30 November 2019, the stone was installed in its new location outside 50 George Square (School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures), a quiet protected corner easily accessible to all.

As a result of the Society’s efforts, the University of Edinburgh is home to a genuine eleventh-century Swedish runestone, on loan from the NMS, which can be appreciated by university staff and students, as well as the general public. It will form a fantastic resource for students of Scandinavian Studies, Archaeology, History, and Linguistics, and now includes a new interpretation board with a QR code linked to web-based information on Wikipedia.

Dr Simon Gilmour, Director of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, said:

“It is fantastic to finally see this newly conserved stone in a location where it can be appreciated by everyone! Our colleagues across the heritage sector helped make this happen, bringing expertise from the private, public and third sectors together to enhance this piece of Scotland’s and Sweden’s heritage.”

Professor Sir Peter Mathieson, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Edinburgh, said:

“It is an honour for the University to be able to display such an important historical artefact on our campus. I hope that the Runestone’s new home at George Square will give more people the opportunity to visit and find out about the heritage of this important symbol of our shared interest in Swedish culture and history.”

If you would like to know more about the runestone’s journey, from its creation in 11th-century Scandinavia to its new home outside the University of Edinburgh, watch our video with storyteller Svend-Erik Engh on the Society’s YouTube channel.

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