Up Helly Aa – the festival celebrating Shetland’s Viking past – would, in a normal year, have taken place last Tuesday in the island’s capital Lerwick. But it is not a normal year, and so it has been delayed until 2022.
I was lucky to discover some of Shetland’s Viking history back in September, so I thought I would do my bit to fill the Viking void with my post this week.
Who the Vikings were
What do you think of when you think of Vikings? Marauding sackers of villages or enlightened engineers? Seafarers, farmers or traders? Bloodthirsty or thirsty for knowledge?
Across the four centuries in which they were most active, 700 – 1100 AD, the Vikings were all of these things. They were not a single group from a single place in Scandinavia.
Granted, the word Viking in Old Norse means ‘a pirate raid’ and Britons’ first contact with them was at the sharp end of seeing their churches stolen from and their villages pillaged — but Norse settlers came in peace too.
Vikings (called Danes by the Anglo Saxons but mostly from Norway) began plundering the Northern Isles of Shetland and Orkney in the 800s before thoughts turned to invasion, when available land was becoming scarce back in Scandinavia. New laws, new language, new ways: a familiar tale for many colonised islands throughout history.
Some historians think that the Vikings who ended up raiding / invading / settling on Shetland might have first tried to live in Ireland, or left Norway as opponents of Harald Hårfagre (Harald Finehair), thought to be the first King of Norway.
Exactly when settlement in the 800s began remains unclear, but Harald himself sailed over, took control of both Shetland and Orkney and gave them as an earldom to his friend and relative Ragnvald Mørejarl, who in turn gave them to his brother Sigurd the Powerful, for reasons I’ll let you assume.
Whenever Vikings did start settling, and even if some came in peace, their presence must have left the legacy of the indigenous population in tatters, as we don’t know much about them going forward, though in many sites across Shetland and Orkney you can see plenty of evidence of over 5,000 years of human history; we know there were more farmers than hunter gatherers, that there is spectacular Iron Age history and evidence of tribal Picts.
You can read more about Shetland’s history on Shetland’s very own online encyclopedia.
So what about the legacy of where and how the Vikings settled in Shetland? What did I find there?
Tracing Viking Shetland
There were two main Viking areas I wanted to explore while we were on Shetland, offering old and new ties to Scandinavia and Norse history.
Jarlshof, near the southern tip of Shetland and across the road from the island’s tiny Sumburgh Airport, is a wonderful, archaeologically significant 4,000+ year old jumble of habitations that is cared for by Historic Environment Scotland, completely free to access.
By ‘jumble’, I mean to say that the site is remarkable for featuring an explosion of dwellings across six levels that literally takes you through the ages.
The site features remnants of a Stone Age / Late Neolithic hut that dates to around 2,700 BC, multiple Bronze Age houses, Iron Age brochs and sophisticated wheelhouses (both types of roundhouses) making up a sizeable village, Norse longhouses and outbuildings which evolved into a Medieval farmhouse and finally a Scottish laird’s (lord’s) house.
What’s now called the Laird’s House was originally the Old House of Sumburgh, built by the tyrannical Earl Patrick Stewart (not that one) in the 1500s, after Shetland passed from Norway to Scotland in 1469.
The area was dubbed Jarlshof in the 1800s, after a fictional earl’s house that the writer Sir Walter Scott used in his novel The Pirate. But it was all hidden under sand dunes until the early 1900s when a violent storm exposed stonework next to West Voe Beach.
Seeing the remains of a Viking longhouse, the evidence of the Viking invasion in the 800s, set amidst the earlier and the later structures at Jarlshof provided a lot of context for me. The Vikings hadn’t razed the area to the ground, you could see in front of your eyes evidence of their assimilation in the area.
The longhouse at the heart of the Norse farmstead on the site would have been lived in by 12 to 16 successive generations of families, growing and shrinking with the times, before evolving into a Medieval farmhouse. Vikings may have started out as invaders from an outside realm but, by the time Viking influence waned, they had become inseparable with Shetlanders.
Today, around 29.2 per cent of Shetlanders carry Norse DNA.
While we were there… the walk to Sumburgh Lighthouse
Seals and puffins and bracing winds. The walk from Jarlshof along the coastal path towards Sumburgh Lighthouse was a highlight of our forays into the southern half of Shetland. We saw a few hardy grey seals like this one, but in summer you can also see puffins as you walk through RSPB Sumburgh Head.
Unst is, to quote the Shetland Amenity Trust, ‘the special island at the end of Britain’. It is the most popular island to the north of the Shetland mainland because there is just so much for wildlife watchers, walkers and history-lovers to see.
Popular, but also remote enough that encountering a petrol station shop in Haroldswick felt like walking into Harrods…
We were staying next door on Yell but, without our own wheels, it was tricky for us to get around Unst without the help of local, sporadically-running buses (that turned out to be cars) and taxis (that were coaches). But our one day there left a big impression.
Unst is where legend says Norse raiders first landed on Shetland and its Viking credentials are impressive: at least 60 longhouses have been discovered over the years by archaeologists, the highest concentration found anywhere, including Scandinavia.
The most excavated and researched longhouses are at Belmont and Underhoull in the south and Hamar in eastern Unst, each with their own trails to follow. One key development in the understanding of these Viking longhouses is that settling groups didn’t follow one standard design when constructing them, perhaps highlighting a variety of purposes, roles and origins to each group.
Without our own car we only saw those sites tantalisingly in the distance, but in Haroldswick towards the north — pictured above, where the Vikings might have first landed — we could walk inside and jump on board a Viking longhouse and longship. Replicas, of course!
The longhouse replica is based on the floorplan of the building excavated at Hamar. It’s made up of stone and turf from Unst, Scottish wood and birchbark from Norway (used to keep the roof waterproof).
The local craftspeople who worked on it had to learn Viking ways of working such as wooden joint cutting, which joins wood together very precisely, without nails. Working with the Shetland Amenity Trust, it took them three summers to build. You can find out more here.
The Skidbladner longboat is a full size replica of a 9th century ship called the Gokstad that was discovered and excavated at a Norse burial mound in Sandefjord, Norway in 1880. The Gokstad was possibly built during the reign of Harald Finehair.
According to the Shetland Amenity Trust website, ‘this type of Viking ship was suitable for a variety of purposes including trade, warfare and general travel.’ I think a few of us wouldn’t mind one for general travel, at the moment…
A few facts:
- The replica has been at Haroldswick since 2006 and is made mostly of oak in what’s called the clinker fashion: overlapping planks for flexibility and to increase speed.
- It’s one of the largest Viking ship replicas ever built: 24.3m long and 5.25m wide.
- The Vikings invented the keel, rudder and sun compass, so it’s no surprise they penetrated as far away as North America, founded Dublin and led boat raids into the Caspian Sea.
You can view the Haroldswick trail here.
While we were there… the walk to Muckle Flugga and Out Stack
The magnet on Unst for wildlife lovers really is Hermaness National Nature Reserve, which encompasses the northernmost points of the United Kingdom and the British Isles.
The walk to Muckle Flugga and Out Stack rocks can be very boggy (I ended up knee deep in a boggy stream at one point) but it’s worth it for the sublime sights and sounds.
Thousands and thousands of gannets hang out on every available rocky surface, leaving them white with guano (seabird poo) when they fly off, dive bombing gracefully for food as they go. You’ll find puffins here too, in summer.
A lost language found
Not everything about past Viking and Norse settlers is visible in ruins or replicas. Place names and everyday words speak to the lingering of a lost language once spoken across the Shetland Islands.
That language is called Norn. It’s particular to Shetland and Orkney, with origins to the south of Norway, developing during settlement in the 800s.
As the Viking settlers influenced, integrated and assimilated into Shetland life, for most Shetlanders Norn developed into their first language, until 1469 when Norway gave the islands to Scotland in a marriage dowry between James III of Scotland and the Norwegian Princess Margaret.
Though in rapid decline by the 19th century, Norn was still spoken then in some form, but sadly became officially extinct with the passing of the last speaker, Walter Sutherland, in 1850. There is however a record of the language in The Orkney Norn, a book first published in the 1920s that was rediscovered in 2016. Hear Norn being spoken in this BBC News feature.
Today, certain Norn words are still used by Shetlanders, especially for seabirds (and there are a lot of them about):
Shalder: oyster catcher
De haaf: deep sea (meanwhile, Da Haaf is a great seafood cafe in Scalloway)
A Viking-lover’s to do list
Beyond exploring Jarlshof and Unst, here are some more ideas if you’re thinking of making like a Viking and heading to Shetland when you next travel.
- There’s only one way to travel to Shetland, if you’re committed to the Viking cause: with Northlink Ferries. Everything from their logo, ship names and even WiFi passwords are based on Viking history and Norse words. We sailed on the MV Hamnavoe, the old Norse name for Stromness in Orkney.
2. Attend the next Up Helly Aa festival in Shetland’s capital Lerwick, on Tuesday 25th January 2022. Not dissimilar to the annual Bonfire Night processions in Lewes and across Sussex. A day of marches, saga telling, torchlit processions and interactions between the different squads who take part, dressed in their finest Viking attire — culminating in the burning of a replica Norse galley ship. Preparations for the festival take up most of the year, it would be a real treat to see the culmination of all those efforts up close.
3. While you’re there, look out for Lerwick Town Hall’s stained glass windows. In place since the building opened in 1883, the windows chart Shetland’s Norse history from the 9th to 13th century.
4. If you’ve visited the oldest parliament in the world, þingvellir (Thingvellir) in Iceland, you’ll know that a Thing is a parliament. Shetland’s parliament met by the loch at Tingwall, on a promontory called Tingaholm, up until the 16th century.
Although the features around the loch have changed over time (the stone causeway isn’t needed as the water levels have been lowered), it makes for a lovely walk.
5. Go big or go home and follow the Viking Cultural Route around the world, from Newfoundland to Novgorod.
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