Follow the Vikings
by Steve Mathieson
The Skidbladner longship at Haroldswick, Unst Although there is known to have been human occupation in Shetland from Mesolithic times, one of the biggest upheavals occurred in the early ninth century when the first Viking invaders arrived from Norway. Whether the new arrivals assimilated or annihilated the Pictish people who were settled here is not proven, though probably a combination of the two is most likely.
These first landings sparked off a period of around 600 years of Viking rule for Shetland, leaving an imprint on the isles that is obvious to this day. In those early days Shetland was already important to the Vikings as it marked the first port of call in their westward expansion, being only 160 miles from Norway’s west coast and less than a day’s sailing away. This importance grew as time went on, with Shetland being recently described as the “Grand Central Station” of the Viking world, as the sea lanes filled with adventurers and traders going back and forth between Scandinavia, Britain, Europe, Asia, Africa, Arabia, Ireland, Iceland, Greenland and America.
As a result of this strategic importance Shetland was quickly settled, mainly from Norway, and transformed into a Viking homeland, becoming with Orkney the centre of a rich and powerful maritime earldom that held sway along the west coast of Scotland and reaching as far south as the Isle of Man. The earldom was weakened in 1194 after a failed rebellion involving Earl Harald Maddadsson’s brother-in-law Olav, when King Sverre Sigurdsson punished the Earl by taking Shetland back under direct Norwegian control.
The galley burns at the South Mainland Up-Helly-A' Norwegian King Magnus Lagabøte ceded the Hebrides and the Isle of Man to Scotland in 1266, three years after his father fought the Battle of Largs, and in 1469 King Christian I of Denmark (now controlling Norway) pawned his interest in Shetland to King James III of Scotland as part-payment of his daughter Margaret’s wedding dowry to the Scottish king. This was a mortgage which could be redeemed, though in 1472 James formally annexed the Northern Isles and they were never returned.
Although now part of Scotland, Shetland’s Viking influences remained. The islands had developed their own language, Norn, which lasted until the late 19th century, and continues today as a distinct dialect. Many animals and birds retain their Viking names and the maritime and agricultural industries still contain many terms of Viking origin. Most place names in Shetland are Norse as are many surnames, and Viking archaeology has survived particularly well due to the fact that here they worked in stone. Unst alone has over 60 Viking longhouses; there is the internationally renowned Viking village at Jarlshof, the Viking parliament site at Tingwall and numerous other sites including churches and soapstone quarries.
There is still a very strong Norse cultural affinity in Shetland, with the world’s biggest Viking fire festival, Up-Helly-Aa, being held each January in Lerwick, as well as eight further regional festivals through to March.
(2017 was Scotland’s Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology and saw a major Viking festival taking place in Shetland as part of the “Follow the Vikings” project initiated by the Shetland-based Destination Viking Association. For more information go to www.destinationviking.com)
Visit the Shetland Times Bookshop for publications on Shetland's Viking connections.