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    The Vikings of Shetland

    By Rhona Steel
    More by Rhona

    Why did the Vikings come to Shetland?

    The Shetland Isles are wild and remote, located at the northern tip of Scotland. Perhaps due to their remoteness, they boast a fascinating history and a strong community spirit.

    The Vikings settled in Shetland around 850 AD. Their rule ended when it became part of Scotland in 1469. As very few records were kept at this time, Viking society was built on movement and raids, and so much of Viking culture was ephemeral, it’s important to note that a lot of what we know about the Vikings is based on speculation. As is typical with understanding history, archaeology is a puzzle in which all the pieces are facedown, some of the pieces are missing, and we don’t have a single corner piece.

    Keep Reading

    Shetland Isles Geography

    Rugged geography and terrain of the Shetland Islands at Gordi Stack.

    The Shetland Isles lie about 200 miles off the west coast of Norway as the crow flies, and about 110 miles from Scotland, making them equally accessible from Norway for seafaring people.

    The Vikings were master seamen, and, in favourable conditions, it would have taken just three days to sail from Bergen. Shetland was also strategically attractive, bringing Orkney, the Western Isles, and mainland Britain within shorter sailing reach.

    In fact, some historians have suggested that the devastating raids along the east coast of Britain, like Lindisfarne in 793 or Tarbat in the 820s, may have been facilitated by having a way station in the Northern Isles.

    Who Were the Vikings?

    The Vikings were a collection of farming and seafaring people from modern-day Scandinavia whose economy was based on subsistence farming supplemented by annual raids. The word Viking comes from the old Norse word vik, meaning bay, which formed the root of vikingr or pirate/raider. At the time, the term viking was a verb, vikingr – so when a person said they were “going vikingr” they meant they were going raiding. Later, the term was shortened and used to describe the raiders. The people we know as vikings just called themselves by the region in which they lived – Norse, Danes, Norveigs, or Finns.

    Raids

    Initially, Shetland would probably have been raided as well. A hoard of Pictish treasure uncovered in 1958 on St Ninian’s Isle may well point to locals’ knowledge of such raids. However, the Vikings would also have identified good areas for future settlement, weighing up local resistance, arable farmland, potential markets, and raw materials for trade. Shetland’s landscape would have been attractive to the Norse in its similarity to western Norway, plus the climate would have been slightly warmer than today.

    Politics and Climate

    Though record-keeping was sporadic at best, and archaeology is sometimes educated guesswork, an expanding population in Norway meant that families needed new fertile lands to farm. Bad harvests said to have happened around 800 AD in Norway may have also prompted the migration.

    Trade & Mining

    Fur, fish, and timber were most likely traded, as wood was in short supply in the largely treeless Shetland. Steatite, or soapstone, was mined in Norway and occurs in large deposits in Shetland, too. Neolithic peoples also quarried soapstone, and archaeologists have uncovered their artefacts throughout Shetland.

    The excavated mines visible today are on Unst, where steatite is still quarried commercially, and at Catpund on the Mainland, the largest of the Shetland Isles. The old Norse name for this stone, kelberg, also means loom weight, as these were commonly made from soapstone. Similarly, soapstone is called klebber in the Shetland dialect.

    Basins, flat plates, and fishing weights have also been found. Large quantities of upcast spread across the area suggest the stone was mined from shafts of considerable depth and stretched over one kilometre from the coast. It is hard to trace artefacts back to their source quarry. However, given that these objects have been found in Orkney, Iceland, and Scotland, they were probably commercial products.

    Myth, History, and the Viking Sagas

    Shetland has no written sagas, yet the Icelandic and Orkneyinga sagas discuss origin myths. The then-king of Norway, Harald Fairhair, centralised the Norwegian kingdoms, prompting many chieftains and their families to leave Norway. Some settled in Orkney and Shetland, where they mounted raids on Scotland and the Western Isles. Around 875, Harald Fairhair set sail to take control of Orkney and Shetland, establishing an Earldom.

    Modern readers should take the so-called history of the sagas with a grain of salt. Like most oral storytelling passed down through generations and recorded by people born long after the events they chronicled, the Viking sagas are often embellished and fantasised for the sake of a good story.

    The Picts of Shetlands

    Shetland Ponies.

    The original inhabitants of the far-flung Shetland Isles were a group of people now known as the Picts. Unfortunately, their culture mostly disappeared with the arrival of the Vikings. Remnants of Pictish culture do remain in Shetlands through a few indigenous placenames, such as Yell, Unst, and Pettadale.

    Although there is little to no evidence of violence towards the local population by the Vikings, some Picts perhaps died of disease, famine, or simply left. However, the Vikings also had slaves, or thrall, for labour and to trade. As an aside, the word thrall is still used in English, for example, to be ‘in thrall’ to someone, meaning to be controlled by them.

    Where did the Vikings live on the Shetlands?

    Rugged Shetland coastline.

    The settlers took over coastal farms, building their distinctive longhouses on and around prime land. One of the best surviving examples of such settlement is in Jarlshof, on the very south of the main island. The site is well preserved as it was partially buried in sand until unearthed by a storm in the 1890s. It is thought that the Picts continued to live and work in their adjacent round houses as slaves.

    Jarlshof is a romantic name given by Sir Walter Scott on a visit to Sumburgh with the engineer and lighthouse builder Robert Stevenson in 1814. He set his fictional book, The Pirate, here and on Orkney.

    Unst

    Unst is the most northerly inhabited island of the Shetland Isles (though the tiny rocky outcrops of Muckle Flugga and Out Stack are a little farther north).

    Unst would have been the first landing for Scandinavian seafarers. This is evidenced by the remains of over 60 longhouse sites on Unst, many more of which may underlie modern crofts.

    Sandwick – Unst

    Sandwick (meaning ‘sandy bay’ in Old Norse) is an ideal area for a settlement, with good farmland and a beach that provides easy access for boats.

    Excavations of two sites have found many artefacts, including whalebone pins to fasten clothes and a soapstone lamp probably fuelled by fish oil and a reed for a wick. Fragments of a game board and a spinning whorl were found at a settlement at the far end of the beach. Beyond this point is the former township of Framgord, with Norse grave slabs going back to the 14th century.

    Underhoull Broch – Unst

    Underhoull Broch dates from around 400 BCE. As at Jarlshof, the Norse settled existing farm sites on the Shetlands.

    Their newly built longhouses had wooden sprung floors, a central fire, and an earth floor in the far section, which some have speculated may have been for animals. The remains of one longhouse are at the shore, and the other is on the hill.

    Learn more about the excavations that took place at Underhoull here.

    Replica Viking boat.

    Skidbladner

    In Norse mythology, the boat Skidbladner was built for the god Freyr. In 2006, a full-size replica of the Gokstad ship, found in a Norweigan Viking burial mound, was built to recreate Leif Erikson’s epic voyage from Norway to North America in the 9th century. Alas, the modern-day replica sailed only as far as Shetland, and there it remains.

    The Skidbladner’s clinker design has thick overlapping oak boards for strength, held in place with rivets. Visit this impressive replica at Brookpoint in Haroldswick to get a feel for what life was like aboard a Viking ship. A nearby longhouse provides similar insights to Viking life on land.

    At the site of another burial mound, known locally as the Giant’s Grave on neighbouring Fetlar, only a small piece of oak and iron fastenings remain of the Viking boat. Aerial imaging surveys have identified many other possible boat burial sites across the islands.

    Shetland History in the Viking Era

    In 995, Norwegian king Tryggvasson adopted Christianity for his whole kingdom, including Shetland. Given there were examples of Viking burials in the Christian tradition of an east-west axis before this date, the religion had already taken root locally.

    Orkney earls had ruled Shetland from 875 until 1195 when they rebelled against the Norwegian king and forfeited their rule of Shetland to Norway. At this point, the rent and taxes were levied by local governors or fouds in the form of fish oil, wadmal (a woven wool cloth), and butter, which islanders often wrapped in a cloth and buried in a peat bog to keep it cool.

    1307 is the first record of a lawthing, a meeting to resolve conflict and settle inheritance. Before this, feuds were a way of avenging honour.

    Law Thing Holm is a small marshy promontory jutting into the freshwater Loch of Tingwall. The Norse built a causeway and a stone mound on it, and disputes were legislated here until the 1600s, when they shifted to Scalloway (meaning the bay with a large house). The Vikings had a Shetland Lawbook, which no longer exists but may have included records of local law as well as Norse.

    When did Shetland become part of Scotland?

    Shetland port towns.

    Denmark became the seat of power for Scandinavia. On the marriage of James III of Scotland and Margaret of Denmark, her father was short of money for a dowry and pawned Orkney, then Shetland, in 1469. He failed to repay the loan, so the Northern Isles became part of Scotland.

    As Shetland had been ruled directly by Norway, language and culture were slow to change, and the Norse language persisted into the 17th century. The main port of Scalloway on the west shifted to the east coast harbour of Lerwick around this time, as it was more directly accessible from Scotland’s eastern ports like Aberdeen.

    Viking Hoards

    Little has been found to suggest hoards. In Jarlshof, there were three silver finds dating from the 10th and 11th centuries: an Anglo-Saxon coin, a stick pin, and a silver bracelet used as ‘ring money’. Otherwise, rings and brooches have been found.

    Artefacts are often found in sand dunes, so on your next visit to Shetland, watch out for combs, blue glass beads, and soapstone wares. For any would-be treasure hunters, do note that if you do happen to find something, by law, you are required to take it to the Shetland Museum.

    Place Names

    Papa Stour is a blend of the Pictish and Norse, meaning ‘great island of the priests.’ Names have different endings and can date from early in the settlement period, like Melby and Bousta, and, in later times, with suffixes (-bister, -setter) meaning farms, like Nesbister and Dalsetter.

    Some names describe the landscape, like Hamar, which means steep slope. Other names offer a hint of their cultural beliefs at Troswick, or Trolls’ Bay, no doubt inspired by the Pictish standing stone there.

    Shetland Population’s Viking Ancestry

    Shetland is well known for its Viking connection, but studies have shown that, on average, only around 20% of their DNA shows Norwegian ancestry. The vast majority of the islanders’ DNA is actually Scottish, an interesting fact that some believe provides evidence of the colonising Norwegians’ integration, but could also be a result from other factors including immigration to the Shetlands from the mainland.

    Up Helly Aa

    The renowned Up Helly Aa fire festival in Lerwick dates back to the Napoleonic wars when rowdy soldiers returned, banging drums, firing guns, and setting off small explosions in the streets of Lerwick.

    Over the years, this became an annual activity and progressed into rival teams clashing over tar barrels. However, this was deemed too dangerous, and by 1870, the festivities had a structure of a torchlight procession and guising (dressing up) as Jarls and Vikings, as they were romanticised at the time.

    Today, the Lerwick Up Helly Aa has evolved into an elaborate all-day celebration at the end of January, starting with processions with pipe and brass bands and the Guisar Jarl, who is chosen each year with his squad and longship. Torches are lit around 7 pm to a rendition of the Up Helly Aa song, and, at the sound of a bugle, the torches are thrown into the galley, the boat is burned, and fireworks are set off.

    The festivities continue through the night as guisers – those dressed up – tour various premises, performing and dancing. Other communities also organise their own Up Helly Aa, where women can also take part. They run from January to March. It is believed to mean Up Holy Day, marking an end to the Christmas celebrations.

    Language

    The distinctive Shetland dialect derives from Old Norse but also has a mix of Scots, for example, dreich (dreary) and bairn (child). Shetland dialect uses peerie for small and Simmer Dim for twilight. They use da for the and dis and dat for this and that. He is at da haaf, which means he is away deep-sea fishing.

    Cuisine

    Beremeal, an old barley cereal, would have been grown in the 8th century and is used in brewing and to make bannocks or soda bread baked on a griddle. It is hard to know what food is attributable to Viking times, but it is fun to try reestit mutton, salted and cured in the rafters of croft houses above a peat fire, and saat beef, salted to preserve it and eaten in stews or on bannocks.

    How to Get to the Shetlands

    By Boat Read More

    Located over 100 miles off of Scotland’s shoreline, if you prefer to travel by boat, there are overnight ferry options departing from Aberdeen (mainland) or Kirkwall (on the Orkney Islands). These ferries allow cars, bikes, and even pets. Ferries run year-round.

    Find out more here.

    By Plane Read More

    Another option is to fly to the Shetland Isles. Arrive at Sumburgh Airport, about 35 minutes from the town of Lerwick. There are a number of daily flights, including from Aberdeen, Inverness, Ediburgh, Glasgow, London, and Bergen (Norway).

    Find out more here.

    Visit the Shetlands

    Meet the Author: Rhona Steel

    “Variety and people are big motivators for me, so I have worked in health care, education and most recently agriculture. In the 90s, I went to work in Europe but missed the diverse landscape and proximity to the sea. One of my best decisions was to return to live in the Highlands.”

    View profileMore by Rhona

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