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Scotland And Norway: An Auld Acquaintance Renewed

The close ties between Scotland and Norway was celebrated on the 31st May through a new Scottish project illustrating the life and music of the renowned Norwegian poet-priest Petter Dass, sometimes referred to as Norway’s Robert Burns and the son of Dundee merchant and émigré Peter Dundas.

Angus-born Sally Garden, Historical Musician-in-Residence at the important Wighton Collection of music, was inspired by Dundee’s trading and musical heritage to explore the many bonds of history, trade, culture and language between both countries.  A mezzo-soprano and musicologist, Sally has collaborated with Scottish and Norwegian artists to create a multimedia project using poetry, song and visual imagery. The web site (www.nordlands-stream.com) went live on 17th May (Norway's Constitution Day) and a recital-reception, hosted by Consul General Arne Sivertsen, was held on the 31st May in Merchants Hall, Edinburgh.

The beautiful Songstream, based on Dass’s poem Nordlands Trompet (Blowing Nordland’s Trumpet!) and performed by Sally, centres on the story of his little parish of Alstahaug on the mountainous coast north of Trondheim, describing the everyday lives of his parishioners living on the edge of the Arctic Circle.  Many of the themes are familiar to Scots – the farming, the fishing, the weather, the kirk, the splendour of the mountains, and the overwhelming sense of being inextricably bound to the land and the sea.

‘I wanted to create something special for both Scots and Norwegians,’ says Sally, ‘and Petter Dass, a Norwegian literary hero with Scottish roots, provides the perfect bridge to renew an auld acquaintance which we have largely forgotten.   His humanity and his love for the land give him a special place in Norwegian affections and these elements resonate with modern Scots,  just like Burns’ poetry.’

Dass (1647-1707) is regarded as the father of poetry in Norway.  His vivid poems, with their easy conversational style, are still much admired and taught in schools.  He is compared with Burns because his writing is unstuffy and often humorous, displaying his affection for the land and the people.  The landscapes and seascapes he writes of will find echoes in the hearts of many Scots, particularly among east coast communities with their fishing and farming heritage. 

Dass’s parish of Alstahaug, beyond Trondheim, lies in the Arctic north in the county of Nordland, which he refers to in one of his poems as ‘near the end of the world’.  As well as having a settled living as a Lutheran minister, he also farmed and had a number of cargo boats, and so understood and shared the fears of those who earned their living by farming and fishing.   He writes movingly of the beautiful landscape, the difficult livelihoods dependent on the vagaries of the climate and the sea, and the rhythms of the farming day.  For example, lamenting the freezing winter weather and the lack of sunlight, he writes:

. . . Oh, warmth is all you want so you hide in the folds
Of your lined and thickest coat!

Chaos reigns over us from the icy Pole.
So far are we from the sun’s warming glow,
Alone with harsh planets to rule us . . .

. . . The poor farmer meantime can only frown.
He gets up in darkness, in dark he lies down.


He writes lovingly of his parish and of the nearby mountain range for which it is still known:

At Alstahaug Manse, there is to be seen
Seven sisters, whose locks in the sunlight gleam,
Snow-white ladies, as fair as can be.
Their fame will lead your way to come by –
To watch the proud peaks reach into the sky
As they beckon our ships out at sea.

In another part of Nordlands Trompet, he refers to Scotland:
Of all other lands that stretch to the west
Are Scotland and Ireland the nearest and the best,
Though from us they lie hundreds of miles.

As a Lutheran minister, he understood that his flock might more readily appreciate God’s bounty and embrace the life of the spirit if the religious verses he penned used everyday speech patterns, rather than Latin, and were set to familiar hymn and folk tunes.  He also composed his own melodies to accompany his songs, and wrote several psalms which have been modernised and are still used in the Church of Norway to this day.

The influences of his Scottish father and his Scottish roots are likely to have been strong.   During the 16th century Dundee had a thriving international trade with Scandinavia and the Baltic nations, and many merchants had Norwegian wives.  Peter Dundas emigrated from Scotland with his sister around 1630 to manage his shipping business, but possibly also to escape religious persecution.  He registered as a burgess in Bergen in 1630, later moving north, marrying well and producing five children, the eldest being Petter.  Sadly, the elder Dundas died when Petter was just six years old and, after staying with relatives in the country, he later went to Bergen for five years to live with his Scottish Aunt Maria, presumably mixing with the sizeable Scottish community there and hearing tales of home.  During this time he attended the Latin school where he learned to sing psalms, much as he might have done at the Sang Schule in Dundee, had he been brought up there.   Petter later studied theology at the University of Copenhagen (as Norway at that time was a dependency of Denmark), and became a Lutheran priest, settling far north in Alstahaug, which now houses a museum in his memory. 

‘Scotland and Norway have so much in common,’ adds Sally.  ‘We are both northern European, relatively isolated, with around the same size of population, and many of our words and place-names are derived from Norse.  It’s easy to forget that the Western Isles were sold to us by Norway through the Treaty of Perth in 1266, and that Orkney and Shetland belonged to Norway for centuries before they belonged to Scotland.  Indeed, when Scotland made its Auld Alliance with France in 1295, we also signed an alliance with Norway.
          
‘It is a shame that, in this modern age of global transport links and the internet, we so easily forget that places like Dundee were cosmopolitan hubs, made wealthy by international trade, where many languages, currencies and traditions were traded on the quaysides and in the coffeehouses.  Through this project about Petter Dass we can find again a rich part of our heritage and ourselves, our old friend and cousin Norway, and a new path to cultural exchange and understanding which mirrors the trade routes of the past.’

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Click here to visit www.nordlands-stream.comPhoto: Courtesy of Dr Sally Garden