A little over a two and half hours’ drive from Oslo—near the village of Tuddal and under the towering impression of Gausta, Telemark County’s highest peak—there is a rune stone that stands high on a mountain path.
If you are leaving from Oslo, to get there you head west out of Norway’s capital past Bærum and Drammen, in the direction of Kongsberg—a town built first on the back of silver mining and later on munitions. Passing through Kongsberg you next arrive at Notodden. Once a booming industry town, it was part of a hydroelectric network that powered much of this part of Norway. The hydroelectric plant, which sits right on the water, is now part of a UNESCO world heritage site celebrating industry. Notodden is also famous these days for its annual Blues festival. There is also the Blueseum—a museum to the history of blues music that also serves as the main public library for the people of Notodden. From here you begin the swing away from the water and start to head inland.
Past Notodden you reach Heddal, an innocuous looking village with a star attraction: a twelfth-century stavkirke (stave church), a type of square, high wooden church that is unique to Norway.
After the stavkirke in Heddal, you come to Sauland, the administrative heart of Hjartdal kommune, where further on the road you find the long stretched out village of Tuddal. Tuddal’s “centre” has all you would expect of a small rural village in Norway. There’s the local Church of Norway church in its white wood paneling, the local school, a kro—a kind of canteen and inn—a little museum and arts centre, and because we are so close to one of Norway’s most popular mountains, a camping site and small restaurant that operates in the high season.
To get to the rune stone you drive through the village before taking a turn up right onto a steep road that corkscrews in a variety of hairpin bends before finally, thankfully, flattening out. To your left there is a large body of water, Toskjervatn as the locals call it in their nynorsk dialect, or Toskjærvannet as it is in bokmål. About two kilometres along this road on your left-hand side, you will find the Tuddal høyfjellshotell. Built in the nineteenth century and beautifully decorated, this wooden hotel is part of a network of hotels (høyfjell means high mountain) that sprung up in Norway in the 1800s to give people a place while exploring the natural beauty of their country, all a part of the nation building Romanticism and enjoyment of sublime nature that marked this period.
A little beyond this hotel you will come to a group of very old, much less grand buildings on the side of the road. This is the old summer seter, a series of buildings used in the same way as a shieling, where it was possible, at one time, to get farm fresh milk, cream and cheese from the locals. The real hunt for the rune stone begins here.
Hiking out from this spot, you first go through grassy land that—in the summer at least—is rich in crowberries, blueberries, juniper berries and blueberries. As you move along you come to a birch wood forest. You begin to hear the burbling of a strong stream that comes from a waterfall down from the mountains above you to your right. Crossing over the stream, which runs a reddish colour because of the iron in the rocks, you make a steep ascent that doesn’t take long but is intense. Once you reach this small peak, you start along a series of winding paths through small foothills that are also covered in beds of various berries. Following a well-beaten path you curve around the base of two mountains known collectively as the knees of the much taller Gaustatoppen. As your path snakes round, you come into more open and windy ground. With the knees to your right and slightly behind you, the peak of Gaustatoppen should now be visible nearby. It is here, along this path, that you will find the rune stone, slanted slightly but upright.
The first time I hiked up here in search of the rune stone, I walked straight past it. I mistook it for an old milestone marker along the path rather than for what it was: a piece of living history that stretches back around 1000 years.
Standing upright with the help of other stones at its base, the rune stone is about four or five feet tall. The side facing outwards is covered in dead and living moss, centuries old. It is along the left-hand side of the beautiful piece of stone that you will the runic inscription:
Which has been written up as: Hæila se aþ uote. This means “rock slab/stone be as a witness”. This gnomic phrase immediately begs the question: witness what?
There are several theories as to what the rune stone was erected as a witness to. One local history recounts the story of a beautiful local woman who died up there in the unforgiving open ground while waiting on her lover whom she had arranged to meet in this spot. A more prosaic explanation of the rune stone’s job is to stand as a witness to a boundary between one area and another. Although the boundary has shifted somewhat over a thousand years, it is believed that this was its original function: to set, literally, in stone an agreement about where one area of land ended and another began.
It’s hard not to think that both explanations have equal weight. Perhaps both are true. Standing up here in the pass, it is difficult not to imagine it as a perfect meeting spot for two lovers seeking some privacy—especially if it was a secret love. This spot is the backdrop that gives rise to ballads. If we accept the more prosaic version, that it is simply a boundary marker then it is still remarkable that it was marked in this way. A stone carved with a phrase that was both specific and nebulous, inviting questions.
One thing you will notice when examining the runic inscription is that the runes are very nearly faded. They now form a part of a palimpsest of text on this rock. A palimpsest that bears witness not just to the death of a lover left waiting, nor of a settled dispute over land boundaries. Instead, it speaks to the human desire to say I too was here: I lived once and stood on this spot, looking at the same view as you who came before me and those of you yet to come after me.
This rune stone is no museum piece. Therein lies its power. There are few monuments that are a thousand years old that we get to experience beyond temperature-controlled glass, not as part of an exhibit, nor with accompanying text. Understanding them requires seeing them in their place. Standing in front of the rune stone here below the knees of Gaustatoppen is to stand in front of human history. It forces us to imagine and to ask questions. Who put this here? What kind of lives did they lead? We have some answers of course, in the inscription, in the location. There are also other questions to be asked.
This is because this rune stone is covered in graffiti. Not graffiti as we now know and understand the term, but a different kind of graffiti from the 18th and 19th Centuries. As you read along the rune stone making out the fading lines of the runic inscription, it is the initials or the years carved into the stone, sometimes right over a line from the original runes that strike you.
My first reaction to this was a kind of horror at the desecration of this historic artefact. Yet, the more I thought on it the more I understood the impulse, of these people from 1776 and 1800, and other years since, to make their own mark on this rune stone. It is an intensely human need to show that we were here.
The rune stone, which, based on the kind of runic alphabet it uses, dates most likely from some time in the 9th or 10th Century has stood in the same spot since a person or group of people decided to lift it from the ground, place it in its spot, and etch into it “rock slab be as a witness”. It has been witnessing ever since. It has witnessed more than a thousand cycles of the seasons. People and animals have crossed its path hundreds and thousands of times. They have died but it remains. Their lives, if ever remembered, now forgotten. The rune stone goes on witnessing.
Standing next to the rune stone, contemplating it, running my fingers along the outline traces of the original runes you begin to understand something: that the boundary the rune stone really marks is the one between life and death. Between the short span of our mortality in the face of its near-permanence. This is the lesson of history: we are here for a short time, much has gone before us and something will surely follow after us. It is our job to witness this, to be aware that we will pass on one day, but this rune stone will likely still stand, here along the mountain pass, witnessing the next cycle of seasons, and all that comes with it, after us.
Notes: My main sources for the apparent meanings of the runestone and it’s gnomic inscription are the Aberdeen Skaldic Project, and Ivar T. Dahl’s Glimt av Tuddal før i Verden (1998) and Magnus Olsen’s Norges innskrifter med de yngre runer. 2 : V. Buskerud fylke ; VI. Vestfold fylke ; VII. Telemark fylke (1951). The latter especially was indispensable.