Essays, Material Culture, Runes
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The Swedish Runestone in Edinburgh

Updated 19 August 2020

Edinburgh is a beautiful place combining stark reality with a mysterious, almost magical atmosphere. Strange but true, making the city even dearer to me. When a kind reader pointed out the runestone to me last week, I jumped at the opportunity to write this article.

Swedish runestone U1173 in its place in Princes Street Gardens, Edinburgh. (Source: used with kind permission by David Chu).

Viking Age Relevance

The Stone

This stone, U 1173, dating back to c. 1010–1050 once stood in Lilla Ramsjö, Vittinge, Sweden. It is made of grey granite. There is a cross in the centre, with a snake coiled around the edges of the stone. The head and tail are connected to the lowest part of the cross. Inside the snake, the runes are writing in the Younger Futhark alphabet. The stone is made by the runemaster called Erik. The runes say:1

Runes tr.‘ ari / rasti / stain / aftir / (h)ialm / faþur sin / kuþ / hiabli / ant hans
Old NorseAri ræisti stæin æftiR Hialm, faður sinn. Guð hialpi and hans.
EnglishAri raised the stone in memory of Hjalmr, his father. May God help his spirit.

Ari who made this stone left a legacy forgotten for a long time until rediscovered a few years ago.

The Seton Family

Presumably, the stone stands for centuries in the same spot in Sweden, on a farm near Ramsjö. From the eleventh to the eighteenth century, to be precise. An online source claims that “At some time in the 17th or 18th century, however, the then landlord on Ramsjö farm seems to have moved it to the courtyard next to the yellow big house which is now on the spot.” Alas, I have found no other sources that can confirm this.2

The stone is not only connected to Ari and his father but also to George Seton and a certain Alexander Seton.

George Seton (1696–1785)

George is the grandson of a Scottish baronet. He studies in Dantzig en then moves to Sweden in 1718. He settles down and becomes an influential merchant and banker.3 In 1785 he receives the patent of nobility and may purchase the Ekolsund estate from the Swedish king who in earlier decades has the estate landscaped to very impressive standards.4 George never marries, nor does he have any children. Until Alexander. But which Alexander are we talking about?

Several men called Alexander seem to qualify. There is a rumour that George adopts, the son of Robert Dundas, called Alexander. Yet, his sister’s son is also called Alexander, as is his son, too. So, who is it?5

J. Ballantyne clears up the mystery in 2005. He is looking for the man behind the ‘Swedish knight’ in the nineteenth century with access to certain Scottish family documents. From an extensive amount of letters, he reconstructs a credible timeline of events. And in effect, solves the mystery of the different Alexanders. Below, I summarise his timeline, and if you want to learn more about the Seton family, the article really is an engaging read (see footnote 3).

Alexander Baron of Preston (1738–1815)

Alexander Baron of Preston is George’s nephew. He marries in 1763 and has four children. By 1778 he seems to have contact with his uncle in Sweden. Just five years later he has a law degree and is the adopted son of George. He takes on the name Seton and the Swedish king lets him inherit the Swedish estate Ekolsund from George.6

How large this estate was isn’t clear, nor if it included the villages of Heby and Vittinge where the stone was originally from. However, in 1787 Alexander sends the runestone U 1173 to the Society of Antiquaries in Edinburgh. He becomes a fellow of the Society in 1796, and in 1797 they elevate him to a Swedish knight in the Order of Wasa. Upon his death in 1815 his second son Patrick inherited his title and estates in Scotland and Sweden. 7

Alexander Seton (1768–1828)

His youngest son, Alexander appears to have had no profession but marries in 1785.8 They lock him away in a mental asylum for at least 18 years because he falls in love with his stepmother. When he leaves the asylum, he tries to claim his inheritance by writing to his brother Patrick at Ekolsund, and writes poems in the meantime. Eventually, he receives some money and can live a little more comfortably.

Not long afterwards, he travels around the country looking for runes and runic inscriptions. He even goes as far as Sweden and attempts an excavation on the site that will later turn out to be Birka. He also publishes a volume of Swedish medieval documents to prevent them from being lost forever. In a way, he can be called codicologist, an archaeologist and collector. He also meets his brother at Ekolsund, and sues him for half of the estate, but dies before they give the verdict. That will not be in his favour.9

During this visit, in the 1820s, it seems that several rune stones are transported from locations in Sweden to the estate’s garden in Ekolsund. Whether this is Patrick, or Alexander’s work remains to be seen. We know for sure, though, that Alexander was the one with an affinity for runes and inscription.10

Edinburgh: Princes Street Garden Location

The stone comes to Edinburgh in 1797. Some sources refer to its location as ‘stood on the Royal Mile’. That is such a vague description, that I looked at all the maps I could find via the National Library of Scotland and antiquaries websites. The results are below the image (don’t forget to check the footnotes for the links).

The Sketch by Mary Arbuthnot Moir

A sketch was brought to my attention by another kind reader of this article. The image on the stone is drawn vaguely and the stone is quite different from the one we know today. So, that’s a mystery, at least for now.

sketch edinburgh castle runestone
Sketch of a stone in Edinburgh Princes Garden, by Mary Arbuthnot Moir, July 1829 (Source: used with permission by Andrew Munro).

The Maps

From the 1830s onwards, castle hill is called ‘esplanade’ and I viewed many Ordnance Survey maps hoping to discover the stone on the esplanade. The statue of the Duke of York appears first on a map from c. 1840 by W. & A.K. Johnston. More accurately, we can pinpoint this to 1836 the date of its unveiling.11 On an Ordnance Survey map of 1852, a stone chair visible, but this does not seem to be the runestone. It is still there on the maps of 1877, but no longer on the maps of 1891.12

The runestone finally emerges on a map I found on AntiqueMapsandPrints.com showing the stone and its location. The map has a date of 1886.13 It is also included in the book by Arthur Giles, Across western waves and home in a royal capital published in 1898. Arthur Giles, as pointed out to me, was a cousin of Mary Arbuthnot Moir and inherited the sketch (see archive.com).

Pages from Across western waves and home in a royal capital by Arthur Giles (1898) (Source: Archive.com)

The Photos

The stone remains here until 2019. Somewhat hidden behind a fence with no information or reference at all. In 2015, at least some information is attached. By 2019 the sign looks rather shabby (if I may say so): ‘Temporary Information Board – Until an official one is prepared’. The sign informs the reader that the stone has been in this spot since 1804, and of the Seton history.

In all, the placement of the stone in the gardens in 1804 does not agree with the information from the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, who states that the Society lends the stone to the Princes Street Proprietors in 1821 to decorate the gardens.14 And we can now confirm that the stone was indeed in the gardens by 1829!

Lilla Ramsjö, Vittinge

In 2013, the owners of the Ramsjö farm try to get the stone back to Sweden. A year later, Mats Köbin, contacts the Society for a project to create a replica stone. The master stone builder Kalle Dahlberg, aka Kalle Runemaster, makes this replica. He describes his project on his website Runristare. The drawings here also show the runes pretty clearly. They erect the stone in 2014 in Morgongåva (between Heby and Vittinge).15

Edinburgh: 50 George Square

In 2014, a meeting is held in Edinburgh with various stakeholders. The ownership of the stone is, at this point, unknown. Then, by 2017, two parties show interest that triggers new discussions for possibilities with the city council.

In the end, the council declares the National Museums the new owners of the stone. For their part, the NM agree to loan the stone to the University of Edinburgh. The Scottish Society for Northern Studies helps to raise the necessary funding to move the stone. In December 2017, AOC Archaeology removes the stone from Princes Gardens. They take it to their lab where it is treated with the latest conservational methods to clean and prepare the stone for the new location.

Two years later, in December 2019, the stone is finally moved to George Square in front of the Scandinavian studies building, where it stands to this day.16

If you have more information or photos about the stone that you’d like to share, don’t hesitate to leave a comment or get in touch with me via the form on the About page!

I would like to thank both David Chu and Andrew Munro for their generous help with this article. Mr Chu brought the move of the stone to George square to my attention after which I wrote this article! And Mr Munro kindly shared the sketch with me and the information about Arthur Giles and Mary Arbuthnot Moir.

Learn More

Edinburgh World Heritage – Ancient Stone Moves.

References


  1. U 1173 (U1173) – Lilla Ramsjö.’ Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages This source uses the information from the Samnordisk runtextdatabas, THE database to check any information about runestones.  ↩
  2. Mats Köbin, ‘Morgongåva new rune stone.’ Fjärdhundraland.se Last Accessed 04 April 2020.  ↩
  3. J.H. Ballantyne, ‘The Swedish Knight and his Lunatic Son,’ in: Northern Studies Volume 39 (2005), pp. 25–50.  ↩
  4. Åsa Ahrland, ‘Landscape of visions: the Ekolsund manorial estate, Sweden,’ in: EX NOVO Journal of Archaeology Volume 4 (2019), pp. 61–62 [pp. 53–72].  ↩
  5. Bruce G. Seton, The House of Seton: A Study of Lost Causes | Volume II. (Edinburgh: Lindsay and Macleod, 1941), pp. 582–585. Digitised by the Internet Archive in 2012 with funding from the National Library of Scotland: http://www.archive.org/details/houseofsetonstv200seto. Adam Naughton, ‘Edinburgh’s Runestone,’ in: Northern Studies Volume 15 (1980), pp. 29–33.  ↩
  6. Adam Naughton (1980), pp. 32.  ↩
  7. Ballantyne (2005), pp. 25–50.  ↩
  8. Seton (1941), pp. 583–584. George Seton, History of the family Seton during eight centuries. (Edinburgh: Privately printed by T. and A. Constable, 1896), pp. 369–370. Available via the National Libraries of Scotland.  ↩
  9. Ballantyne (2005), pp. 32–45.  ↩
  10. Åsa Ahrland (2019), pp. 63.  ↩
  11. For the map, see: https://maps.nls.uk/towns/rec/2726. For the unveiling, see: ‘Duke of York Statue, Edinburgh Castle Esplanade, Edinburgh.’ British Listed Buildings. Last Accessed 04 April 2020.  ↩
  12. For the map from 1852, see The Viking Age Archive on Pinterest. Or see: https://maps.nls.uk/view/74415483.  ↩
  13. Its provenance seems to be recorded as “Black’s Picturesque Tourist of Scotland”; published by Adam and Charles Black, Edinburgh. 26th edition. The two details can also be found via The Viking Age Archive on Pinterest (1) and (2).  ↩
  14. Simon Gilmour. ‘Update on the Edinburgh Runestone.’ Scottish Society for Northern Studies Last Accessed 3 April 2020.  ↩
  15. Runestone Project.’ Society of Antiquaries of Scotland Last Accessed 04 April 2020.  ↩
  16. Simon Gilmour. ‘Update on the Edinburgh Runestone.’ Scottish Society for Northern Studies Last Accessed 3 April 2020.  ↩

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