These Are My Roots

9th Century AD

A ship pitches on heavy seas, swinging to avoid rocks. The thunderous rain and wind matches the fury of the ship’s crew. Norse men set upon each other, and one tumbles into the ocean, sinking beneath rolling waves.

As the ship lurches forward without him, a wave tosses him upwards, sending him crashing towards land.

He grabs at rocks, and clambers from the ocean’s grasp. Gasping for breath, he looks around. In the north-west, the sun is setting and short northern night is about to begin. Even in the fading light, he can tell there is no shoreline, only rocks surrounding him and dark cliffs towering above.

A wave crashes over the rock and he barely manages to cling on. He can’t stay here. He won’t survive the night. He slithers across the rock, onto another and reaches the cliff.

The going is hard, the rocks tear at his hands and scrape his arms. His clothes are tattered and offer little protection. Blood seeps through the fabric, oozes from his knuckles. He keeps climbing, climbing, until he reaches a ledge.

Shivering takes hold of his body, and he collapses onto the ledge. It is almost dark now and the moon will not be shining tonight. He can’t see enough to climb any further, so this will have to do. He crawls further along the ledge. It is warmer here, and drier, with overhanging rock sheltering him from the worst of the rain. Seabirds squawk angrily, and the damp air is filled with the stench of their droppings, but they will not harm him. He closes his eyes, and sleeps.

In daylight, still exhausted, hungry and in pain, he tries to continue his climb. The overhanging rock that sheltered him in the night, now prevents him getting further. He tries and fails to climb this overhang, tries again, and then collapses defeated on the ledge.

This will be his grave, the birds his companions in death. He has no idea what Godforsaken place this is; not the land of his people, nor the land he hoped to reach with his comrades.

Fury stings him now, fury at his own foolishness for not holding his tongue, for demanding his fair share of the rations. If he had been hungry then, he is hungrier now. He barely has the strength or will to grab one of the guillemot’s eggs, let alone to wring a neck and feast. The birds will feast on him instead; they will peck his bones clean.

He will never return to the fjord in triumph to sweep his beautiful Edda to fertile lands of plenty. He will never seen his beautiful Edda again. He lies down and weeps, ashamed of his tears and yet feeling released. It is over, there is no more struggle, no more fighting for his share, nothing to do but sleep and let the wind and rain and rocks and birds do with him what they will.

He closes his eyes. He lies, listening to the whistling wind and the mocking laughter of the guillemots, and he waits for death.

Then he hears another sound, and he knows he must be dreaming because the sound is Edda’s voice, calling to him. Her voice comes in snatches, blown by the wind and tossed back again.

But although her voice sounds familiar, her words are strange to his ears. It is not Edda. It is not a dream. Someone, a maiden, is calling.

He crawls to the rim of the ledge and looks down. There is no one. He looks up, but the rock blocks his view. He calls out. “Edda?”

She calls back in her own language. How foolish of him to call Edda’s name. He knows it isn’t her. The words she uses mean nothing to him. And yet, they do. They mean warmth; they mean connection. She cares.

“I am Gutram,” he says.

In the silence that follows he wonders if he is dreaming after all. The guillemots laugh again.

But then he hears the maiden. “Gutram,” she repeats.

Dangling before him, is a rope, and attached to the rope is a basket, filled with bread, meat and a pitcher of milk.

* * * * *


The Spanish Armada attempts to invade England, but the English defeat them, causing damage to several of their ships. The fleet sets off back to Spain, but violent storms rip through the oceans and some ships become separated from the rest. Crews lose their bearings in the wind and rain, and with no sun to guide them, ships travel north instead of south.

One ship, El Gran Grifan, runs aground on rocks off the coast of the Shetland Isles with over three hundred men abroad.

The islanders treat the men with kindness, but with barely enough food for themselves they cannot provide for three hundred more and several men die. Some of those who survive leave the islands and being the long journey back to their homeland, though some will never make it. Others remain on the islands, making them their new home.

* * * * *

Date unknown

A boat crashes on rocks and capsizes. Its crew scramble to escape its sinking hull, but waves keep smashing over them and one by one they go under. One man manages to keep his head above water, and swims for a nearby shore. He collapses, exhausted, onto a rocky beach. He lies still, gathering his strength and then clambers to his feet. He walks through deserted hills, with no idea where he is going. Eventually he comes upon a house. The people are kind and take him to shelter. They share their food and drink with him and give him a place to sleep.

He never returns to the land of his roots, instead marrying and remaining on the island of whose rocky coast his ship sank.

Several centuries on, his surname, Spence, lives on in families throughout the island.

* * * * *


A young woman is knitting, her baby girl asleep beside her. A shadow crosses the window, followed moments later by thunderous knocking at her door, causing her baby to cry. When she answers the door, a horse and rider stand outside. The rider hands the young woman a paper, turns his horse and rides off. The baby keeps screaming, and as the young woman reads, she screams too.

She has known this day might come; rumours have been spreading for weeks. On islands to the south and on the Scottish mainland, crofters have already been evicted from their homes to make way for sheep. If they don’t leave by the date on this letter, their house will be burned with all their belongings inside. This fate will meet them if they refuse to leave.

Clutching her baby, she runs to a neighbour, who is also holding a paper and crying. Then she runs down the hill. past the crops she has tended that she may never be able to harvest, and she reaches the rocky beach where her husband is laying fish out to dry.

All around them are hills and valleys, owned by the same landlord. They have nowhere to go, no land on which to build a new house. Her husband fishes the treacherous seas where his ancestor’s boat sank, pushing his boat off from the same rocky beach. They will be the last people to ever live on that land, he will be the last of the fishermen to push off from that shore. The young woman is already pregnant again, but the babe in her arms will be the last to be born on that land. Her second child, a boy, will be born in someone else’s barn, and will live there for the first months of his life.

* * * * *

These are my roots, the stories of my roots. Are the stories true? The last is, definitely, the crying baby was my great-grandmother. Along with her parents and neighbours she was evicted during the “Clearances,” her family walking miles through hills to live in a relative’s barn. They moved from there to share a house with other relatives and eventually came to the house where I grew up.

The other stories, who knows? My sisters and I are the last of our line with the surname Spence, so though there are other families with that name on the island of my birth, for ours, it dies with us. But did it begin with an Englishman washed ashore on the same beach where generations of our family would later toil?

I don’t know. Stories pass down through generations, and eventually details are lost or recreated. We have traced that side of the family back to the 18th century, but if the first Spence swam ashore from a shipwreck, he did it before then.

As for the Spanish Armada – at least one ship did run aground off the Shetland Isles, that much is true. My dark hair and the shadows around my eyes – which my mother and one of my daughters also have – are supposed to come from Spanish ancestors, but nobody has ever been able to trace our line back that far. Still, it’s a glamorous story, so until there’s definite proof otherwise, I’m sticking with it.

And Gutram (pronounced gut-ram.) Did he exist? Is he an ancestor of mine? I have no idea, but I do know I spend a fair few days of my childhood trying to figure exactly where in the cliffs the ledge known as “Gutram’s Hole” was situated. I never did work it out, but his story is in my roots.

The legend goes that the girl who helped him had seen him swim ashore, though how she worked out where he was, I can’t remember. I googled his name, and came up with nothing, but discovered an old Norse name of Gudbrand – so if he existed, he was probably not Gutram at all, but Gudbrand.

Long ago my family my family faced hardships; that much I know. And I wonder now, if knowing the stories of my ancestors and what they went through is part of what makes me want to help people who are struggling? I’ve read that memories can pass on through generations, not through DNA, but through cells. I don’t pretend to understand that, but sometimes, when I go back to the wild hills and valleys that my ancestors were forced to leave, I almost feel as if I can sense them, toiling the land, walking the hills. Something lingers in the air and in the land, and I don’t mean just the ridges upon the hillside where my ancestors ploughed.

I left that island long ago, and yet, somehow, it never quite left me.



This has been a Finish the Sentence Friday post. This week’s sentence is “When it comes to my roots…” or “Long ago, my family…” (or another about family, roots, and your past).
Your host this week is, as always, Kristi from Finding Ninee


  1. OMG Yvonne this is amazing. Seriously amazing. I’m in awe and so so happy to have read it tonight. I love how you recreated your past based on rumor and stories. It’s probably very much like you told it, as was mine! EEEP to great minds.

    1. Author

      Thanks so much Kristi. Both for your lovely comment and for sharing to your FN page!

      It’s strange to think that there is so much we can never know, but I do find family history fascinating. (I think reading your post possibly reminded me of some of what I wrote here, so not so much great minds as I was a copy-cat! 🙂 (Sort of – my plan always included the 3 last stories, but Gutram sneaked in after I’d read about your Viking past! : ) )

  2. Wow. Yvonne. This is all so amazing to read about your ancestors, possible ancestors. I love this sort of history and family bloodline stuff. It’s an odd thing to think of what generations so far back might have survived or gone through. I can’t even comprehend most of it, when I think of my own background. Thank you for sharing yours.

    1. Author

      Kerry, I agree with you that it’s hard to comprehend much of what our ancestors went through. Their lives seemed so hard, but maybe because it was all they knew it didn’t seem that way to them.
      Thanks so much for your comment.

  3. How interesting to read this stuff – you should have a DNA test done, perhaps you would be able to figure out more from that. Such a shame there is so little written down of this… Pam

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