A Delling into da past

by Misa Hay -

Mass Meeting of Viking Scholars in Lerwick

During the coming week, over 100 of the world's leading Viking experts will be arriving in Shetland for the Viking Congress which starts on 3rd August.  The event, to be held primarily in Mareel and the Shetland Museum and Archives, is so popular that national delegates select up to 12 leading scholars from their country, all of whom have to be actively researching Viking themes.  Many are archaeologists, but participants also include linguists, historians, place names experts and scholars of literature.

The very first Congress was held in Lerwick Town Hall, set up by Dr Mortimer Manson in 1950.  Much of it focused on the archaeology of Shetland.  Since then the Congress, held once every four years, has moved around the Viking world.  This summer sees a return of the event to its birthplace. 

Come along

Not only has the Shetland based organising committee taken the opportunity to invite additional Shetland residents to hear the lectures, but the lectures on Sunday 4th August will be open to all.  This means that anyone who would like to will be able to hear nine, very engaging, speakers. These include Patricia Sutherland speaking about her exciting recent discoveries of Viking evidence in Arctic Canada, Dan Carlson on Vikings in Russia, Neil Price with an intriguing talk entitled “Nine Paces from Hel” and Gisli Sigmundson reflecting on Norway in the Family Sagas. Brian Smith and Kevin Edwards will add the Shetland dimension. Tickets are available free on a first come first served basis from Shetland Box Office

On the Monday, Congress delegates will hear about “Viking Islands” as one of its five themes. Shetland will be represented by Andrew Jennings, Eileen Brooke-Freeman and I, as well as well-kent faces including Anne-Christine Larsen, Barbara Crawford, Steve Dockrill and Julie Bond. The last day of lectures will be the following Saturday, after which some of the participants will take the opportunity of a “Post Congress Tour” which will spend time in Unst and also Papa Stour.

Viking Haroldswick

The Viking interpretive centre, focused on the replica longhouse and longship at Brookpoint, Haroldswick, has continued to develop this summer.  Tradition has it that Haroldswick was the first place where Vikings landed in Shetland. Brookpoint, at the head of the beautiful bay, was therefore the ideal place to locate interpretation about Viking Shetland.  At the beginning of the year the Skidbladner longship was lifted from the Brookpoint slipway, where she has rested since 2006, thanks to the forbearance of the local boating club.  She is now located at the southern end of the site, where her prow makes an imposing sight for anyone coming down the hill towards Haroldswick. Moving her through the air seemed very appropriate since, in Norse mythology, Skidbladner was a magic ship which not only always had a following wind but could be folded up and carried in a pocket on land.  Although the Viking Unst project, which funded three longhouse excavations and the development of Brookpoint, has officially ended, Viking Haroldswick is now developing a life of its own.  

Each Friday to Sunday (until 11th August) the Viking settlement is populated by a Viking “family”. Their job is to help visitors to explore archaeological sites in Viking Unst, pointing them in the right direction  as well as to share the story of Skidbladner, which is a replica of the Gokstad ship discovered in Norway.  The team also welcome visitors to try out Viking crafts and games.  Scott Kippin and Baltasound school pupil, Sula, are teaching new players and challenging existing ones, at hnefatafle, a Viking board game akin to chess.  More energetic visitors can play kubb.  Dot Redshaw's silks include naalbinding, Vik

ing style knitting, which seems a bit more tricky than Fair Isle knitting to me, and Davy Leask has been showing people how to work soapstone.  One visitor, Alasdair Henderson from Argyll, said “I didn't think that people in costume would be my thing, but I am so glad we've come. Everyone in our group has got something special from it.”

Viking plants

Before the school holidays started, Shetland Amenity Trust Trustee and Unst resident, Derek Jamieson, worked with Baltasound school pupils to start growing Viking crops in the village.  Evidence from the Old Scatness site shows that it was the Vikings who introduced flax to the islands.  There is more than one type of flax; the Baltasound pupils are growing the long fibred type in the hope that they might even be able to try and use it.  The Vikings spun the fibres and wove them into linen, making aprons which were particularly popular with fashionable Viking women. A “linen smoother” and carved whale bone plaque, which were used as an iron and ironing board, were regarded as the valued possessions of women who were sufficiently rich and important to have ship burials. Baltasound pupils have also planted bere barley (which has been less successful) and kale.

Wielding the axe

The interior of the replica longhouse is taking shape, in part thanks to Norwegian “axeman” Trond Oalann who travelled from Hordaland, Norway in order to teach Shetland Amenity Trust's Architectural Heritage Team traditional Viking building techniques.  Trond began axe work when he was only 12, working with his grandfather.  He admitted that he had been apprehensive about working with a completely inexperienced team.  He had also worried about how authentic the replica longhouse at Brookpoint would look.  On arriving in Unst however, Trond's fears were completely allayed.  “The team has been excellent to work with” he said “They showed so much commitment, some of them even working the weekend.” And the longhouse?  “This is an excellent replica” he enthused “It is more realistic than many that we have in Norway”.   

As well as working on the panels for the interior of the longhouse, the team also prepared logs to build an outhouse on the site.  This might make an ideal cook house, since cooking tended to be done in separate buildings in Viking times, perhaps to prevent accidental fires destroying Viking homes.  The square and hexagonal shapes which the team worked on are typical of those used in temporary structures and shelters. “I want to come back next year” said Trond wistfully “Haroldswick is so beautiful and the team so fast to learn.”  He is now actively looking for Norwegian sources of funding to do further work at the site.

From Skaill to Lerwick via Edinburgh

Coinciding with the Viking Congress, a selection of items from the Skaill Hoard is about to arrive at the Shetland Museum and Archives.  The hoard of silver from Orkney was discovered in March 1858 by a young boy named David Linklater who dug into the entrance of a rabbit warren at the Bay of Skaill, now best known as the bay on which Skara Brae is situated. Over 100 items were found dating from around 950-970AD, making it the largest Viking treasure trove ever found in Scotland. The hoard included 9 brooches, 14 neckbands and 27 armbands, as well as coins and “hack silver” (often bracelets and rings from which they cut pieces to trade with).  The silver had been hidden in a stone lined cist but, as with the St Ninian's Isle treasure in Shetland, something prevented the person who buried it from returning to retrieve it. The usual home of the Skaill Hoard is the National Museum of Scotland.  They have loaned it to Shetland for a few months. 

The St Magnus Viking sails are also coming to the Museum for the Congress.  These sails were created by a group of artists and were originally intended for display in St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall. They commemorate a journey of 15 Viking ships on a crusade or pilgrimage, to Jerusalem in 1151 under the command of Earl Rognvald II and Bishop William, both from Orkney. This is the third time that the artwork, by four different artists working with George Mackay Brown, will come to Shetland.  They have previously hung in St Magnus Church, Lerwick as well as in the Shetland Museum and Archives. On this visit the sails will be displayed hanging in the auditorium where visitors will be able to enjoy them.

Last chance for Iron Age Scatness this year 

The Iron Age Broch and Village at Old Scatness has been open to general visitors on Sundays during July but this Sunday will be the last opportunity this year.  Faced with a situation where there was no money available to employ staff at Old Scatness this summer, the Archaeology Section of Shetland Amenity Trust have been offering the tours themselves.  We hated having to disappoint visitors who wanted to see the site and I was fielding several phone calls a week from disappointed people, so Chris Dyer and I decided to provide a partial solution.  As previously, visitors to the site get a guided tour of the archaeology and can then spend as long as they like in the reconstruction buildings, even sitting beside the peat fire with a cup of coffee if they choose. The site is also open to groups by arrangement and, before the school holidays, was also very popular with schools from both Shetland and further afield.